For the Lakers, the game started with defense — a chase-down block by LeBron James on a shot attempt by the Spurs’ DeMar DeRozan.
It was fitting because in the moments when things weren’t going right offensively, when the Lakers were turning over the ball or when their shots weren’t falling, they always knew they could rely on their defense.
And it was fitting because so far this season, James’ intensity on defense has fueled his team.
“Well, it’s contagious, and his commitment on that end of the floor has been a great surprise for us in terms of just how proficient he’s been,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s leading the charge with [his] care factor on that end of the floor. When he’s working that hard and caring that much about getting stops, it carries over to everybody else, and you see it on the floor.”
Defense is why the Lakers held on for a 103-96 victory over a pesky San Antonio team Sunday night. It was the fifth straight win for the Lakers (5-1), and they earned a second consecutive victory in Texas as part of a three-game road trip that wraps up Tuesday in Chicago. The loss dropped the Spurs to 4-2.
“We don’t really want to talk about it too much, we want to be about it,” James said of the effort on defense. “And that’s what we’ve been doing. We want to be one of the best defensive teams, if not the best defensive team, in the league. … It’s up to us to take the challenge. I think from 1 [through] 15, we’ve all done that, whoever’s in the game.”
Teammate Anthony Davis agreed: “We want to be the best defensive team in the league, and we’ll be tough to beat.”
James scored 21 points and added 13 assists and 11 rebounds for his second straight triple-double. He became the first Laker to have back-to-back triple-doubles since Lamar Odom in 2006.
Davis had 25 points, leading all scorers, and contributed 11 rebounds and four blocks. Avery Bradley was the Lakers’ next-highest scorer with 16 points and made seven of nine field-goal attempts. He left the game during the second half after getting kicked near his knee, but X-rays revealed no fracture. Dwight Howard added 14 points and 13 rebounds and was seven for seven from the field.
The Spurs, meanwhile, shot 39.8% from the field and made only six of 25 three-point tries.
San Antonio scored the game’s first five points. But while past opponents have been quick to put the Lakers in double-digit holes, the Spurs couldn’t and quickly lost the lead.
The Lakers got rolling and built a 19-point lead early in the third quarter, but the Spurs kept hanging around. Dejounte Murray, who led San Antonio with 18 points, made a layup with 4:10 left to tie the score at 90. From there, though, the Lakers pulled away, in part thanks to a 17-foot jumper and a three-pointer by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
The Spurs are one of three teams the Lakers have prevented from scoring 100 points early this season. Through six games, the Lakers have the second-best defensive rating in the NBA, only behind the Utah Jazz. Their defensive mentality has been set by Vogel and several players who have been known as defensive standouts in their careers.
James is among them. He is a five-time NBA All-Defensive first-team player but hasn’t made an All-Defensive team since a second-team nod for the 2013-14 season.
This season, though, his defense has helped lead the way for the Lakers.
James was asked after Sunday’s game to explain how he succeeds in keeping his defensive engagement high. He attributed his improved defense from last season to this season to being healthy. James said that even when he returned to play last season after missing time with a groin strain, the injury lingered.
“For me, I just take the challenge,” he said. “I love being challenged. Coach challenged me. A.D. challenged me. I challenged myself. I put a lot of hard work into my offseason by getting my quick twitch, getting my bounce back, getting my speed back, my reaction time back [after being injured last year]. My mind has always been there. That’s what it’s all about.”