The Lakers have made a habit of hitting new low points this season, but it’s hard to imagine anything bottoming out lower than the Lakers through three quarters in Detroit on Sunday.
Not even three minutes into a second half in which the Lakers were already facing a double-digit deficit, an errant LeBron James elbow caught Pistons big man Isaiah Stewart squarely in the eye, leaving him equal parts bloody and enraged him. The ensuing fracas featured multiple onrushing attempts from Stewart that were thwarted by Pistons teammates and coaches as well as arena security.
Both Stewart and James — for only the second time in his career — were ejected after the matter and the Lakers had no response, falling behind by as many as 17 points before the end of the frame and facing a 99-84 hole entering the final frame.
Then, Carmelo Anthony stepped up.
The veteran forward realized the gravity of the moment that the Lakers were facing should they drop their third straight game on the road and challenged the team in the huddle between quarters.
“This is where we figure out who we are as a team.”
For one of the few times this season, the Lakers asserted their dominance over an inferior opponent over the next 12 minutes, outscoring the hosts 37-17 in the final frame led by Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis on both ends of the court to earn a 121-116 victory.
If ever there was a win the Lakers needed this season, it was Sunday’s. And if ever there was a perfectly scripted turning point this season, it was Sunday as well.
“To me, it’s one of those things that can change the momentum of your season,” head coach Frank Vogel said. “To see guys rally around a teammate that just got ejected like that, in a strange circumstance, (they) played with incredible guts at the start of the fourth quarter down 15. That’s the determination that this team’s going to need.
“These young guys played hard and we get everybody’s best punch every night. That’s how hard we have to play to get a W. To see that we can do it and get a tough win on the road down 15 to start the fourth, that’s a heck of a win for us.”
In another moment too rarely seen this season, Westbrook stepped to the plate in James’ absence in the final frame and was the driving force offensive, both literally and figuratively. Westbrook attacked the rim repeatedly, finishing with 14 points and six assists in the fourth quarter alone and scored or assisted on 28 of the team’s 37 points in the period.
“What I saw was someone that showed that will that Russ is famous for,” Vogel said. “He was relentless in attacking the basket, making the right plays every time when he gets there and he just had to extremely lock in on both sides of the ball...His offensive determination to attack was something that was very welcome and hopefully a momentum builder for him as well.”
It was his dunk over Hamidou Diallo at the 7:18 mark that cut the lead to 104-100 that Davis noted as a turning point in the final frame as well. Westbrook followed that up with a 3-pointer on the next possession to pull the Lakers to within a point, the closest they had been in the second half.
“The dunk. That dunk just got us going, got him going, got his confidence up,” Davis said. “He came back and hit a three. I think Diallo was talking to him. But that kind of sparked us. We were already playing with a lot of energy but that dunk got us going. It kind of silenced the crowd a little bit.”
Davis had plenty of say in the Lakers’ comeback as well as he finished one assist shy of a rare 5x5 stat line. Instead, he settled for 30 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, five blocks and four steals and was the deciding factor on both ends of the floor down the stretch.
Anthony Davis finishes with 30 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 5 blocks and 4 steals.— Jacob Rude (@JacobRude) November 22, 2021
Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon are the only players ever to achieve that stat line before tonight.
That's it. That's the list.
It was Davis that blocked Cade Cunningham twice in one possession inside the final 90 seconds. It was Davis that scored on the other end — off an assist by Westbrook — to put the Lakers up five the ensuing trip down the court. It was Davis that intercepted a pass on the Pistons’ final possession as they looked for a potential game-tying three.
It was Davis whose fingerprints were firmly all over this win.
“Must-win game, one of our guys out and guys just made big plays and big shots,” Davis said. “Russ big three, big-time layups. Melo big time threes. Everybody on the defensive end, big time plays. We were able to get the win and we needed it. Hopefully this will spark a little fire under our you know what to get going. But it feels good to get back in the win column.”
The argument exists that all this came against a Pistons side that is just 4-12 on the season after Sunday’s loss, a side far closer to the No. 1 pick than a playoff spot. It’s a fair case, but it’s also the type of team and game the Lakers haven’t had an answer for this season. Losses to Oklahoma City and Minnesota and a pair of relatively close wins over the Rockets serve as evidence of the Lakers’ struggles in both keeping a lead and competing with young, energetic teams.
As it stands, for the Lakers to have success this season, a turning point would have to occur somewhere. On Sunday, the perfect opportunity presented itself and the Lakers seized it.
“I think it was extremely important, not only for our season but just for our camaraderie and our confidence as a unit,” DeAndre Jordan said. “Like I said, you can’t replace LeBron whether he’s hurt or gets ejected from a game like this. What we can do is come together and guys have to have the next man up mentality and that’s what we had tonight.
“We knew that we had a lead early in the game and we’ve had a ton of leads early in games and given them up but tonight was just different. We didn’t want to lose this game and when we have a mindset like that, we’re going to be tough. This is definitely a game that helped us and we can build off a game like this.”
In the grand scheme of things, Sunday’s win will either be that aforementioned turning point or just another missed opportunity, in which case none of this matters anyway. Only the Lakers are in control of how things go moving forward.
But by their own admission, the team is treating Sunday as a turning point in the season. An improbable, unforgettable turning point on a wild, emotional night.