This was the test, whether what the Lakers were doing was a reaction or a firm, direct action as to the kind of basketball team they want to be.
After getting badly beaten up twice already on the glass by the Minnesota Timberwolves, could the team really move forward playing minus a big man — even if Karl-Anthony Towns wasn’t cleared to play.
Had Towns not been in the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols, the Lakers’ small lineups would’ve been tested by one of the NBA’s best centers. Even with him (and with point guard D’Angelo Russell) unavailable and the Timberwolves forced to play backups, the challenge remained.
As Towns’ backup, Naz Reid, beat up the Lakers’ interior possession after possession, the Lakers’ 10-point lead totally disappearing, Frank Vogel paced the sidelines.
Faced with an interior player they could not stop, would the Lakers continue to play small, grasping on to their first real successful identity they’ve managed to find this year?
He did nothing — the Lakers are who they are.
And who the Lakers are, more than anything, are a team reliant on LeBron James to figure it out.
With Minnesota physically dominating the game, James switched onto the Timberwolves’ young center, changing the game just enough to help the Lakers inch back to .500.
While his seven-game streak of 30-point games got snapped, James provided the Lakers with enough interior presence to survive in a 108-103 win where they were outrebounded nearly two to one.
James scored 26 to go with seven rebounds and five assists in the Lakers’ second straight win. James was a key reason Reid didn’t score any of his 23 points in the fourth quarter.
James said that’s always been a part of his “objective” — to take on matchups when they’re needed. He played 39 minutes on Sunday, but postgame, he said he was comfortable with the workload required.
The Lakers, too, need to be comfortable with the impact Russell Westbrook is having in games, either when he’s recording triple-doubles or pushing up against double-digit turnovers.
Before Sunday, Westbrook had finished with 19 positive plus/minus ratings — a metric that measures simply whether your team out-scores the opponent with you on the floor. In those positive games, the team is 15-4, and in the 11 games where he’s been plus-eight or better, they’re undefeated.
But on the other side, if he struggles it usually means the Lakers do — the team going 3-15 when his plus/minus is in the negative.
And Sunday, Westbrook was mostly a negative. Even for one of the NBA’s leaders in turnovers, Westbrook was extra sloppy, turning it over 10 times.
It’s the second time this season he’s had 10 turnovers. No other player in the league has a 10-turnover game. Westbrook finished the game a minus-two.
Thankfully, though, the Lakers were able to survive those minutes because of strong offensive nights from Malik Monk, Avery Bradley and Carmelo Anthony — the kind of balance the Lakers lacked so many nights as they played with a makeshift roster.
Monk has solidified himself as one of the Lakers’ most important players — scoring 22 and giving them another offensive creator on a team that only really has them at the very top of the roster.
Anthony hit huge shots off the bench, including a four-point play in the fourth that helped seal the win. And Bradley, charged with slowing Anthony Edwards, scored 14 including a fadeaway to beat the shot clock deep in the fourth.
It was all extra because he mostly contained Edwards, the former No. 1 pick, holding him to 18 points while forcing him into eight turnovers alone.
The Lakers scored 21 points off 24 Minnesota turnovers, helping them cover for being outrebounded 56-28.
Despite the rebounding deficiencies, the Lakers elected to keep DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard on the bench, the team committed to playing this way now (and once Anthony Davis returns, with a version of it in the future).
“I had to resist it,” Vogel said about going to his bigs.
The Lakers, as they move back to some normalcy, are still on the cusp of changes. Guard Rajon Rondo has cleared health and safety protocols, clearing the way for his trade to Cleveland. And guard Darren Collison, approaching the end of his 10-day contract signed when the Lakers were in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak, was inactive for the second straight game.
The team will need to make decisions on him and fill-in starter Stanley Johnson early this week.
“Our decision will be with Rob and upstairs but he’s done a great job and I think we’ve kind of seen who Stanley is,” Vogel said pregame.
But whatever they decide, they will do so with a better grasp of who they are — a team down on size that at least has a plan to win without it.