The chastened Hollywood team showed up on the quarantine carpet Thursday with a completely different look.
The Lakers were dressed in fear, wrapped in urgency, draped in desperation.
They wore it well.
Anthony Davis stormed. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope flung. JaVale McGee muscled. And LeBron James screamed, goodness how he screamed, marching and flexing and wailing into the empty stands of a Central Florida gym.
“We’re built different, dawg,” he exhorted his teammates. “We’re built different.”
At least for one night, they were, leveling their tenuous first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers with a thunderous roundhouse.
Two days after snoozing through a playoff-opening upset by the Blazers, the top-seeded Lakers played their best game since March, finally popping off in the bubble with a 111-88 victory that pointed a finger at all the first-game critics like this one.
You really want to bury us already?
“Dominate!” James screamed in the huddle before the game, and the Lakers followed that playbook down to the exclamation point.
After making one basket with one rebound in the fourth quarter of the opening embarrassment, Davis had 31 points and 11 rebounds in 29 overwhelming minutes.
”It was a must-win game for us, and we played that way,” said Davis. “We played with sense of desperation and a sense of urgency.”
After missing all nine of his shots in the opener, Caldwell-Pope sank a quartet of three-pointers and scored 16.
“I told him after Game 1, he started the season this way, with a couple of tough nights, a little bit of a shooting slump, and all he did is go shoot 40% for the next four months, by remaining confident, remaining true to his work,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of Caldwell-Pope. “He’s a huge part of what we’ve done. He exemplifies the play-harder-than-our-opponent mindset.”
Then there was McGee and Dwight Howard and Davis and all the Lakers tough-guy defenders who combined to hold the highest-scoring bubble team to 58 points through three quarters. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, the Blazers’ twin gunners, combined to make two of 12 shots from long distance.
“We’re playing scrappy, we’re competing at a very high level, the care factor on the defensive side of the ball is where it should be … to win in the playoffs,” said Vogel.
It was the first Lakers playoff victory in more than eight years. It was also a win that might count for four, as Lillard suffered a dislocated left index finger late in the third quarter and didn’t return. Without their leader at full strength, even though the series is tied at one game apiece, the Blazers could be toast.
“It’s just sore … a little bit swollen and uncomfortable. … I didn’t even want to look at it,” said Lillard afterward.
Sounds lovely. The Blazers have little chance unless Lillard is heaving them in from Cocoa Beach. Yet, even if he recovers, they have zero chance if the Lakers are chasing them into the Everglades, as they did Thursday with nine steals that helped lead to Portland’s 17 turnovers.
“I thought the Lakers were much more aggressive,” said Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts, later adding, “We looked a little slow and didn’t have the same pop.”
Lillard put it in more basic terms, saying, “They just went after it harder than we did … we got our butts kicked tonight.”
When Caldwell-Pope essentially opened the game with consecutive three-pointers, the Trail Blazers knew they were in trouble. By the time Caldwell-Pope dunked after a floor-length pass from Davis to give the Lakers a 21-point lead early in the third quarter, they knew it was over.
That was one of the moments when James stalked off the court flexing and exclaiming how nobody is built like them. If you think about it, he’s right.
This is a team that began the season stranded in China. They endured a midseason tragedy with the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, daughter Gianna, and seven others. They went into the bubble without their best defender in the opted-out Avery Bradley.
“I just know what type of season we’ve had this year … it’s been three or four seasons in one,” said James. “I know what we’re capable of. I know how we’re built. … It’s about our mind-set.”
That mindset is one of teamwork and tolerance, as illustrated by Thursday’s two stars.
After the opener, Caldwell-Pope could have easily been benched, but Vogel publicly supported him, claimed he played a good game, and then ran him back out there. With everyone complaining that the Lakers don’t have a third scoring option because of the inconsistencies in Kyle Kuzma’s game, Vogel has staunchly created an atmosphere where everyone feels empowered to be that supporting star.
“We hoped Kuz would do that at the beginning of the season … he struggled with injury and adjusting to his new role … what we found was a blessing,” said Vogel. “We’re more of a different-guy-every-night-as-a-third-option type of team. … That’s better than having one third option, to me.”
Then there is Davis, a newbie to big playoff moments who shot eight of 24 in the opener and immediately put more pressure on himself, saying, “I knew I had to be better.”
Instead of piling on, Lakers partner and mentor James propped him up, told him he was OK, calmed him down.
“I was really down on myself after Game 1,” said Davis. “He let me have my moment … then he talked to me and said I was fine … he was there for me to encourage me and keep me level-headed.”
Then, on Thursday, James backed off and let him stew.
“Bron, he didn’t say one word to me today,” said Davis. “He kind of knew, he saw the look on my face.”
That look manifested itself in Davis scoring 16 first-half points in the paint, more than in the entire opener.
“He was just aggressive, from the beginning of the game,” said James, who was so thrilled to watch that he scored just 10 points. “He wasn’t passive at all.”
The relationship between the stars will be a narrative as these playoffs continue. It will be framed with James as the stoic teacher, Davis as the nervous student, and the Lakers’ success based on their connection.
“He’s been in my ear about everything, especially throughout the playoffs right now, he’s seen it all,” said Davis. “He’s kind of just been there for me, supporting me, guiding me through this entire process.’’
After a brief scare, the enriching Lakers culture seems to be working again. Although, really, who knew they would look so good dressed in scrappy? They might not want to put it back in the drawer just yet.
Plaschke reported from Los Angeles.