Lakers rely on forged mettle to stay at the top

By Eric Lambkins II

Sports Reporter

Being a Laker epitomizes the allure, glitz and glamor of the City of Los Angeles. From Hollywood A-listers fashionably sitting courtside, to the blaring of Randy Newman's "I Love LA" over the speakers after each win, to the immortalization of Laker legends by Angelino to excel while donning the purple and gold propels Laker players into the pantheon of the game's all-time greats. It also comes with unrealistic expectations of winning a title every year. The great Dr. Jerry Buss and other executives before and after him set these standards but especially locally. They all expect title contention from the Lakers annually.

That pressure can be insurmountable and unreasonable, but for players forged in the fires of the tumult and the crucible of chaos, what emerges embodies what it means to be a Laker, championship glory. However, not everyone that puts on the uniform has the resolve required to overcome the mental pressure that comes with the astronomical demands.

I've seen several Laker championships throughout my life. Every time they win it all, I prod my memory to recall the team's low point of the season so that I can relish what I witnessed. I struggle to remember the team's challenges and trials in the 80s because I was a child. The 90s was a period marred by the end of the Showtime era and the Kobe and Shaq era's hopeful incipiency, albeit riddled with the dynasty's early growing pains.

The early 2000s are indelible because I was coming of age, as was a young Kobe Bryant who commanded his teammates' respect and the league alike. The dynamic duo of Kobe and Shaquille O'Neal led to back-to-back-to-back championships, the iconic three-peat. But problems between Shaq and Kobe grew into a cavernous chasm that saw Shaq shipped out of Los Angeles and the Lakers suddenly trying to rebuild around the Black Mamba.

In the 2010 era the Lakers overcame a period of floundering, ultimately leading to their reemergence to the top. There were ever-present Pau Gasol trade rumors, wonders of how the mercurial Metta World Peace would coincide with Kobe, and Phil Jackson's run as coach coming to an end. We witnessed reconciliation between Kobe and Phil, and the former redefining himself as a leader and figuring out how to push his guys to heights he had thrice seen. One last effort to capture another title came in 2013, but the Achilles rupture seen around the world brought those hopes to a screeching halt. After Kobe injured himself while driving the Lakers to the playoffs through sheer will and guile, nothing was the same, and the Lakers took a meteoric plunge into the abyss of the league's bottom feeders. The Lakers were terrible for what seemed like forever. They found themselves atop the draft accumulating future trade assets.

In 2018, the Lakers had a boon to their fortunes when Lebron James opted to sign with the team, beginning the process of dredging the NBA's marquee franchise from out the mire. Lebron brought with him a requisite championship mentality in the same vein of Laker greats that preceded him in hopes of clinching the Lakers 17th world championship.

Last year, the NBA suspended play with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. When play resumed, players did not have the comforts of home or their usual routines. They did not have access to their normal means of "escape" due to the bubble's confines. The Lakers overcame Orlando's unique challenges by remaining loose, jovial, and focused in route to their 17th title, once again proving their ability to overcome adversity which included the death of Bryant.

This season, with its short turnaround, is one I will not forget. At the season's opening, the Lakers came out of the gate with the look of a team ready to defend their title. It began as eerily as the last one concluded. Arenas are still empty. There are no Laker Girls present to dazzle and entertain the fans. Entering last Friday's game against the Portland Trailblazers at the Staples Center, much ballyhoo was made by pundits and fans about the Lakers four-game skid. The team has been without their injured, superstar big-man, Anthony Davis, who has been out with a calf strain and hopes to be rested and healed in time for the playoff push. Guard Dennis Schroder did returned to the lineup after being out due to COVID protocols against Portland.

The Lakers entered pregame warm-ups loose and buoyant, with smiles, hugs, and laughter radiating from the Los Angeles' side of the court. Forward Kyle Kuzma and guard Wes Matthews played soccer during the shootaround. This may have been in reference to what soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimović, said earlier that day when he stated that Lebron James is "phenomenal at what he is doing, but I don't like when people, when they have some kind of status, and they do politics at the same time [as] what they are doing. I mean, do what you're good at. That is the first mistake people do when they become famous and become a certain status. Stay out of it; just do what you're best at because it doesn't look good."

After the Lakers opened the game with an 11-point deficit, there was no panic. Jared Dudley, Anthony Davis, and Lebron James all encouraged and refocused the team. The Lakers hunkered down defensively, began executing their offensive sets, and managed to rally to close the half only down 57-54. Trailblazer guard Damian Lillard scored 24 of his 35 points in the first half.

Schroder and Montrezl Harrell provide this team with the energy and tenacity it was missing last year. After Schroder chipped in 22 points, James said having him, and his "competitive nature" back provided the Lakers with the "spark" they had been missing. "To have him back in our lineup just means so much to our team. It was big-time."

In the second half, the Lakers ramped up their defense and turned stops into quick, easy transition buckets. They got the ball out of Lillard's hands by running traps and double teams with their big men around the perimeter.

After the game, Head Coach Frank Vogel stated, "We've been of the mindset, even though this losing streak that we've been on, to enjoy each other and to have fun...Our group has stayed lifted. We stayed believing in ourselves, and we were able to get a big win tonight."

The Lakers are enduring a stretch of basketball that will fortify their resolve come playoff time. The challenge of playing without Davis for at least a month, their four-game skid, and the challenges playing in a COVID-laden environment are exactly what the Lakers need to test their mettle as they defend their title. Suppose they can hoist another Larry O'Brien trophy at the season's end, standing alone atop the league with championship number 18. What will we look to as the low point of the season and more importantly, the turning point that propelled this team into basketball folklore? How the season ends remains to be seen, but I, for one, can't wait to find out.

After the All-Star break this weekend the Lakers start the second half of the at home against Indiana on March 12 at 7:30 p.m.


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