What a difference a game and lineup change makes. With LeBron James back and a new starting group in effect, the Lakers cruised to victory beating the New Orleans Pelicans, 120-102, on the last game before the All-Star break.
Prior to the game, Darvin Ham mentioned there would be some “surprises” in the starting lineup which caused a stir on Lakers twitter about what tricks Ham had up his sleeve and whether they’d be effective.
Ham’s decision saw him go away from his small backcourt in favor for more spacing and defensive versatility with the inclusions of Malik Beasley and Jared Vanderbilt into the new starting five.
The benefits and impact were immediate as the Lakers scored 38 points in the first, just one shy of their season record for points in a quarter. They were a well-oiled machine, shooting 50% from three, and getting contributions from multiple sources on both sides of the ball.
This ball movement and efficiency led to James not having to do anything and everything for the purple and gold to win. D’Angelo Russell led all scorers in the opening frame with nine points and Anthony Davis was right behind him with eight. The defense was also on point, holding New Orleans to 25 points, helping the Lakers get out to comfortable 13-point lead.
So was the entire game just easygoing and positive for the Lakers? Not exactly.
In his first chance filling Russell Westbrook’s role off the bench, Dennis Schröder experienced some initial wobbles, but finished with 10 points and two assists. If this is his permanent role, he has to get more comfortable playing with the backup unit in the final leg of the season.
Collectively, the team also missed 14 free throws and surrendered 13 offensive rebounds. These being two areas they definitely need to clean up going froward if they want to continue to make up ground in the Western Conference standings.
In the final moments of the first half, L.A. sputtered offensively and the Pelicans went on a 17-8 run to bring the deficit down to just four at halftime. The NBA is a game of runs, so this while this wasn’t unexpected, these lapses are something the team can no longer afford.
The start of the third quarter saw the Pelicans get within one point of the lead, but Russell helped jumpstart the Lakers back to life. The point guard dished a beautiful lob pass to LeBron then later hit a pull-up three that got the arena rocking, helping push the lead back up to nine.
The Pelicans made runs throughout, but L.A. showed resilience by responding each time. The end of the third quarter saw the Lakers go on a 12-2 run to get the lead back to double digits and guaranteed a collapse wouldn’t happen tonight.
The Lakers closed the door on New Orleans early in the fourth quarter, with a LeBron layup putting the Lakers up by 20.
In terms of individual standouts, Russell looked more than comfortable in his return to Los Angeles and next to his new star teammates, scoring 21 points and handing out 7 assists. Davis looked more like himself, getting a double-double with 28 points and 10 boards and with the victory in hand, LeBron was able to play just 29 minutes in the win.
Although fouling out, Mo Bamba showed glimpses in his Laker debut, finishing with 4 points and 3 blocks. You can expect more from Bamba, but he did have an exclamation point slam in the third frame that showcased the potential he has with this team.
The Lakers will head into the All-Star break with a 27-32 record.
Rob Pelinka has done his job. He improved the roster prior to the trade deadline and has given the Lakers a better chance to compete. It’s now Darvin Ham’s job to fix this moving train and get it back on track.
Tonight was a step in the right direction.
Beasley, D-Lo and Vanderbilt have chemistry having played together before. Their size and shooting ability give LeBron and A.D. the space they need to do what they do best — put pressure on the rim and make the opposing team pay when they help.
If Ham sticks with this lineup and figures out how to optimize the bench rotation, I’ve seen enough to think this team can make the play-in pending health.
The upcoming All-Star break should help the team get healthy, and we know AD is looking forward to the rest he’s set to receive as the biggest All-Star snub.
When the Lakers return to the court on Thursday, February 23, they’ll have to hit the ground running against the Warriors on TNT. There will only be 23 games left and they are just two games away from the tenth seed.
You can follow Edwin on Twitter at @ECreates88.