One eye, one shot, one game.
It doesn’t matter to the champion Los Angeles Lakers, who escaped a dangerous 103-100 play-in battle on Wednesday featuring the scariest dude of them all.
LeBron James’ Hail Mary must’ve been full of grace in the final minute, much to the chagrin of Stephen Curry, a man who’s performed his share of unbelievable magic this time of year.
But perhaps it was the perfect test for a team that had more internal struggles through the season than challenges from the outside. Having not played a game worth a damn since leaving the Orlando bubble last October, it was the first time the Los Angeles Lakers needed to pull from something beyond their reservoir of talent — but it was probably a relief to discover there is something there.
Even though Curry took the air out of Staples Center with a buzzer-beating triple at halftime to put the Warriors up 13, there was never a real feeling the Lakers were out of it. They often did just enough to stay within striking distance — an Alex Caruso spurt here, timely defense there — to let everybody know there’s championship DNA amidst all the adversity that put them in this play-in spot.
They survived the night, probably because the Golden State Warriors ran out of talent more than the Lakers exerted sheer will. It felt more like an NCAA Tournament game than the first of a long playoff series.
Perhaps it was a wake-up call, the way Golden State turned into the aggressors, forcing the Lakers to change strategy and maybe giving a glimpse of what they should expect in the coming days and weeks.
“We just had to bring the fight to the fight,” James said. “They were ready to fight and we tried to ease into the game a little bit. It’s been awhile since we had one of those energy, effort, every possession count games. I feel like they’ve been playing playoff basketball for quite awhile. We had to catch up to that.”
Luckily for all involved, it isn’t a one-and-done scenario and there is a slight but unlikely chance these two combatants meet up for a dance in the moonlight again.
Some of the newer Warriors without the rings were a bit chesty in trash-talking James and Anthony Davis early on. It’s all good if you can back it up, and in taking a double-digit lead in the first half, they felt validated.
“But yeah, you never want to, you know, poke the bear,” Davis said. “And I told Jordan Poole, [after] we both got the double tech, I came down and hit the mid-range [jumper] and I said, ‘You done woke me up.’ ”
Davis seemed to struggle as he did for a short while against P.J. Tucker in the bubble, but got his skins later once everyone realized his elevator goes higher than anyone in the building, much less Draymond Green.
“We had to remind ourselves to halftime, like, we've been here before, let's go and play our style of basketball,” Davis said.
But they haven’t been here, not exactly.
Not in front of an actual crowd, even though this growing throng was of the friendly variety. Tried as the NBA did last summer, there’s no substitute for home-court advantage which the Lakers likely won’t have at all in the playoffs, starting with a first-round matchup with Phoenix.
And not as defending champions, where they’re obligated to match the intensity and effort of an opponent. Since the start of the season, there was a tacit decision to ease into the year considering the short offseason.
There was no need to ratchet it up, aside from Frank Vogel’s No. 1 ranked defense, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
Then the injuries came to Davis’ calf and the usually-indestructible James, his second extended absence in three years.
Even though James clearly doesn’t look like the best version of himself, he didn’t need to be invincible to hit a 30-footer with 58 seconds left, and let him tell it, James didn’t need perfect vision after being inadvertently hit in the eye by Green a couple minutes before.
“I saw three rims,” James said. “I just aimed for the middle. I practice enough, I work on my game. I was able to, with the man above, and a lot of practice, able to drain it.”
He didn’t look explosive but that had very little to do with his eyes, as he directed traffic to pinpoint passes to cutters headed to the rim or at least slide into position to get some generous whistles before being overturned by replay.
While it’s Vogel’s defense, the offense belongs to James. And if Dennis Schroeder has more nights like Wednesday (12 points on 3 for 14 shooting), it’ll be on James to carry more of the load on his 36-year old body.
That probably wasn’t the plan for James, but as he noted when he paraphrased Mike Tyson, “Everybody got a plan until you get in the ring and you get punched. We did that, and it felt good. It felt great and it settled us."
The Lakers won’t see a more feared player on this side of the West bracket than Curry, or a more savvy defender who can take away strengths on the fly like Green.
Although the rest of the Warriors roster leaves plenty to be desired in terms of playoff experience, this could be the toughest test for the Lakers in at least the next month.
“Being tested like that strengthens you,” Vogel said. “Being in that environment together just helps us going forward.”
“We don’t view ourselves as a seven seed,” said reserve guard Wesley Matthews, who played a huge role in the second half with perimeter defense.
The sixth-seeded Houston Rockets in 1995 hold the mark as the lowest-seeded team to win a title, and they too were coming off a championship the year before. Perhaps that’s where the similarities end on paper, but things don’t have to be parallel for these Lakers to run through the West for a date with destiny.
The belief — at least held by the “Clippers are cowards” crowd — is the Lakers will get stronger as time progresses, as rhythm forms, as health improves. But they accelerated that learning curve throughout one game, pressuring Green and Curry to six turnovers each despite Curry exploding for 37 points.
Now it’s a trip to the Arizona desert, where the Suns are rested and waiting.
The Lakers have had enough rest, they needed a test — now it’s game on.
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