Everything came together for the Los Angeles Lakers in their marquee matchup with the defending champion Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day, as LeBron James led his new squad into Oracle Arena and served notice that this group indeed has the potential to be a force to be reckoned with.
And while oftentimes coaches, players and executives will downplay the relative meaning of regular-season results, Lakers head coach Luke Walton couldn’t lie, and told Dave McMenamin of ESPN the moment was huge for the Lakers because it demonstrated that the team is on the right path:
“[That] was a huge moment for this team as far as them getting to where they want to go,” Walton told ESPN this weekend. “The great part of that game to me was like, ‘Look guys, what we’ve done this season and what we’re going through in learning to play with each other and play with the new staff, it’s working. We’re making this progress and the trust is happening.’”
The win gave Walton the best possible example he could have to show his team that what they’re doing is working, that the individual sacrifices they’re making are paying off and that this Lakers team can keep doing this if they just continue to play the right way.
That’s exactly what Walton told McMenamin his postgame message was:
”Then postgame it was along the lines of: How good did that feel? We see what we’re capable of. Now it’s about being able to get to that level each and every night and continuing to make those sacrifices that we’ve been talking about all year.”
What remains to be seen is if this Lakers team can get to that level again this season given their awful injury luck. Was beating the Warriors the spirit of playoffs future, or just a ghost of Christmas past?
James strained his groin in that game and hasn’t played since. Rajon Rondo broke his hand against the Warriors and has also missed every game since then. And just as both players inch closer to a return, now Lonzo Ball is set to miss at least 4-6 weeks with a grade 3 ankle sprain, an injury that has kept other players out far longer (although it remains to be seen how severe it is for Ball):
A grade 3 ranges from 75% torn to 100% torn (full rupture). W/ the latter, surgery is indicated whereas in the former (depending on extent) the ligament is still attached enough to heal. It’s a spectrum & Zo likely falls on the lower end of grade 3.— Dr. Rajpal Brar, DPT (@3cbPerformance) January 21, 2019
Even when James and Rondo return, whenever that ultimately is, it will take time for them to get back up to 100 percent of their abilities, which will also mean one or two more in-season adjustment periods for a Lakers team for whom the only consistency this season has been constant adjustments to the way they play in order to integrate players back into the lineup or make up for their absences. The same goes for when Ball returns.
Those realities mean that while the Christmas Day win over the Warriors showed what this specific roster can do at full strength, it’s an open question when or if the Lakers will get to that level again.
No one is going to feel sorry for a team with James, who is more than capable of papering over a lot of these issues, but the Lakers team of lightning fast young guys playing energetic defense while utilizing James’ status as a walking mismatch to do just enough to get by offensively might be gone, and it remains to be seen what type of team will take its place.
Maybe James and Rondo’s returns solve a lot of this, but it’s hard not to feel as though bad luck may have robbed us of seeing what this team could truly be outside of a singular glimpse during a holiday daze.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.