It was 93 days from the moment Luke Walton assumed the helm of his new team before the third-year coach got a peek at what L.A. could do.
His team ran the gamut in that span — from the thrill of adding one of the greatest players of all time, to the unexpected disorder stemming from an on-court brawl in their home opener, to the public humiliation of having a closed-door thrashing from team president Magic Johnson leaked after a 2-5 start — and there they were taking it to the vaunted defending champions on their home floor.
Not even a full month has passed since the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Golden State Warriors 127-101 on Christmas Day. But both teams will sport a different look when they meet Monday night for the second time this season.
Los Angeles probably will still be without LeBron James and Rajon Rondo. They’ll also miss Lonzo Ball, who suffered a Grade 3 sprain of his left ankle Saturday in Houston. Meanwhile, Golden State is a completely new beast with DeMarcus Cousins active for just his second game of the season.
Still, despite the many differences this matchup has from the previous, Walton looks back on that Christmas Day win as a blueprint for his young team’s success without its centerpiece in James.
“[That] was a huge moment for this team as far as them getting to where they want to go,” Walton told ESPN this weekend. “The great part of that game to me was like, ‘Look guys, what we’ve done this season and what we’re going through in learning to play with each other and play with the new staff, it’s working. We’re making this progress and the trust is happening.'”
The Lakers led by 14 points in the third quarter when James stretched out to corral the ball and his right leg didn’t plant where he intended to, resulting in a strained left groin. He heard a pop.
“To me, at that moment, it’s as simple as: Is he able to come back in? The trainer is saying, ‘No, he’s done for the night,'” Walton said. “And then, ‘OK, look, we don’t have LeBron for the rest of this game. We need to get out there and keep doing what we’re doing and competing and finding a way to win.’
“So the severity of the injury didn’t really hit. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, f—, LeBron just got injured.’ We were still in the heat of the battle and it was like, ‘This is what we have. Let’s keep going and we’ll worry about the injury when the game is over.’ That was the mentality. It didn’t crush the spirit of what we were doing out there.”
What they were doing was a game plan aided by Lakers assistant Jesse Mermuys, who was responsible for scouting the Warriors all season. He suggested a radical scheme: just concentrate on blanketing Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson and leave pretty much anyone else — including All-Star Draymond Green — open.
“I just remember Jesse being really excited at about 8 o’clock in the morning,” Rondo told ESPN. “He told me he thought he had figured out a great game plan and 7-8 hours later, it turned into the truth.”
The Warriors ended up shooting 40.9 percent. Green shot 2-for-7 and Alfonzo McKinnie shot 2-for-10 as the Lakers’ defense purposely sagged off of them like a pair of early ’90s jeans.
And for a brief moment, the Lakers got a glimpse of the finished product Walton hopes to turn them into as January turns to February, February turns to March, March turns to April and — if all goes to plan — L.A. is back in the playoffs for the first time in five years.
“The pregame challenge was all the work we’ve done, let’s put it together,” Walton said. “Let’s not worry about anything other than competing at our highest level and let’s see how good we can be. From every man stepping up and just doing their job and playing for the man next to him, with the growth that we’ve had as a group, it was kind of the pregame challenge: Let’s see how good we can come out and be, and we have the opportunity to come out and do it against the best team in the world.
“Then postgame it was along the lines of: How good did that feel? We see what we’re capable of. Now it’s about being able to get to that level each and every night and continuing to make those sacrifices that we’ve been talking about all year.”
An overtime road win against the Oklahoma City Thunder backed up by a strong first half on the road against the Houston Rockets teased the possibility of bottling up that potential nightly and stabilize Los Angeles for James’ eventual return. But the loss of Ball and ensuing overtime loss in Houston left it for the moment as just that — teasing potential.
And there’s no respite for the weary as that same Golden State squad, against which it first came together for the Lakers, has sat in Los Angeles for three days, reflecting on the season debut of Cousins.
“I’m sure the whole NBA and the whole league is waiting to see what can happen,” Rondo said of the Cousins-infused Warriors. “We’ll lace ’em up, just like they are and we’ll figure it out.”
And figuring it out is all Walton wants to do. He knows his group is unique, a mix-match of unproven youngsters, eclectic veterans and the greatest player of his generation. But he says he believes they can tap into something special and replicate that over and over again.
“It’s going to be a challenge but absolutely, it can be achieved,” Walton said. “Because, to me, once you’ve felt it, and once you’ve gone through it, then you can repeat it. It just takes reps and it takes mental focus and it takes commitment and hard work and it takes time. And those are the things that we’re constantly preaching. But it can be accomplished. It’s just going to take everyone’s maximum effort every day to get there.”
A measuring-stick matchup against the Warriors is a big game. But Thursday against the Minnesota Timberwolves is a big game and Sunday against the Phoenix Suns is a big game, too. They all are for Walton’s team because he knows it’s all building for something bigger.
“For those teams that have been together for that many years, when they get to the playoffs their game is going to get to a whole other level,” Walton said. “But for us we’re still just scratching the surface on it. But ideally, once we feel that and can get the group there, it should be an addicting type of feeling. Like, ‘This is so much fun. Let’s go out every night and do this.'”