On the second night of a back-to-back, the Los Angeles Lakers trailed an unbeaten Denver Nuggets team 106-98 with six minutes remaining in the game. It seemed to be a point the visitors had all the momentum and would use that to pull away and leave Staples Center with a 5-0 record.
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Not if Lance Stephenson could help it. Stephenson hit two consecutive threes, busted out the air guitar, added a layup and it was back to a single-possession game. The Lakers took his energy and ran with it.
They went on to win their first game at home and put together their first winning streak of the season. LeBron James also had his first triple-double as a Laker, finishing with 28 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists.
In their second win of the season the Lakers showed growth in a multitude of areas.
The ability to close out in the clutch: Last season’s Lakers played in 42 clutch games. Of those battles, which are defined as a five point (or less) game in the final five minutes of regulation, the youthful roster lost (22 games) more than they won (20 games).
Against the Nuggets, the Lakers trailed by as many as eight with James on the bench in the fourth quarter. By the time he reentered the game with 3:49 to go, the score was tied at 108. The Lakers showed the ability to get stops down the stretch to prevail in a closely contested game. Establishing this resilience early might just help the Lakers make a habit of their winning ways in the clutch as the season goes on.
Lonzo Ball bounces with confidence: Lonzo Ball dribbled 26 feet away from the basket with three minutes to go. With the Lakers up two, the second-year point guard pulled up and fired a step-back three. The ball went in and the crowd went wild.
The message from the coaching staff to Ball this season has been to play with aggression. After a slow start against the Nuggets, Ball found his rhythm in transition and proved to be a game changer for his team.
In his third start of the season, Ball finished with a quad five: 12 points, 8 assists, 6 rebounds and 5 steals. He was 2-of-5 behind the arc, which puts him at 41 percent from downtown in the young season. As Ball’s aggressiveness continues to positively impact his shooting, he will strengthen his case to be the starting point guard for the Lakers.
More JaVale McGee: McGee played 31 minutes against the Nuggets, marking the first time he’s logged more than 30 minutes in an NBA game since the 2012-13 season. The Lakers’ starting center finished with 21 points and 7 rebounds.
The night before, he put up 20 points and 6 rebounds in 25 minutes of action. With the Lakers facing a question mark in their backup center rotation, the more they can rely on McGee, the better.
Ramping up his minutes now is a good test to see if McGee can shoulder the load in a Western Conference where the caliber of starting big men is at a premium every night.