Behind a vintage LeBron James masterclass and a new starting lineup, the Los Angeles Lakers cruised to a much-needed 129-120 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, who entered Saturday’s game the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference standings. Head Coach Darvin Ham implemented a brand new starting lineup that emphasized defense, especially transition defense (something the Lakers have been struggling with all year). Rui Hachimura, Austin Reaves, and D’Angelo Russell all flourished off of the bench and the Lakers picked up a huge victory before their long-awaited Christmas day contest vs. the Boston Celtics on Monday.
Here are my three takeaways:
Before Saturday’s game, Darvin Ham told reporters that D’Angelo Russell would be coming off of the bench and added that Taurean Prince, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Cam Reddish would all join LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the starting lineup. Ham’s reasoning was that the Lakers would be much more versatile defensively and that would allow them to combat the struggles they were having in transition.
With Russell and/or Reaves in the starting lineup, the Lakers really struggled to get back in transition, which is why their defensive rating entering Saturday was ranked 8th despite them having a top 5 half-court defense. As I mentioned in the introduction, the Lakers jumped out to a big lead early and never really looked back. Prince finished with 10 points, 2 blocks, and 6 rebounds, Reddish dished out 7 assists, and Vanderbilt had 6 rebounds, a steal, and a block. A few times they slacked off defensively (When Russell was in), but overall this was a true masterclass by Ham with his rotations.
If you have read my last few articles then my admiration for Rui Hachimura is well known. He played 34 minutes with no James on Thursday and was extremely productive and efficient going 7-12 with 18 points. Coming off of the bench yet again on Saturday, Hachimura went 8-14 from the floor with 21 points and was a huge spark to the second unit.
Austin Reaves and D’Angelo Russell also had good offensive days with Reaves dishing out 9 dimes and contributing 11 points in 28 minutes and Russell contributing 15 points on 5-9 from the floor in just 17 minutes. Hachimura, Russell, and Reaves coming off of the bench together offered an offensive spark in the second-unit the Lakers have not had all season long, and it also allowed some flexibility with James and Davis’ minutes. Going into Monday’s big game against the Celtics, I’d assume a similar rotation will be utilized considering it worked very well against a good Thunder team.
Whenever the Lakers needed a spark and their lead was starting to wane with an OKC run, they leaned on their best player, LeBron James, to dominate and take pressure off of everyone else. He absolutely delivered and it was one of his best games all season, finishing with 40 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists on 13-20 from the floor. James was in control of the game from start to finish, getting to the rack whenever he wanted, dishing it out to open shooters when he got doubled, and just continuously making the right basketball plays, something he’s been doing now for 20 years. After Thursday’s loss vs. the Wolves (which James did not play in) he and the rest of the Lakers players emphasized that this was a “must-win” game following the four game losing streak. James and the Lakers knew the stakes and they stepped up when they needed to.
After a dominant win on Saturday, much more will be expected from the Lakers on Christmas against the team with the best record in the NBA, the Boston Celtics. Can James put together another masterclass and lead the Lakers to another upset?