There are certain moments in an NBA season where teams encounter a forked path, a situation that requires a choice that results in two different outcomes. The Los Angeles Lakers faced a situation as such, when they saw an initial double-digit lead over the Portland Trail Blazers turn into a 25-point deficit at halftime.
It can be tempting to chalk this one up and focus on the next game. After all, there are 35 games left and only a couple of games between the sixth and 12th seeds in the Western Conference. Enticing as it was, the Lakers chose to fight back and in the process, won.
Los Angeles did what has kept them in the hunt thus far: lean on the hot hand (most likely LeBron James) and ride it until the buzzer sounds. Against the Blazers, it was James (37 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, and two blocks), Thomas Bryant (31 points and 14 rebounds), and Dennis Schroder (24 points, six rebounds, and eight assists).
From the onset, it seemed like an inside-out game but 3-pointers aside, it’s that relentless effort in the paint that continues to shine during every Laker win. The Blazers have one of the more porous defenses in the league and with James probing and scoring in the post, Bryant finishing at the rim with authority, and Schroder happily throwing the ball around to open teammates, it was slim pickings for Los Angeles.
The Lakers have shown that they can be great, going toe-to-toe with the best in the NBA with statement wins that can rekindle championship aspirations of an impatient fanbase. Yet there are the headscratchers, where Los Angeles reverts to their bad habits and the fear of giving Victor Wembanyama to the New Orleans Pelicans on a silver platter creeps back in.
That, in a nutshell, is the state of flux the Lakers have been in after winning the NBA title in the Orlando bubble back in 2020. It’s been difficult to get a clear picture from them other than inconsistencies and disappointing finishes. It comes largely due to how Los Angeles looks better on paper than the product put out on the court.
Injuries are of course, a factor, and in fact, continue to be a concern. Anthony Davis, who continues to sit out due to a right foot stress injury, is slated to return very soon. His absence has seen the rise of Bryant, but very few things value more than a healthy and dangerous Anthony Davis.
Beyond the health issues, there remains work to be done on the court. Like Portland, the Lakers tend to give up quite a lot of points in the paint (52.9 per game) and while the loss of Davis factors into that, it doesn’t mean that Darvin Ham and the rest of Los Angeles’ coaching staff shouldn’t adjust schematically. Schrodes, Russell Westbrook, and Patrick Beverley can be disruptors in the perimeter in some ways, while the likes of Bryant and Wenyen Gabriel can help and let James take on the easier assignments. Rim protection and forcing turnovers are givens when it comes to defense, but disrupting opponents’ offensive plans is another way to earn stops.
The Lakers have been a competitive bunch for most of the season, and while that has been their calling card, late-game execution is another matter. How teams finish games reveals their character and the close losses and blown leads have often overshadowed Los Angeles’ fighting spirit. A win over the Blazers can help change that narrative and more importantly, give confidence to this scrappy bunch in Los Angeles.
It won’t be the last time the Los Angeles Lakers figure themselves in a game like that against the Portland Trail Blazers. What will matter, though, is how the Lakers respond to the challenges of a long season. They remain in control of their narrative, and with it, their destiny for this season. Besides, Los Angeles remains in the fight and nothing worth having at this stage comes easy.