With Kobe Bryant sitting courtside, LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers earned their first home win of the season Thursday night and it was a blast to watch. James finished with a triple-double as the Lakers came back to beat the Denver Nuggets 121-114.
LA has played five games and each one has been thrilling. While there are still kinks to be worked out, this team is on to something.
After hammering the Phoenix Suns Wednesday night the Lakers could have been forgiven for dropping the second night of a back-to-back to the undefeated Nuggets. But they didn’t. In fact, as the game seemed to be drifting away late, an unlikely hero sparked the comeback win.
The Lakers trailed 106-98 with six minutes to go and it looked bleak. That’s when Lance Stephenson — yes that Lance Stephenson — stepped up and took over. The man they call “Born Ready” hit back-to-back 3-pointers before making a driving layup. After two Josh Hart free throws tied things at 108-108, Lance hit LeBron with a gorgeous pass and dunk:
That gave the Lakers a 110-108 lead they would never relinquish.
While James, Stephenson and JaVale McGee (21 points, seven rebounds) have all been fantastic to open the season, the beating heart of the Lakers continues to be their young core. Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart all played fantastic basketball on both ends Wednesday night. Watching them it was astonishing to think all three guys were products of the same draft night haul in 2017.
Hart finished with 12 points, five rebounds, two steals and an assist, and was a menace on the defensive end all evening.
Ball landed himself a quad five, with 12 points, eight assists, six rebounds and five steals while hitting a clutch, step-back 3-pointer over Nikola Jokic late:
Kuzma dropped in 22 points while grabbing three boards, blocking two shots and had a clutch late steal that helped seal the game:
Meanwhile Svi Mykhailiuk played 12 solid minutes on both ends of the floor and even threw a sweet little alley-oop to McGee:
These kids are good and they’re only going to get better.
Much was made over the one-year contracts the Lakers handed out to McGee, Stephenson and Rajon Rondo. A lot of ink was wasted poking fun at the locker room circus that was surely coming to Hollywood. But thus far, general manager Rob Pelinka looks like a genius.
McGee is exactly what Luke Walton’s system needs at center. He’s a run-and-jump athlete who can protect the rim on the defensive end, while finishing around it on offense. Stephenson is a spark plug for the bench. Few NBA reserves get their team or the crowd as hyped as “Born Ready” does. If he continues to act like a big brother to LA’s young core, he could fit perfectly. Then there’s Rondo, a cerebral point guard who is the perfect guy to take Ball under his wing.
If those three vets actively embrace the roles defined above, there’s no reason this can’t work. And so far it looks like they all have.
No look, it’s not all roses. The Lakers desperately need to find some post depth. Ivica Zubac hasn’t looked good thus far, and may never fit into what Walton wants out of his pivots. Mo Wagner should fit well but he’s still out with a knee injury. Someone has to step up or LA could get killed on the glass.
The Lakers also need to find consistency on the defensive end. In the fourth quarter against the Nuggets, they stepped up and got stops when they needed to. That didn’t happen during their 0-3 start.
Walton also needs to figure out his rotations. Does Rondo start when he returns from his suspension? What about Brandon Ingram, does he still start? Can Ingram and Kuzma share the floor or does one need to take a back seat?
There are tons of questions so far, but given what we’ve seen through five games I feel comfortable saying these guys will figure things out.
The best part about this team is how much fun they are. There’s a genuine joy to the way these guys play. They go fast, they run, they attack and they share the basketball. James, Ball and Stephenson combined for 23 assists Thursday night. Wednesday against the Suns those three accounted for 24 helpers. They seem to delight in setting other guys up.
The Lakers aren’t going to challenge the Golden State Warriors this season. They may not even reach the top four of the Western Conference. But after five games I feel safe in saying this team is far closer than anyone thought it would be.
The journey to the top will take time, but LeBron and the young Lakers will get there faster than expected.