NEW YORK — Despite speculation about his job status, Frank Vogel is still employed. LeBron James seems to have not aged one bit in his 19th NBA season. Kyrie Irving continues to be exiled from any New York City indoor facility for well-documented reasons and James Harden continues to whine about the officiating, among other things.
So, really nothing has changed as the All-Star break inches near with the Los Angeles Lakers barely clinging on for their playoff lives, while the equally high-priced and veteran-laden Brooklyn Nets sit near the top of the Eastern Conference, with a musical chairs lineup that look like worldbeaters on the road and play like a lottery team at the Barclays Center.
“I am not sure why we struggle here. Obviously, it’s disappointing and it’s below our expectations,” Nets coach Steve Nash when asked about Brooklyn’s lackluster efforts at home.
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Nash has had his numerous fires to put out this season and all but put an extinguisher on another when he was questioned about a report that Harden was upset with the team’s rotations and might be looking toward free agency at season’s end.
“I am not sure what to believe. James and I speak all the time and we have a great relationship, so I am not sure the validity of these comments, to be honest with you,” the Hall of Famer added. “It seems very strange seeing that we have different guys available every other night.”
So much for that scenario.
Coming into Tuesday’s nationally televised contest, where each team has split its last 10 games, nothing seemed more certain than what’s going to be the so-called “Big 3” for each team.
While the lineups won’t look the same should these teams meet later this summer (the Nets started Kessler Edwards, Day’Ron Sharpe and DeAndre’ Bembry), it at least gave Harden another opportunity to take control of the team and the Lakers to return to some semblance of unity with all the feel of going through the motions in a late January game, with a touch of “hurry up and get here, All-Star break.”
Anthony Davis, who returned after a 17-game hiatus due to a knee injury (the Lakers went 7-10 in his absence), James and Russell Westbrook have played 15 out of the team’s 48 games this season together, while the Nets’ triumvirate of Harden, Kevin Durant and Irving haven’t spent a single minute on the court at the same time and might not the rest of the season.
James scored 12 of his 33 points in third quarter, adding seven rebounds with six assists and Malik Monk scored 22 off the bench as the Lakers defeated a weakened Nets team 106-96, the seventh straight time the road team has won in the series.
Despite being outrebounded, 54-33, Los Angeles shot 48 percent, capitalizing on a renewed running game which produced 27 fast break points, including James producing steals on back-to-back plays leading to thunderous dunks on the other end bringing the sellout crowd to its feet.
Davis himself got started on the game’s first possession with an alley-oop dunk off a feed from James and finished with eight points and four blocked shots in 24 minutes.
Los Angeles insists they are not in panic mode, Tuesday’s game notwithstanding.
The trade deadline is Feb. 10 and moving any of the players outside James and Davis could be a remote possibility. The blame game has taken on a life of its own, whether it’s Vogel’s inability to get his team to put forth a consistent defensive effort, Westbrook’s struggles, or management’s roster building in the offseason which led to the nine-time All-Star being on the team in the first place.
Vogel says because practice time is so limited, the team’s reliance on studying tapes in film session has taken on an added importance.
The team’s defensive rotations, particularly switching, have been partly to blame. Shooting guards have taken advantage of their lineup when going small and when teams are patient and have been patient in passing the ball, but Davis’ return brought a defensive intensity that has been missing for weeks.
The Lakers entered Tuesday 27th in points and rebounds allowed, and defensive efficiency. It has been a combination of trailing big in first halves and blowing numerous double-digit leads whenever they have been fortunate to hold substantial leads.
Brooklyn may sit in second in the much-improved and top-heavy East, and any other time that would be a cause for celebration. But Durant has missed 10 games this season, including the last five and is expected to miss 4-6 weeks with an MCL sprain and Irving’s on-going vaccination status continues to be an issue until it is resolved.
After the game, Harden, who had a triple-double with 33 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists, was not in the mood to analyze why the Nets haven’t played good basketball lately.
“Of course, I’m frustrated because we’re not healthy, where there’s a lot of inconsistency for whatever reason, injuries, COVID, whatever you want to call it,” Harden said. “I think everybody in this organization is frustrated because we’re better than what our record is.”
Tuesday’s game is no indication of how each team will finish the season, at least in the eyes of the Los Angeles Lakers.
“It doesn’t matter what other people think,” Westbrook said. “Hopefully, we can string some games together in the second half of the season. We just are going to keep our head down and keep moving forward.”
James said he was very excited to have Davis back because of what he adds and the problems he creates with his defense.
“Just his presence,” James said. “Makes our team much more complete. Offensively, it just attracts another set of eyes off of me. The more minutes that log, and he gets back into game shape. We look forward to our next challenge.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Scooby Axson on Twitter @ScoobAxson.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lakers topple Nets on road, sparked by Anthony Davis’ return
Source: Yahoo Sports