I started this yesterday, but the points I'm trying to make are focused on the long-term.
After three days of being caught in basketball-less limbo, the NBA made its grand return for post-All-Star break action last night, and (it seems) a majority of eyes were focused on one matchup in particular: the Lakers, vying for a spot in the playoffs, versus the Rockets, a team trying to keep the league's MVP (James Harden) on his historic tear. After declaring that he was officially activating his playoff-intensity, LeBron took his dysfunctional crew into Staples and fought until the very end, coming out on top with a 111-106 victory. While the win was important for postseason positioning, it wasn't a very pretty victory, leading me to ask, will "Playoff LeBron" be enough?
Up until LA mounted their 19-point second-half comeback, they didn't look good; at all. There were a few moments throughout the game that had me asking "Are the Lakers bad?", and even flat-out stating "The Lakers might just be bad." There doesn't seem to be a lot of energy and effort at times, and a lot of possessions are ending in contested threes and turnovers (they finished the game shooting 26.7% from three with 18 TOs). Not everybody seems to trust each other, and I'm sure a large part of that still stems from the Anthony Davis-induced whirlwind a few weeks ago. Like I've said before, if any Laker is still feeling "down in the dumps" about being involved in trade rumors, it's time to get it together and fight for a playoff spot and prove they belong in LA next to LeBron. That being said, LeBron isn't innocent in terms of low-energy effort. I'm not sure if I'm convinced he's 100% healthy right now, and he certainly looks heavier like reported, but it doesn't feel like he's taking over games and driving to the rim whenever he pleases; his passes have also felt a bit off. LeBron is obviously an elite passer, but it feels like he's floating them through traffic and getting unnecessarily fancy, sometimes resulting in preventable turnovers (he finished with four last night).
It's no secret that the Lakers' have been giving an abysmal defensive effort since Lonzo Ball went down in their last matchup against Houston on January 19 with a left ankle sprain. It was reported that he should return to the court sometime soon after the All-Star break, but it came out yesterday that he's yet to return to on-court activities, so we'll see. People can hate on him all they want for his lack of scoring ability (right now) and his dad's antics (which I've personally come around on; the man's an entertainer at this point, don't take everything so seriously), but aside from LeBron, Lonzo is the backbone of this team. They go from a top defense to the worst in the league without him, and that makes a hell of a difference. Hopefully Lonzo can get back soon and put all these injuries behind him, because without him on the court, it's going to be a lot harder for the Lakers to find a rhythm.
The win was against a Houston team featuring the best player in the league this year, James Harden, but it wasn't all that impressive. It was a fairly ugly game, and even though Harden kept his historic 30-point streak alive (30 points on 11-24 shooting), the Rockets didn't look like a viable threat last night. They, much like the Lakers, fell victim to bad deep looks (29.3% from three) and lazy passing (14 TOs), and lost Harden to his sixth foul with a few minutes left. Chris Paul chipped in a near triple-double (23 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists), but nobody else put up more than 14. It was definitely an off-night for the Rockets, but they were able to spare a game. Last night was much more important for the Lakers than it was the Rockets; I still think they (HOU) could give any Western Conference teams problems in the playoffs, including Golden State.
LeBron eventually went into "Oh shit, we need a win"-mode during the massive comeback, but he wasn't alone in the effort. Brandon Ingram, aka the official player of "The Fro + The Flow" (available on all music streaming platforms), looked like he wanted to compete all night long, and he's been killing it as of late. He dropped 27 against the Rockets on 50% shooting to go along with 13 rebounds; he even made five more free throws than James Harden. There were times earlier in the season when my confidence in BI started to wane, but once I remembered he's only a year older than me and playing alongside the greatest ever, I realized I needed to be more patient, and it's paying off. Over his last ten games, BI is putting up 20.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 3.1 assists on 54.9% shooting, which had been much needed in the long-term absence of LeBron.
It looks like Lonzo is going to be out a little longer than expected. It was reported that Zo has yet to return to on-court activities, and a deep bone bruise might keep him out of the lineup for the next couple weeks. Luckily the Lakers are matched up against an AD-less Pelicans squad that has also been through enormous media strain the last weeks. If LA was able to take down an off-night Rockets team, tonight should be a step in the right direction in terms of getting on a roll and finding some consistency on the path to the eighth seed.
We got a preview of Playoff LeBron Friday night, and here's to hoping we get a full-showing tonight. The roster around LeBron, minus BI and Kuzma, can be pretty iffy, and sometimes downright bad, and it makes me think they're not a lock for the playoffs. Obviously I want to see LeBron make the playoffs, but will it all be worth it for a potential first-round sweep by the Warriors? I guess we can only wait and see.