The cross next to the words “Status Report” on the Lakers’ pregame notes indicates an injury report is below. Friday when that cross landed in email inboxes seven hours before tipoff against the Charlotte Hornets, it could’ve also meant that the Lakers probably didn’t have a prayer.
Four members of their starting lineup — LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and Avery Bradley — were listed as “questionable.” Malik Monk was “out.” And the Lakers, at least unofficially, were in “trouble.”
“These games,” coach Frank Vogel said before the game, “can be some of the most fun of the year.”
Instead it seemed like a lock for a loss, especially as the Lakers fell behind by 20 early in the third quarter. But led by Westbrook, who was able to play despite his sore knee, the Lakers fought back, even tying the score, before eventually falling 117-114.
Despite scoring a season-high 35 points, Westbrook missed what would’ve been a go-ahead three-pointer with seven-tenths of a second left. The Hornets closed the game by splitting two free throws.
Westbrook, especially in the second half, looked like the player the team thought it was trading for. He attacked the Hornets off the dribble, forcing Charlotte to stop him around the basket and at the rim.
“It’s something that when the team needs me to do it, I’m able to still do it,” he said. “That’s the most important part. The unfortunate part is we didn’t win the game. But we know with my teammates and those guys giving me confidence to be aggressive and make the right read, it was good to kind of get that going.”
Westbrook’s 30 second-half points were the most by a Laker in a half since Kobe Bryant scored 38 in the second half of his final game. Even within Westbrook’s offensive explosion, the Lakers played much better team basketball than they did the night before in Philadelphia, with players and Vogel noting a different approach and energy even as they were getting blown out early.
Undoubtedly, Westbrook’s role was much easier to define Friday because everyone had to adjust to him; it wasn’t him adjusting to James and Davis.
James missed his second straight game with soreness in his left knee, the Lakers’ medical staff hopeful that the swelling in the joint can be dealt with quickly enough. He’s day to day. Davis, who already was being considered for a night off in the Lakers’ third game since his return from his own knee injury, also had a sore right wrist, so the team decided to be cautious.
Westbrook said he spoke with James and Davis about some of the things they saw that worked Friday — the strange kind of moral victory you wouldn’t expect the Lakers to need 50 games into the season, but one that could matter a lot over the next 32.
“That’s going to be something that we can build on, honestly,” Vogel said of Westbrook. “When we see him do that in a Lakers uniform in our system, with the way we’re screening for him — there’s lessons in every game, and that’s one of them that we’ll take. That he’ll carry the load if we get him downhill the way he was tonight.”
Bradley, the other starter on the injury report, played through a stomach illness and struggled, shooting two for 10 in 20 minutes.
Silver linings that seemed nonexistent as the Lakers missed 10 of their first 11 shots emerged throughout the game. Whether it was seldom-used veterans stepping in and embodying the “next man up” mantra or rookie Austin Reaves, one of the brightest spots this season, making the most of a bigger offensive opportunity, the Lakers took some positives from a game that seemed destined to be a runaway loss.
Kent Bazemore, who started the first 13 games but was averaging just 4.4 minutes this month, scored a season-high 13 points, carrying the Lakers through a rough first half. And Reaves added 16 and eight rebounds.
“We had AD, ‘Bron, Malik out. That's a lot of possessions that they would have the ball in their hands,” Reaves said. “And it was really just a next-man-up mentality. I didn't care if it was me or someone else. I was really just out there competing to win.”
If the Lakers had been just a bit better, especially on defense early against the high-powered Hornets, they might’ve stolen one.
But it was Bridges who helped ignite Westbrook, taunting him after drawing a foul by signaling that the veteran guard was too small.
“That ain’t the case and he know better than that,” Westbrook said with a smile. “But it definitely was something that, in my mind, I was like, ‘OK.’ You know, that’s a good trigger for me to be able to turn it up a little notch. Especially during that time in the game when we still had a chance to be able to close it, close it late.”
The Lakers didn’t close it, Westbrook getting them close but not all the way. Still, as the team walked out of the arena Friday night, it had to feel like maybe it took a tiny step toward figuring out problems that have haunted it all season.
And that’s a better outcome than it looked like the Lakers were headed for after that early afternoon email.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.