The Lakers, playing at full strength earlier in the season, blew a 19-point lead in their first matchup against the Golden State Warriors. Apparently, that created a bit of bad blood. The Lakers won the February rematch by 26 points, and on Monday, despite missing Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol and Alex Caruso, they blew the Warriors out yet again by 31 points. They did so with one of their best offensive performances of the year, setting season-highs in assists (36) and field goal percentage (62.8 percent) in the 128-97 victory.
The Warriors got 27 points out of Stephen Curry, but his teammates shot only 9-of-30 on 3-pointers. Golden State’s lack of firepower around Curry has been a problem all season, but when the Lakers shoot as well as they did Monday, few teams in the entire NBA are capable of beating them. Here are three key takeaways from the Laker victory.
1. LeBron is making a serious MVP push
The Lakers are now 9-7 in the 16 games that Anthony Davis has missed, but they are 9-2 when Davis sits but LeBron James and Dennis Schroder play. Despite missing their second-best player for almost half of the season, the Lakers now have sole possession of the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference and trail the Phoenix Suns by only a single loss in the standings. It’s a testament to LeBron’s greatness that he’s been able to keep the Lakers afloat, and it creates a fascinating dynamic in the MVP debate.
Monday was a relatively ho-hum game by LeBron’s standards. He posted a triple-double, yes, but attempted only 13 shots in 30 minutes. His numbers overall this season lag behind the other candidates, and with Joel Embiid now set to miss several weeks due to injury, three very different kinds of candidates now sit atop the leaderboard. James has built a case on winning under adverse circumstances. Nikola Jokic has the best statistics. Giannis Antetokounmpo might be the best combination of the two, but there is a subset of voters hesitant to honor him for the third consecutive season after his previous playoff disappointments.
James is the favorite in Vegas right now. The final standings will play a role in the voting as well. If, for instance, the Lakers manage to reclaim home-court advantage in the Western Conference? It would be hard to imagine James not winning. If Denver can sneak into the top four and close the gap with the Lakers? Jokic would become the favorite. If the Bucks recapture the regular-season dominance that has propelled Giannis through the past two races, he might be able to overcome both. But voters are fundamentally fallible. They are human, and narratives always wind up mattering. Right now, the narrative that LeBron is carrying a weakened Lakers team has him leading the pack. Is it justified? That depends on your definition of value. Whether or not LeBron actually is the most valuable player in basketball is a separate debate. Right now, he’s doing what he needs to do in order to sway voters.
2. Montrezl Harrell is finding his groove
Montrezl Harrell sent a concerning tweet during the All-Star break, writing “Think it’s time I call it quits to everything and everyone!” He also tweeted about missing his grandmother, who died last year, and Lakers owner Jeanie Buss responded by promising to hug him as soon as she saw him (which she reportedly did). While his issues appeared to be personal in nature, his basketball life hasn’t been particularly easy recently either.
After averaging around 25 minutes per game for most of the season, Harrell saw his workload decrease to approximately 20 minutes per night during a recent 10-game stretch despite Davis’ absence. He had back-to-back six-point outings and even heard his name in trade rumors. Harrell left money on the table to sign with the Lakers. Seeing his role marginalized and his value questioned can’t have been easy.
But he’s been spectacular since returning from the break. He gave the Lakers 17 points on 8-of-11 shooting on Friday against Indiana, and against the Warriors, he dropped 27 on 11-of-14 from the field. Frank Vogel complimented his defense on Monday as well, and told reporters that Harrell has “been invaluable. He’s been a big part of our success this season, especially with A.D. and Marc being out, we’ve had to rely on him.”
The Lakers will be aggressive in seeking out upgrades at the deadline. That might mean moving Harrell. But right now, he’s making a compelling argument against doing so.
3. Teamwork makes the dream work
The Lakers shot 62.8 percent from the field against the Warriors. That was not only their best shooting performance of the season, but their most efficient night of offense since January of 2010. Not coincidentally, they dished out a season-high 36 assists. The message here is clear: ball-movement leads to good offense.
It’s a lesson that the Lakers need to internalize. Their overall passing numbers are strong, but too often, their offense devolves into four players watching James and hoping that he can make a play. Moving off of the ball and making the extra pass makes it that much easier for him to do so.