Their season imperiled, and their play stagnating, the Lakers got the burst of energy they needed in the third quarter from Kyle Kuzma with a soaring dunk.
Then Kuzma did it again. Then LeBron James joined the dunking party. Then Kuzma threw down one more.
Simple math didn’t quite explain it.
“I’ve always heard like two points is two points, but I don’t believe in that,” James said. “There’s certain plays that’s more than two points from a momentum standpoint. And those four dunks was more than eight points. It just shifted the momentum of the game, shifted our intensity.”
Down by five just two minutes earlier, the Lakers went on a 10-1 run to pull ahead of the New Orleans Pelicans in a game they had to win.
It was one segment of a night filled with moments when the Lakers refused to let the game slip from their grasp. New Orleans never led by more than five points, and the Lakers secured their 30th victory of the season, winning 125-119 at Staples Center. The win came after the Lakers lost back-to-back games to two of the Western Conference’s worst teams in New Orleans and Memphis.
“You don’t necessarily think about it, but anytime you lose to a team, you kinda remember that next time you play em,” Kyle Kuzma said. “We did a great job of attacking them early on and staying with it the whole game, and got some key stops, and made em miss some shots down the stretch.”
“When you’re losing, you gotta fight and fight,” Walton said. “Nothing’s gonna come easy.”
Former Laker Julius Randle scored a game-high 35 points for the Pelicans, just two more than James, who also had 10 assists and six rebounds. Rajon Rondo notched 16 assists with 11 points and seven rebounds for the Lakers, while Brandon Ingram scored 23 points and Kuzma scored 22.
The Lakers entered the night on a precarious ledge between the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2013 and a crushing blow to their postseason hopes. San Antonio, the Clippers, Sacramento, Minnesota and the Lakers are all in contention for the seventh and eighth seeds in the Western Conference.
By the end of the night, the Lakers were three games behind the Clippers and Spurs, who are tied for the final two spots.
It was another game rife with subplots.
Like Paul George, and James before him, Anthony Davis came to Staples Center as a player the Lakers coveted and one for whom their fans thirsted. Last month, Davis told the Pelicans he wanted to be traded and the Lakers were among his preferred destinations. Lakers fans remembered. He was introduced pregame to the loudest cheer of any player other than James.
Because Davis is most valuable to the Pelicans as a trade asset, they have limited his playing time since the trade deadline. Their plan entering Wednesday’s game was to play Davis for less than 25 minutes and not at all in the fourth quarter. He finished the game with 22 points and eight rebounds in 21 minutes.
Rondo returned to the starting lineup with Walton starting Ingram and James at forward, Kuzma at center and Reggie Bullock and Rondo at guard.
“Rondo’s a … champion,” Walton said of his mentality when choosing his lineup. “Let’s see what happens. … We needed to do something different because it wasn’t working.”
The Lakers opened the game with the intensity they needed, keeping a small lead over the Pelicans for most of the first quarter. After one, the Lakers led 35-28 with James (10 points) and Ingram (11 points) leading the way.
New Orleans fought back in the second quarter, even leading for a time, but the Lakers maintained their lead into halftime.
New Orleans’ best chance came in the third quarter, when they led by five, but this was one the Lakers knew they couldn’t lose. During a timeout with 6:58 left in the third, they talked it.
“The energy had kind of got sucked out of us and we weren’t making shots and I went to the bench and said this is what we’ve been talking about: we are hitting adversity right now,” Lakers Coach Luke Walton said. “They’re on a run, it’s the second half and the guys on the court did a helluva job of forcing the action, attacking the rim and making those plays and it got the building going again and it got our group going.”
They pulled ahead with the Kuzma and James dunk-fest.
“I always try to find ways to cut and ways to touch the ball,” Kuzma said.
New Orleans threatened late, but a three-pointer by James gave the Lakers a six-point cushion with 31.3 seconds left in the game.