Ever since their season got T-boned - first by LeBron James' groin injury, and then by James' and the front office's thirsty (failed) Anthony Davis pursuit - we've been watching and waiting for the Los Angeles Lakers to either band together or fall apart completely. For a while now, the latter has felt a lot closer than the former. The Lakers exited the All-Star break in 10th place in the Western Conference, a game under .500, and three games out of a playoff spot.
In their first contest after the break Thursday night, they erased a 19-point second-half deficit to beat a fully healthy Houston Rockets team. In the win, LeBron put up 29 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists, and made a handful of game-changing plays in the fourth quarter. On the surface, it was as good a start to the Lakers' playoff push as they could've asked for. Upon closer inspection, though, you'd still find some red flags.
This was not an especially good game for LeBron, relative to his lofty standards. His energy level, particularly at the defensive end, was sorely lacking for most of the contest. The Lakers almost exclusively stuck him on non-scoring threats. He spent the bulk of the game guarding P.J. Tucker, who mostly just stands in the corner. The benefit of that tactic, in theory, is that it allows James to be a free safety who roves and disrupts as necessary. But that concept relies on his willingness and efficacy as a help defender, and that's not really how things went.
In the series of clips below, LeBron allows James Harden to waltz in for an uncontested layup; stunts toward a driving Harden only to immediately leap back out of his path like a matador; gets burned by Eric Gordon on a closeout and then lazily slaps at the ball from behind rather than actually trying to recover back into the play; tries to steal the ball from Gerald Green under the hoop despite being in perfect position to deny his layup attempt; and makes a business decision to cede a wide-open dunk to Harden despite lurking nearby on the baseline.
In a weird way, Tucker only attempting four shots in the game is an indictment on the guy who was guarding him. Tucker never needed to shoot the ball because LeBron simply wasn't effective as a helper.
In few of the instances did he offer even the pretense of a good-faith challenge. He seemed resistant to the idea of going vertical, which might speak to the fact that he's still very much feeling the effects of his Christmas Day groin strain. The most pressing question right now, then, is whether this is something LeBron can't do or something he won't. Neither answer is comforting.
There was also more obvious, avoidable stuff, like this:
The aggrieved body language is one thing (and in fairness, LeBron should've gotten the ball on that post seal), but look how long it took him just to get back into the frame while strolling back in transition.
The Lakers collectively locked down and allowed the Rockets to score just 16 fourth-quarter points, but their best defensive stretches came with LeBron on the bench.
On offense, James was mostly very good, if overly passive at times. His 29 points came on 32 used possessions, so he wasn't a paragon of efficiency, but he did an excellent job of distributing. (His numbers don't show it because his teammates converted just six of his 14 potential assists.) And, of course, he managed to crank it up at both ends in the fourth quarter as the Lakers clawed back and ultimately pulled away.
After 40-odd minutes of hesitancy and backseat driving, we finally saw the hell-bent LeBron who knows exactly what he's going to do and how he's going to do it. For example: Get Clint Capela switched onto him, wave Brandon Ingram into the corner, and make sure Rajon Rondo is the guy standing in the dunker spot so Eric Gordon will be the last line of defense when LeBron blows past Capela and takes flight:
That play begs the question of just how much James was otherwise holding back because he suddenly didn't look so earthbound. He certainly didn't seem disengaged when he hit Reggie Bullock for a huge three off a draw-and-kick a couple minutes later, or drew a charge on Harden the following possession to foul him out and effectively put the game on ice.
Maybe the caveats aren't really that important, and the win is all that matters. LeBron's late career has been defined by his ability to pace himself; to do just as much as he needs to do in order to get his team over the finish line while keeping his reserve tank untapped. It's always difficult to tell when he's checked out, and when he's simply sizing up a situation and calculating the exact amount of effort required of him to eventually bring that situation under his control.
Where did this game fall on that spectrum? The indicators were all over the place. The Lakers came away with a much-needed win, but the Rockets helped them out with a stubbornly stagnant offense that went bone-dry down the stretch. The Lakers probably can't bank on that kind of performance from Brandon Ingram on the regular. On a lot of nights, they wouldn't get away with LeBron playing the first three quarters the way he did. He's acknowledged how urgent the team's situation is, but if that's what urgency looks like for him now, this game might not actually bode well for the Lakers.
Which version of LeBron will they get the rest of the way? The one who dragged his feet through the early portion of the game as his team fell into a huge hole, or the one who brandished his spade and dug them out of it? History would suggest the latter. This game would suggest a combination of both (at least until James is fully healthy again). This season to date would advise us to toss any and all precedent out the window.
For now, LeBron and the Lakers have narrowly passed their first test of the unofficial second half. They're far from out of the woods.