The Los Angeles Lakers made a statement with their win over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday, not just because they ran the reigning NBA champions out of their own building, but because they did it with LeBron James sidelined for a good chunk of the second half.
James suffered a groin injury with just under eight minutes left to go in the third quarter. At the time, the Lakers led the Warriors by 14 points.
Shortly after James exited the game, the Warriors went on a run and cut the deficit to just two points. For a moment, it looked like Golden State was going to do what they always do and stumble their way into a win. However, that two-point deficit is the closest the Dubs would get to closing the gap.
Behind a few strong performances from their young players, the Lakers were able to leave Oracle Arena with a win. In his walk-off interview on Spectrum Sportsnet following the game, Josh Hart praised the team for stepping up in James’ absence, and set the tone for how the locker room will go about its business if James misses extended time (via Spectrum SportsNet):
“The narrative is that it’s LeBron and the Lakers. Obviously we hope he’s okay, but we’ve got a lot of good players... If he’s down, we’re ready to step up. None of us are scared of the spotlight.”
Lonzo Ball told Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times that he also thinks the Lakers are prepared to step up if James can’t go:
“We think we can play with anybody,” Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball said. “We’re not scared of nobody.”
While it’s encouraging that Hart, Ball and their teammates have that attitude, it’s even more encouraging that they can back their words up with solid play.
Granted, it’s only been one game — or should I say a quarter and a half of a game — but they looked capable without James on the floor, which is something that Lakers head coach Luke Walton said he has tried to prepare his team for (via Kyle Goon of the O.C. Register):
“This is what we try to plan for – not that he gets hurt – but being able to play and win and compete when he’s not on the floor,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “That’s a process, and our team is much better than at the start of the season. So, it’ll get a lot more challenging for us if he misses some real time, but I’m also very confident in our group that they’ll continue to step up and battle.”
In recent years, James-led teams haven’t performed well without him. In the three seasons prior to this one, James missed a total of 14 games. The Cleveland Cavaliers went 1-13 without him during that time.
Assuming James doesn’t play in the next game, their first test without him will be against the Sacramento Kings, who are a scrappy young team themselves. While ideally James won’t miss any time, his absence could give the Lakers a better look at how far they still have to go or how far ahead of schedule they are.
Regardless of what ends up happening, it sounds like the Lakers’ “supporting cast” is ready to take center stage.