The end of 2021 treated the Lakers much better than most of the year. LeBron James got his second career start at center, Frank Vogel returned to the sidelines after several weeks away with COVID-19, and the team beat the Portland Trail Blazers in a drag-and-drop victory, 139 -106 on New Saint-Sylvestre.
The Lakers were leading up to 20 points in the first half, as the Blazers had absolutely no response to the team’s centerless lineups around James from the jump. The amount of space the 19-year-old veteran and the other bullet carriers on the team had to make their way to the rim for easy buckets or to set up 3-point shooters was almost staggering to see.
“I’m in a pretty damn good area right now, and I just want to keep going for as long as possible,” James summed up on Spectrum SportsNet after the game. “I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to help this team win, man.”
He added that the small unit was a “card” the Lakers can “keep in their back pocket,” and while it’s not as simple as saying those queues are impossible to protect, or without some faults in some games, against a Portland defense that ranks as second-worst in the league – and especially against an area defense that my colleague from Blazers Edge Danny Marang calls it “one of the worst deployments I’ve ever seen” and “a disaster to see” – that was more than enough to score 69 points in the first half alone.
The second half was more of the same story, and the biggest takeaway from this team right now continues to be the revelation of the “LeBron James is just our starting center now, face it” era. . James has rarely had this much room to work in his tenure with the Lakers, and while it isn’t always as easy for him as against a group of lifeless Blazers that seem ripe for a deadline fire sale, this That night, it was enough for him to rack up 43 points, 14 rebounds and 4 assists quite easily the day after his 37th birthday.
The lineups aren’t without their drawbacks – “I definitely have to lift a little more weight when I play this 5 for sure,” James joked in his exit interview – but they really made a big difference to the game. ‘team . And ahead of the game, Vogel said watching those small groups find ways to be successful around James more often was his biggest takeaway from his nearly two weeks of isolation.
âIt’s easy to just throw smaller guys and expect it to work, but there’s a lot of detail that goes into executing both sides of the ball to perform well with smaller lineups,â Vogel said. âObviously we’re not where we want to be in the standings, but we believe in what we’re building and we think we have a chance to do something special this year. So just being a part of that, smaller queues, how it’s grown and how to be efficient with those is the most important thing. “
Elsewhere, Russell Westbrook continues to look much better in games where he is less demanded and with more room to operate offensively due to the lack of true crosses on the pitch. Not a coincidence, he got an easy 15-point triple-double, 12 assists and 13 rebounds on a night where he was almost only asked to attack a defense already on his heels due to the Lakers pushing in transition or getting rotated due to multiple rim attacks. This is the way to use it. He won’t always be so efficient, but this game is a model for the most efficient version of him.
Speaking of what got those little bullet units around James and Westbrook to work: On day seven of his 10-day contract, Stanley Johnson continues to look like a real difference maker, giving this starting lineup the kind of solid, beefy, really wing-sized front option, they’ve been starving all season. With his defensive effort and tenacity, on nights when he shoots like that (10 points, 2-3 shots from deep) and earning praise from his coaches and teammates, it will be difficult to keep him off the ground. Or off the list, for that matter.
And with just one more game to play Sunday against the Minnesota Timberwolves before his current hardship deal expires, Johnson has presented another real case for the soon-to-be-released roster spot by trade Rajon Rondo, a place on the list that he’s made it clear he’s aiming for.
I spoke with Stanley Johnson about his Lakers membership, his growth in wanting to play for LAL, his conversations with Frank Vogel, his career, and his goal of staying on the 15-player roster.
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With Darren Collison off Friday night, it’s hard not to think it’s Johnson’s place to lose at this point.
Finally, I just wanted to end this one with a quick note. It has been a trying year, both for me personally and possibly for everyone reading this. So on behalf of myself and all of the staff at Silver Screen and Roll, I just want to give a heartfelt thank you for making this community such a special place. The Lakers haven’t provided us with a ton of joy overall in 2021, but this site certainly did.
On the way to a better year 2022, and happy new year everyone.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on itunes, Spotify, Stapler Where Google podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.