June 21, 2024

The opportunity began Friday night in Boston, when the Celtics hung onto the smallest threads of their lead to beat the Sacramento Kings. It continued in New Orleans when the lowly Spurs pulled off an upset win against the Pelicans.

With the Lakers resting at home Friday night, they came to Crypto.com Arena on Saturday with actual ground to gain. But after six straight games on the road and a cross-country flight home from Washington, there were real questions about whether the Lakers could take advantage of it.

The first game back came on even shorter rest, the team playing its first 12:30 p.m. home game of the season against a dangerous Cleveland team, which was coming off a blowout loss in Phoenix on Wednesday.

“We have to take care of our business first,” coach Darvin Ham said before the game. “Nothing else matters.”

It would take a serious effort — but in what has become increasingly clear over the last two months, the Lakers are looking like a serious team.

The Lakers got 28 points from D’Angelo Russell and dominant double-doubles from LeBron James and Anthony Davis in a 116-97 win. The Lakers, who built a 16-point first-half lead, saw it all go away in the third before their defense reengaged to snap back control thanks, largely, to a Davis-led 17-0 run.

“The way we continued to defend. … If we just continue to defend and take care of the ball,” Ham told his team. “Guys stepped up defensively and made plays.”

The win has the Lakers in eighth place in the West with four games left in the regular season.

The teams they’re in the tightest races with — the Suns, Kings and Pelicans — each play one another in the final week of the season. The Lakers close the season in New Orleans a week from Sunday in what could be a huge game for seeding.

“We’re confident, very confident in our ballclub and any time we step on the floor. I think the biggest difference is just that we’re just having fun,” Davis said. “We’re holding each other accountable. If somebody messes up we’re yelling, screaming at him. But nobody is taking it personal. Because we all know what we’re here for, to try to win.”

James scored 24 points and had 12 assists, setting the tone early with his playmaking. And Davis dominated on both ends, his 22 points and 13 rebounds almost as impactful as his six blocks and three steals.

Taurean Prince had one of his best games, scoring 18 points while missing just two of his nine shots.

“The biggest thing for him is to stay aggressive, be aggressive,” Ham said. “He’s a smart player. He’s not going to force things. He’s going to take the right shots. But when he’s open, I want him to be extremely aggressive.”

Gabe Vincent and Austin Reaves each had key defensive efforts with Vincent, playing for the third time since returning last week from knee surgery, showing what he adds on that end of the court.

“He’s a guy that’s not worried about how many shots he gets or how many touches,” Ham said. “He wants to make his mark felt on the defensive end. I felt like he did that tonight.”

The Lakers still don’t have an update on Jarred Vanderbilt’s recovery from a foot sprain, but Vincent’s impact being felt so quickly is a strong template.

“You know exactly what you’re gonna get from Gabe,” Reaves said. “Every single game, he’s gonna go out there and compete at the highest level on that end. And that’s what we need from him. And once he gets a feel for the game, he hadn’t played in so long, once he gets a feel for the game, shots are gonna start falling and stuff like that.”

The Lakers host Minnesota on Sunday night with another chance to play their way out of the back-end of the play-in tournament.

“Just take care of us. That’s the biggest thing,” Ham said. “Everything else will take care of itself, will fall exactly in the spot we’re supposed to fall. But the key is for us to be playing at a high level on both sides of the ball. We saw that on the defensive end tonight.”

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