It hailed outside the Crypto.com Arena Thursday, filthy pellets pouring from the sky and pounding the sidewalk in countless small explosions.
Inside, the Lakers were louder.
It was freezing cold outside the Cyrpto.com Arena, fans huddled in scarves and ski hats as if they were attending a mid-February basketball game in the frigid Midwest.
Inside, the Lakers reminded them that this is still Hollywood.
LeBron James throws down a huge alley-oop dunk of Dennis Schroder. Malik Beasley whips out a three-pointer after a blocked shot from Anthony Davis. Jarred Vanderbilt muscled in a bounce pass dunk from Davis.
Austin Reaves sprints to a two-handed dunk breakaway. Twice. In the same game.
Later, after returning to Earth, Reaves grinned.
“The energy around the group is at an all-time high,” he said.
A new energy. A new attitude. A new hope.
Twenty-two games to go, and this team left for dead suddenly looks like a playoff team.
There are twenty-two games left and it feels like the season has just begun.
Taking their first steps on Thursday in this final sprint into spring, the Lakers raced over the short-handed Golden State Warriors in a way that made you think they might have made the ultimate trade at last week’s deadline.
They didn’t just trade players, they traded a culture.
The most convincing number wasn’t the huge margin in a 124-111 victory over a team without Steph Curry or Andrew Wiggins. More vibrant numbers were found elsewhere in a Lakers squad suddenly feeling poised, playing focused and exuding joy.
“All we want to do is go out and have fun,” Davis said.
They won by 13, but James and Davis combined for only eight baskets.
They played hard for two and a half hours, but neither James nor Davis were on the field for more than 26 minutes.
They shared the ball, shared the glory. A dozen players scored, but new playmaker D’Angelo Russell played only nine minutes after spraining an ankle that didn’t appear serious.
“We have so many threats,” said new shooter Beasley, who led the Lakers with 25 points. ‘We’re in deep. That is the statement we are about to make. If it doesn’t become one player, it becomes another player.”
Beasley was asked to describe the energy outlined by Reaves.
“I would describe it as amazing…flawless,” he said. “Although we are in a difficult position at the moment, we kind of made a statement tonight that we are ready to make this play-off push and do what we have to do.”
An impeccable push is required. The Lakers went into the night 13th in the Western Conference and little room for error if they are to avoid being banned from the postseason for a second consecutive year.
They had to win at least 15 of those last 23. A month ago that would have been an impossible task. But last week in the blink of an eye everything changed.
With the departure of the troublesome Russell Westbrook and the gruff Patrick Beverley, a haze had been lifted from the dressing room.
With the addition of Beasley, Russell, Vanderbilt and Mo Bamba—a 7-footer who had two 3-pointers against Golden State—a new balance was brought to court.
Last week, they won their first game as a completely rebuilt team in an 18-point blowout in New Orleans with few hands. This ensuing defeat of Golden State gave them two of their most one-sided wins of the season in consecutive games.
And now everything is possible. In fact, if you believe Thursday night, anything is possible.
“We feel very good about where we are,” said coach Darvin Ham. “We feel good about the outlook for the future.”
There are indications that his rosy outlook is not out of place.
With only three back-to-back games left on the schedule – and two of the three taking place with the runners-up teams beating Oklahoma City and Houston – they may not have to put James and Davis’ ill health to the test.
With six of the last nine games against struggling Chicago, Minnesota, Houston and Utah, they could easily finish strong.
With 12 of their 22 remaining games at home – including their last two games – they were able to ride the wave of a rejuvenated crowd.
Plus, no more bickering. No more nagging. The new guys are not just committing, they are improving.
“We don’t have time to get upset or fight ourselves,” Davis said. “We have to be able to win basketball games.”
For once, and perhaps for the first time in two seasons, they will win them together.
“We enjoy playing the right way, playing the right game defensively, making the right play offensively,” Davis said. “When you win basketball games, it’s always nice.”
Earlier this week, Davis said, “Every game is a game we have to win.”
He behaved that way on Thursday by grabbing a dozen rebounds even though he only took five shots. He continued to find Beasley all over the court in a new relationship he compared to one he had with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. You know, when they last won a championship in 2020.
“Having a piece like that, able to tell the floor apart, certainly helps us a lot,” Davis said of Beasley.
James didn’t speak again after the game, but something he said earlier this week about this latest piece still resonated.
“It’s 23 of the most important games of my career for a regular season,” he said.
One down, spring is coming, hope alive.