DETROIT — The dust settled and the Los Angeles Lakers talked the expected talk following the expected script in a wild game against the young Detroit Pistons.
Fracas ensues. Technicals and ejections.
Then the young team unravels while the mature one takes advantage, prompting the Lakers, to a man, to proclaim this could be the turning point after an underwhelming start to the 2021-22 season.
It all looks so convenient, the Lakers galvanizing Sunday night in a 121-116 comeback victory. Especially when Pistons center Isaiah Stewart looked more like a pass rusher shedding blocks in his bloody rage in going after LeBron James following a powerful elbow (or fist) to Stewart’s face, it’s easy to forget the prelude and immediate aftermath.
Yes, James was ejected following the review and assessment of a Flagrant 2 foul, and it turned out the league decided to further punish James with a one-game suspension for the Lakers' nationally televised game against the New York Knicks on Tuesday night.
An already undermanned and struggling Pistons team lost the only interior presence it had in Stewart, who was given two technical fouls for his repeated bull rush of anyone — and literally, anyone, be it coaches, arena security or teammates — who got in the way of some get-back with James. It opened things up for Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis in the fourth quarter as the Lakers stormed back from a 15-point deficit in the final stanza.
Westbrook attacked the basket and even hit a 3-pointer once he was fully engaged with the crowd and anyone guarding him. Davis pulled off his best “Who else wants some of Deebo?” act by stuffing Pistons rookie Cade Cunningham at the 3-point line and a few seconds later at the rim.
“To me, it's one of those things that can change the momentum of your season,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Now to see guys rally around a teammate that just got ejected like that, in a strange circumstance. That's the determination that this team is going to need.”
Then, in a moment of extreme self-awareness or total cluelessness, Vogel offered this: “We're gonna get everybody's best punch every night.”
He might’ve been half right. Jerami Grant was putting together his best performance of the season in front of a charged-up Detroit crowd, leading to a 17-point lead. Then, LeBron delivered his best punch.
It woke up the Lakers, still reeling in the malaise of a three-game losing streak and finding their way in James’ second game back after his abdominal injury. With James ejected, some desperation kicked in and the end result was shocking to hardly anyone with a set of working NBA eyes.
But did it reveal anything about this version of the Lakers?
Vogel, Davis, Westbrook and DeAndre Jordan all seemed to lean in to it being a season changer, embracing the narrative portion that can only be proven in June, not November or even December.
“We needed it. Hopefully, it’s a spark, a little fire under our you-know-what to get going,” Davis said. “But we can't continue to dig ourself in the hole and fight to get back. We need to be the ones that create leads and stick with it.”
The defense was porous for most of the evening, and with James gone for most of the second half (and maybe Tuesday in New York, but it’s doubtful the league would suspend him for a marquee TNT game), there are still plenty of questions to how James will be the connector to make all this work.
Westbrook had a throwback night in the fourth quarter, a performance we haven’t seen much of this season as he’s expectedly struggled in acclimating to yet another new team. It seems his speed is too fast for his teammates and they’re on two different wavelengths.
But emotion can do wonders — for a night.
“Whenever I can be in attack mode and make sure the team follows is something that’s beneficial for me and for our team,” said Westbrook, who was shocked he picked up a technical when Scott Foster told the pool reporter he was an escalator to the incident. “Tonight was a night we needed it, especially for myself.”
Playing on emotion is the beauty and curse of Westbrook, especially when there’s no peer on the other side to exploit the holes he leaves for opponents. Davis got aggressive seemingly when it was easy to do and played off Westbrook for one of the few times this season.
So there’s cause for hope, in a way. Although Vogel continues to toy and play with lineups, starting Avery Bradley at shooting guard Sunday, there’s still more work to be done, more ways to experiment.
But James being back is the biggest piece, and rallying around their leader was something they all spoke to following the game. Whether James was ready for what Stewart wanted to bring to his door was immaterial, because they formed a wall around him in the meantime.
“We wasn’t gonna allow him to keep charging our brother like that. I don’t know what he was trying to do,” Davis said. “We wanted to get the win for [James].”
Davis called it a “must-win” game — against a team that was 4-11 coming into the night, missing two key rotation players and, in Stewart later, another big man. Perhaps the altercation heightened the urgency, or maybe the win streak.
But it seems the Lakers are putting a little too much on one emotion-filled game — and to be fair, they were still wearing the emotion in the postgame so it’s understandable they’d give it weight in the interim.
But they can’t bring Isaiah Stewart’s bloody and stitched-up face with them to the next stop, or anywhere else. The emotion won’t be so easily manufactured against better and more cohesive teams.
The Lakers will have to figure this out on their own, and while it’s a cute story, it can easily go the other way.