Trash talk and viral collisions: Behind the Lakers’ first big test
If the Los Angeles Lakers‘ early-season success seemed fickle thanks to a cupcake schedule that was lean on tough opponents and practically devoid of back-to-backs, their past five games were a proving ground.
After a loss to the Dallas Mavericks, the Lakers ripped off four straight wins, by a combined 74 points, against the Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves. Those five teams are now a combined 63-54.
This is a look back at key moments from those games, as the Lakers survived their first real test to reach a 21-3 record that’s tied for No. 1 in the league.
Superstar trash talk
After becoming the first Lakers duo to combine to score 70-plus points in back-to-back games since Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, it was time for a little trash talk between LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Overhearing James mention his son, Bronny, Davis saw his opportunity to rib James for the half-court lob the four-time MVP threw in L.A.’s 142-125 win over the Timberwolves on Sunday night. It was so off-target that the ball hit off the side of the backboard.
“Bronny’s a better passer than you,” Davis said, referencing the play James shared earlier in the day on Instagram.
“He’s a better passer?” James said with incredulity. “He might be a better shooter.”
Davis then spelled out how Bronny got his man the ball with his alley-oop, while his dad ended up with a turnover.
“That was your fault,” James said, realizing the joke. “What’d you tell me at the beginning of the year when you weren’t getting enough lobs? ‘Throw that b—- anywhere.'”
A Melo reunion and a viral collision
In the third quarter, on his way to 31 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds in 34 minutes, James inadvertently trucked into Moda Center server Katy Stevens, who was taking drink orders from fans seated in her courtside section.
“Honestly, I felt a bump and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s a referee,’ and then I look and I’m like, ‘Holy cow, it’s LeBron James,'” Stevens said. “I don’t get starstruck very often, but LeBron James, I mean, he’s the Michael Jordan of today’s basketball. He’s incredible.”
James lifted Stevens up, dusted her off and put his arm around her to make sure she was OK before turning his focus back to the game.
LeBron James shows his remorse with a hug after accidently knocking over a courtside server.
“He was like, ‘I’m sorry, baby. Are you OK?’ He had his arm around me, and I thought to myself, ‘Well if he’s going to put his arm around me, I’m going to put my arm around him,'” Stevens said. “It will be something that I will remember forever.”
The broadcast cameras caught the whole thing, with some of Stevens’ courtside customers whipping out their phones to show her the viral clip.
The win closed out the Lakers’ road trip 3-0, and they improved to 11-0 away from Staples Center.
It also offered one more opportunity for James to square off against his fellow draftee, Carmelo Anthony. And though they’re both in their 17th season, they’ve arrived at different points, via different roads.
“I mean, my career is my career. His career is his career,” Anthony told ESPN. “We will always be linked, some way, somehow. But when it just comes to the game of basketball, I think obviously we have two totally different careers, we had two totally different paths. The teams that we were on were totally different. The players that we played with were completely, totally different. So other than just being connected from being friends and brothers, there’s nothing [there]. No similarities.”
“I need a drink”
The Lakers found a new way to win in Utah, the first for James since 2010. The bench outscored the Jazz reserves 47-19, but perhaps more impressive, it outscored James and Davis 47-46. Rajon Rondo (14 points, 12 assists, 9 rebounds) just missed a triple-double, Kyle Kuzma scored 13 and Dwight Howard offered up a tidy 7 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks in 19 minutes.
“Our goal was to, coming into the season, have a great home record and be .500 on the road,” Davis said. “In order to win a championship, you have to win on the road, which is tough to do.”
After the win, the Lakers passed a menu around the locker room, ending up in LeBron’s hands. He ordered a double-breasted chicken, sautéed spinach and roasted corn.
But James was looking for more than just food after a back-to-back in Denver and Utah, two of the tougher road arenas in the league. With the team not flying to Portland until the next day, it was time to venture out into the rainy Salt Lake City night.
“I need a drink is what I need,” he added. “Where are we going tonight?”
The Avery challenge
When Avery Bradley went down with a hairline fracture in his right leg on Nov. 15, Vogel was faced with two concerns: How would the Lakers keep their defense afloat without their best ball-hawking guard? And how would Vogel keep Bradley’s spirits up after another injury threatened to derail all the work done to become a key contributor this season?
Vogel had an idea: the Avery challenge.
“I said: ‘Hey, you know, we’re going to be without Avery for a while,'” Vogel said. “‘And if that just means our defense is going to go to hell, we’re in trouble. We need to learn to get it done without him out there.'”
With Bradley, the Lakers had the No. 1 defensive rating in the league. In every game without Bradley, the team was tasked with exceeding the current mark for the league’s best defensive rating in honor of their feisty shooting guard.
L.A. started off its three-game road trip by holding Denver to 40.7% shooting from the field and overwhelming the Nuggets on the glass 56-35 as Davis’ Defensive Player of the Year campaign unofficially kicked off in a successful Avery challenge.
“I was a little embarrassed when [Vogel] said it,” Bradley said with a sheepish grin when asked about the challenge. “But, no, it’s cool, man. I think it challenges us every single day. Every single game. We have the personnel to be able to be the No. 1-rated defensive team, and so I think coach is just trying to motivate us and make it fun at the same time.”
The Lakers’ big first-half lead turned into a double-digit loss to the Mavericks after a 25-8 Dallas blitz in the third quarter. The defeat snapped a 10-game winning streak for the Lakers and called into question just how strong that streak was in the first place.
More troubling than any outside perception was Vogel’s admitting his team lost its focus when some calls didn’t go the Lakers’ way, making it easier for the Mavs to blow the game wide open.
“I think our guys got consumed with that a little bit,” Vogel said. “We’ve been really sharp and really consistent, but during that stretch, we weren’t, and it cost us the game.”
Back when the Lakers raced out to an 11-2 start to the season, Kuzma asked if the Lakers’ team strength was as tangible as the wins suggested.
“We have the best record, but I don’t feel like we’re the best team just because I know how much room we have to grow,” Kuzma said at the time.
Fast-forward to the Wolves game, and Vogel wasn’t just being asked if his team was the best in the league. A reporter wanted to know if he thought the Lakers can be one of the best teams of all time.
“Not really allowing myself to go there,” Vogel said before the game. “To me, I wake up every day, zero and zero. I’m asking my team to do the same. And, you know, to look only at the game in front of us.”
With more than a quarter of the season in the books, the Lakers are looking at an .875 winning percentage. It would result in 72 wins — the second-most all time — if they keep it up.