LeBron James has started for the Los Angeles Lakers with a defeat but, then again, he lost his debuts with the Cavs, the Heat, and then the Cavs again in 2014, so he’s right on track for building just as much of an empire around him on the West Coast as he was back in the Eastern Conference if statistics are anything to go by.
Still, this was a bit of an inconsistent start for the Lakers – a reminder of why James is such an important asset for them, but also a reminder of some of their own shortcomings, as well as their shooting deficit more generally. All night, they were dominant when it came to speed, leading the way with fastbreak points at 34-12, in what often felt like a bit of a flashback to the Showtime era.
Unfortunately, their shooting left a lot to be desired, since they only managed their first three-pointer ten minutes into the third quarter after fifteen consecutive misses, eventually clocking up seven from thirty. Conversely, the Portland Trail Blazers have spent a considerable part of their off-season working on the three-point line, and it showed, with the hosts absolutely dominating accuracy and timing.
That’s not to say that LeBron didn’t have some spectacular moments, since this was – somewhat unbelievably – his career high for first-quarter results, with a spectacular slam dunk cementing the thirteen point that he put down for the Lakers over the opening twelve minutes. This breakout play felt like the definitive statement that James had arrived in Los Angeles, and for a brief moment made it feel like the Lakers had to win the game.
Only for a moment, though, since Damien Lillard responded with a terrific dunk of his own, part of an MVP performance overall that saw him clock up 28 points, six rebounds and four assists, as well as eight from eight when it came to the free throw, proving that his zero number jersey was anything but an accurate reflection of his true worth for the Portland offence.
While both LeBron and Rajon Rondo might have notched up double doubles, then, and while the Lakers might have kept a pretty tight scoreline for long stretches of the match, you could also see why the Blazers were so often rated one of the best defensive outfits in the NBA last season. Time and again, they disoriented the visitors just enough for near-certain three-point shots to go awry, or tempted them into committing unnecessary fouls.
The turning-point for Los Angeles probably came just before the third break, when a second two-pointer for Josh Hart got the Lakers to within two points of Portland. By the time that the final minutes of the last quarter had come around, though, the Blazers had well and truly taken control of the narrative, with not even some team-organising efforts from LeBron able to rouse Los Angeles to a late win.
Speaking of LeBron’s organizational efforts, the shift to the greater challenges of the Western Conference, combined with the odd lineup of the current Lakers roster, seemed to change his administrative presence on the court. Towards the end of his last tenure at Cleveland, James had perfected the art of knowing just how to enable and facilitate the best from everyone around him, but he seemed to be feeling his way here, not quite sure of who needed to managed most at any single moment.
That’s just a time issue, though, while the issue isn’t even that drastic, as the opening assist from James attested. Nevertheless, you could sense his frustration in the final five minutes as he was unable to find his team mates in the right position at key moments, part of a broader shift in momentum against the Lakers that saw a lengthy period of video analysis confirm that a ball had come off rondo, and a pair of free shots for Los Angeles that was immediately followed by yet another three-point effort for the Blazers.
A terrific final play from Lillard with a few seconds on the clock clarified just how important three-pointers are at closing out a game, in what was a bit of a muted ending for the Lakers, who have now lost sixteen to the Blazers, and LeBron, who has lost six straight games at Moda Center. Call it a trial run, then, since that’s what it really felt like – a blueprint for the team to mull over as they prepare to take on Houston on Saturday night for their first home game of the season.