The third loss for the Lakers in 2018-2019 was both the most exhilarating and the most frustrating of the season so far, in what often felt like a character study of LeBron James, and a dramatization of his efforts to acclimatize to a new team, as much as an actual game of basketball. You wouldn’t have guessed that the match would end so tightly from the opening minutes though, as San Antonio cruised ahead to a 24-7 lead just after the first quarter was halfway through.
Between them, DeMar DeRozan and Dante Cunningham were responsible for a fair number of those points, with DeRozan opening with a driving layup, and then following with a pullup jump shot, and 11-foot two point shot, and an assist for a jump shot from Rudy Gay. Cunningham was almost as prolific, clocking up a DeRozan-assisted three point jumper, before assisting with a Gay jump shot in turn.
In fact, this assist marked a passing of the torch, as Gay took over the pointscoring halfway through the first quarter, having a hand in six successive points after he followed up his collaboration with DeRozan with a two point shot and an assist for a 18-foot jumper from LaMarcus Aldridge, before a two point shot from DeRozan added fuel to this stunning opening period of San Antonio pointscoring.
The Lakers weren’t completely dormant during this time – in fact, the first points of the game were a LeBron-assisted 25-foot three point jumper from Lonzo Ball. Yet misses from LeBron, Kuzma, Caldwell-Pope, Ball and McGee allowed the Spurs to advance their margin more than they otherwise might, necessitating a full time out with just under seven minutes on the clock as the Lakers started to enter crisis mode.
LeBron was particularly disappointing during these opening minutes, since while his team mates only made one miss each, he came up short three times, failing to net a pair of driving layups and a three point jumper that could have single-handedly put Los Angeles back in the game. Sure, he might have come through with the assists, helping out McGee with a layup shortly after DeRozan’s 11-foot two point shot, but his mistakes cost the Lakers their focus and drive, and probably represented his worst moment of leadership so far for his new team.
No surprise, then, that the Spurs pretty much continued where they’d left off after the Lakers timeout, with a layup and three point jumper from Patty Mills bookending a layup from Ball – a microcosm of San Antonio’s apparent ability to contain even a more assertive Lakers drive over the back end of this first quarter. While Ball might have followed with a LeBron assisted three point jumper of his own, it never felt as if he was bookending Mills in turn, but just that he and the Lakers were struggling to avoid falling too far behind.
Despite a stunning three-point jumper from Kuzma to close out the first twelve minutes, then, the Spurs were still fourteen points ahead at 40-26, meaning that it didn’t much matter that Bryan Forbes missed a 28-foot three point jumper with one second to go, so comfortable were San Antonio in their lead.
They maintained that lead pretty securely for the most of the second quarter as well, although a war of attrition from the Lakers gradually chipped down the deficit to five points by the time they headed into the half time break. In that respect, Los Angeles’ opening two plays – a two point shot from Kuzma and a McGee-assisted three point jumper from Josh Hart – were a statement of purpose, especially when Hart made it a double with Stephenson-assisted two point shot a moment later, before stealing the ball off a bad pass from Marco Belinelli in turn.
Yet with LeBron missing a two point just after, it became painfully clear how important the Ohio native already is to the Lakers’ sense of purpose, with a pair of free throws from Mills and a Mills-assisted pullump jump shot from Gay making the most of the change in momentum. Just to rub salt in the wound, Gay blocked a two-another point attempt from LeBron before clocking up his jump shot, and while LeBron might have responded with a driving layup, a lost ball to Forbes and then a turnover with seven minutes on the clock signalled frustration for the King.
In a weird way, the Lakers might have actually done better during the middle of the second quarter without having to hitch their wagon to LeBron’s star, since the pointscoring tended to come from elsewhere – a tip shot and pair of free throws for McGee (after which LeBron left the court), a driving floating jump shot from Kuzma, and a series of deft options from Kuzma and McGee in the final minutes.
Nevertheless, a hook shot assist to Kuzma and then a driving layup of his own indicated that LeBron was determined to get back into the game, and sure enough he experienced something of a renaissance at the start of the third quarter, responding to a 16-foot jumper from Aldridge with a 19-foot jumper of his own, before containing a two point shot and layup from DeRozan and Gay respectively with a Ball-assisted driving dunk, followed by a free throw for good measure.
