Their record may not be pretty, but the Los Angeles Lakers are still a pretty good team.
The Lakers are 3-5 after they pulled off a clutch 114-113 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday night, finally closing out a team in a close game after consecutive four-point losses against both the San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves.
It may have taken a dumb personal foul by Wesley Matthews and a clutch free throw by LeBron James to seal it, but it was a win — and a much-needed one at that.
In case you’ve forgotten, with the exception of LeBron and JaVale McGee, the entire starting lineup is made up of nothing but young players. Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball are both 21 years old, and Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart are both just 23 years of age.
This is an extremely young squad that may have gifted players, but they’ve never learned how to win at the professional level. While the Lakers certainly made strides in winning 35 games last season — their highest win total since 2012-13 — their entire main core outside of LeBron have yet to win anything on the grand stage. They’re literally learning on the fly.
James, who has won three NBA titles and been to nine Finals appearances in his career, spoke of the importance of the Lakers’ latest victory.
“Listen, I’m extremely happy we’re going through it,” said James, who had a game-high 29 points. “You can talk about it, you can preach about it, you can watch film about it, but the best teacher in life is experience. And it’s great these young guys are getting experience of playing these tight, close games, and then tonight we was on the other side of it.”
For as much criticism as this team has taken on early in the season, they’re not bad by any means. They have the slimmest margin of defeat at -0.2 points per game and they’ve literally been in every game this season. They have yet to be blown out and while they can’t defend worth a lick, really, what team in the NBA these days can? Heck, the San Antonio Spurs entered Wednesday night with the second-worst defense in the NBA. Such is life in the 2018-19 version of the NBA, where everyone scores with ease.
Despite the difficulty of playing defense in today’s pace-and-space era, you have to learn how to play defense when it counts. Lakers coach Luke Walton admitted as such following another nail-biting game for his team.
“I know we ended up almost giving it away, which is a great lesson for us to learn,” Walton said. “NBA games are never over, and you have to play the game a certain way. If you mess with the game, the game will mess with you.
“You have to be able to rely on defense to win a game. That’s why we’re going to keep working on it and keep preaching it until we get to that level that we can do it.”
This isn’t going to be a cakewalk for the Lakers. Heck, this certainly is not going to be a free ride to the NBA Finals for LeBron, as he had become accustomed to playing in the Eastern Conference his entire career.
It’s going to be a grind-it-out affair each and every game during this 82-game regular season. But for those lamenting that LeBron may have made the wrong decision for leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for Los Angeles, remember — this is a marathon, not a sprint.
LeBron signed a four-year deal with the Lakers this summer, meaning this is a four-year project. We can continue to speculate when the 33-year-old veteran’s demise will come, but the bottom line is, his play and athleticism has yet to slip. In other words, we shouldn’t assume LeBron will face his demise in the near future, when he has yet to even show any signs of mortality.
The Cavaliers are a disaster at 1-6, having recently fired Tyronn Lue and now scrambling to fire a new head coach just months after advancing to their fourth consecutive Finals appearance. They have one of the worst defenses in the league and no immediate future.
When you look at the Lakers, they have an immediate future. They have loads of potential and have already shown that they can hang with some of the very best in the Western Conference despite featuring young players that have never even played in the postseason.
You may not see the results right now, but this is a dangerous Lakers team that is learning how to win.
It’s just going to take time — and a whole lot of patience.
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