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LeBron James returns, and Lakers turn on defense in win over Cavaliers

Lakers forward LeBron James drives to the basket in front of Cleveland Cavaliers forward Lauri Markkanen.
Lakers forward LeBron James drives to the basket in front of Cleveland Cavaliers forward Lauri Markkanen during the first quarter Friday at Staples Center.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Frank Vogel wants to build, and Friday, he got back his most prized material.

LeBron James returned to the lineup against Cleveland with the Lakers focused on how their defense can go from being one of the NBA’s worst back to one of the best.

The process won’t be easy, and without James, the blueprint is probably useless. But even with him, six games into this NBA season, it’s hard to view anything the Lakers are doing as more than conceptual.

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“We’re like building a house. You know, you’re building a house or you’re putting on an addition, you got all these construction workers in your house and it’s a pain ... and there’s plastic up and sawdust and it’s a pain ... ,” Vogel colorfully described Friday morning. “But you keep saying to yourself, ‘When this is done, it’s going to be great.’ You know what I mean? That’s where we’re at right now.

While the Lakers are still developing their chemistry and LeBron James was out, the veteran team knows there’s no excuse for losing to the Thunder.

“Like, it’s frustrating to see where we’re at, but I know where it’s going to get to. And we’re excited.”

And maybe if this was one project, the Lakers could handle all the clutter — the tools scattered on the floor and the paint splattered on the ground. But that’s not where this team is. This is multiple job sites, all behind schedule and over budget.

It’s not one problem. It’s all of them. And it’s going to be a lot of work.

Even when things were going well against the Cavaliers at Staples Center, it mostly looked too hard and too inconsistent. It also was that way in the Lakers’ first two wins, needing to go late with Memphis before outlasting San Antonio in overtime.

But at least Friday, there was progress on the defensive side of the ball where Vogel’s vision came into clearer focus in a 113-101 victory.

The Lakers had lots to improve on.

They’ve struggled to stop penetrating guards. They are slow on rotations and lazily get beaten on backdoor cuts. They get killed on the glass, giving teams second, third and sometimes fourth chances. They give up uncontested dunks. They foul more than almost anyone else in the NBA.

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Ricky Rubio shoots over Lakers guard Russell Westbrook in the first quarter.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - OCT. 29, 2021. Lakers Anthony Davis, left, and Russell Westbrook celebrate a victory.
Lakers teammates Anthony Davis, left, and Russell Westbrook celebrate after beating the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

They’re a mess on offense, firing as many passes to the empty spaces on the court as to the ones they occupy.

And even though they make a lot of threes, they miss a lot of free throws. They play with the spacing of an overstuffed sock drawer.

Some of that was cured Friday, the Lakers holding Cleveland to 101 points on 42.5% shooting. It was the first time the Lakers held a team to fewer than 114 points.

Cleveland scored only 16 points in the fourth quarter.

And offensively, the Lakers tightened up after a sloppy start, becoming the kind of transition monster that they hope to become. “We’re still learning each other,” Vogel said.

What makes it all so frustrating is the talent on the roster, four of the NBA’s top 75 players ever — and one just on the outside in Dwight Howard — all wearing purple and gold.

Against the Cavaliers, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Carmelo Anthony and James all did enough to overcome the blemishes.

Even with James going one for 10 from three-point range, he scored 26 in his return. Westbrook, an agent of chaos, triggered big Lakers runs by pumping fuel into their heavy legs.

Davis was mostly quiet but helped seal the game with a block, and Anthony continued to hit shots — hitting six of eight threes in scoring 24.

The good can flash — stops leading to scores and the Lakers looking closer to Vogel’s vision for what a group with this talent can achieve. then, after a handful of possessions, it usually disappears.

At least James returned after missing the previous two games with a sore ankle, an injury that essentially ended his season — and the Lakers’ — a year ago.

Things in the first half Friday could’ve been much, much worse, when they fought back to force a tie.

Anthony Davis scored 35 and Russell Westbrook 33 to lead the Lakers to a 125-121 overtime win against the Spurs in San Antonio on Tuesday.

Same in the third quarter, when they needed a late 12-0 run to snag a three-point lead heading to the fourth.

After leading by six early, they quickly fell behind 11, their turnovers mounting into the teens as the Cavaliers surged behind former USC star Evan Mobley, comfortably holding his own against Davis — a player to whom he’s often been compared.

The Lakers, though, did make shots, staying within range so they were able to tie the game by halftime thanks to a 6-0 run triggered by some good luck. Mobley missed a dunk, and with the basket still swaying, Colin Sexton missed the putback, allowing the Lakers to run.

The Lakers insist that the seeds of greatness are there.

“We’re going to have a great season,” Vogel said before the game.


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