Lakers Crush Struggling Stephen Curry, Warriors Despite LeBron James Injury

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistDecember 26, 2018

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) high-fives Josh Hart (3) at the end of the first half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2018, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Tony Avelar/Associated Press

On a day when LeBron James left early due to an injury, the Los Angeles Lakers sent a message to the Golden State Warriors with a 127-101 victory at Oracle Arena on Christmas Day.

James was officially listed as questionable to return after straining his left groin in the third quarter, but the Lakers kept him out for the remainder of the game. The four-time NBA MVP still contributed 17 points and 13 rebounds in 21 minutes before departing. 

Per ESPN's Marc J. Spears, Lakers head coach Luke Walton said after the game James will have an MRI on Wednesday. 

Head coach Luke Walton was able to rally his team thanks to another strong game from Ivica Zubac. The third-year center finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds. 

Tuesday's win is the biggest of the season for the Lakers, who have struggled with an 8-9 record away from Staples Center. 

Kyle Kuzma led the Lakers with 19 points. Rajon Rondo had a double-double off the bench with 15 points and 10 assists in 23 minutes. 

Stephen Curry struggled to find his rhythm, scoring 15 points on just 5-of-17 shooting. Kevin Durant led all Warriors starters with 21 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. 

Pressure Is on Brandon Ingram to Lead Lakers After LeBron Injury 

After last season ended, the assumption was Brandon Ingram was poised to become a superstar and an excellent No. 2 behind James for the Lakers. 

During the preseason, James seemed to go out of his way to stoke the flames around Ingram and his potential. 

"[Ingram's] got the juice," James told Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes. "He's going to be a special player."

Things haven't materialized for Ingram since the season started. The former Duke star has seen his scoring average drop from 16.1 points last season to 15.5 points per game. He's lost more than eight percentage points from his three-point shot (39.0 to 30.8) and went from averaging 5.3 rebounds to 4.1 per game. 

Through an up-and-down season, though, Ingram is still capable of showing off the skills that had everybody excited just two months ago. This move he put on Durant in the first quarter is something few players are capable of:

Ingram finished with 14 points in 24 minutes. He's averaging 17.3 points in three games since returning from a sprained ankle. 

While it remains to be determined how much time James will miss, Michael J. Duarte of NBC Sports Los Angeles noted the Lakers star could be heard saying he "heard a pop" when his injury occurred. 

If James is forced to miss substantial time, they will need to find a new go-to-guy who can create shots and lead the offense. 

The Lakers are in a good position to tread water thanks to the strong veteran presence of Rondo, who is an excellent distributor and still has games when he hits open shots. 

But Ingram has the kind of ceiling no one else on the Lakers can match when he's playing at his best. He has to step up his play to keep this team in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. 

Depth Issues Leaving Warriors Vulnerable in Loaded Western Conference 

Even though the issues with Durant and Draymond Green earlier this season dominated the conversation around Golden State, it also ignored the actual problem for the two-time defending NBA champions. 

Because the Warriors have had to increase their spending to keep the Curry-Durant-Green-Thompson quartet together, their roster is as thin as it has been during the Steve Kerr era. It's led to more games like the one they had against the Lakers than fans are accustomed to seeing from Golden State.

The signing of DeMarcus Cousins was supposed to provide a strong fifth option, but there's still no definitive return date for the four-time All-Star.

Per The Athletic's Anthony Slater, Cousins remains "weeks away" from making his 2018-19 debut after rupturing his Achilles in January while playing for the New Orleans Pelicans. 

Durant and Curry found some points against the Lakers, but the team never got into a consistent shooting rhythm. That's a testament to a Los Angeles defense that has drastically improved its play after an ugly start to the season. 

Los Angeles was allowing 120 points per game en route to a 4-6 start. That number went down to 107.5 in the past 23 games coming into Tuesday, during which time the Lakers went 15-8. 

It's easy to say the Warriors have a difficult time getting excited for regular-season games when they have played in four straight NBA Finals, but the results look different for this team.

They lost by 20 on Dec. 12 to a Toronto Raptors team without Kawhi Leonard. It was convenient to make excuses for the Warriors during the 11 games Curry missed with a strained adductor, but games like Tuesday's will be more common because they have a smaller margin of error.

The Warriors are still going to be title favorites by the time the postseason begins because no one can match their roster's talent at the top, but a deeper Western Conference with teams like the Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets makes their journey more difficult than it's been over the past two seasons.

    

Ivica Zubac Must Remain in Lakers Starting Lineup

As much of an impact as JaVale McGee has had on the Lakers, they haven't skipped a beat in five games he's missed since being diagnosed with pneumonia. 

One reason for Los Angeles' continued success in the paint is the emergence of Zubac, who has come to play an integral starting role for Walton. The 21-year-old has started each of the past three games, averaging 17.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks during this stretch. 

McGee's season numbers don't look much different than what Zubac has been doing lately. He's averaged 11.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in 29 games. 

Walton has been careful to manage McGee's minutes when he's been able to play. The 30-year-old is averaging 23.5 minutes per game this season, his highest total since the 2011-12 campaign. 

Zubac's age and versatility allowed him to stay on the court for more than 30 minutes in each of the past three games. 

The Lakers defense hasn't suffered with Zubac in the starting lineup. They've allowed 104 points per game in their last contests. All of this is to suggest that Walton needs to keep the Croatian big man in the starting lineup until he shows any signs of being in over his head. 

   

What's Next?

The Lakers will finish their two-game road trip Thursday against the Sacramento Kings. The Warriors will wrap up a four-game homestand when they host the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday. 

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