What a difference an offseason makes. Last season was the first time LeBron James was eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs. The extra rest afforded may well have done him the world of good, if not the Lakers themselves.
Remember that this is a 36-year-old in his 19th season with over 61,000 minutes on the clock, though you wouldn’t know it given his 34-point outing on Tuesday night.
Anthony Davis, too, looked revitalised as he went for 33 and 11, yet it wasn’t enough as the Los Angeles Lakers fell 115-106 to the Golden State Warriors in their season opener at Staples Center.
Los Angeles Lakers
It was a fascinating, if slightly peculiar encounter which saw Steph Curry misfire (just 5-21 on field goals and 2-8 from three) but still rack up his first triple-double since 2016 and Jordan Poole and Nemanja Bjelica star for Golden State instead.
Despite 67 points, 22 rebounds and seven assists between them, James and Davis’ tremendous individual talent was no match for the Warriors’ slick ball movement as a team. Thirty of their 41 made field goals were directly from assists, while the clunkier Lakers had only 21 dimes for their 45 makes.
There was, however, one perfectly executed fast break which was enough to remind a nostalgic home crowd of the glorious sepia that was the ‘Showtime’ days.
Of course, this isn’t too surprising when much of the rotation arrived over the summer to bolster a fresh championship run behind their two stars. It will take time for all the new players to gel and there is no rush yet, just as long as the purple and gold machine is in sparkling form come playoff time.
That being said, the immediate signs could hardly be less inspiring.
Russell Westbrook had a ghastly debut, posting just eight points on 31 per cent shooting and committing four turnovers for four assists. He was also -23 in plus/minus. The next worst player, Malik Monk, was only -10.
In terms of game score, a holistic measure of a single performance, it was the eighth-worst game of Westbrook’s entire career to date, spanning over 1,000 appearances.
If there is one consolation for both him and the Lakers it’s that it’s hard to imagine things getting much worse.
Speaking of Monk, the former Charlotte Hornets shooting guard proved to be nothing more than a traffic cone on defense, combining with the veteran Carmelo Anthony to usher Golden State players forward for easy buckets whenever the pair of them were involved in the complexities of a simple pick and roll.
‘Melo’ at least provided some trademark dome-tapping three-pointers, even if he did also pump fake a free throw for reasons only he can explain.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors will be thrilled to come away with a win here on a night in which their superstar, supernova point guard Curry admitted he “played like trash and shot the ball terribly.” Even so, he is far more than just the best shooter in the NBA and his playmaking and rebounding (especially for his size) were vital in propelling Golden State to victory.
Unlike Westbrook, he knows there won’t be too many shooting performances like that one.
In the end though, the heroes of the night were the aforementioned Poole and Bjelica. Poole played with real confidence and aggression to pour in his 20 points, as well as demonstrating a Curry-like disregard for where the three-point line actually exists on the court. Expect him to be a serious contender for the Most Improved Player award this season.
As for Bjelica, he was only a bit-part player with the Sacramento Kings and Miami Heat last season, but this smooth Serbian big man can handle the ball, find a pass and knock down a three – perfect for Golden State’s whirring motion offense. With 15 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and a game-high +20 in plus/minus he proved that it’s not always the glamorous names that make the real difference.
It may have ended in defeat, but this was still a night that proved a healthy Lakers frontcourt of Davis and James is enough to rampage to a title with only a little help around them. LeBron’s jump-shot, particularly from the left wing and elbow, looks more deadly than ever as he knocked down 5-11 from beyond the arc and 13-23 of his field goals.
They won’t be too concerned by this opening night loss. As for their head coach Frank Vogel and co-star Westbrook, the two men who will feel significant pressure to improve almost immediately, it might well be a different story.