The Lakers’ game against the Spurs on October 22 might have been their most frustrating of the 2018-2019 season so far, but they fronted up at the rematch flushed with their first two wins with LeBron in Los Angeles colours – against the Suns on October 24 and then against the Nuggets on October 25. Whether or not that made their second defeat to San Antonio more or less frustrating is a matter of opinion, but it does make their upcoming rematch against the Trail Blazers particularly crucial for rebuilding some team morale.
The game started with a standoff between JaVale McGee and Marcus Aldridge that galvanised the big San Antonio power forward into making the first two-point shot for the Spurs of the night, albeit bookended by a pair of three-point jumpers from Kyle Kuzma, the first assisted by LeBron James, the second assisted by McGee. From there, James got into the pointscoring a bit earlier than some of his previous efforts, clocking up a ten-foot two-point shot, only for a pair of free throws from Bryn Forbes to serve as a sober reminder for how things ended last time the Lakers took on San Antonio.
LeBron was unflappable, however, responding to a fourteen-foot step back jumpshot from DeMar DeRozan with an eighteen-foot step back jumpshot of his own. A personal foul from Kuzma a moment later was a slight blemish on a strong Los Angeles opening, but Josh Hart made up for it with a two-foot dunk to bring the Lakers double the Spurs at 12-6 – just the way they would have wanted to start the game after such a frustrating defeat a couple of weeks before.
The Spurs seemed to sense it, too, consolidating with the kind of cohesion and focus you typically only see in the third or fourth quarter, as a two-pointer from Aldridge, a driving floating jump shot from Forbes – assisted by Aldridge – and then a driving layup from Aldridge once again brought the score level at 12-12. While LeBron may be in the later part of his career, the fact that he is still playing at such a high level, and that the Lakers are a relatively inexperienced team, means that his stature feels more dramatic than ever, with the result that one-man efforts from opposing teams have proven especially powerful in recent weeks in managing to contain the Lakers.
So it was here too, as Los Angeles took a full timeout on the back of Aldridge’s efforts, resulting in a sustained period of Laker dominance that saw LeBron make a layup almost immediately, and follow it up with an assist for a McGee hook shot, as if to show that Aldridge’s one-man efforts were going to pose no problems to the visitors’ determination. Once again, Los Angeles were in the lead, with a free throw from LeBron at the five minute mark forming a crucial rallying-point as the last five minutes of the first quarter approached.
Even better, a pair of free throws from LeBron a few minutes later felt like the King was putting the end of the last Lakers-Spurs game behind him for good, going so far as to cancel out the spectacle of a sublime driving floating jump shot from Patty Mills. With LeBron taken off the field, however, the Spurs started to come back, with Mills and Aldridge, in particular, combining to make the most of the King’s absence. Nevertheless, a pair of superb three-pointers from Lance Stephenson and Rajon Rondo steadily increased the Lakers;’ lead, with the two combining for another three-pointer – Stephenson jumping, Rondo assisting – right on the siren to ensure the Lakers a very handy seven point lead at 36-29.
LeBron was a bit quieter at the start of the second quarter, losing the ball thirty seconds in to DeMar DeRozan, who ended up making a finger roll layup another thirty seconds later. Still, this gave the Lakers an opportunity to showcase some depth, as Rondo made a jump shot, Johnathan Williams clocked up a layup, and Stephenson contributed a sixteen-foot pullup jump shot to put them ten points ahead by the eight minute mark.
Two more free throws from LeBron put the spectacle of the Lakers-Spurs defeat even deeper in the past, while a superb dunk and alley oop from McGee – the alley oop assisted by LeBron, in one of the most spectacular images of Los Angeles synergy this season – brought the Lakers to a stunning thirteen-point lead, necessitating a full timeout for the Spurs much as the Spurs’ form had necessitated a full timeout for the Lakers in the opening quarter.
It didn’t do San Antonio much good, however, as the Lakers continued to more or less maintain their lead, thanks in part to a gorgeous driving floating jump shot from Kuzma that was arguably his most dexterous moment of the game so far. Three efforts from DeRozan – a two-point shot, a driving dunk and a fifteen-foot jumper – went some way to narrowing the score, but with a three-point jumper from Lonzo Ball the Lakers were still a comfortable six points ahead as the second quarter wound down.
LeBron recapitulated his form of the first quarter with a driving layup and a nineteen-foot pullup jump shot at the start of the third quarter, compounding it with another layup at the ninth minute that culminated a to-and-fro of pointscoring that nevertheless saw the Lakers maintaining their lead, thanks in part to a free throw from McGee followed by a superb thirteen-foot shot with a Ball assist.
The King was just starting, however, in what was one of his most sustained periods of pointscoring brilliance for the Lakers so far – not just in terms of the points scored, or the way they were scored, but the manner in which they responded to every effort that the Spurs made to gain some headway in the game. A nineteen-foot step back jumpshot from DeRozan was overshadowed by a two-point shot from LeBron, a second two-pointer from DeRozan was followed by a twenty-five-foot three-point from LeBron and then, finally, a thirteen-foot jumper from Dante Cunningham was succeeded by yet another two point shot from LeBron.
If there was any downside during this period, however, it was that the team probably relied a bit too much on James, so it was even more galvanising when he subbed off and Kuzma and Rondo continued the momentum with a ten-foot two-point shot and a pair of free throw respectively. A twenty-seven-foot three point jumper from Rondo, and a layup from Williams assisted by Rondo, ensured that even two successive pairs of free throws – the first from Marco Belinelli, the second from Rudy Gay, couldn’t get San Antonio back in the green as the fourth quarter drew near.
Nevertheless, they managed to achieve their closest margin in some time, with a twenty-seven-foot three pointer from Mills and a dunk from Pau Gasol with five seconds on the clock bringing the scoreline to 88-87. It was a good forecast of the fourth quarter, which was much closer than the second and third, as the Spurs gradually crept their way back into contention, starting with a step back jumpshot from DeRozan in response to an opening three pointer from Ball.
For the most part, the margin shrunk to two or three points over the course of this final quarter, as the Spurs seemed to respond to LeBron, in particular, more fluidly than they had over the last twenty-four minutes. While the King’s twenty-six-foot three point jumper – assisted by Stephenson – might have been spectacular, it was immediately contained by a layup from Marco Belinelli; a gesture that paved the way for a series of pointscoring initiatives from Aldridge, Gay and then DeRozan.
That said, pointscoring was pretty sparse in the final five minutes of the game, which condensed to a standoff between LeBron, who contributed a two-foot dunk off a Rondo assist with three and a half left on the clock, and Aldridge, who managed an eighteen-foot jumper off a DeRozan assist. For a moment, LeBron seemed to have won the contest, thanks to an assist for a Hart three-pointer and – perhaps most importantly – a pair of free throws, which seemed about as decisive a reversal of the last game against San Antonio as could have been orchestrated.
Yet a sixteen-foot jumper from DeRozan gave the Spurs the platform to end the game in the most painful way for Lakers fans – with a pair of free throws from Gasol that conjured up LeBron’s issues against San Antonio a few days before so perfectly that you had to wonder whether the home team had planned to end this way all along. The fact that Hart had only managed one of two free throws a minute before made it all the more dramatic, meaning that this may well come to be seen as pivotal game for the Lakers in terms of how effectively they make – or break – their team spirit over this first part of the Western Conference.