LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – I’m starting this column in the closing minutes of the third quarter of Lakers-Blazers because, unofficially, this game is over. Alex Caruso just made his first three, J.R. Smith attempted his second and I’m quite sure a Jared Dudley appearance is forthcoming.
An eight-point first quarter lead swelled to 17 after two and … wait for it … 30 at the end of three quarters.
This wasn’t a game. This was a message. The Blazers have been the darling of the bubble. The eighth seed that should have been a third or fourth seed. The superstar guard, Damian Lillard, who doesn’t get enough national respect. The Lakers? They were rusty. The loss of Avery Bradley had depleted them. The perimeter shooting had left them. Plenty of people were picking Portland. Charles Barkley predicted a sweep.
Er, maybe not.
The Lakers made 15.6% of their threes in Game 1. They made 36.8% in Game 2, a number that was higher before Frank Vogel let Smith loose. Anthony Davis made three out of four. Kentavius Caldwell-Pope made four of his six. Caruso, Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma each knocked one down.
"We’re just built different," the cameras picked up James saying during the game.
On Thursday, they played like it.
After a 16-assist night, James could have been overaggressive. He’s done it before. Cleveland, the first go-round. Miami, when Dwyane Wade started to break down. He could have been more Michael than Magic. He could have taken more of the game on himself. Instead, he trusted his teammates. And they delivered. L.A.’s 14 three’s were a franchise playoff record.
“I’m confident when it comes to work ethic,” James said. “When you put in the work, the results will happen … our guys put in the work every day on their shot. When you have repetition, you have results.”
Davis was everywhere. After Game 1, Davis asked a few coaches and teammates: What more can I do? Nothing, they said. Keep a level head, James told him. It’s just one game. Davis was impactful in the opener, scoring 28 points, pulling down 11 rebounds, getting to the free throw 17 times. The shots just weren’t falling. He missed five free throws. Vogel told Davis to stay the course. He did, and 31 points and 11 rebounds later, the Lakers walked away with a win.
“We wanted to come out with a sense of desperation, a sense of urgency,” Davis said. “We did tonight.”
This, this looked like the Lakers. The defense, which scuffled for stretches in Game 1, was suffocating. Portland scored 19 points in the first quarter. They mustered just another 19 in the third. Lillard, the human equivalent of an NBA Jam character that has caught fire, was limited to 18 points. C.J. McCollum had 13. Carmelo Anthony had two. Any open space the Blazers saw in the opener was erased by swarming perimeter defenders.
“We’re playing scrappy,” Vogel said. “The care factor on the defensive side of the ball is where it should be.”
Suddenly, Portland is the team needing to adjust. Lillard suffered a dislocated left index finger in Game 2. He returned to the bench, but Terry Stotts said it was too early to know if Lillard will be available for Game 3. “Oh I’m playing,” Lillard said. Suffice to say, the loss of Lillard would be a disaster.
But the Blazers need more. Portland looked gassed. The Blazers have been playing elimination games for the better part of the last month. They needed to erase a 3 ½ game deficit to get into the play-in series. They needed to beat the Grizzlies when they got there. They fought through the fatigue in Game 1. On Thursday, they succumbed to it.
“We got outplayed,” Lillard said. “We didn’t come out relaxed—they just went after it harder than we did.”
Much was made about Portland’s super-sized frontcourt in Game 1. The duo if Jusuf Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside paired up, and it was effective. But as big as they are, the Blazers don’t box out anybody. Davis, JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard, they pushed Portland around in the paint. They outrebounded the Blazers 50-41. They crushed them on second chance points. Nurkic and Davis waited for the ball. The Lakers bigs went after it.
The Lakers said all the right things afterwards. “This team was in the conference finals,” Vogel said of Portland. Said James, “It’s just one game.” Still: L.A. knows that when they play like this, when they shoot like this, they are tough to beat, which is why James wants everyone to have the green light.
Said James, “We want our shooters to continue to shoot with no conscious.”
Added Vogel, “I still think there is potential for the damage we could do.”
This was the Lakers team we saw in March. The team that battered the Clippers and Bucks before the coronavirus shut the league down. And it’s one many have seen coming. Last week, in the friendly confines of the Coronado Springs, a coach paused at one of the couches I have become rooted to. I asked him: What did he think of the Lakers sluggish (re)start? Not great, the coach told me. But all it takes is one meeting, one practice, one game for it to all click. For the Lakers to become the Lakers again.
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