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In a season fraught with seemingly endless streams of misfires and melodramatics and moments to forget, the Los Angeles Lakers were finally treated to a night worth committing to memory on Saturday.
And it was, predictably, all thanks to LeBron James.
Yet, on the heels of a riveting performance from one of the two best players in NBA history, the realists in the room can’t help but wonder: Does it even matter? Or is this just a fleeting, meaningless intermission from the hard-to-watch hellfire this Lakers season has become?
It took LeBron 56 points, in a game-high 38-minutes-and-change, to spearhead a 124-116 victory over the Draymond Green-less Golden State Warriors. Those are not miles you want to put on your age-37 cornerstone. But neither he nor the Lakers can afford to care how they pick up wins. They just need to get them—badly, desperately, whenever they can, against whomever is in front of them.
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LEBRON DROPS 56 PTS TO BEAT THE WARRIORS 🤯🤯🤯 https://t.co/3Alf5xhGsU
Saturday’s victory, punctuated by LeBron’s incomprehensible brilliance, is first and foremost a palate cleanser. The Lakers entered the night embroiled in a four-game losing streak and stuck in the throes of a much longer stretch that saw them drop 16 of 22, through which they solidified themselves as a fringe play-in team tottering on the precipice of total implosion.
This win is relief, a respite from Los Angeles’ worse-than-worst-case-scenario season, in its most basic form. But that reprieve will be short-lived. It has, in fact, already expired.
LeBron wasted little time in admitting as much after topping the 55-point mark for the fourth time of his career. Asked by ESPN’s Lisa Salters to assess the the meaning behind his performance and the victory, he responded simply and succinctly—and somewhat solemnly
Just 19 games remain for the Lakers, and the reality of what they’re up against is no less crushing after a primetime win in March, not when they needed an historically significant detonation from LeBron to overtake a Warriors team in relative free fall.
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Most Points Age 35 or older in NBA History:
60 — Kobe Bryant (last game vs. Jazz)
56 — LeBron James (tonight) https://t.co/KuXEPtc5db
There is no room for moral victories, no such thing as an expected win. There is only urgency
Every win, any win, needs to be a turning point.
To what end Saturday can represent a defining about-face for the Lakers will be a matter of course. They have LeBron, so they have hope. This time around, though, that hope is without clear form.
Standout moments from Malik Monk (4-of-9 from three, perpetual hustle) and Austin Reaves (defense, defense, plus-18, defense) are a reminder Los Angeles has unearthed bright spots amid their gloom. Carmelo Anthony (14 points, still a bucket) has been quietly solid all year.
Even Russell Westbrook peppered in encouraging spurts. He had more turnovers (five) than assists (four) and turned in some truly atrocious defensive possessions. He also put pressure on the rim (8-of-11 inside the paint and restricted area) and made a couple of late buckets and key plays.
There is also the belief to which the Lakers have clung all along: that they can be special, or at least competent, at full strength.
Anthony Davis’ return from a right mid-foot sprain will determine how close Los Angeles gets to whole. He is more than halfway through a four-week timeline, at the end of which he will be re-evaluated. His availably is hardly guaranteed, but an infusion of superstar power alongside a still-somehow-in-his-prime LeBron would go a long way.
Then again, there is a fragility to the Lakers that hasn’t dissipated even with AD. They have won the minutes he plays at the 5 beside LeBron and Russ, but only barely. And they have decidedly lost the possessions AD and James have logged without Westbrook.
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Every version of this season’s Lakers has been left scrambling—searching for answers they so clearly don’t employ. There is no escaping the delicateness, if not hopelessness, of their immediate situation.
So much of their yearlong struggles have been pinned on Westbrook. That’s not totally fair.
To be sure, he has not been good. His finishing around the hoop was flirting with career lows entering Saturday, he’s a more severe non-threat from mid-range and above the break, and his turnover rate has hit an all-time high.
But Westbrook’s play is not the force driving the Lakers’ downward spiral. The decision to obliterate their depth and a first-round pick to acquire him was not his own. He did not cheap out on Alex Caruso in free agency. And he is not responsible for turning Danny Green and a first-rounder into a one-year rental of Dennis Schroder.
Blame for the Lakers’ potentially lost season can, and should, and must, be distributed up and down the organizational spectrum.
Many of head coach Frank Vogel’s frontcourt rotations and small-ball lineups have verged on inexplicable. Westbrook has largely been a net negative while apparently resisting functional change. Both LeBron and AD reportedly pushed for the Westbrook trade.
The front office, led by general manager Rob Pelinka, acquiesced to their superstars. And in doing so, they failed to do their jobs, more than anyone involved, because it’s on them to set boundaries and make decisions. They then exacerbated the frailty of this roster by not only letting Caruso walk but by doing literally, actually, absolutely nothing at the trade deadline.
Inaction through Feb. 10 is arguably the Lakers’ most egregious misstep. Making moves just for the sake of making moves is never a good idea; flipping Westbrook and draft equity for John Wall wouldn’t have necessarily made them better in the interim or down the road.
But doing nothing is more unforgivable than doing something—anything. LeBron is 37. Davis is just 28, but his body has been through the wringer. Your timeline isn’t next season. It is right the hell now. Even the most modest of transactions could have mattered. (Scooping up D.J. Augustin doesn’t count.)
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By standing pat, the Lakers consigned themselves to the same unrelenting scrutiny and criticism and speculation that has plagued them all season. Now they’re left contemplating measures equally drastic and hollow—like demoting Westbrook from the starting lineup.
Going that route is an empty gesture. Westbrook’s minutes can be more rigidly staggered and diminished if they won’t want him to start. Bouncing him from the rotation altogether probably doesn’t do anything. The Lakers are not built to displace someone averaging 34-plus minutes per game and call it addition by subtraction.
What exactly are they built for then? If Saturday becomes a turning point, then we don’t yet know. If it doesn’t, then they’re exactly who they’ve been all year: an irredeemably flawed team that has compounded its own mistakes and wasted a precious season of LeBron’s prime, without a discernible or guaranteed path back to title contention.