It makes no difference to the champion Los Angeles Lakers, who won a tense 103-100 play-in game against the scariest dude of them all on Wednesday. LeBron James’ Hail Mary must have been grace-filled in the final minute, much to the chagrin of Stephen Curry, a man who has done his fair share of incredible magic this time of year.
However, it may have been the ideal test for a team that struggled more internally than externally throughout the season. Having not played a meaningful game since leaving the Orlando bubble last October, it was the first time the Los Angeles Lakers had to rely on something other than their own talent — and it was probably a relief to discover there is something there.
Despite the fact that Curry took the air out of Staples Center with a buzzer-beating three-pointer at halftime, there was never a sense that the Lakers were out of it. They frequently did just enough to stay in the game — an Alex Caruso spurt here, timely defense there — to show that there is championship DNA in the midst of all the adversity that landed them in this play-in spot.
They made it through the night, most likely because the Golden State Warriors ran out of talent faster than the Lakers did. It felt more like the first game of a long playoff series than an NCAA Tournament game. The way Golden State became the aggressors, forcing the Lakers to change strategy and possibly giving a glimpse of what they should expect in the coming days and weeks, could have been a wake-up call.
Fortunately for everyone involved, this isn’t a one-and-done scenario, and there’s a slim but unlikely chance these two combatants will meet up again for a moonlight dance. Early on, some of the younger Warriors without rings were a little too brazen in trash-talking James and Anthony Davis. It’s all good if you can back it up, and they felt validated after taking a 13-point lead in the first half.
Davis appeared to struggle in the bubble, as he did against P.J. Tucker, but he got his skins later when everyone realized his elevator goes higher than anyone in the building, let alone Draymond Green.
Not in front of a crowd, despite the fact that this growing throng was of the friendly variety. There is no substitute for home-court advantage, which the Lakers are unlikely to have in the playoffs, beginning with a first-round matchup against Phoenix.
And not as defending champions, where they are obligated to match an opponent’s intensity and effort. Given the short offseason, there has been an unspoken decision to ease into the season since the start of the season.
Aside from Frank Vogel’s No. 1 ranked defense, there was no need to ratchet it up because the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Then came the injuries to Davis’ calf and James, who was out for the second time in three years.
Even though James clearly doesn’t look like his best self, he didn’t need to be invincible to hit a 30-footer with 58 seconds left, and let him tell you, he didn’t need perfect vision after being hit in the eye by Green inadvertently a couple minutes before.
He didn’t appear to be explosive, but that had little to do with his eyes, as he directed traffic to pinpoint passes to cutters heading to the rim or at the very least slide into position to get some generous whistles before being overturned by replay. Although the rest of the Warriors’ roster lacks playoff experience, this could be the most difficult test for the Lakers in at least the next month.
The sixth-seeded Houston Rockets of 1995 hold the record for the lowest-seeded team to win a championship, and they, too, were coming off a title the year before. On paper, the similarities may end there, but things don’t have to be parallel for the Lakers to run through the West in search of a date with destiny.
The belief — at least among those who believe the Clippers are cowards — is that the Lakers will get stronger as time passes, as a rhythm develops, and as health improves. They accelerated that learning curve in one game, forcing Green and Curry to commit six turnovers each despite Curry’s 37-point performance.