The Lakers got a bit of closure after their disappointing start to the 2018-2019 season with a four-point win over the Trail Blazers in Portland on Saturday. A 25-foot three point jumper from Kyle Kuzma off a LeBron James assist, and a tip shot from Javale McGee, gave the visitors some early momentum, with a dunk from McGee bringing them to a comfortable 7-2 lead two minutes into the game.
Damien Lillard led the Portland response – having assisted Jusuf Nurkic with the opening 2-foot layup, he now made a driving layup of his own, a free throw and then a three point jumper to get the Trail Blazers back in the game, while two missed three point jumpers and a bad pass from Lonzo Ball – resulting in a steal from Al-Faroiq Aminu – saw the score level at 10-10 with eight minutes left on the clock.
A sequence of errors from the Trail Blazers saw the Lakers seek a full timeout to consolidate, and they regained the lead a mere twenty seconds later, thanks to a driving layup from Brandon Ingram, assisted by Ball. Still, a twenty-five foot three point jumper from CJ McCollum was a statement of purpose, especially since Lillard was the catalyst once again, galvanising the Blazers to cement things further over the next three minutes, with a missed three pointer from LeBron giving them an extra foot up.
Further misses from Kuzma and Stephenson, and a lost ball turnover from LeBron to – who else – Lillard, saw the scoreline skyrocket to 20-11, as all the Lakers’ early momentum seemed to have been sapped, in what looked to be yet another of the short-lived bursts of inspiration that have made their season so frustrating to fans. It was the kind of situation where LeBron needed to step up and show some leadership, yet his subsequent pair of two-pointers weren’t enough to put the Lakers back in the lead.
The fact that Lillard missed a three-pointer during this critical period spoke volumes about the Los Angeles momentum, since a better team would have capitalised on the spectacle of the Blazers’ key playmaker (at least in this game) demonstrating his fallibility in such a way. Yet a bad pass for LeBron, who left the court soon after, felt like a gesture of defeat, and as the first quarter wound down the Lakers were unable to regain the lead they’d glimpsed so viscerally in the opening minutes.
That said, they were only a point behind, thanks to a 26-foot step back jumpshot from Stephenson, although it took them a full three minutes to level the score at 34-34 after they returned to the court, thanks to a bad pass and miss from Stephenson that undid some of his earlier momentum, along with a spectacular 25-foot three point jumper from Nik Stauskas off an assist from Evan Turner.
Still, the fact that it was Stephenson who also righted things with a two-pointer went some way to consolidate the momentum he’d shown at the end of the first twelve minutes. He left the court shortly after, but Rondo stood up and took the reins in his absence, offsetting a dunk and layup from Zach Collins – both assisted by Stauskas – with a three point jumper and then a driving layup, forcing the Blazers to take a full timeout to reconsider their options.
It didn’t do them much good, however, since Kuzma followed with a driving floating jump shot and then a two point shot. Three free throws from Lillard initially felt like a pretty staunch rejoinder, but an alley oop from McGee off an assist from Rondo made it clear that the Lakers meant business, as did the next four points – a pair of free throws from LeBron, always a powerful gesture after his overtime choke against the Spurs, followed by a 17-foot two point shot from LeBron as well.
By now, the Lakers were a comfortable 52-43 ahead, as McGee complemented their excellent period of attack with some equally sterling defence, blocking a 2-foot layup from Lillard, a 3-foot dunk from Nurkic, and then a driving layup from Nurkic as well. Sure, Amnu might have blocked a two-pointer from LeBron, but the momentum was all with the Lakers, making it all the more surprising when a sequence of brilliant attacking options from Portland saw them narrow the margin to one point, much as the Lakers had done in the previous quarter.
The good news for Los Angeles was that LeBron had managed to really show some leadership during these final minutes, resulting in a driving layup and a pair of free throws. Nevertheless, Lillard also reasserted his dominance thirty seconds into the next quarter with a three-point jumper assisted by McCollum, although that arguably made it even more galvanising for the Lakers when he missed a 30-foot three point pullump jump shot a moment later, that would have been the play of the game if it had made the bucket.
This time around, the Lakers made more of Lillard’s show of weakness, with McGee and LeBron combining for a terrific sequence of points – a dunk from McGee assisted by Lebron, an alley oop from McGee assisted by LeBron, and finally a 30-foot three-point jumper – exactly the move that Lillard had attempted – from LeBron, this time assisted by McGee. Somewhere in there Jake Layman got a dunk, but it hardly registered, especially once LeBron capped off this spectacular sequence with a driving layup.
Two missed options from Kuzma were a bit of a downer, but to his credit he responded with two successive pointscoring plays to bookend a Trail Blazers timeout – a layup assisted by LeBron, and then a two-pointer assisted by Ball. He sealed the deal with a free throw, only for Lillard to get himself back into the game in the most emphatic way possible – with a sublime 8-foot driving floating jump shot that seemed determined to recapitulate all the energy he’d put into his botched 30-foot effort.
A whole lot of misses now ensued – from Kuzma, LeBron, Lillard – as both teams seemed to realise that they were now reaching a critical tipping-point in the game. Unfortunately, for the Lakers, they culminated with a pair of missed free throws from LeBron, a sufficiently dispiriting spectacle such that only a superhuman effort from the team as a whole allowed them to maintain a fifteen point lead heading into the break, in one of their most heroic and focused passages of play all year.
The fourth quarter started fairly auspiciously for Portland, with a 23-foot three point jumper from Seth Curry leading to a pair of misses from Stauskas and Swanigan, with Rondo consolidating all the while – first with a two-pointer and then by assisting Ivica Zuback with a 1-foot hook shot, assisting Josh Hart with a 23-foot jumper, and then bookending this splendid sequence with a 17-foot pullup jump shot of his own.
In the process, Lillard made a 22-foot jumper off a Nurkic assist, but somehow the tide seemed to have turned against even Portland’s most prolific playmaker during this game, such that not even a missed two-point from Rondo himself moments later was able to galvanise the Blazers into any decisive or consistent comeback. In fact, the following minutes were notable for the way in which Portland failed to take advantage of errors from Los Angeles – a lost ball from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a missed jumper from Ingram – allowing LeBron to reach a century with a comfortable sixteen point advantage at 101-85, off an 18-foot two point shot.
Strangely, though, this spectacle of LeBron consolidating prompted the Blazers to a late surge of points, with a two-pointer from Lillard, three free throws from Nurkic, two driving layups from Lillard, and then a layup from Nurkic narrowing the scoreline to 103-97. Ironically, it was a pair of free throws from LeBron that kept the Lakers comfortably ahead – and seeing himself able to make free throws in a clutch situation seemed to galvanise LeBron as much as anyone, energizing him for the driving dunk, two-point shot, and assist to Hart’s driving layup that effectively won Los Angeles the game.
While LeBron may have missed his final three-point attempt, his assist for McGee’s final two-pointer, and his block on a two-point attempt from Nurkic, meant that he owned the end of this game more emphatically than any other since he’s put on the purple and yellow singlet. It was apt, then, that LeBron closed out the Lakers’ night with two free throws, in the most cathartic riposte to his late loss against the Spurs yet, and a motivating prospect as Los Angeles prepare to take on the Raptors, Timberwolves and Kings over the next couple of days, for what may just be the start of their real consolidation as a team after some early season growing pains.