Where Will the Lakers Go After Surviving a Chaotic Week of Trade Deadline Rumors?
BOSTON — Seconds to go, the Lakers down a point and of course the ball found its way into the hands of Rajon Rondo. Rondo, the ex-Celtic whose NBA career has taken him to five different teams since his 8 1/2-season run in Boston ended. Rondo, who hours earlier was on the parquet floor with his son, flipping up shots in a building he made so many memories in. Rondo, the lone Laker to be cheered in the starting lineup, drilling a game-winner with his former teammate, Kevin Garnett, decked out in a Rondo Celtics jersey just feet away.
It was 129-128 Los Angeles, and boy, did the Lakers need this one. Two days earlier L.A. was in Indiana, getting tattooed by the Victor Oladipo-less Pacers, the lasting memory being an image of LeBron James with several empty seats between him and his teammates, the sounds of the Indiana crowd chanting "LeBron's gonna trade you" going viral across the country.
The Lakers, it seemed, were in danger of coming apart.
They didn't, at least not on Thursday, when James did what James does (28 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists), Rondo (17 points, 10 assists) more than held his own against Kyrie Irving (24 points .. on 21 shots) and the Lakers connected on a blistering 53.7% of its threes—22 in all—to rally from down 18 to win.
"I don't want to say need [to win], but winning helps a lot," Luke Walton said. "But one thing I can say about this group, whether we won this game tonight or lost, guys were going to come in tomorrow and work again."
The NBA trade deadline has come and gone, and across the league, everyone is wondering—will the Lakers crumble? The core of the team remained intact, with New Orleans ignoring offer after offer for Anthony Davis, preferring to wait until the offseason to deal its disgruntled star. But the Lakers did make offers, ones that became very public. Inside the L.A. locker room, everyone knows who has been deemed expendable.
That didn't happen Thursday. On Thursday, Kyle Kuzma chipped in 25 points, 15 of them coming off three's. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had 17 points, knocking down five three-pointers of his own. Brandon Ingram had 11, but his defense on Irving flustered the All-NBA point guard for much of the night.
"Being guarded by Brandon Ingram most of the game, I can’t even lie to you guys, those guys on the defensive end are unusual," Irving said. "Driving lanes that I see against every other team, they were closing down the lane."
From his corner locker, Ingram was one of the first Lakers dressed. He earned a distinction earlier in the day, with L.A.'s trade of Ivica Zubac: longest-tenured Laker. "I guess it's an accomplishment," Ingram said, laughing. Two days earlier, Ingram didn't know if he would still be one. So how did Ingram feel, rebounding from a 42-point loss to win in Boston?
"It definitely gives us confidence," Ingram said. "We just have to get better every single day."
OK—but how difficult did things get, with trade rumors swirling and everyone but the Laker Girls being rumored to be on the move?
"I don't think I was nervous," Ingram said. "In any given situation, if it happens, it happens. I was chosen to stay here. It's all about the work now. I might have thought about it once or twice, but in any given situation I think I can be effective anywhere."
As the Lakers peer at the standings, there is a clear path to the postseason. The Clippers hold the No. 8 spot, but they spent the trade deadline dismantling the roster, embracing a likely fall out of the postseason mix in favor of flexibility in the offseason. The Kings—sandwiched between the two LA teams—made improvements, but it's been over a decade since Sacramento made the playoffs. With James healthy—and LeBron's 38 minutes Thursday suggesting he's fit for duty—the Lakers have the talent to muscle their way into the postseason.
Do they have the chemistry? That's the question. James isn't the GM, but he has openly pined for Davis, shares an agent with the Pelicans superstar and knows there is a clock on his career. Will the locker room be divided by the perception that James, however indirectly, tried to force his younger teammates out? Oh, and there is the reemergence of LaVar Ball—who resumed criticizing Walton last week, took shots at Magic Johnson and declared the Lakers have turned Lonzo "into a loser"—to account for.
In Hollywood, there is drama.
James is capable of duct taping all this together and willing the Lakers to wins. He's a basketball immortal, 34 and still able to take over a game when he wants to, to elevate teammates when he needs to. He missed five weeks with a groin injury—the longest stint on the injured list of his career—but Walton says he saw signs of James getting his bounce back in the loss to Indiana, and he submitted a dominant second half on Thursday night.
"I am starting to get more and more back to myself," James said.
The Lakers stopped the bleeding in Boston, but there is plenty of work ahead. The noise of the week leading up to the trade deadline must be forgotten, any ill will over it washed away. Come together, the Lakers make the playoffs and, with James, anything can happen. Come apart, and an ugly week could get much worse.