The end of 2021 treated the Lakers a whole lot better than most of the year did. LeBron James got his second career start at center, Frank Vogel returned to the sidelines after several weeks away with COVID-19, and the team beat the brakes of the Portland Trail Blazers in a wire-to-wire, 139-106 victory on New Year’s Eve.
The Lakers led by as much as 20 points in the first half, as the Blazers had absolutely no answer for the team’s center-less lineups around James right from the jump. The amount of space that the 19-year veteran and the team’s other ballhandlers had to bulldoze their way to the rim for easy buckets or to set up 3-point shooters was almost staggering to behold.
“I’m in a damn good zone right now, and I just want to continue that as long as possible,” James summarized on Spectrum SportsNet after the game. “I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to help this team win, man.”
He added that the small unit was a “card” the Lakers can “keep in their back pocket,” and while it’s not as simple as saying those lineups are unguardable, or without certain flaws in some matchups, against a Portland defense that ranks as second-worst in the league — and particularly vs. a zone defense that my Blazers Edge colleague Danny Marang calls “one of the worst deployments I’ve ever seen” and “a disaster to behold” — it was more than enough to ring up 69 points in the first half alone.
The second half was more of the same story, and the biggest takeaway from this team right now continues to be what a revelation the “LeBron James is just our starting center now, deal with it” era has been. James has rarely in his Lakers tenure had this much sheer space to work with, and while it won’t always be as easy for him as it was against a lifeless Blazers group that looks ripe for a deadline fire sale, on this night it was enough for him to fairly effortlessly rack up 43 points, 14 rebounds and 4 assists the day after he turned 37 years old.
The lineups are not without their drawbacks — “Definitely got to lift a little more weights when I’m playing that 5, that’s for sure,” James joked during his walk-off interview — but they have genuinely made a big difference for the team. And before the game, Vogel said that watching those smaller groups find ways to have success around James more often was his biggest takeaway from his nearly two weeks in isolation.
“It’s easy to just throw smaller guys out there and expect it to work, but there’s a lot of details that go into executing on both sides of the ball to perform well with smaller lineups,” Vogel said. “Obviously we’re not where we want to be with the standings, but we believe in what we’re building, and we believe we have a chance to do something special this year. So just being a part of seeing that, the smaller lineups, and how that has grown and how to be effective with those is the biggest thing.”
LeBron put up 43 points tonight, the second most for a 37 year old— SB Nation (@SBNation) January 1, 2022
Only Kobe Bryant scored more ... and that was in his final NBA game pic.twitter.com/dSbajP5QWE
Elsewhere, Russell Westbrook continues to look much better in games where less is asked of him, and with more room to operate offensively due to no true centers being on the floor. In what is not a coincidence, he secured an easy triple-double of 15 points, 12 assists and 13 rebounds on a night when he was almost solely asked to attack a defense already on its heels due to the Lakers either pushing in transition or getting them in rotation due to multiple rim attacks. This is the way to use him. He won’t always be this effective, but this game is a blueprint for the most effective version of him.
Speaking of what has helped allow those small-ball units around James and Westbrook work: On the seventh day of his 10-day contract, Stanley Johnson continues to look like a real difference-maker, giving this starting lineup the type of sturdy, burly, truly wing-sized forward option they’ve been starved for all season. With his defensive effort and tenacity, on nights where he’s shooting like this (10 points, 2-3 shooting from deep) and earning praise from his coaches and teammates, it’s going to be hard to keep him off the floor. Or off the roster, for that matter.
And with just one more game to play on Sunday against the Minnesota Timberwolves before his current hardship deal expires, Johnson made another real case for the roster spot that will soon be freed up by the Rajon Rondo trade, a roster spot he’s made it clear that he’s gunning for.
I spoke with Stanley Johnson about joining the Lakers, growing up wanting to play for LAL, his conversations with Frank Vogel, his career, and his goal of sticking on the 15-man roster.— Jovan Buha (@jovanbuha) January 1, 2022
New feature for @TheAthletic: https://t.co/C5x0fZ7JiT
With Darren Collison being deactivated on Friday night, it’s hard not to think that’s Johnson’s spot to lose at this point.
Finally, I just wanted to wrap this one up with a quick note. This has been a trying year, both for me personally, and likely for everyone reading this. So on behalf of myself and the entire Silver Screen and Roll staff, I just want to extend a hearty thank you for making this community such a special place. The Lakers didn’t provide us with a ton to be joyful about overall in 2021, but this site sure did.
Here’s to a better 2022, and happy new year to you all.