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LeBron James-led Lakers beat Thunder on the road without Anthony Davis

The Lakers' LeBron James drives against the Thunder's Darius Bazley on Friday night in Oklahoma City.
The Lakers’ LeBron James, who scored 33 points, drives against the Thunder’s Darius Bazley on Friday night in Oklahoma City. The Lakers won 116-95.
(Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)
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The search for the right way to play continued Friday into Oklahoma, where Lakers coach Frank Vogel was armed with another horror film to show his team — this one a listless performance in Memphis against an undermanned Grizzlies team.

No one, Vogel told his team, was better than the opportunities their system could create. Who cares that these are some of the best offensive basketball players to ever play in the NBA? The open man, whoever it is, would be the best option.

“The open man is more talented than any individual on our squad,” Vogel said.

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Not Russell Westbrook, not Anthony Davis, not Carmelo Anthony, not ...

“Except for maybe LeBron,” Vogel said with a smile. “I think Bron’s mentioned that.”

The point, though, applies to him as much as it does to any of the Lakers’ stars carrying giant-sized legacies and an ugly .500 record onto the floor with them. And on Friday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, they got it.

LeBron James, the exception to so many rules, scored 33 points and committed only a pair of turnovers, leading the Lakers to an easy 116-95 win against the Thunder, avenging two previous defeats in which the Lakers blew big leads to one of the worst teams.

James missed both those games because of injury.

“Me watching from the sidelines, seeing those leads evaporate and them celebrating on our floor last time they played us and I couldn’t do nothing but sit there and watch,” James said.

James got to make an impact this time against the Thunder, the Lakers needing him even more with Davis a last-minute scratch. He woke up Friday morning with left knee soreness and was added to the mid-day injury report. After being called a game-time decision by Vogel, Davis was ruled out by Lakers medical staff. It’s unknown whether he’ll need to undergo further testing.

The reason the Lakers looked as dominant as they have all season — it was really the kind of wire-to-wire blowout that’s eluded them for most of the season — had to do with the help James had all over the court.

“It’s much easier to guard one of us than to guard all five of us,” James said.

Coach Frank Vogel isn’t to blame for the Lakers’ disjointed roster and disinterested defense, but he’ll take the fall unless they turn it around quickly.

At the foreground was the oft-maligned Avery Bradley, a defensive specialist who hasn’t been able to lift the Lakers’ pedestrian defensive statistics. Vogel has stuck with him through the criticism and Friday got rewarded with a terrific game.

On offense, Bradley scored a season-high 22 points, drilling six of eight three-pointers. And on defense, Bradley bottled up Oklahoma City’s young star, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, limiting the former Clipper to 11 points and four assists.

“He was a focal point for us tonight,” Bradley said. “I mean, the last two games he played extremely well. I just wanted to take the challenge and come out and try to make every play hard on him. But it was definitely a team effort at the same time. But me, personally, I did try to take that challenge on.”

James also was a factor defensively, getting three more steals a night after he passed Karl Malone for No. 11 on the all-time list and adding two blocks.

“A lot of it has to do with anticipation, obviously,” James said. “Being in the right place at the right time. But also just knowing a lot of the things that are coming before they actually happen. So, tonight was an opportunity or an instance where I was able to get three of them and I was in the right place at the right time.”

In addition to Bradley, young wings Talen Horton-Tucker (11 points) and rookie Austin Reaves (career-best 13 points) made an impact. And while Westbrook had just eight points, his nine rebounds and seven assists helped the Lakers outscore the Thunder by 18 points in his minutes. Only James’ plus-minus rating was higher.

The Lakers' Russell Westbrook, left, and the Thunder's Kenrich Williams chase a loose ball Dec. 10, 2021.
The Lakers’ Russell Westbrook, left, and the Thunder’s Kenrich Williams chase a loose ball. Westbrook had eight points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
(Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

“To have the luxury of guys like myself, AD and Russ and Melo too, if we have emergency usage or bail-out moments, then so be it,” James said. “But as a team, it’s more important to our role players that we always attract two, three, four guys’ attention and we’re able to find our guys and have that ball moving from one side to the other where it just keeps the defense at bay.”

The Lakers aren’t fixed — and a long absence by Davis would be bad news. But for a night, they addressed what went wrong and made it better, leaving their coach happy that the next round of game film won’t be so bleak.

“Really proud of our group for taking the lessons of last night’s game, where we failed to make the simple play, to see the open man in front of us and try not to force things to certain guys,” Vogel said. “We really bought into that morning film session and tried to have it carry over into tonight’s game. We moved the ball beautifully. And as a result, the shot quality was high and we had a great shooting night from the perimeter. Really proud of our guys.”


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