Since the Lakers won the NBA’s in-season tournament two weeks ago, the team has floated, their pockets, like their legs, heavier from their $500,000 journey into playoff-style basketball in the first quarter of the season.
Yet following that tournament win, the Lakers have struggled. They’ve openly griped about being road weary, about a schedule that’s kept them living out of suitcases since Thanksgiving, about back-to-back games and time zone switches that have pushed the days together into unrecognizable blobs.
The Lakers needed a break. That wasn’t going to come.
So instead, they settled for a jolt.
Anthony Davis, following the Lakers’ fourth straight loss, called Saturday’s game with the Thunder a must-win. Darvin Ham, the team’s coach, followed in suit with a starting lineup change.
And LeBron James retook his throne as the best player on the court , leading the Lakers to their best win of the season, 129-120, against the West’s second-best team.
James scored 40 points, hitting huge shot after huge shot in the fourth quarter, when he had 15 points, as the Thunder sprinted to try and close erase a Lakers lead that was as large as 26 late in the third.
The Lakers’ dished out a season-best 38 assists, James taking over as the starting point guard in the lineup switch.
After failing to straddle the lines between offensive and defensive lineups in the first two months of the NBA season, Ham decided on a lineup change that would clearly define his team.
He sent point guard D’Angelo Russell to the bench in favor of forward Jarred Vanderbilt, a move that would force the Lakers to lean into a defensive identity.
“And when you play great defense, it makes the offense a little bit easier,” Ham said pregame. “And so just wanted to lean into that side of the ball. Start out a little bit bigger. Obviously we’ve been struggling in a lot of first quarters this season so we feel like being a little bit bigger on the perimeter, more athletic gives us a chance to really have this go in our favor this time.”
The switch would rob the Lakers of things they were already light on — shooting and playmaking — while swapping that out for more size and switching ability on defense.
But it added punch to their bench.
Russell’s first shot, a step-back three, missed everything long — an airball. But from there he made four straight — a triple, a floater over Thunder 7-footer Chet Holmgren, an and-one in transition and another three. He finished with 15 points in 17 minutes off the bench.
The shakeup in the starting lineup isn’t the only change the Lakers are facing.
Guard Gabe Vincent, the team’s biggest acquisition this offseason, could soon undergo a knee surgery that would sideline him for the next six to eight weeks, sources confirmed to The Times.
Vincent, who missed 24 games with swelling in his left knee, returned to the court Wednesday in Chicago. After playing 14 incident-free minutes against the Bulls, swelling returned to the knee, forcing Vincent to consider surgery.
The Lakers return to Los Angeles for two games beginning on Christmas Day against the Boston Celtics.
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