The Los Angeles Lakers have won two of their last three games, with only one of their vintage quarter-long skids on Saturday against the Wizards standing in between them and their first winning streak since Jan. 7. Their most recent win came last night against the Cleveland Cavaliers, as the Lakers fought valiantly for the final three quarters of the game after it seemed like Darius Garland and the Cavs were going to outlast them due to the disparity in talent between the two teams.
Of course — as has been the case in any of LeBron James’ seasons in the purple-and-gold — the talent gap between the Lakers and their opponents can easily be closed via otherworldly performances from the kid from Akron. That’s exactly what happened last night, as LeBron had a masterful triple-double which included 38 points, 12 assists, and 11 rebounds to drive his team to victory.
His scoring was especially impressive, as LeBron was getting to spots all over the floor to shoot his patented mid-range fadeaways that the Cleveland crowd has seen time and time again. And oh yeah... he had one of his best dunks in a Lakers uniform, posterizing his old friend Kevin Love (on and off the court).
However, it was James’ rebounding was especially impressive, as these weren’t 11 easy rebounds for LeBron. He was crashing the glass aggressively on defense all night, grinding against the likes of Evan Mobley and Lauri Markkanen. And it’s hard not to wonder if that effort from LeBron came (at least in part) as a result of head coach Frank Vogel putting the onus on his players to do a better job of doing the little things before the game, as the Lakers head coach was referencing this type of “dirty work” in his pregame media availability.
“Well, I think you have to stay on top of everyone,” Vogel said in response to a question about staying on certain players regarding energy and attention-to-detail things. “But we have a group put together this year, where some of our better players have had dirty work guys around them, so they’ve been able to shortcut things here and there.
“But when you have a collection of them together, they have to do the dirty work things themselves,” Vogel continued. “And they haven’t always done that as consistently as they can. And it’s just something we’re challenging our guys on throughout the year.”
As has been the case throughout the season, it was difficult not to take Vogel’s comments as a subtle shot at the front office, considering there are certain “dirty work” guys that flanked LeBron and Anthony Davis to perfection during their championship run only to be shipped out for “better players” like Russell Westbrook who are less focused on role player tasks. But it’s also a genuine basketball concern, as the lack of so-called dirty work players is something assistant coach David Fizdale also called out during his brief, gloriously unfiltered time leading the team. And you don’t need to be a coach to see it. It’s been on display to anyone watching all year.
But hey, we don’t need to rehash the roster construction too much here.
What’s important is that last night, after a stretch of uninspiring defensive performances immediately following the All-Star break from LeBron, he came out engaged for all 48 minutes on both ends of the court and... what do you know? The Lakers looked the best they’ve looked in a long, long time.
“We’ve seen this throughout the year, there just hasn’t been enough willingness to step on another team’s throat,” Vogel also said prior to the Cavs game when asked why the Lakers haven’t been able to build or hold leads. “When we’ve gotten down, we’ve played with desperation throughout the rest of the game. And at times we’ve lost leads this year because we get a little bit casual.
“It’s just been one of those seasons where we haven’t been able to separate (from our opponents),” Vogel continued. “We were challenged on it in this morning’s film session, about how we’ve got to play 48 minutes the right way.”
As another aside regarding the team’s front office, it sure would be interesting if a point emphasized by Vogel would lead the team from one of their best games into one of their best stretches of the season with only a handful of games left before they probably fire him. But I digress...
This Lakers team goes as LeBron goes. Their level of effort matches LeBron’s level of effort. And that’s probably more true for this 2021-22 roster as it has been for any of the three other purple-and-gold rosters that have surrounded him in the past. That difference between this team and past Lakers teams most likely stems from Vogel’s idea of a lack of “dirty work” guys surrounding LeBron and the rest of the team’s best players, like Anthony Davis, Carmelo Anthony, and, yes, Russell Westbrook.
But for one night, LeBron stepped up to Vogel’s indirect challenge to his “better players” to put forth an all-around effort on both sides of the court, and the rest of the team followed. If that continues — and James has enough left in the tank to maintain that level of intensity on a night-to-night basis at age 37 — and the team can get Davis back... then who knows. Maybe this team will just mess around and subvert our expectations yet again.
This time, however, it’d be in a good way.