This is not what teams with nothing left to play for besides draft position at the end of the season do. This is not an ideal outcome for a team that really, really needs its position in this draft to be good to help in an accelerated rebuilding process. But we'll be damned if that wasn't a thoroughly entertaining contest, as the entirety of the team busted their rears off and displayed an awful lot of heart for a situation that certainly did not demand it. Portland is one of the league's best teams and even if their mediocre defense has been exposed more lately, it was almost a foregone conclusion that they would bounce the Lakers out in an arena that has been incredibly unfriendly to the Lakers in recent years.
The Lakers had other ideas, running out to a 33-20 lead that was built on copious amounts of effort on both ends, aggressively trapping Portland on defense and using those opportunities to get into transition. We always knew that Wesley Johnson and Kent Bazemore were well-suited for Mike D'Antoni's vision of an uptempo system that seeks out easy shots on the floor, but it wasn't quite realized until tonight as they blazed up and down the floor catching outlets and smart passes from a very well-run Lakers transition offense.
Johnson in particular deserves praise for not letting his matchup with the far larger and more skilled LaMarcus Aldridge deter him, as he played solid positional defense and constantly forced Aldridge to get up and down the court in order to check him in transition. A box score stuffing 14 point, seven rebound, four assist, two steal, and two block performance is a perfect encapsulation of what D'Antoni envisioned since Wes was ever mentioned as a candidate to play the four. He'll never come close to the Shawn Marion role that D'Antoni desperately wants someone to fill, but he came as close as he possibly could tonight.
The rest of the Lakers reciprocated Johnson's energy and there never really was a letdown for the entire game despite the hostile crowd and again, absolutely no expectation from the start for victory. Kendall Marshall managed to somewhat break out of his recent slump, hitting from range and accruing seven of his eleven assists before halftime as he is steadily adjusting to life on the floor with a number of secondary ballhandlers. The game ball probably has to go to Jodie Meeks, however, as his cutting, shooting, and transition proficiency all helped to fuel the Lakers' run, including two (!) brutal jams on the baseline to keep the Lakers going.
Portland finally narrowed the gap in the fourth quarter as the Lakers' offense slowed down and began to make shots, but with less than seven seconds remaining in regulation, Mike D'Antoni reminded us of his offensive wizardry with an exceptionally well-drawn up play that resulted in a Johnson alley-oop dunk. Contrast that to the Damian Lillard hero ball possession that closed the game for Portland and one acquires a new appreciation for what D'Antoni provides for the team. Indeed, that this game was even possible, a March road win against a bona fide playoff squad in which the Lakers dominated most of the contest, is a testament to how much effort D'Antoni is getting out of this team, contract years or no.
We also might be seeing the shape of the team's closing rotation, as Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman both sat in favor of Ryan Kelly and Robert Sacre. D'Antoni has sat both of the aforementioned players beforehand, but at this point in the season in which players with a future on the team should be prioritized over those who do not, it appears entirely justifiable. For their part, Kelly had a rough night when he was asked to check Aldridge, although Sacre acquitted himself well in limited minutes on both ends and as the player with the longest contract on the team, it especially makes sense for him to be playing.
In the long-term, we might regret this win on draft day and it would behoove the team to start up that losing streak tonight in the end of a back-to-back against New Orleans, but one can't help but be satisfied with the heart the team displayed against Portland. Good karma might not count for much with the tanking gods, but hopefully the Lakers coaching staff and players are ultimately rewarded for never thinking that this year was a lost cause when the ping pong balls start bouncing.
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