SACRAMENTO, Calif. "The game had not even begun yet, and LeBron James could feel a disturbing headache that he could only convince was from the smoke that had the envelope downtown Sacramento and the fog hovered into the Golden 1 Center.
Smoke smoke in the stadium during the team's morning ship, James was not sure how the conditions of Camp Fire that caused about 70 miles north of Sacramento would affect the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday.
But the Lakers of late have been a team that seems to learn how to deal with adversity. Or maybe they will discover how to handle it better.
Smoke from a firepowder raging in Butte County, California, billowed to downtown Sacramento and was visible above the court at the Golden 1 Center.
The veteran center made an immediate impact on the Lakers defense and returned one day after arriving from Phoenix.
With the exception of perhaps the fullest first quarter, the Lakers have ever played that led to a terrible loss against the Toronto Raptors on Sunday, the team has won four of their over five games. Lakers put the brakes on a Sacramento Kings team that had won seven of their over 10 games with an impressive 101-86 victory.
And for the first time in the still fresh James Lakers time, Lakers reached 500.
Perhaps it feels like significant progress since the Lakers (6-6) lost five of their first seven games and the sky felt like it was on them just over a week ago.
The Lakers were already expected to have a potential rocky start, but no one counted with Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram who scored several games for Houston Rocket Brawl only two games in the season or Magic Johnson chiding Luke Walton after just seven matches. Walton was in review of his job security until Johnson came out saying that his coach was sure to prevent something drastic.
But after all turbulence, the Lakers can approach 35,000 feet and "cruise height". Can things stabilize? It will no doubt be more drama in the future for the Lakers because it's LeBron and it's L.A. But this profit in Sacramento was a clear sign of progress.
Look no further than the defense of the defense. Just a few days ago, Johnson, the Lakers president of basketball, expressed his dissatisfaction by explaining that part of his meeting with Walton was that "we are last in defense." We must be better. "
Starting Saturday, the Lakers had raised 110 plus points in each of their first 11 games, bound for the longest strike in the franchise history to start a season (1961-62). It was the longest line of any team to start a season since 1983-84 Nuggets, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
But against an improved Kings team that was No. 1 at 109.0, the Lakers slowly slowed down Sacramento and closed the Kings in the halfway. According to Second Spectrum, Walton's defense, Sacramento, held 24.7 percent in halfway, the best of any team in any regular season or playoff game in the past five seasons.
|Lakers (Rank)||Before October 30th||Since October 30th|
|W-L||2-5 (T-20th)||4-1 (T-4)|
|Of. Eff.||113.0 (7th)||105.8 (18th)|
|Def. Eff.||113.2 (23th)||103.1 (5th)|
|Opp. FTA rate||.292 (21st)||.178 (1st)|
The Lakers had emphasized limiting fast points in recent days and the team heard the coaching staff.
"Will come back in transition, miss and do, kill balls, all," James said. "Will only come back. The Aaron Fox is one of the fastest guards we got in our game, and they are now # 1 in line right now. So we placed great emphasis on coming back and putting several bodies in front of all of them. "
"We got stuck in the game for 48 minutes," added James. "And we've done it too late, and it has resulted in victories."
Several factors have contributed to Laker's play in games. Their chemistry seems to be forming now that they are 12 matches this season. Sure, the young players like Ingram and Lonzo Ball still looks like they are looking for their comfort zone with the improved route. And veterinarians like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Lance Stephenson are still struggling to adapt to their varied playing time.
Lonzo Ball misses a short floater, jumper and 3 pointer.
But after watching lineups and rotations, Walton gets a better feel for which groups work best together, and the Lakers become more comfortable with each other.
"We were just in sync," said the power forward Kyle Kuzma, who looks more calm in the starting lineup and does not need to play as much backup center. "We knew the playing field and everyone followed it and we had each other's back. It was a while I was in an iso with Aaron Fox and I knew Rondo was on my left side and he gave me confidence. Chemistry will help to.
"The Toronto game kind of kicked us in the butt, but we just have to take it day by day, game for play and I think that's what we do for the most part and you can see it with the chemistry."
Another important factor has been the addition of downtown Tyson Chandler. Just like a magic look-pass, you may not have seen Chandler buyout and signing with the Lakers will – especially this early in the season. But the results so far have been amazing.
Chandler seems to be the perfect fit for what the Lakers need – a backup center that does many of the things JaVale McGee provides. He provides a rim protection, a lobe-option of pick-and-roll, leg scratch screens, championship experience, Rondo and James-like communication skills, and a soothing veteran presence in the dressing room.
Before Chandler arrived, Walton must either go to McGee on the bench by putting Kuzma at the center or undercutting two-way contract player Johnathan Williams or going to the still some raw Ivica Zubac. Now he has Chandler who grew 12 rebounds and helped limit Willie Cauley-Stein to 12 points and 12 returns a game after helping Karl-Anthony Towns to 13 points and nine rebounds in a victory over Minnesota.
"He just shored up our front court," James said. "We have a good 1-2 punch now in JaVale and Tyson. JaVale gives us so much to start the game with its ability to protect the edge and also be so effective offensive. And when he comes out the game we do not have no attenuation, no one drop. And Tyson comes in and he gives even more intensity. And it's only good to have it in our main court. "
To limit Sacramento to 34.8 percent and postpone Kings 52-38 in the color, the Lakers got to breathe out in the fourth quarter for once with a double-digit lead. Even though they had a 20-point cushion slipped to 10 at 4:45 left, the Lakers never let it slip anymore. It's a step forward after they had to continue dear life against Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers in their past three wins.
"There is progress," said Walton. "I've said it all the time. I can not win games first but keep them all close and then get wires and not be able to hold on to them but find a way to win at the end. Tonight it was the first time we really took the lead and held on that lead.
"We know that it will never be a straight line where we are going. We will deal with more adversity, but as long as we continue to work as a group to get better, it will be fine."
At the end of the game, James's headache had been a long time and he could be heard laughing with Ball and chatting up with Rondo in the dressing room.
Rajon Rondo shoots the ball and passes to Kyle Kuzma, who finishes the quick break with a dunk.
With the rebuilding of Atlanta Hawks in Los Angeles for Lakers second of a home-back-to-back set, James knows that his team can not afford to fall into the trap of not appearing early as it did Sunday in the same circumstances against Toronto.
But this Lakers team is playing better than it was a week ago. And that's the perfect remedy for James's headache.
"The record will of course speak, but at the end of the day it's about how you play at that time," James said when asked if the Lakers should reach .500. "And right now we play good ball both offensive and defensive."