The Lakers’ three games against the Trail Blazers over the last couple of weeks have functioned as a perfect microcosm for their season in miniature. In the first game, they lost. In the second game, they won. In the third and most recent game, they not only won, but LeBron put in his first consistently LeBron-like performance for the Lakers, clocking up a season-high 44 points, 10 rebounds and nine assist to step pass Wilt Chamberlain on the NBA’s scoring list.
Nevertheless, it was the Blazers who dominated the first quarter, arriving at a comfortable 33-26 lead by the time the opening twelve minutes were up. The Lakers got the first points on the board, thanks to a layup from JaVale McGee, and a two point shot and free throw from Brandon Ingram that saw them race ahead to a 0-5 lead, only for a pair of three foot jumpers from Jake Layman – both assisted by Damien Lillard – to bookend a jumpshot and hook shot from LeBron and ingram respectively.
Lillard now came into focus as one of the dominant voices of the opening two quarters, making the most of a missed hook shot from Kuzma to make a driving layup, and then bookending a LeBron-assisted layup from Kuzman by assisting C J McCollum with a pair of dazzling three-pointers, before helping Al-Farouq Aminu make a driving layup in turn. A Lakers timeout ensued, and a tip shot from McGee followed, but Lillard got back into gear a minute later with an assist to Jusuf Nurkic that was followed by a missed 16-foot two point shot from LeBron.
Over these opening minutes, the Blazers exemplified consistency, and an ability to self-correct, both of which traits were personified by Lillard in particular, who might have missed a 20-foot step back jumpshot with five minutes on the clock, but followed it up immediately by blocking a two point shot from Ball. It felt apt, then, when Lillard and McCollum switched places for Lillard to be scorer, and McCollum to be assister, bring the scoreline to a pretty worrying 22-14 for the Lakers.
To an extent, LeBron managed to rally Lance Stepenson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope into narrowing the margin in the final couple of minutes, but there was no doubt that this opening quarter belonged to the Blazers. By the end of the next twelve minutes, however, the Lakers would have got themselves five points ahead, thanks to a more equally paced opening in terms of points scored, with McGee, in particular, contributing a tip shot, two point shot and driving dunk all in the first three minutes, to prevent another surge of Portland points.
That one-man effort gave the Lakers a bit of room to breathe, while a timeout and a pair of interchanges around the five minute mark added some more energy as well. Whlle Aminu may have scored the next points – an Evan Turner assisted running pullup jump shot – this was where LeBron started to show signs of the brilliance he would bring to the court in the third and four quarters.
It started with a pair of jumpshot assists for Ball, and then proceeded to a driving layup for LeBron himself, before LeBron made his own jumpshot with three minutes on the clock. No surprise, then, that Lillard also started to resume pointscoring now too, thanks to a technical free throw and a McCollum-assisted three point jumper, but Kuzma, Ingram and McGee put down enough point to ensure that the King’s final pair of 28-foot running pullup jump shots were finally able to put the Lakers ahead at 55-59 as they headed into half time.
By the end of the third quarter, the Lakers had extended their lead to 89-97, and LeBron had made his single most emphatic gesture of leadership this season – one that would only be exceeded by the role that he played in the fourth quarter. More generally, the Lakers now finally dominated the opening minutes of a quarter, with efforts from Ingram, LeBron and Ball maintaining their lead at 60-67.
A pair of free throws from LeBron about halfway through led to a torrent of points around the ex-Cav, including a three foot jumper, an alley oop assist for Tyson Chandler, a two point shot, an assist for a 28-foot three point jumper for Lonzo Ball, a Ball-assisted two point shot and then finally a trio of free throws to fill out the quarter. While the Blazers did manage to hold their own without falling too far behind, their plays weren’t quite consistent or flamboyant enough to match Los Angeles, as Lillard, in particular, struggled to maintain his impact.
No doubt, he’d clocked up four free throws in the final forty seconds, but even these didn’t quite ramify in the same way as his opening string of efforts, partly because they were broken in half by a superb three point jumper from Caldwell-Pope, who continued his momentum after the break with a pair of free throws and a Rajon-Rondo assisted three point jumper to bring the Lakers to 89-105 once Rondo had followed up by assisting Hart with another three point effort.
Lillard now made a sterling effort to reinstate himself with a two point shot, driving layup and free throw all in the space of forty seconds, but this just seemed to draw Caldwell-Pope even further into the spotlight, as the Los Angeles shooting guard assisted Stephenson with a two point shot before landing a running pullup jump shot to put the Lakers sixteen points ahead.
The purple and gold were too far ahead, now, for anything but the most emphatic comeback from Lillard and the Blazers to get the visitors back in the game. It was a great spectacle, then, to see LeBron choose just this moment to clock up another string of points, as four free throws and a Hart-assisted layup ensured that a final pair of driving dunks from Aminu and Leonard were mere consolation buckets for a Blazers outfit that had seemed to run rings around the Lakers in the first week of the season.
For the first time in 2018-2019, then, LeBron has consistently and genuinely showed what he can do when he is working at full capacity with his new team. It’s going to be interesting to see how the Lakers take on a string of new teams in the Magic, Heat, Cavs and Jazz over the next couple of weeks, while the double against the Spurs looms on the horizon as a platform for reinventing the first part of their season in much the same way as this stunning game against Portland.