The stars seem to have at long last aligned, literally and figuratively, for the Los Angeles Lakers.
For at least a moment, things fell into place while they were tied with the Utah Jazz at 94 points with slightly over two minutes remaining in their match at the Crypto.com Arena. It was a familiar situation for these Lakers and if the script of their season so far was to be followed, a frustrating sequence of events leading up to another loss was just waiting to happen.
Instead, things shockingly came together for them, particularly for their two larger-than-life superstars LeBron James and Russell Westbrook, who have yet to find a consistent semblance of chemistry in their first season together.
It all began when James missed a three-pointer that could have given the Lakers a three-point lead. The miss led to a long rebound that Westbrook corralled before dribbling out to the three-point line.
The odds of him pulling up for a triple of his own were most likely within the vicinity of their opponent Rudy Gobert’s league-leading 71% field goal percentage. Westbrook’s shot selection has always been one of the weaker points in his game and it has come under an even greater amount of scrutiny from Los Angeles’ rabid fanbase.
However, he decided to go against the odds in that fateful juncture to the surprise of everyone watching.
Westbrook attacked the basket then backed down Utah’s starting point guard Mike Conley over whom he has quite an advantage in terms of physical strength. The threat of his athleticism that close to the rim pulled in Gobert and Royce O’Neale which allowed James to uncontestedly swoop in from the left elbow.
As his 37-year-old teammate closed in on him, Westbrook scooped the ball in James’ direction and by then, it was too late for the Jazz to do anything to stop him. James caught the ball and immediately rose up for a thunderous dunk to give the Lakers a two-point lead which capped off a blistering 16-4 run.
Two minutes later, they reconvened for a similar play that ultimately sealed the win for them.
Up by just a point with over 20 seconds to go in the game, Westbrook isolated in the left corner versus the 7’1 Gobert. It was the perfect chance for the UCLA product to try to win the contest by taking one of his now-infamous pull-up jumpers, but he chose to attack the basket once more.
This hard-driving version of Westbrook is impossible to cover and demands the full attention of opposing defenses. As he closed in on the basket with momentum on his side, he caught the attention of the Utah defense and drew them in yet again. This cleared the way for James to dive in and receive the ball, although the Jazz were already clogging the paint and were there to meet him.
It was the right move for Utah given what had just happened a few plays earlier, but it also left Los Angeles’ rookie Austin Reaves wide open near the top of the key. James recognized this immediately and kicked the ball out to his 23-year-old teammate who calmly made a three-pointer that gave them a much-needed win.
The Lakers eked out a 106-101 victory that snapped their three-game losing streak. It was quite an impressive win, especially since the fourth-place Jazz came into the match riding a six-game winning streak. This was not an incomplete Utah team either as their group has finally shrugged off the injury bug following a streak of bad luck that had several key players, including their two All-Stars Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, miss a significant amount of time last month.
James wrapped up with 33 points, eight rebounds, and six assists while Westbrook chipped in with 17 points, seven rebounds, and six assists. Though he had five turnovers, Westbrook shot six-of-13 from the field which is noteworthy for him given how poorly he has shot this season. He was also a +5 in 33 minutes and his aggressive mentality late in the game was the spark that they needed to steal the win.
This is exactly the kind of play that Los Angeles expected from Westbrook when they acquired him in the offseason. The team needs this from him on a more consistent basis, especially if Anthony Davis will have to miss time due to the sprained ankle that he suffered earlier in the evening.
The Lakers head into the All-Star break as the losers of seven of their last 10 outings with a 27-31 record. It is far from the championship expectations that were bestowed upon them in the preseason and their struggles have been magnified by their stature as the league’s glamor franchise. Despite all of the trouble that they have encountered, all is not lost for this team.
They remain ninth in the Western Conference and a full four games ahead of the 11th place New Orleans Pelicans. They should be able to at least maintain their place as a play-in team and regardless of how badly they have played, the presence of their three superstars will make them a team that no one will want to face come April.
The slight hints of synergy coming from James and Westbrook, who both thrived down the stretch in a line-up with the youthful trio of Reaves, Talen Horton-Tucker, and Malik Monk, bodes well for this team. They should only grow more potent as a duo with the passage of time and they have the potential to go on a strong run coming out of the All-Star break, even without Davis.
It is still too early to count this team out and even if they continue to tumble down the standings, at least it will be one entertaining drama that is sure to have fireworks.