LOS ANGELES — Coming off their first win of the season over Phoenix’s desert island of misfit toys, the Lakers sparked their first winning streak of the season, topping the Denver Nuggets, 121-114. The game was a seesaw affair throughout, but the Lakers wrested control of the game in the final four minutes.
The Lakers might not be currently constructed to be a top-flight defensive team, but there were some encouraging signs in their best effort of the season.
Watching Lonzo Ball constantly hound Murray the full length of the floor — picking Murray’s pocket just before halftime for an easy bucket as just reward — was a reminder that the Lakers employ several capable defenders, even if their team concepts have a ways to go. They needn’t be the sieve of a defense they demonstrated the first week of the season.
For James, Thursday was a complete performance and his first triple-double as a Laker — 28 points (10-for-17 from the floor), 11 rebounds and 11 assists. James has been selective with his attacks in the early going this season, but seeing an opportunity to rumble coast-to-coast in the third, he willingly forced the issue on several occasions — most notably a slam on the break courtesy of a pass-ahead from Lance Stephenson that gave the Lakers the lead with 3:29 remaining in the game. And from the top of the floor as a facilitator, he was characteristically lethal with his surgical passing.
James is well aware that the Lakers won’t be the most proficient shooting team in the league, but their final possession of the first half was a vivid illustration of how the elite vision of James and teammate Lonzo Ball can compensate for perimeter shortcomings; an exercise the Lakers showed off in the win. As the Denver defense gravitated toward James with the clock winding down, he zipped the ball cross-court in the opposite corner to Ball, who then instantly shuttled it over to Kyle Kuzma for an open 3-pointer on the wing.
The shot vaulted the Lakers in the lead heading to intermission — more evidence that better decisions will yield better results. If Kuzma (22 points) continues to sprint the floor in transition and float to open space on the perimeter as he did on Thursday night, he should be exceptionally well-fed this season. His two dunks in the final two minutes, one courtesy of James, helped seal the game for the Lakers.
Ball and James, both heady and intrinsically unselfish on the court, are clearly establishing some teammate telepathy. On a half-court possession in the third, Ball immediately recognized a strong early seal by James against the smaller Torrey Craig — quick lob, easy two. Take a glimpse at some of the Lakers’ easier looks, and there’s a high probability the opportunity was initiated by Ball leading a teammate, then delivering a pinpoint pass. He finished with 12 points, including a crucial 3-pointer inside of three minutes, eight assists, six rebounds, along with five steals.
The Lakers again relied on the waste management services of JaVale McGee. For the second consecutive night, McGee topped 20 points and is now averaging a handsome 17.2 points per game on the season. McGee also played 31 minutes – his first 30-minute game since February 2013.
Nikola Jokic (24 points and 11 rebounds) was a handful for McGee and the Lakers, both underneath and operating as the Nuggets’ offensive fulcrum out of the high post, and the Lakers will need to establish the collective awareness to defend a team like Denver that utilizes its bigs as playmakers. Better defenses than the Lakers have bore the brunt of Jokic, but the Lakers were similarly picked apart by Mason Plumlee and Trey Lyles — something to work on at Saturday’s shootaround in San Antonio.
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