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The LeBron James-led Los Angeles Lakers are still winless thanks to Patty Mills.
Mills’ game-winning dagger with seven seconds remaining in overtime came after James missed two free throws and clinched a 143-142 win for the San Antonio Spurs on Monday at Staples Center. Los Angeles dropped to 0-3 and was playing without the suspended Brandon Ingram and Rajon Rondo but still had a chance to win until James’ final shot rimmed out.
LaMarcus Aldridge (37 points and 10 rebounds) and DeMar DeRozan (32 points, 14 assists and eight rebounds) spearheaded San Antonio, while Kyle Kuzma countered with 37 points and eight boards for the Purple and Gold. James just missed a triple-double with 32 points, 14 assists and eight rebounds.
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Lakers Fans Have Zero Cause for Concern Despite Slow Start
This wasn’t the script for Lakers fans.
The iconic franchise with 16 championships landed an iconic player in James, and the post-Kobe Bryant rebuild was finally over. Los Angeles was once again going to be the center of the basketball world, and Western Conference contenders were going to struggle to keep pace.
Instead, the Lakers lost their first two games by a combined 18 points to the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers and looked lethargic for stretches Monday on the way to another defeat even though James provided a thrill with a game-tying three in the final seconds of regulation.
It would be easy to panic after five straight playoff-less campaigns, but that would ignore James’ history in his first year with teams.
The 2010-11 Miami Heat started 8-7 despite having potential future Hall of Famers in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in their primes next to James. They eventually overcame their inconsistency and reached four straight NBA Finals, but it wasn’t the monumental start many expected.
The 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers also had potential future Hall of Famers in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love but started an ugly 19-20 before getting back on track and reaching four straight Finals.
Jason McIntyre @jasonrmcintyre
Reminder before you go to bed:
LeBron started 9-8 in Miami
LeBron started 19-20 in Cleveland Part II
The Lakers will be fine. Lotta new parts. Exhale.
This will be an elite team in the West.
James is an all-time great, but it is a significant adjustment playing alongside him. The mere fact that he is the face of the league means the Lakers will always get the opponent’s best shot, and the young Lakers core has been in rebuild mode since it arrived. The win-now pressure is something new in addition to learning to play with someone who dominates the ball and tilts the offense in his direction.
Like the Heat and Cavaliers before them, the Lakers will eventually understand when to expect James’ passes and where to be on the floor to exploit the openings created by the defensive attention he attracts. That’s when the consistent wins will come.
There were flashes of what Los Angeles will become with Josh Hart (20 points and 10 rebounds) and Kuzma getting out on the break and benefiting from James’ passes. Lonzo Ball also hinted at his own development with 14 points, although he will need to shoot better than the 30.5 percent from deep he did last season while sharing ball-handling duties.
Kuzma, in particular, was impressive Monday and didn’t hesitate to take on Spurs defenders and shift into takeover mode when James was resting late in the third. That type of development is far more important than an October loss.
James has been to the last eight NBA Finals and is well versed in overcoming slow starts with a new team. The 0-3 start is just a speed bump in what will become a successful season.
DeRozan’s Presence Makes Spurs West’s Most Underrated Playoff Threat
One quick glance at the Western Conference reveals a loaded list of contenders beyond the defending champion Golden State Warriors.
Between the Houston Rockets with James Harden and Chris Paul, the Lakers with James, the New Orleans Pelicans with Anthony Davis, the Utah Jazz with Donovan Mitchell, and the Oklahoma City Thunder with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, it is easy to overlook a Spurs squad relying on consistent mid-range jumpers and flawless execution.
Do so at your own peril because the Gregg Popovich system in place is responsible for 21 straight playoff appearances and a group that was fourth in the league in defensive rating last season, per NBA.com.
Kevin O’Connor @KevinOConnorNBA
The Lakers defense is offering absolutely no resistance against the Spurs. Though San Antonio is living in midrange, it’s getting quality looks.
It’s how the Spurs were able to make the postseason in 2017-18 despite just nine games from Kawhi Leonard and why they are all the more dangerous this season with DeRozan.
The system was on full display early as San Antonio ran circles around an overmatched Los Angeles defense and poured in 40 points in the first quarter with lethal ball movement, constant motion and back cuts, DeRozan attacking defenders in one-on-one situations and Aldridge dropping jumpers from the elbow.
The ruthless efficiency showed just how formidable the Spurs can be when operating on all cylinders.
That system is how the Spurs managed to win a game against the mighty Warriors in the first round of last season’s playoffs when James and the Cavaliers couldn’t in the NBA Finals. San Antonio also had a halftime lead in one loss and dropped another by single digits, which was notable considering it didn’t have someone who could take over in crunch time with Leonard sidelined.
Enter DeRozan, who gives the Spurs an All-Star-caliber player on the wing to go with Aldridge on the blocks and elbow.
DeMar DeRozan scores again! He’s up to 25 PTS, 9 ASTS, & 6 REBS on @NBATV. #GoSpursGo https://t.co/jiN2Si0CNq
The system can keep Popovich’s team in games in the first three quarters before DeRozan enforces his will at the end. He tallied 11 points, five assists and three rebounds in the fourth quarter and overtime against the Lakers and helped improve the Spurs’ record to 2-1.
His presence makes San Antonio a daunting first-round opponent for any of the title contenders.
Both teams play again Wednesday, with the Lakers at the Phoenix Suns and the Spurs hosting the Indiana Pacers.