Lakers fans have been begging for years for moments like the one from Friday night. After willing the team along for much of the night, fans were ready to explode as the Lakers started to seize control of the game in the fourth quarter.
D’Angelo Russell, in so many ways, is the right man at the right moment for the Lakers, both big and little picture. Against the Raptors, the freshly-returned Russell had already given fans a show in the first half, but the main event was still on deck.
D’Lo provided the match. Fans provided the fuse.
The result was a fourth-quarter explosion both for Russell and those watching. On the court, Russell could not miss, hitting literally every shot he took in the period, four of those being 3-pointers. Around him, fans grew more delirious with each make, culminating with an audacious heat check that prompted a Toronto timeout.
The celebrations in that moment extended beyond the stands as the players themselves couldn’t help but embrace the moment. Even the man with ice in his veins couldn’t help but smile.
Finally, after seasons filled with losses and devoid of moments like this, the Lakers are fun again.
When the franchise traded for Russell Westbrook, there were lots of valid criticisms about how the pieces would actually fit on the court between the Lakers’ new Big Three. What wasn’t supposed to be a question was how much fun it would be.
For all his faults, Westbrook had been such a force of will and played with such passion during his career that he was remarkably easy to root for. Add in the narrative of him returning home to the team he cheered for as a kid, and fans needed absolutely zero convincing to support this iteration of the team.
As everyone is well aware, the dynamic that played out was not jovial or supportive by the end. Fans tried to be supportive but with each loss, each wasted brilliant performance of Anthony Davis and LeBron James, each self-unaware player from Westbrook, patience thinned.
In the end, toxicity overtook joy. Fans groaned more than they cheered. There’s no better glimpse at the dynamic that had been created than the night LeBron James became the league’s all-time leading scorer.
Fans were amped up for the history they were about to see...and exhausted every time Westbrook did anything to attempt to delay it. The relationship was contentious, Westbrook’s blinders ignoring all the criticism even as it was being levied upon him during games from tens of thousands of people in unison.
Ironically, that night will serve as a turning point for the Lakers this season at least and perhaps even longer term. That loss to the Thunder served as the final time that iteration of the Lakers played a game together. While history (rightfully) won’t be kind to Westbrook on his time in purple and gold, he wasn’t alone in creating the bad vibes around the franchise.
Out went a half-dozen Lakers and in come an entirely new attitude and vibe.
It did not take Russell long to become a fan favorite. His unique combination of bravado and the smoothness with which he played on the court made it hard for fans not to adore him. In an era of Lakers basketball defined by losing, Russell represented the bright future ahead to so many fans.
In some ways, the fans were right about his bright future. Russell went on to multiple postseason appearances as a starter. He earned a spot on the All-Star team. He may not have become a superstar, but he was a star. He just did all of that away from the Lakers.
He remained a fan-favorite from afar for Laker faithful. Considering how the two sides parted ways before, the idea of him returning felt like an unreachable dream. That his return all happened so fast around the trade deadline only aided in the excitement of fans.
For both him and the Lakers, Russell’s return felt like a release. The Lakers could embrace their point guard again while Russell could play at a place he was fully embraced. Depending on the reports you believe, D’Lo’s time in Minnesota soured and a change in scenery is something he has clearly welcomed.
Compare how fans react to D’Lo versus the reactions Westbrook received, particularly in that aforementioned Thunder game. There was anguish and dread with each decision he made versus excitement and wonder with D’Lo.
Much like the blame for everything that went wrong in the last season-and-a-half doesn’t fall solely on Westbrook’s shoulders, everything that has gone right isn’t directly a result of Russell. Both serve as figureheads of bigger matters.
The Lakers turnaround has come for a number of reasons. They traded depth full of flawed veteran-minimum signings for depth of actual, serviceable rotation players. Instead of spending an obscene amount of money on a woefully underperforming Westbrook, they spread it out over three very serviceable role players.
Jarred Vanderbilt has been the defender this team has sorely needed perhaps since their championship season, a player willing to do the dirty work. Malik Beasley gives the team not just a shooter, but one with notable gravity that impacts the defenses around AD and LeBron. Rui Hachimura gives the team the size and scoring on the wing they haven’t had perhaps in the entirety of LeBron’s tenure in Los Angeles.
Perhaps the biggest impact is that their collective arrival slotted so many other pieces into their right roles. Dennis Schröder can now flourish in the sixth man role he’s found so much success in during his career. Troy Brown Jr. has gone from the lone, primary wing for the Lakers to one of many, which perhaps goes some way in explaining his surge in production since the deadline.
Then you have a player like Austin Reaves, who excels in seemingly any role he is placed in. While D’Lo is the returning fan favorite of the past, Reaves has become the fan favorite of the present. Each crossover, dunk, 3-pointer or pass is met with raucous reactions.
And most importantly, the Lakers are no longer reliant on AD and LeBron to play at herculean levels for the team to win games. On Friday, the Lakers did not have LeBron, watched AD score eight points, and still won going away. It’s not the first time they’ve done so and won’t be the last, but it represents so much of what has changed for this team in recent weeks.
It’s a team hungry for wins, one ready for the challenge. They came together staring up at the playoff standings and have already made up quite some ground in climbing that mountain.
And they’ve done it all with smiles on their faces. The Lakers are good again, yes. But just as importantly, the Lakers are fun again.
You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.