It was just one game.
Say that again. And again. And then again once more. The Los Angeles Lakers' 103-101 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night was one game. And it is important not to infer too much from one game. Including this game.
Maybe especially this game.
Practices have taken place and scrimmages played, but this game, this one game, was the first that mattered for both the Clippers and Lakers in nearly five months. And it came under circumstances galaxies away from normal.
Neutral site. Semi-quarantined campus. No in-person fans, other than opposing team members. Social distancing measures. Incomplete rosters. The coronavirus pandemic has turned the world as we know it inside out. The end result is uncertainty, in every facet of life, including sports. The NBA is assured of nothing, not even an end to the season, and least of all a consistent product.
This one game isn't meant to be an exception. The Clippers didn't have Montrezl Harrell or Lou Williams. LeBron James will have better shooting nights (6-of-19). Anthony Davis will take fewer free throws (16-of-17). Kyle Kuzma won't be volcanic from beyond the arc forever (4-of-7).
It was one game, in a longish line of others, being played after more than four months of hiatus. We don't know what it says about the bigger picture other than that the NBA is officially back.
This game has to say something. There are more on the schedule, but the playoffs, if all goes according to plan, will be here soon. What's left of the regular season is a chance for teams to recalibrate and fine-tune. The basketball we see now should at least provide glimpses into what they're hoping to do and how they'll fare.
If that's the case, the Lakers should come away from this game feeling pretty good about themselves.
LeBron Hearts Defense(?)
LeBron's entire season is something of a defensive surprise in that he's actually committed to contesting shots. Thursday's performance took that surprise to another level. He guarded Paul George and Kawhi Leonard and was just generally everywhere.
He even gave us a new meme template, at Kawhi's expense (not to mention a game-winner):
Surely this isn't the defensive intensity we can expect from age-35, Year 17 LeBron every game. Right? Occasionally finding a way to muster interest is sort of his this thing. Isn't it? (I checked with Giannis Antetokounmpo, and it is.*) Maybe he just really wanted to sew up the Western Conference's top seed in Game No. 1:
Then again, this season is weird. LeBron has been locked in more often, even when he's not covering the glitziest matchups. He owns the Lakers' best defensive rating swing, which is ridiculous but also makes sense.
And hey: remember the stakes. This profiles as LeBron's best crack at a fourth title. Not only will the Golden State Warriors be back in the mix next year, but as of now, every single Western Conference team would begin 2020-21 with playoff aspirations.
This will change. It always does. But even if two-thirds of the West decides to donate its best players to the Eastern Conference, next year will be LeBron's age-36 season. He's definitely, probably, maybe not aging in reverse.
So perhaps his new defensive default is "working my butt off." If it is, the Lakers' title stock will go boom.
*I did not check with Giannis.
Anthony Davis: Offensive Savior
Davis finished with 34 points, 16 of which came at the charity stripe, to go along with eight boards and four assists. Los Angeles needed every single one of them.
LeBron didn't get it going until the fourth quarter—he was 3-of-12 from the floor through the first three frames—and the Lakers' guard play prior to crunch time was, shall we say, not great. Davis was their offensive lifeline for much of the night, facing up and spinning and dunking all over the Clippers. He even dropped in threes on back-to-back possessions, because why not?
Whether this detonation was telltale of anything is up in the air. Anthony Davis is really good, so a really good performance from Anthony Davis isn't exactly breaking news.
Still, this type of explosion does offer hope, however preliminary, that he can effectively navigate minutes without LeBron on the court.
Lineups featuring only him are a net minus on the season but comfortably in the green since the start of February. The Lakers outscored the Clippers by six points in the 14 minutes he spent without LeBron.
One game is one game is still one game after a four-plus-month break. And LeBron-less stints will be fewer and further between when the postseason tips off. But his teams have almost always struggled to win the minutes he doesn't play. Davis is the vessel through which this year's Lakers can buck that trend.
Feeling Out the Supporting Cast
Who needs Avery Bradley (opted out of the restart) when you have live-from-the-bubble Kyle Kuzma? Well, um, the Lakers. But Kuzma's performance was nevertheless encouraging.
Three of his four three-pointers came without taking a dribble, and those are the looks he needs to knock down on this team. He's putting in around 35 percent of his spot-up triples for the season, and the Lakers will be much better off if he brings that number up near the 38 to 40 percent range.
They'll also miss Bradley a lot less if Kuzma keeps defending like this:
"He was exceptional tonight," head coach Frank Vogel said, per Silver Screen & Roll's Harrison Faigen. "When he was switched onto Kawhi, he had some really good possessions...If he can perform like that on the defensive end, we're going to win a lot of games."
Dion Waiters played slightly over 21 minutes compared to JR Smith's eightish. This...tracks. The Lakers need to mine more ball-handling out of their rotation, and Waiters is more equipped to check that box.
Smith might still get his chance. The Lakers can plead rust in their first regular-season game, but the outside shooting remains touch-and-go. They lose to the Clippers if Davis and Kuzma, two normally unspectacular marksmen, don't combine for a 6-of-12 clip from deep.
LeBron (2-of-7), Waiters (1-of-6), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (0-of-3) and Alex Caruso (0-of-2) were all culpable. We could single out LeBron and KCP as the players who need to shoot better the most, but the entire roster is high-variance from beyond the arc. Bradley (36.4 percent), KCP (39.4 percent) and Danny Green (37.8 percent) were the only perimeter-rotation staples to hover above league average (35.7 percent) from long range, and one of them is gone.
It'll be interesting to see how spacing impacts Vogel's crunch-time lineups. Using Davis at center is a given. The Lakers closed with him, Caruso, Green, Kuzma and LeBron against the Clippers.
That group logged just 16 possessions together before Thursday and probably isn't a one-size-fits-all choice. Davis, Green and LeBron are non-negotiable constants. The next two spots seem more open-ended. KCP could easily work his way into the mix depending on how Kuzma is shooting. Caruso might turn into a crunch-time must if he keeps defending like he did down the stretch.
To say we learned anything about the Lakers' supporting cast goes a touch too far. This game merely reinforced what was already clear: Their perimeter rotation beyond Green and LeBron is fluid, if shaky, and the Caruso-Kuzma tandem has the best chance of changing that.