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After lіneup сhange, LeBron Jаmes аnd Anthony Dаvis tаke іt uрon themѕelveѕ to end Lаkers’ ѕkid


The rumblings of a Los Angeles Lakers starting lineup change began Friday afternoon.

Following the team’s 119-111 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday, Anthony Davis challenged his teammates, privately calling Saturday’s game vs. Oklahoma City a “must-win” and then publicly applying pressure by using the same phrase to the media. The Lakers, on a four-game losing streak and just 1-5 since their In-Season Tournament title, appeared to be on the brink of a downward spiral.

They needed to adjust. The status quo wasn’t working.

Given both the Lakers’ and D’Angelo Russell’s recent struggles (9.4 points per game on a 40.4 effective field-goal percentage since Dec. 9) , Lakers head coach Darvin Ham decided to make his second dramatic starting lineup change of the season. Six weeks after sending Austin Reaves to the bench, Ham did the same thing to his other starting guard, inserting Jarred Vanderbilt for Russell and sliding James back to point guard. The decision to swap Russell’s offense for Vanderbilt’s defense and go with a unit of James, Taurean Prince, Cam Reddish, Vanderbilt and Davis raised eyebrows considering the Lakers are currently tied for 23rd in offensive rating and tied for seventh in defensive rating.

For one night, at least, it worked well enough. Los Angeles halted their skid, picking up a much-needed 129-120 road win over the West’s second-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder  Saturday to improve to 16-14 and 2-5 since the In-Season Tournament.

“We needed this win,” James told reporters postgame. “We didn’t want to end the road trip in a losing effort. So we knew the second night of a back-to-back against Minnesota was going to be very difficult. To come in here to play versus a team that’s been playing extremely well throughout this season, it was a big win for us.”

James (a season-high 40 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, two steals and two blocks) and Davis (26 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, one steal and two blocks) dominated against the Thunder. The 38-year-old James, in particular, was amazing, scoring 15 points in the fourth quarter while stymieing the Thunder’s late rally with clutch basket after clutch basket. Eleven of his 15 points came in the final four and a half minutes.

The game marked the 75th time James has scored at least 40 points in the regular season. James was 13-of-20 from the floor, 5-of-5 on 3s and 9-of-9 on free throws.

“I mean, to know I can go out and still make game-winning plays and affect the game in multiple ways and I can still close out a game in the fourth quarter when my team needed it, when they started making a run, it’s always a good feeling, for sure,” James said.

While new starting group wasn’t the driving force in the Lakers’ success against the Thunder — Los Angeles was plus-1 in their 10 minutes together — it served as a much-needed reset for the Lakers’ rotation. One of the byproducts of the new starting lineup was a simplified offensive hierarchy: The ball flowed through James and Davis, with Prince, Reddish and Vanderbilt operating as finishers. The Lakers used a healthy dose of the James-Davis two-man game — mainly pick-and-rolls and dribble hand-offs — and even with limited space, they were able to generate high-percentage looks at the rim or over the top of OKC’s smaller perimeter defenders.

On the other side of the ball, the biggest advantage of starting five players 6-foot-6 and taller was the ability to switch across every position. Ham said the team plans on deploying a switch-heavy scheme moving forward.

“It allows you to keep the ball in front of you,” Ham said. “Whenever you’re in a drop or a hedge or you’re trying to ice it on the side, there’s a gap. There’s this little advantage that can be gained by the offense because of the space and you’re trying to maintain matchups. But when you have that type of size, and you start that type of size, length and athleticism, and you can switch down the line, they basically gain no advantage.”

The obvious trade-off to Ham’s starting lineup decision is the other end of the floor. It features only two above-average 3-point shooters in Prince and James — a cardinal sin for a starting group in the current NBA. Vanderbilt has yet to make a 3-pointer this season (0 for 8 entering Saturday’s game), and Reddish was a 30.9 percent 3-pointer shooter this season entering Saturday. On top of that, none of Prince, Vanderbilt, or Reddish are a reliable secondary ballhandler or creator.


On this night, though, the Lakers won this game more with their offense than their defense, thanks in large part to key contributions off the bench to supplement James and Davis.

