Around 10 months ago, the Los Angeles Lakers faced off with the Portland Trail Blazers in what could have been a springboard for a desperate team. It was the night before the trade deadline, and the Lakers, missing Russell Westbrook, were eager to prove to their front office that they should go out and make a splash by beating a Blazers team without Damian Lillard and several other key players. Instead, the Lakers lost the game, the front office stood pat at the deadline, and the season went down the drain.
The stakes weren't quite so high on Thursday, but there was a similar all-or-nothing feel to the game. The 7-12 Lakers, coming off of their worst loss of the season in a heartbreaker against the Indiana Pacers, were again set to face the Blazers without Lillard. With a brutal stretch of 12 road games out of 16 total December dates looming, a loss might have been enough to effectively end the Lakers' season. Last year, the Lakers folded in this very situation. This time around? They responded with a resounding 128-109 victory over Portland.
The competition may have been weak, but on paper, it was everything the Lakers could have hoped for coming off of the Pacers game. LeBron James and Anthony Davis were both excellent, combining for 58 points and 19 rebounds. Austin Reaves scored a season-high 22 points. Russell Westbrook made a half-court shot and continues to thrive off of the bench. Even without Lonnie Walker IV and Troy Brown Jr., the Lakers managed a sorely needed win to claw their way back up to 8-12.
The Lakers still have a long way to go. Their recent 6-2 stretch looks a whole lot worse when you remember that half of those wins came against the lowly Spurs. They still have the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers looming in the next week or so alone. They're not even in position to reach the play-in round just yet. The season is far from saved.
But the difference between last year's group and this year's has never been on display in quite the way that it was tonight. The 2021-22 collapsed under even the faintest breeze. The 2022-23 group, with an older James, a first-year head coach and significantly less shooting, is taking punches and getting back up. That might not be enough to overcome a broken roster and an indifferent front office, but for the time being, it's at least enough to survive another night.