The Lakers looked like a disengaged mess to start their title defense as the 2021 postseason began. Their play-in game saw them look so discombobulated for three quarters that Warriors head coach Steve Kerr questioned whether or not they believed in each other during a mic’d up segment on national television. The Lakers rallied to win that one, but their first game of the first round of the NBA playoffs saw them look even worse while losing to the Phoenix Suns. Anthony Davis looked disinterested, LeBron James didn’t look healthy, and the team just didn’t appear to be gelling on offense.
But if one wanted to see the chemistry of this Lakers team on full display, they wouldn’t need to wait much longer. By Game 2, Davis had turned things around and helped lead the Lakers to a win, and by Game 3, this team looked like they’d been playing and bonding together for years. Whether it was Andre Drummond and the Lakers’ bench clowning Jae Crowder as LeBron roasted him on a spit in isolation or Dennis Schröder doing push-ups after getting flagrant fouled as Alex Caruso cheered him on, it’s clear this team is having a blast together as they round into form, get healthy and look to defend their title.
While watching all of it, it was hard not to think about something Lakers assistant Jason Kidd said in an interview earlier in the same day. Kidd told Marc Spears of The Undefeated that the main factors in a Lakers team this talented winning another title would be their health and their camaraderie.
Both were on full display on Thursday night:
What is the key to the Lakers repeating as champions?
Our health and being understanding that everyone is going to have a hand in us winning, and that you might not get your average minutes, or your average points, but just understanding that you did your part for that time you were on the floor, and I think that shows the sign of a true team. … If we can sacrifice, I think we’ll win.
The Lakers have said the right things about putting the group ahead of themselves all year. But the last three games have truly seen them put that mindset in action.
Marc Gasol preached that the team needing to focus on winning rather than individual minutes, and then put his money where his mouth is by staying ready, coming in and contributing during Games 2 and 3 after getting a DNP-CD in Game 1.
Drummond said he was ready to “sacrifice” to win a championship, and then spent most of the second half cheering his teammates louder than anyone from the bench.
Wesley Matthews talked about wanting to contribute no matter how many minutes he plays, and then stepped up and hit two huge threes down the stretch after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope got injured.
Montrezl Harrell was arguably the Lakers’ best center in Game 1, and continued to cheer his teammates and dance with LeBron James on the bench while getting DNP-CDs in the next two games. Even if he put up cryptic Instagram posts and liked some tweets complaining about his playing time, Harrell was engaged enough in Game 3 to pick up a technical foul from the bench for jawing at the Suns.
He’s also taking no prisoners on Twitter.
So yes, it’s only the first round, but so far everyone is sacrificing exactly like a championship team needs them to, so much so that LeBron is clearly loving what he’s seeing in that regard.
This series isn’t over, and the Lakers still have a long way to go before they can repeat. But as heartening as seeing this team round into form basketball-wise has been, watching how much joy they’re expressing while doing it has been just as much fun. Maybe they won’t repeat, but they’re hitting their stride at the right time and showing the right mindset while doing it.
And after a season that saw nearly everyone on the team get hurt at some point and barely get to play together while figuring out how they fit on the fly with almost no practices after the shortest offseason ever, those signs of togetherness are all anyone can ask for at this point, and they leave a ton of reason for optimism that these Lakers are as dangerous and cohesive as any team left in the playoffs. It’s all made even more impressive by how much the other three conference finalists from last season have struggled under similar circumstances.
There are still doubters of these Lakers, to be sure. But to paraphrase the great philosopher Steve Kerr: They may still have a lot of doubt out there, but over here? Over here we’ve got a lot of belief.