Column: Young Lakers are growing by leaps and bounces
It’s the Monday night after the Oscars. The home team ranks in the bottom third of the league. It has no All-Stars. It has virtually no playoff hopes.
Yet, Staples Center is full and the Lakers are balling.
They lunge and leap and grab three steals from the postseason-bound Portland Trail Blazers in the first five minutes. There is a fastbreak dunk by Julius Randle. Another fastbreak dunk by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
They are passing as if the ball is aflame. They are defending as if fighting to stay on the playground.
The crowd is roaring as if it were in a time machine, and Portland’s Damian Lillard is glaring around like, what?
What? You’ve never seen Hollywood become Hoosiers? Is it hard to believe a losing NBA team is not tanking? You’re so used to fighting off a single Lakers star, you don’t know what to make of that passing thread that went from Isaiah Thomas to Lonzo Ball to Tyler Ennis to Travis Wear to a three-point swish?
This is crazy, but not like the Lakers crazy of the previous four seasons. This is crazy fun. This is crazy hopeful.
The Lakers were crazy competitive again Monday night, even without the injured Brandon Ingram, leading the Trail Blazers by 11 points midway through the fourth quarter until Lillard unleashed four three-pointers in a two-minute stretch to lead Portland to a 108-103 win.
It was the Lakers’ first loss at home in 10 games. It was only their eighth loss in 25 games. Since Jan. 7, they’ve been one of the best teams in the league, morphing from confused to cohesive, from baffling into a blast, all while becoming a different kind of contender.
They are also contending to cement the sort of coaching and culture stability that has been missing since the departure of Phil Jackson seven years ago.
“We’re good,” coach Luke Walton said before the game. “We’ve got guys that believe in themselves and are playing for each other and playing hard. When you do that, you are able to beat anyone on any given night.”
They have been, well, a revelation. Four revelations, to be exact.
They are a better team when LaVar Ball is 6,000 miles away
On the first Wednesday in January, the ringmaster Ball and his two sideshow younger sons landed in Lithuania to begin their grand delusion tour.
Four days later, the Lakers’ hot streak started.
Seemingly hours after Ball issued an international cheap shot by saying that Walton had lost the team, the Lakers found themselves, playing with a freedom that was absent when the shoe salesman was hovering around the baseline seats sucking up all the oxygen.
Hmmm, anybody else think Lonzo now has enough evidence to finally politely ask his father to back off?
“The message to our guys is, it’s our group, we have to have each other’s back, no matter what else is happening out there,” Walton said when asked if a lack of outside noise had helped the team relax. “It’s important to have the experience of knowing, no matter what is going on in the outside, that we show up for each other and continue to work the same way.”
He has been publicly questioned. He has dealt with homegrown guys Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson being traded away in the middle of the season. He has dealt with shooting guard Caldwell-Pope spending time in jail.
He has deftly handled injuries, pouting, and all the hassles of trying to teach on a stage where only winning and entertaining are considered acceptable.
And he has never wavered from a team-first approach that has led to wins against Houston, Boston, Oklahoma City and a 17-point comeback stunner in San Antonio.
Did you hear him Monday when he asked about Kobe Bryant’s post-Oscar-winning news conference, where Bryant said his personal victory was better than any of his Lakers championships?
“He said that? With a straight face?” Walton said. “I would imagine there’s some sarcasm in there.”
There was no sarcasm in Bryant’s comments. And there was no mistaking that Walton won’t publicly disavow his team ethic for anyone.
Ball can shoot a little bit
The shot is still really ugly. One of this summer’s big stories will occur when somebody finally fixes it.
But maybe the one missing piece of his game isn’t missing at all. In six games since returning from a knee injury, Ball is 19 for 38, including six three-pointers Saturday against San Antonio and a couple of big three-pointers late Monday.
Randle has become the kind of player who can change next summer’s landscape
Don’t get any ideas. If the Lakers can convince James and George to come here as a free-agent pair, they will still let the emerging Randle walk as a restricted free agent to give them the salary-cap space and consider it a fair trade.
But don’t say goodbye to him just yet. If James won’t come and they can get only George, they can keep Randle and perhaps build around him.
He’s got big-enough shoulders, right? He has shown that in the last months. He’s finally competing consistently. He’s showing stronger moves around the basket. His court awareness is much stronger.
He led the Lakers with 21 points and nine rebounds Monday and, like all of the Lakers, from Ball to Ingram, he has simply become more fun to watch.
“It’s huge,” Walton said of the team’s recent strides. “You see guys growing. It’s a big piece of the puzzle as far as figuring out where we’re going and the journey we’re on.”
Imagine that. After four years spent going backward, the Lakers are finally on a journey, a victory in itself.
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