How Lakers’ fan base fueled team to comeback win

The Sporting Tribune's Mark Medina writes the Lakers' first postseason home game with fans in 10 years powered them late.

LOS ANGELES – They roared when they thought Lakers guard Dennis Schroder made a game-winner 3.

They groaned when Anthony Davis foiled those plans with a closeout foul on Minnesota Timberwolves guard Mike Conley, who sank three free throws to force overtime.

They exhaled once the Lakers overcame those miscues and finished with a 108-102 overtime win over the Minnesota Timberwolves in a play-in game on Tuesday at Arena.

The Lakers experienced agony, frustration and elation all in one game. It turns out the sell-out crowd of 18,997 fans provided the soundtrack to capture all of those emotions.

“The crowd definitely got us back into it,” Davis said. “With our play, having the crowd behind us, it was fun. The energy was there. This is what you dream about, playing in Crypto…”

Davis interrupted himself and laughed. A younger version of himself never envisioned the former Staples Center finding a new sponsor named after a new form of currency. He often thought about playing in an intense atmosphere, though.  

“It’s a new dream,” Davis said. “Playing in Crypto and allowing the crowd to do their thing and get the other team rattled, that gave us a little bit more energy to go on runs and make big plays. It was electric tonight.”

On the surface, the atmosphere may have seemed familiar.

Lakers fans gasped when they watched the team’s tribute videos and lineup introductions. They cheered when LeBron James clapped chalk by the scorer’s table. They soaked in Lawrence Tanter’s soothing words. They roared anytime the Lakers threw down a lob or nailed a deep 3. They booed and yelled at the officials anytime they disagreed with the calls. They sighed when Minnesota went on runs.

But this looked different. This sounded different. This felt different.

“It was great. They always show up and make noise,” Lakers guard Austin Reaves said. “But tonight was extra special. It’s probably the loudest since I’ve been here, and rightfully so for a big man and a must-win game.”

Nothing captured that more than the emotional swings with the final moments in regulation.

With the game tied at 95 with seven seconds remaining, James drove baseline and zipped the ball to Schroder by the corner. After his shot splashed through the net with 1.4 seconds left, Schroder stretched out his right arm and held his bicep. Standing along near midcourt, James performed the same gesture. Meanwhile, Lakers fans yelled, stomped and gave a standing ovation.

The good times didn’t last long, though. Before the Timberwolves’ inbound pass, the crowd called out “DEFENSE!” chants. If only Davis listened. After Minnesota guard Kyle Anderson fired the inbounds pass to Conley in the corner, Davis flashed to Conley and fouled him on the closeout. The entire arena groaned both after the foul and when Conley made all three free throws to force overtime.

The sell-out crowd still encouraged the Lakers. They held the Wolves to seven points in the final 11 minutes from midway through the fourth quarter. Minnesota missed 11 consecutive shots until Anthony Edwards made a dunk with 2:36 left in overtime.

“It was special,” Schroder said. “Without them, we probably wouldn’t have been here.”

The Lakers fans brought the energy in the team’s most important game in front of fans during James’ time here.

They witnessed the Lakers ensuring they would receive extra rest and preparation before facing the No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies in a first-round matchup beginning on Sunday.

They saw the Lakers avoid appearing in another play-in game on Friday here against the winner Wednesday’s game between Oklahoma City and Thursday, a must-win game that could result in the Lakers missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

And they willed the struggling Lakers into finally stitching together some championship fabric.

At first, Lakers fans either sighed, groans or booed. They sighed over the Lakers struggling from deep in the first half (3-for-13), while the Timberwolves fired away at ease (9-for-17). They winced when Minnesota went on multiple double-digit runs amid the Lakers’ sluggishness with missed shots and transition defense. They booed when Edwards and Rui Hachimura received double technicals toward the end of the first quarter after Edwards took exception to Hachimura flailing his legs in the air after a missed drive. They booed some more when James and Davis drew contact without rewards to the free-throw line.

Soon enough, those sighs, groans and boos turned into screams, cheers and claps. They clapped when Troy Brown Jr. forced a turnover before throwing a cross-court pass to Reaves. They screamed out M-V-P chants when Reaves went to the free-throw line. They cheered when Davis’ block turned into a James pass to Reaves for another layup.

Nonetheless, Minnesota still held a 60-49 half-time cushion following a 14-2 run. Lakers fans booed when officials called Davis for his third foul with 9:22 left before cheering when officials reversed the call on a challenge. They yelled out, “Ref, you suck!” after James collected his third foul with 7:11 remaining after defending Towns in the post. And the fans sighed after Anderson drained a 3 to extend Minnesota’s lead to 76-61 with 5:59 left.  

Laker fans felt toyed with their emotions for a bit more. That is until Malik Beasley made an open 3 that cut Minnesota’s lead to 84-77 lead with 1:59 left in the third quarter, prompting both Beasley and some fans to dance. On the final play of the quarter, the crowd then stood up and yelled out “Defense!” until Conley missed a 3 as time expired. That set up the heightened emotions in the fourth quarter and overtime.

No doubt, Lakers fans have witnessed other significant moments in recent years. In 2016, they roared as Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in his final NBA game. In 2018, they cheered as Bryant saw his No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys hang in the Lakers’ rafters. In 2019, they applauded James for surpassing Michael Jordan on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. In 2020, they mourned during the Lakers’ first home game following Bryant’s passing. Three months ago, they clapped for James as he eclipsed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for first place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Last month, they welcomed Pau Gasol during his jersey retirement ceremony.

Yet, most Lakers fans have not had the opportunity to witness the franchise excel in high-stakes games because of the pandemic. The Lakers won the NBA title three years ago in a quarantined campus without any fans in attendance. The Lakers could not hold a championship parade when they returned home. Nearly two months later, fans could not see the Lakers hang their latest title banner on opening night. With the pandemic relatively easing in 2021, only a handful of fans viewed the Lakers dramatic play-in win over Golden State and the team’s first-round exit to Phoenix. Lakers fans could not attend playoff games at all last season because the Lakers failed to reach that stage.

Simply put, Lakers’ fans have not witnessed any celebrated high-stakes game since they won Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals.

The Lakers lost in the second round for two consecutive seasons afterwards. In 2013, more misery ensured. Bryant remained hobbled on the bench while nursing crutches shortly after shattering his left Achilles tendon. Amid other injuries to Steve Nash and Steve Blake, Lakers fans watched a starting backcourt in Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock appear overwhelmed. Dwight Howard fielded countless boos before getting ejected in what would mark his final game during his first stint with the Lakers. After a Spurs team featuring Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginóbili and a young Kawhi Leonard swept the Lakers in the first round, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich conceded the matchup “wasn’t a fair fight.”

That became a familiar refrain for the next six seasons. Bryant nursed two more season-ending injuries (2013-15). The Lakers delayed their youth development during Bryant’s farewell tour (2015-16). The Lakers experienced more growing pains with young players (2016-18) before welcoming James (2018-19). All of which consisted of missed playoff appearances and too many injuries to count.

The Lakers have since ended their championship drought three years ago. Time will tell during this next month, however, whether the Lakers morph from a playoff threat to a title contender in front of their fans.  Count on the Lakers’ faithful, however, to bring that championship spirit beginning with Game 3 and 4 against Memphis.

Said Davis: “I know it’s going to be even louder.”

Mark Medina covers the NBA for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.

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