Rui Hachimura was the main beneficiary of the new rotation despite not starting. He scored 21 points (16 in the first half), was third on the team in minutes (29) and continued his offensive surge that began last week. James dubbed Hachimura’s performance “big-time.”

“That’s what I have to do,” Hachimura said. “I have to do what the team wants me to do. And I’m here for it. I take the challenge and, you know, it’s just a part of the game. That’s what I did last year. During the playoffs, I finally found a rhythm that was with the same rotation. But it’s hard, you know. I just got to keep going. being aggressive on both ends.”

Reaves played the final 18 minutes of the game, logging 28 minutes total, and replaced Russell as the team’s primary floor general and distributor. Meanwhile, Russell excelled in a scoring role off the bench, dropping 15 points, 12 of which were in the first half.

It was Russell who took the most notable backseat in the new rotation. He played just 17 minutes in the game, his lowest minute total of the season, and did not appear in the game’s final 13 minutes and 44 seconds.

“The result was a win,” Russell said of the benching. “For me, that’s all that matters.”

Ham said he invited Russell into his hotel suite on Friday to discuss a role change.

“He was a total pro about it, first and foremost,” Ham said. “… He took it in stride. Came in with a great attitude today. Great attitude tonight. He was huge for us off the bench. Made some huge 3s. And just played real good, solid basketball. And gave us what we needed him to give. It was great.”

Russell declined to add any detail to Ham’s account.

“No, I mean, it is what it is,” Russell said. “I don’t have no comment or no headline for you.”

Overall, the Lakers shot 52.2 percent from the field, made 16-of-32 from 3 and posted a season-high 37 assists, including a team-high nine from Reaves, seven from Davis and seven from Reddish. Combine that with just nine turnovers, and this was almost certainly their best offensive performance of the season.

“The only way you can get assists are if your teammates are making shots so everyone was making shots,” James said. “When everyone was passing the ball, we were trying to keep it on time, on target and not turn the ball over. And that was the key to it.”

This appears to be the Lakers’ rotation for the foreseeable future, especially since Gabe Vincent, the team’s most significant offseason addition, is considering surgery on his left knee, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania. The procedure would have a six- to eight-week recovery timetable.

Vincent missed 24 of the first 29 games of the season. He returned Wednesday in Chicago, logging 14 minutes, but has dealt with swelling since then, forcing him to contemplate an arthroscopic surgery. A decision could be made as soon as Sunday.

This was the Lakers’ best non-IST win of the season. They beat the second-best team in the West in a hostile environment where they lost in earlier in the season. They rose to meet Davis’ challenge.

Still, the new starting lineup is not a panacea. The Lakers largely won because their two superstars dominated and the team had one of its best shooting performance of the season. It doesn’t matter who’s playing alongside James and Davis when they’re playing at the level they showed Saturday. But that won’t be the case every night.

The performance doesn’t change the fact that that unit doesn’t have enough ballhandling or shooting. The Thunder happily sagged off Vanderbilt and Reddish, forcing James and Davis to try score through a packed paint. Moreover, the Lakers are now bringing their third-, fourth- and fifth-highest paid players off the bench (Russell, Hachimura and Reaves, in that order), all of which were re-signed this summer as the Lakers prioritized continuity.

Still, the Lakers got the win they desperately needed, and Ham deserves credit for pushing the right buttons with the rotation over the course of the game. Los Angeles played bigger, with more Hachimura and Vanderbilt and less Prince and Russell. The closing lineup of Davis, James, Hachimura, Reddish and Reaves might be their best unit, though it had barely played together before Saturday.

The next step for the team, in Ham’s view, is consistently treating every game with the urgency of a must-win, not just when there are increased stakes like a cash prize or a losing streak.

“We have to get to the point where we can initiate, sustain and finish based on what we want Laker basketball to look like,” Ham said. “Not just if we’re playing for something or it’s something at stake or whatever. It can’t just be about that.”

They’ll face their greatest test yet on Christmas on Monday when they face their bitter rivals, the East-leading Boston Celtics. The motivation for the matchup is obvious. It’s also another opportunity for the Lakers to tinker with their rotation and figure out a more sustainable path forward.

“They’re one of the teams that’s at the top of the food chain in our league,” Ham said. “We get a chance to see where we are. You don’t have to have a Knute Rockne speech for this one. It’s a classic Lakers-Celtics game.”

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