LOS ANGELES — Rob Pelinka’s face might’ve been on a milk carton in Los Angeles three months ago, sitting on his hands as another Lakers season spiraled in front of his eyes and unwilling to make significant moves to change his team’s fortunes.
But as he sat with a look of satisfaction mere feet away from a laughing and hooting home-team bench in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals, he didn’t have to take a bow and receive flowers in honor of a team that has just as strong a chance as any of advancing to the NBA’s final four.
The dismantling occurred largely because of the deliberate personnel moves Pelinka engineered right before the trade deadline, transactions that felt like minor ones for a team in need of a real makeover.
Of course, none of this works without the Warriors being a willing participant in their own demise, squandering an 11-point lead in the second quarter with error after error unbecoming of a championship team. It was almost laughable the way they seemed to unravel in the second quarter, giving the Lakers life in front of an antsy home crowd.
By the end of the half, the Lakers led by double digits. And short of a small flurry from Stephen Curry, who hasn’t yet exploded in this series, they never threatened, falling behind by 18.
But even more direct to Pelinka, none of this works without full buy-in, participation and activity from LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Their mere salary cap numbers limit the overwhelming haymaker moves the Lakers could pull off in the offseason or any other time, so if they’re unavailable or lacking, making changes on the periphery would only matter so much.
There’s never been a time where these James-led Lakers could survive a scoreless quarter or only a spurt of offensive production in a half during such a critical game. James has become so much more offensive-minded since coming to Los Angeles, it’s hard to recall him being a bystander.
But there was D’Angelo Russell, scoring the first 11 points as the Lakers jumped on the Warriors early. Russell was a member of that one large transaction that got Pelinka off the milk carton; Pelinka should also be on a wanted poster for thievery for acquiring two starters and getting rid of Russell Westbrook, who was a bad fit on this roster. When they made the three-team deal on Feb. 9, the Lakers were 25-31, and not giving off positive vibes for this time of year.
Since, they’ve been almost unbeatable at home, their last loss in their building on March 26 to the Bulls.
Another addition, Rui Hachimura, was a top lottery pick the Lakers took a flier on and is an athlete to supplement everything they’re aiming to be: long, rangy defenders who can shoot on occasion but get out in the open floor on demand.
Russell and Jarred Vanderbilt are two valuable pieces who’ve fit in seamlessly and what’s more, don’t seem to be fazed by the ups and downs of playoff basketball. Russell had never been relied upon in this type of environment before, so there could’ve been some luck at play.
But an element of luck is involved in just about every crucial transaction, and it seems to be smiling on the Lakers at the moment.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what we had going on. I told Rob I didn’t know what our team would look like, Rob kinda laughed,” Russell said. “Then we trade a few more pieces and I’m like, ‘OK, our team is filling out.’ We got some bodies that can get us over the hump.”
Russell isn’t the biggest body, but he packed a punch against Klay Thompson, nearly outscoring Thompson and Curry by himself at the half (24-21). That allowed James to work himself into the game without having to disrupt it.
James’ numbers look gaudy enough relative to some of his performances this playoff run, with 21 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists. An energetic James, high off his son, Bronny, committing to nearby USC, jumped in the stands for loose balls, going rows up behind the basket. But he and Davis could ice and relax during the fourth quarter with the game out of hand — critical for James especially as they play every other day through the series.
Davis, true to his own custom, rebounded with a strong game after a stinker in San Francisco. He got Draymond Green in foul trouble, which threw the Warriors out of their rhythm. It was a parade to the foul line in the second quarter as the Lakers found their feet. The Warriors traditionally see an opponent wobble and deliver the blow.
Instead, it was the new additions keeping things afloat just enough before the headliners took their place. Davis finished with 25 points, 13 rebounds, 3 steals and 4 blocks, as the Lakers doubled up the Warriors at the foul line (37 attempts to 17) while also besting them from 3, shooting 48% on 15 makes.
It’s a tough line Pelinka’s had to walk here. Having to bring in players who not only fit around James and Davis, but who are also capable of thriving when one or both is unavailable for whatever reason, isn’t ideal.
Once James completed his quest of catching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the all-time leading scorer, he was missing time with a foot injury. Both theories would be tested in short order and surprisingly, the Lakers have passed both.
“I was on the shelf for four weeks,” James said, referring to his injury that initially spelled doom for the Lakers’ season. “One thing I noticed was the team just clicked. I knew right away once I came back, we could play some good basketball. Playing for one another, sharing the ball, playing the way we envisioned.”
Anyone who saw the Lakers before the new arrivals couldn’t have seen all of this, though. But Russell can get hot very quickly and even Warriors coach Steve Kerr noted Russell’s basketball IQ.
Easy to forget, Russell was part of the Kevin Durant sign-and-trade when Durant left Golden State for Brooklyn before the 2019-20 season. Golden State envisioned Russell playing with Curry while Thompson missed the entire season from the knee injury he suffered in the NBA Finals, but Russell’s greatest contribution was his trade value.
Being sent to Minnesota for Andrew Wiggins gave the Warriors much-needed wing depth and a player who could fit easily into their system, setting them on a championship course again. It also put him in an equivalent of an NBA halfway house before the Lakers came back to bring him for a second tour of duty — he was the second overall pick in the 2015 draft, right before Kobe Bryant’s final season.
Now, instead of indirectly helping a champion by his absence, he’s helping one by his presence.
“I didn’t think the progression would be as efficient, and assume that I would need a lot more games under our belt to do a lot more games to get that flow going,” Russell said. “But as soon as we stepped on the floor, we had this pop to us that allowed us to keep going with it. Going into the next game, and finishing off the season. We had injuries, but everybody had the mentality to step up. We felt we could beat anybody and guard anybody.”
The Lakers have shown in these three games they can play down and play up to the moment, but the unexpected revelation is that everything doesn’t have to solely rely on James to be any and all things.
Which could be bad news for everyone else remaining in these playoffs.