Without Anthony Davis and with a somewhat rusty looking LeBron James (at least early), the Los Angeles Lakers were able to muster up just enough scoring runs to head into Thanksgiving with a win to be thankful for as they wrapped up their five-game road trip, beating the Indiana Pacers 124-116 in overtime to get back to .500 (10-10) on the season.
The Lakers got off to another lethargic start on the second night of their back-to-back, but a 17-6 first-half free-throw advantage allowed them to only trail by six points entering halftime. But despite that disparity starting to even out as the second half moved along (finishing the night 29-24), the Lakers still managed to keep pace in the second half due to some improved shooting from deep and the play of some center-less lineups with James at the “5” that — in a truly miraculous turn of events — helped the team avoid looking like it was trying to run plays inside a Los Angeles studio apartment.
That embracing of small-ball allowed the Lakers to build a six-point lead in the closing minutes of the game on the backs of two huge buckets from James, but a ridiculous, falling-out-of-bounds three from Pacers rookie Chris Duarte tied the game at 112-112 with just seconds remaining, and James’ missed three at the buzzer sent the game to overtime.
But while five extra minutes may seem like an unnecessary wear and tear for an aging team at the end of a road trip, we have to be thankful, because without it, we wouldn’t have gotten to watch James roast Domantas Sabonis for deep three after deep three on switches. Between those shots and his chasedown block of the Pacers big man in the first half, this was easily the most James has disrespected Sabonis since letting him go last in the NBA All-Star Draft multiple times the last few years.
So even if James certainly won’t have the first 48 minutes of game tape from this one sent to Springfield for his eventual Hall of Fame enshrinement, even a half-speed, mostly deep-shooting version of the King still dramatically raises this team’s ceiling, and — as the last few minutes of the game showed — he can still flip the switch when he needs to. He finished the night with 39 points, 4 rebounds and 6 assists in his first game back from his one-game suspension. Not bad for what most would have considered a mediocre night for him before the final five minutes of regulation.
Malik Monk (17 points, 6-11 shooting) certainly helped in the spacing department for the Lakers’ successful small lineups as well, as did some hot shooting from Wayne Ellington (14 points, 5-7 shooting). And on a night when the starters once again struggled so mightily to overcome such a cramped floor, their explosions offered even more compelling evidence that maybe, just maybe, Frank Vogel should consider shifting away from his security blankets of Avery Bradley and DeAndre Jordan. The former is useful — the latter is really not at this point — but this team needs more room for LeBron and Russell Westbrook to operate, and bringing Bradley off the bench and replacing him with a shooter defenses feel the need to panic close out too could make a big difference.
And on one last note, while Westbrook’s box score numbers (20 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 turnovers, 5-15) may look fairly pedestrian by his standards, they undersell how much his pace and will helped the team stay close while James was shaking off the rust for most of the first three quarters. That he was the ONLY starter with a positive plus-minus (+14) was indicative of his impact on this game. If we’re going to criticize him when he’s bad, we have to give him his flowers when he’s good, too.
The Lakers will now get Thanksgiving off as they wrap up their road trip, returning home to Los Angeles to host the Sacramento Kings on Friday. Happy holidays to all who celebrate, and hopefully you have a bit more to be thankful for than this team has given you with any consistency this season. Maybe with a win like this, a new season starts today.