Forget the hourglass emojis. Forget the cryptic responses about LeBron James’ future in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform. Forget the trade deadline.
In Saturday night’s 113-105 win over the New York Knicks in a national TV showcase at Madison Square Garden, the Lakers dismissed all the nonsense and got back to basics. And for the Lakers, that means playing defense.
Darvin Ham’s squad entered Saturday’s game ranked 15th in the league in defensive efficiency — the very definition of mediocrity. With an offense that, even at its best, will struggle from night to night, it’s essential that the Lakers play elite defense to give themselves a chance to win. In the fourth quarter of Saturday night’s game, the Knicks — who had won nine straight — got a taste of exactly what it looks like when the Lakers are locked in on that end of the floor.
After entering the final frame trailing 86-82, the Lakers quickly roared back to tie things up at 96-96 with just over seven minutes remaining. That’s when L.A. ratcheted up the defensive intensity, holding the Knicks scoreless until less than a minute remained and the game was already in the Lakers’ hands. They were also able to do this without Jarred Vanderbilt, their best defender not named Anthony Davis, which required communication and cohesion.
“We was really on point and on time with our doubles, our hits and our rotations,” James said of the fourth-quarter connectivity.
And then of course there’s Davis’ Defensive Player of the Year-level individual brilliance, which he displayed by blocking two consecutive layup attempts in the third quarter.
Even while missing Julius Randle and OG Anunoby, among others, the Knicks entered the game red-hot, with Donte DiVincenzo and Josh Hart playing particularly well. Ultimately, though, the Lakers had to be sure to contain Jalen Brunson, who entered the fourth quarter with 25 points and scored just four more before a few garbage-time buckets.
“Obviously, Jalen is playing at more than an All-Star level this year, so we know he’s the head of the snake,” James said after the game. “But we just tried to wear him down throughout the fourth quarter and get rebounds.”
Offensively, the Lakers didn’t do much in terms of theatrics. James didn’t go on a trademark scoring binge and Davis didn’t dominate inside. Instead they pieced it together, only needing occasional baskets because of their incredible defensive performance. It’s a tried and true formula for the Lakers, who were second in defensive rating following the trade deadline last season and fifth of 16 playoff teams in their run to the Western Conference finals.
They’re not going to pitch shutouts every time out, but on Saturday night the Lakers showed that if they’re going to make a run in the second half of the season and potentially into the playoffs, they’re going to have to do it on the defensive end.