The trips have been long, the games have been stacked and, inside the Lakers’ locker room, the eyes have been droopier. The NBA schedule is long — the comparisons to a marathon too accurate for them to be dismissed as merely a cliche.
But the Lakers — they’re lucky, lucky to be in Boston on Saturday to fight the Celtics, one of the NBA’s best rivalries pitting them against one of its best teams in one of the best environments.
The Lakers are lucky, because even in a 125-121 overtime loss, their 50th game of the season, their decision makers can see what this team is. And, more importantly, what this team isn’t.
LeBron James, looking more and more like a player who is going to smash through the NBA’s all-time scoring record sooner rather than later, dominated the game with scoring, rebounding and passing, finishing with 41 points, nine rebounds and eight assists.
The Lakers, who got star forward Anthony Davis back from injury last week and had new acquisition Rui Hachimura available for the first time Wednesday, added guard Lonnie Walker IV to the rotation Saturday after he missed the previous 14 games because of an injury.
And with veteran guard Patrick Beverley in rhythm and two other newcomers, Thomas Bryant and Dennis Schroder, fully integrated after thumb surgeries delayed their debuts, a more complete picture of the Lakers’ possibilities is being painted.
Beverley, in particular, had a huge impact on Saturday’s game, helping harass Celtics star Jayson Tatum before hitting a go-ahead three and a go-ahead dunk in the final minute of regulation.
Still, the cracks are there.
The Lakers didn’t get a key whistle at the end of regulation when James attacked the rim, and the fallout carried into overtime. After the play, James hopped up and down on the court, stunned he didn’t get the call.
“As much as you try not to put it on officiating, it’s becoming increasingly difficult,” Coach Darvin Ham said. “… Apparently, I used my challenge too soon.”
Davis was more blunt in his assessment: “We got cheated tonight.”
Before that, the Lakers showed other signs of their weakening composure.
Beverley’s missed free throw in the final minute of the fourth quarter kept the Lakers (23-27) from icing the game — much like misses from the line cost them wins against Philadelphia and Boston earlier in the season.
The Lakers gave up a key offensive rebound, allowing Boston’s Jaylen Brown to score, get fouled and tie the score with a free throw and 4.1 seconds left on the clock.
The offensive rebound came after a defensive miscommunication gave Boston’s Al Horford a clean look at a game-tying three — that he missed badly.
The Lakers’ composure continued to be an issue, Beverley grabbing a camera and showing it to an official after the end of regulation. He instantly was called for a technical foul, giving the Celtics a free point at the line to start overtime.
“There’s a bunch we can do better,” Ham said.
And there are still the questions about Russell Westbrook and his place within the Lakers’ formula for winning and the persistent shooting concerns, all of which arise anytime the discussion is about the Lakers’ ability to seriously contend for anything other than an early playoff exit.
Against the Celtics, Westbrook struggled—the crowd egging him on to shoot
He started 0 for 6 before scoring his first points from the free throw line. He finished regulation on the bench, sitting for the entirety of the fourth quarter with eight points, seven assists and five turnovers.
But upon entry in overtime, Westbrook sparked the Lakers with a tip-in while drawing a foul. He made the free throw, plus two more after drawing a flagrant foul.
Then, he missed a corner three and, on the next possession, a reverse layup — the “some good, some bad” line he’s walked throughout his tenure with the Lakers.
Walker’s return was mostly just good.
Playing for the first time since the Lakers were in Miami in late December, Walker quickly got into rhythm, scoring his first basket in a month on a layup. The easy basket helped quell Ham’s pregame concerns, the coach expecting Walker to get back into the flow slowly.
“You bring him along slowly, you know what I mean? And allow him to play himself back into rhythm,” Ham said. “Just being healthy is half the battle. You have to be healthy and be in rhythm. That’s going to take a little bit of time. Especially for a perimeter player, I think it’s difficult on both ends.”
Saturday in 18 minutes, Walker was six for eight, scoring 13 points — his most efficient shooting performance of the season.
The Lakers are now just waiting for guard Austin Reaves, who continues to do full-speed on-court work and is set to be re-evaluated Thursday.
In total, it’s a portrait of a team with massive decisions in front of it, the ones that will dictate whether this roster is good enough, whether it can be made good enough or whether the flaws are too much to be overcome.
Saturday, it was the latter — but at least the Lakers know there’s still work to do.
“If we compete as hard as we did tonight to start this trip,” Ham said, “we’re going to be OK.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.