In case they’d forgotten, in case they’d been carried away by their early success and the on-court bromance that’s blooming between LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers were reminded Sunday, after seven straight victories, what it feels like to lose.
The defensive framework coach Frank Vogel had put in place so carefully — a foundation players had reinforced with enthusiasm and effort the past few weeks — fell apart in a 113-104 loss to the defending champion Toronto Raptors. Or, more precisely, what remained of the Raptors, who last summer lost Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers through free agency, Danny Green to the Lakers via free agency, and last week lost Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka to injuries.
Short of bodies but not of determination, the Raptors on Sunday were too fast to be held back by the Lakers’ weak transition defense. The Raptors were tenacious enough to hold the Lakers to 18 points in the third quarter and resilient enough to take a bunch of bodies thrown together on the fly and come together well enough in the second half to pull out an impressive victory at Staples Center.
“We learn from our wins,” said Davis, who finished with 27 points and eight rebounds in nearly 38 minutes. “We’re going to learn from this loss.”
They learned they’re not invincible, and that they can’t relax if they want to maintain their defensive excellence. This is, despite an exhilarating start that showed they can be scary good, an evolution that will take place over months, not a couple of weeks. “We’re still going to lay our hats on defense,” Davis said, and if they’ve learned that much, then one defeat in early November won’t matter later.
Vogel said he didn’t plan to deliver any kind of speech to discuss the end of the winning streak. “Just stay in the moment,” he said. “And whatever happens after each game, we remove the result from our process of building habits and we’re back tomorrow and we teach and we try to get better. I really wasn’t locked into the winning streak. Just stay locked into the process.”
The idea of emphasizing the process made sense to James, who recorded his fourth triple-double in the last five games (13 points, 13 rebounds and 15 assists) even though he didn’t reach double figures in points until 4 minutes and 19 seconds remained in the fourth quarter. Their winning streak, which included several comeback victories, didn’t disguise any worrisome flaws that will be impossible to repair. Getting better is their main goal now, and he understands that the process of getting there might include some stumbles and losses.
“That’s all we’re trying to do. We’re trying to win basketball games,” James said. “I don’t think anything gets lost with us, because we’re not a complacent team. We’re kind of even keel. We hate to lose, but they were the better team and we just move on to the next one. We see ways we can get better [Monday] in the film session.
“Nothing was masked. There’s still ways for us to get better and we know that. We’re a really good team, but we want to get even better.”
Vogel said he had reminded his players often about Toronto’s speed and fast-break capabilities, cautioning them that if they didn’t execute, “it was going to be a run-out that we couldn’t recover from,” he said. “We’ve been showing great effort in transition defense getting back, but that wasn’t always there for us tonight and it cost us.”
Credit the Raptors, too, for stepping up in adverse circumstances. It wasn’t their championship lineup, but they were smart and opportunistic.
“Those guys came in and played terrific off the bench in their minutes,” Vogel said, “and sometimes that’s how the game goes.”
James also praised the Raptors as the better team. Ragtag lineup though it was, it was effective and took control in the second half.
“They’ve still got championship players on there,” James said. “No matter they’re shorthanded but they’ve still got guys that are championship DNA players, so we didn’t take that lightly.”
One loss doesn’t erase the progress the Lakers have made this season in so many areas. One loss isn’t the end of the season or reason to panic. This is a process. Losing will be part of that process. It’s up to them now to prove that lessons like those they learned on Sunday will make them stronger and better as the season goes on.