LeBron James and Lakers end a month of tests and adversity with dominant win

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LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - FEB. 28, 2021. Lakers forward LeBron James draws four Warriors defenders.
Lakers star LeBron James, center, is fouled by Golden State's Kelly Oubre Jr. (12) while driving to the basket during the Lakers' 117-91 win Sunday at Staples Center. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

LeBron James stopped on the other side of the midcourt line, his feet planted and his eyes centered on the rim. And after the ball swished through the hoop just before the halftime buzzer, James extended his right arm and quickly chopped down as if to say “count it.”

They did. It put the Lakers up by 29 points.

The team closed out its February schedule with more exclamation points than a Magic Johnson tweet, battering the Golden State Warriors 117-91 in a game that was over even before James’ buzzer-beater.

Even with Anthony Davis stuck on the sideline in tattered denim, the Lakers gave the kind of performance that made you believe that this team is good enough to accomplish any of its goals — so defensively stout and so offensively skilled and energized.

It was, however, one day of 28 in the month, a stretch of games that codified the immense challenges the Lakers face today and the ones that are yet to come.

The Lakers opened the month on a winning streak that stretched to seven games, but in the winning, the seeds of the adversity that would soon bloom began to sprout.

Davis landed on the injury report with a sore Achilles tendon, a massive red flag even though he missed only two games. James took on huge minutes in three straight overtime games (kicked off by a double-overtime win) against inferior opponents playing with incomplete rosters.

They lost Davis again when he took a false step against the Denver Nuggets, forcing the team and its fans to hold their collective breath while tests confirmed that his season wasn’t over. And then with Dennis Schroder forced into a quarantine after a potential COVID-19 exposure, the team dropped four straight, including lopsided losses to Brooklyn and Utah.

“It’s been extremely tough,” James conceded.

To Steve Kerr, it was predictable.

Kerr, Golden State’s coach, has won five NBA championships as a player and three more as a coach — the titles providing him with plenty of opportunities to repeat, making him one of the NBA’s foremost experts on the topic.

In normal circumstances, the journey back to the NBA’s pinnacle is treacherous. In these circumstances, with physical and emotional fatigue at new levels, it might be impossible.

“Terribly difficult, particularly given that the Lakers only had a few weeks off after their championship run,” Kerr said before the game. “This is a really difficult season for everybody, but particularly for those teams that went deep in the playoffs. And for the Lakers themselves, just trying to defend their championship? I can’t imagine a more difficult season to try and repeat.”

Desperate for help, James wishfully wondered when fans would be back inside of Staples Center to help ease some of the mental burden that self-motivating every game is sure to cause. He’s seen crowds slowly enter arenas across the league and hopes his team’s fans can join them.

“The fans, it just gives you an extra boost. So, I’m just waiting. Hopefully sooner than later,” James said.

“I would love for us to start having fans here in California, especially here at Staples. It would just add so much for us — also, to see our fans too. It’s very challenging.”

Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker is fouled by Golden State Warriors guard Kent Bazemore.
Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker is fouled by Golden State Warriors guard Kent Bazemore while driving to the basket during the third quarter Sunday. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The Lakers certainly looked capable of overcoming it Sunday night, mirroring so many of the key attributes that carried them to a title last season. They were ferocious on defense, so quickly blowing up the Warriors’ offense, it was as if Golden State were on a two-second delay.

James, like he did last week against Portland, led the way, following up a four-steal, three-block game with two steals and two blocks in only 24 minutes. Schroder, in his second game back, hounded Stephen Curry and helped hold him to 16 points — tied for his third-lowest output of the year.

“I’ve just been flying around,” James said, perhaps energized by the light minutes he played in a blowout loss before the Lakers’ last two wins.

Offensively, the Lakers regained so much of the rhythm they lost throughout the month. With Schroder pushing the pace, they blew past the Warriors from the first moments of the game, the team hitting six of nine from three-point range. In the first quarter alone, the Lakers were a ridiculous plus-27 with Schroder on the court.

They never looked back, James closing the first half with the deep three and closing the game on the bench relaxing and recovering. James played his fewest minutes of the season, the Lakers easily winning on the best kind of night for Lakers coach Frank Vogel.

“I sleep better at night, that’s for sure,” he said.

Sunday it was easy, one small part of the Lakers’ journey to do something that certainly will be terribly difficult.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.