Business never seems to be usual for these Los Angeles Lakers, but Saturday night's 116-108 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers registers as a step forward. At the very least, they no longer appear to be going backward.
In so many ways, this win is cathartic. It gives the Lakers a 2-1 series edge and more than a semblance of control over what happens next while putting extra distance between them and their Game 1 letdown. That it also came amid a trademark LeBron James postseason detonation is all the better.
Just two nights after finishing with 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting—in a 23-point drubbing over Portland—the four-time NBA MVP erupted for 38 points on an 11-of-18 clip, to go with 12 rebounds and eight assists. His aggression from the jump was on another level; he came out putting relentless pressure on the rim en route to a 22-point first half.
Good thing, too. Anything less than a spectacular opening two frames might've capsized the Lakers.
No one else had it going during that time. Anthony Davis attempted a kajillion free throws through the first two quarters—OK, he attempted nine—but closed the first half with just six points. A pair of threes from Danny Green was the closest anyone came to joining LeBron in the zone.
Tides invariably shifted for Los Angeles in the second half, particularly in the third quarter. Davis came alive with 11 points, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope dropped in three triples. The Lakers scored 40 in the quarter, and after seizing the lead from Portland, they managed to extend it into the fourth while LeBron caught a breather.
The basketball wasn't as pretty in the final frame, but it suited Los Angeles. Save for a few lapses here and there, the Lakers swarmed a clearly gassed group of Blazers on the defensive end. Davis rode the pick-and-pop game for another 12 points to finish with 29 (and eight assists!), and Alex Caruso provided L.A. with another steady initiator, both with and without LeBron:
This win puts Los Angeles back in the driver's seat, fairly far away from the upset murmurs that bubbled to the surface following Game 1. That is huge. But in doing so, the Lakers also reinforced the duality of their roster, offering glimpses into all they still aren't assured of.
This game could've been well over before the fourth quarter if they hit their free throws. They finished 28-of-43 (65.1 percent) and were just 18-of-31 (58.1 percent) from the charity stripe in the first half. LeBron and AD loom as the biggest culprits, after combining to go just 19-of-31 (61.2 percent) on their freebies.
That the Lakers opened their lead without LeBron on the court cannot be ignored. They were a plus-six when he sat. Whether they can keep treading water in his absence is a separate matter. Even with Caruso and the prospect of Rajon Rondo's eventual return (maybe) from a broken thumb and now back spasms, they're still desperately light on secondary creators and too reliant on getting out in transition.
And then, as always, they have their three-point boogeyman. On a night when LeBron canned four of his eight treys and KCP caught fire for a minute, the Lakers shot just 33 percent from beyond the arc as a team (10-of-30). They're connecting on 29 percent of their threes for the postseason, a mark that puts them in front of only the sad-sack Philadelphia 76ers (26.4 percent).
Los Angeles' rotation also still feels up in the air. Kyle Kuzma has gone freezing cold after a scorching-hot close to the regular season, and the dual-big lineups, while not always dead in the water, typically seem like they're impeding the Lakers from accessing the best version of themselves, with Davis at the 5. JR Smith continues to be dusted off, in a playoff game, in the year 2020.
None of this is meant to be doom and gloom. The Lakers just picked up a win, and the Blazers, though offensive firecrackers, are not a team that seems deep enough to exploit Los Angeles' greatest weaknesses.
At the same time, it is unequivocally frightening that a 35-year-old LeBron has so many question marks behind him on most nights. That the Lakers need him to so throughly dominate just to, for the most part, squeak out a victory doesn't feel greatn. And while this roller coaster depth and dependence on him won't damn them yet, it makes you wonder what happens next, when the Blazers, probably, become the Houston Rockets and then the Los Angeles Clippers.