Los Angeles is the entertainment capital of the world, and the Lakers have embraced that identity ever since Dr. Jerry Buss bought the team in 1979. The L.A. Lakers have always traded in drama, and this season has been as emblematic of that as any other.
Last night was another perfect encapsulation of that trend.
The Lakers started the final third of their schedule against a fitting opponent, the Houston Rockets, who have been party to some of their most climactic moments this season. First, there was the spit-fight in game No. 2. Then, there was the 50-piece that James Harden dropped on L.A. back in December, the memory of which likely prompted LeBron James’ recent comments about Harden averaging 100 points against them. And most recently, there was a dramatic overtime Houston win in Saturday primetime when the Lakers lost Lonzo Ball to injury.
It should have been clear that the Rockets coming into town meant that Los Angeles would be in for another doozy, particularly on national television, and both teams delivered on that promise. In a game that could jumpstart the Lakers' late-season playoff push, Houston and Los Angeles each gave theatrics worthy of the postseason.
To begin with, Playoff LeBron was activated. James made it clear that he would need to unleash another gear in order for the Lakers to start winning more regularly, and although his stat line was in line with a "normal" LeBron performance (29 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists), the burst he showcased was more reminiscent of a late-season James. This dunk doesn’t exactly show no regard for human life, but there’s at least some disdain for it.
Nothing was more indicative of an activated James than the fact that he played at center for extended stretches. Against a team that doesn’t have a bruiser at the five, James was able to be the biggest Laker on the court for more than a quarter of the game. It’s not something he likes to do, considering he still classifies himself as a small forward (remember his Space Jam 2 announcement?), but it’s a role the biggest stage demands from him now. With his team on life support to merely get into the playoffs, this is what James had to do.
It wouldn’t be a classic Los Angeles win if the team was in control throughout the game. No, the Lakers floundered through much of the first half and the start of the third quarter, finding themselves in a 19-point hole with just about 19 minutes left to play. In order to mount a comeback, they pulled out an old Hollywood trick, turning to a player who wasn’t even supposed to take the court, Josh Hart.
Hart had been limited by knee soreness before the All-Star Break — he only played eight minutes in the four games leading into the break, and looked like he would be given a few more days rest until Los Angeles was forced to unleash him in the second half. Hart ended up playing the remainder of the contest, posting a game-best plus-22 in what ended up being a five-point win. It was a beautifully-scripted return for the second-year Laker.
The team’s comeback was also a chance for Los Angeles to exact revenge against the Rockets after surrendering a 21-point lead in Houston back on Jan. 19. Leads get squandered all the time in the modern NBA, but it had to have been extra special for the Lakers to earn a win in the opposite circumstance.
The Rockets did their part to turn the game into something more dramatic, going on a screed against referee Scott Foster after they didn’t earn a single free throw in the final 20 minutes (per ESPN’s Tim McMahon). In that time, Paul and head coach Mike D’Antoni were both assessed with technical fouls, allowing L.A. to build a more comfortable margin of victory.
Ultimately, the Lakers did exactly what they had to do — they protected their home court and gained half a game in the standings on the eighth-seed, which is now the LA Clippers after the Sacramento Kings lost to Golden State. But even in victory, there is nothing easy for this Los Angeles team. Everything turns into a big production when the Lakers are involved; last night, that included a surprise cast member in Josh Hart and the emergence of a hero in Playoff LeBron, all in front of a familiar villain.
Two weeks ago, Los Angeles appeared to be turning the corner after a thrilling win over the Boston Celtics. Now, the Lakers have another opportunity to build momentum for the stretch run, should they choose to capitalize on it. The only thing for certain is that with 24 games left to play this season (at least), plenty of time remains for more twists and turns in this ever-evolving soap opera. All we can do is enjoy the show.