Moments later, he countered a hook shot from Aldridge with a 21-foot pullup jump shot, as the combative and gymnastic LeBron seemed to finally be taking centre stage. There were still errors – an out of bounds lost ball turnover four minutes in – but for the most part the King seemed to consolidating, assisting Kuzma with a three point jumper that narrowed the scoreline to 78-72 about halfway through the quarter.
A shooting foul from DeRozan got LeBron two free throws, and there was some dramatic irony in this spectacle given how the game would eventually turn out. From there, an assist for a Kuzma three point jumper confirmed that LeBron had indeed compensated for the underwhelming opening two acts, with the result that the Lakers seemed to rally and regather in turn, suffused with a new sense of focus and purpose.
No player encapsulated that shift quite like Stephenson, who is typically pretty good in these transitional clutch moments, but really shone on this particular occasion, assisting Hart with a running pullup jump shot before making a three point jumper and a Williams-assisted layup of his own, adding in a free throw before Williams went from assister to scorer with a 2-foot dunk helped out by Mykhailiuk.
Yet the Spurs hadn’t given up either, and the result of this gritty quarter was that the Lakers managed to remove two points from their deficit, ending up trailing 99-96 as the fourth quarter began. Given that the game would only be won by a single point, this was a fairly significant advance, and so both sides came back onto the court with a burnished sense of focus and patience, as so often occurs in the last stanza of such a gritty and hard-fought game.
Over the first few minutes, that resulted in a standoff between DeRozan and LeBron, with the Spur making an 11-foot two point shot and a pair of free throws, and the Laker opening with a superb 26-foot three point jumper. Yet a pair of misses – a dirving layup from LeBron and a two point shot from DeRozan – put the game back in the balance, only for a dunk from Williams and a LeBron-assisted jumpshot from Hart to finally bring the Lakers to a mere one point deficit
Two free throws from LeBron were now followed by two free throws from DeRozan, while LeBron contributed a pair of free throws shortly after, as well as a 17-foot jumper, to compensate for a hook shot from Aldridge and running pullup jump shot from Forbes. In these dying minutes of the game, the Spurs kept on straining for more than a two or three point lead, but the critical factor was LeBron, whose vision and gameplay kept the visiting team fighting to stay ahead, whether through assisting a layup from Kuzma or contributing a two point shot of his own.
It was appropriate, then, that the last minute was all LeBron, as the King took the Lakers from 128-122 by assisting Kuzma with a three point jumper, and then making a 28-foot running pullup jump shot of his own, in what may well have been his most resounding moment so far for Los Angeles, even or especially given his spottier form over the first two quarters.
For the first time, then, LeBron entered overtime in Lakers colours, and yet it was now that the first two quarters of the match came back to haunt him. Not immediately, since he seemed to grow even strong over the first part of overtime, starting off with a 12-foot two point shot, before assisting Ball with a three point jumper and Williams with a layup, and then scoring the last points for the Lakers with a sublime driving floating jump shot and a free throw.
If the game had ended here, then LeBron would have definitively announced his arrival to Los Angeles in style, but his two biggest nemeses over the course of the game put a dent in his momentum, as a DeRozan-assisted three point jumper from Gay, and a personal take foul from Gay, gave the Lakers the opportunity to make two throws to compensate for a 141-142 deficit.
It should have been a done deal, since despite free throws not being the best part of LeBron’s arsenal, he’d nevertheless clocked a fair few number of one-pointers over the game so far, several of them in the last quarter. He missed, though, and from there it felt almost inevitable that Mills would make a jumper, and LeBron himself would miss a jumpshot with less than a second on the clock, so drastically had the momentum shifted in these final crucial moments.
All in all, then, this was both the most exhilarating and the most frustrating appearance for LeBron at the Lakers so far – a game that felt as much like a character study of LeBron, and a dramatization of his efforts to integrate himself with the team, as an actual game of basketball. He’ll be looking for a better ending, then, when Los Angeles take on the Suns, Nuggets and then the Spurs again over the next couple of weeks, at the back end of what has been a fairly frustrating start to the season.