PORTLAND, Ore. — LeBron James launched his Lakers tenure with bookend plays that functioned like a State of the Union address: two early dunks brought gasps and cackles from an awed Moda Center crowd, while two late turnovers prompted pained expressions and post-game calls for patience.
Less than three minutes into his first game with L.A., a 128–119 road loss to Portland on Thursday, James picked off an inbounds pass and sprinted into transition. Within three or four steps, the four-time MVP had reached top gear, erasing any chance Portland had at blocking his path to the basket. James hit the paint and elevated, reaching back with extra flourish to flush a one-handed hammer dunk for his first points as a Laker. After Damian Lillard answered with a thunderous dunk on the other end, James ended the impromptu Dunk Contest by immediately rushing up court, slicing through Portland’s defense to throw down a carbon copy of his first slam.
The Blazers quickly called timeout, uninterested in how many consecutive dunks James might execute if given free reign. By the end of the night, he had posted 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists, but he had also committed six turnovers as Portland won going away.
If the back-to-back dunks demonstrated James’s potential in a Showtime system, a pair of ugly fourth-quarter giveaways served as a reminder that he’s in a new city, on a new franchise, and surrounded by a new cast of teammates. The Lakers, despite an impressive commitment to their preferred style of play, just aren’t on the same page yet.
Early in the fourth, a simple two-man game between James and Kyle Kuzma went awry: James expected Kuzma to pop to the three-point line, Kuzma instead cut into the paint, and an errant behind-the-back pass bounced harmlessly out of bounds. Then, as the Lakers tried to rally in the game’s closing minutes, James sought to thread a curling pass to a shooter in the corner, only to send the ball into the crowd once again.
“Having chemistry doesn’t happen as fast as you guys think it’s going to happen,” James said. “It’s not like instant oatmeal. It’s not that fast. It takes awhile for the chemistry to get to where you can close your eyes and know exactly where your guys are.”
There was abundant evidence of the Lakers’ lack of familiarity. Rajon Rondo tried to pass to James on a break, only for JaVale McGee to intrude and deflect the ball out of bounds. L.A. missed its first 15 three-pointers, with imprudent shot selection and a lack of rhythm passes contributing to the cold start. Defensively, Josh Hart lost track of Nik Stauskas, gifting the shooting specialist, who tied his career-high by scoring 24 points, with multiple open looks. The Lakers also ceded multiple easy lay-ups as their preferred smallball lineups wore down in the second half.
Still, L.A. had its share of moments—fun, electric and intriguing. James was a regular presence on the break, and his end-to-end speed and power caused problems for Portland throughout the first half. L.A. tallied 34 fast-break points and 70 points in the paint, many of which were set up by opportunistic play early in the clock. That breakneck speed is bound to run some lesser opponents off the court. Meanwhile, Hart was a clear bright spot, scoring 20 points off the bench as he continued to make his case for a starting role.
“I thought we really had a good thing going,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “I was overall happy with the way we played—obviously not happy with losing—but we’ll take some good stuff from tonight.”
The Lakers can lick their wounds knowing that they were dealt a difficult hand schedule-wise, as the Blazers won their 18th straight home opener and registered their 16th straight head-to-head win. Portland’s clear continuity advantage—its star tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum has played together for five seasons—won out down the stretch, as did its vocal home crowd. While plenty of yellow No. 23 jerseys were visible in the stands, Blazers fans gained momentum in the second half, chanting “Beat L.A.” and holding up “Beat L.A. Bron” signs.
When James first returned to Cleveland in 2014, he regularly deferred to his teammates, feeling out their games as the season unfolded. That approach led to the memorable scolding of Kyrie Irving for a lack of assists and, ultimately, the swift trade of Dion Waiters.
This time around, James seems more assertive on the court and more restrained off it. He appeared serious but relatively untroubled by the loss, addressing a swarm of more than 30 media members while wearing a “Los Angeles” hat with palm tree graphics. He didn’t want to celebrate the dunks or stew too long over the Game 1 miscues, instead projecting steadiness and restraint.
“Leadership is not a sometimes thing, it’s an everyday thing, all day,” he said. “A lot of these younger guys don’t have a lot of experience, so I have to understand that. … It’s going to take patience from our team, from all of us. … We’re less than a month in. It’s still early.”
Now everyone must wait to see if—and for how long—he can stick to that plan.