As the Lakers were being routed by the Toronto Raptors in the first quarter at home on March 14, it felt like a breaking point. By falling behind 21-2 in the opening six minutes of the game and on the heels of a blowout in Phoenix the night prior, the sense that the Lakers had finally laid down their sword felt about as big as it had this season.
Eventually, the Lakers made one of their patented fake comebacks in that game to make the final score look more respectable, but the loss had the Lakers at a crossroads of how the season would end. Were the Lakers going to get up and fight to the end of the season, or let the year play out without much resistance?
While the change in answer wasn’t immediate, as they lost two nights later in Minnesota, the Lakers clearly chose the former of those options, and have offered much more reason for optimism over the last four games. Even with just two wins in those four contests, none of the performances have resembled the one against Toronto in Crypto.com Arena and, following Wednesday’s loss to the Sixers, Stanley Johnson talked about that moment.
“We’re grown men and we’re professionals, so at the end of the day, that’s not acceptable,” Johnson said. “There’s no team on the planet that should be blowing us out, and especially not the first four minutes, five minutes of a game. When it gets egregious or like that, you have to look at yourself. Ain’t nobody else. And I think man to man, we looked at ourselves and said ‘We’re gonna change it.’ We played better in that game and since that point in time, we’ve changed it and that’s kind of what you have to do. Nobody’s going to play us softer. We have a great game plan and great coaches so we had to change.
“I think the effort level and attention to detail, not to say we weren’t doing it before, I just think we’re executing at a higher rate than we were before. And especially in this league, it’s marginal. It’s like two or four more times can help you erase a 10-point lead or a 10-point gap in points, and that’s what it is.”
The rematch against Toronto in Canada offered the first real look at the Lakers renewed sense of effort. It also suggested just how different, and successful, the team could be by simply giving a damn. Four days removed from being embarrassed on their home court in the opening quarter, the Lakers came away with a win against the Raptors on the road.
The performances that have followed have carried that same sense of effort over the course of 48 minutes. Again, it’s odd to credit professionals for simply playing hard for the entirety of the game, but it’s something the Lakers clearly were not doing, and have since changed.
“Guys are really trying to find ways to be effective on the court and we’re trying to play off each other,” Dwight Howard said of the recent turnaround. “It took a good chunk of the season for us to kind of figure certain things out but it’s been working in our favor as of late. We’ve just got to get that defensive push and I think that’ll really get us going.”
The rose-tinted glasses view of the situation is somewhere in line with “better late than never.” Following Anthony Davis’ most recent injury, the Lakers seemed to really let go of the proverbial rope and allow the season to snowball. Blowout losses to the Pelicans and Clippers, an overtime loss to Houston and the aforementioned defeats to the Suns and Toronto painted a rather grim picture of how the final month of the season would play out for the Lakers.
As Johnson noted, though, a sense of pride led to the Lakers regaining their focus to set themselves up for a sprint to the finish line. There always remains the possibility that this recent run of games is just another mirage, something the Lakers have had plenty of throughout the season. But something about this run of games — wins against Toronto and Cleveland, narrow losses to Washington and Philadelphia — does feel different. Perhaps it’s just an unusually vivid mirage, or perhaps it’s the Lakers making substantial positive changes.
Head coach Frank Vogel, naturally, believes it’s the latter and spoke about it after Wednesday’s game.
“We’re making progress,” Vogel said. “We’re building the habits that are going to win for us in the postseason, and we’re continuing to grow. This game, we’re disappointed we lost but without Bron, without AD, I think the group that played tonight showed everyone that we’ve still got a whole lot of fight left in us. I was proud of how we competed. We continue to evolve and when we get to the finish line of the 82 games, again, we’re not going to be the same exact group that played 10 games under .500 basketball.
“That’s the goal is what can we build that’s going to win for us in the postseason, in the play-in game. We’re making progress with that. We fell short tonight, but (I’m) pleased with the effort.”
If the positive is that the Lakers appear to have finally changed their mentality, the negative is that it may have come too late. Time will tell if the Lakers can hold off the Pelicans and the Spurs for the play-in games, and a virtual must-win game against New Orleans on Sunday will go a long way in determining that.
So perhaps it was some self-reflection mixed with an increased sense of urgency of their postseason lives fading away, but whatever the reasons, it looks like the Lakers are going to at least give a spirited effort down the stretch. And considering where this team was in the first quarter against Toronto nearly two weeks ago, that’s a welcome surprise.