The 2021 NBA season is going to be about survival as much as anything else for the defending champion Lakers. With only 10 weeks off between raising the Larry O’Brien Trophy and tipoff against the Clippers earlier this week, how Frank Vogel manages his largely veteran squad will be a source of intrigue all season long. Games like Friday’s will make his life much easier, as the Lakers dispatched the Mavericks 138–115 in a Christmas blowout.
The Lakers can’t ask for a better win than this one. Why? It doesn’t matter that Luka Doncic’s 27 points were largely inconsequential. It doesn’t even really matter that LeBron James almost put up a triple double (a ho hum 22 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists.) What’s most important is L.A.’s offseason additions had a big night, which significantly lightened the burden on James and Davis. LeBron and AD played only 31 and 30 minutes, respectively, in the blowout. James didn’t even play for most of the fourth—exiting with the team up 10 and a little over seven minutes to go, and then remaining on the bench through the end of the night. LeBron was able to get the extended rest thanks in large part to Montrezl Harrell, who scored eight points in the final period, finishing the game with 22 points and seven boards.
Harrell was deadly efficient, hitting 10 of his 13 shots, flashing the face-up game that helped propel him to a Sixth Man award last season. Joining him in double-figure scoring was Dennis Schroder, who scored 18 on 7-of-11 from the field. When Rob Pelinka beefed up his supporting cast in the offseason, finding players who could create their own offense was clearly a priority. Adding those guys is obviously easier said than done—every team wants those players!—but it was doubly important for the Lakers, who needed more options for what was a good-not-special regular season offense last year. Anything that could help save LeBron’s legs for another extended postseason run was crucial, and that’s exactly what nights like Friday’s do.
Last year’s version of the Lakers relied mostly on a stingy defense to carry them through close games. This season’s team is more potent (LA posted a 134.0 offensive rating against Dallas), which will certainly come in handy on nights the Lakers can’t find that extra gear to dig in for stops. Nobody really shuts down the Mavs outright, but the Lakers did flash some of what makes them special on the defensive end of the floor. Those later-in-the-shot-clock double teams that frustrated James Harden in the second round of the playoffs reappeared vs. Luka, and were effective in getting the ball out of his hands. L.A. is still far from the unit it was last season, but the luxury of having James and Davis is knowing they can lock in when it’s absolutely needed.
Offensively, the Lakers did everything well on Friday. The three-point shooting was particularly hot, with L.A. connecting on 19 of its 39 attempts. A 48.7% conversion rate won’t stick, but it was promising to see Davis shoot 3-of-5 from deep. AD averaged 3.5 three-point attempts per game last season, and the Lakers have made it clear they would like to see him potentially double that figure this year. Davis didn’t get there on Christmas, but the more confidence he builds in his shot—the one he completely rebuilt a little over a year ago—and the more comically dangerous he becomes on the offensive end. The Lakers also dominated on the offensive glass, grabbing 17 of their own misses compared to three for Dallas. Harrell corralled five offensive rebounds himself, another factor in his big night. L.A. has a whole outscored the Mavs 35–0 in second-chance points.
Ultimately, the LeBron vs. Luka showdown may not have delivered on dramatics or big-time highlights. It‘s a shame for fans during a Christmas slate that was mostly filled with blowouts. But after an historically brief offseason and another deep playoff run looming, the Lakers will happily bank all the boring wins they can get.