Early in the first quarter Monday night at Crypto.com Arena, Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell slipped on a spilled drink, stopping action while officials and game-night staff reached for towels. Westbrook, searching for a simpler solution, went underneath the nearest basket and grabbed a mop.
“I feel like I can do everything,” Westbrook joked.
That was polite — what was about to happen later in the half was much less considerate.
Displaying the kind of athleticism and ferocity that he hasn’t really shown since being traded to the Lakers last summer, Westbrook hit the paint, jumped and uncorked a violent one-handed slam over one of the NBA’s premiere defenders.
“It happened to be Gobert tonight,” Westbrook said, “but that could be anybody any other night.”
If that was the moment of the season, this might have been the best win to go along with it — a 101-95 victory in which the team came back from a 10-point deficit in the second half.
LeBron James led five Lakers in double-digit scoring, while the team rediscovered some defensive snarl after being walked over in three straight losses. The victory ended with the entire team on its feet celebrating a Westbrook three-point play that capped the triumphant night.
And then there was Stanley Johnson, signed to his third 10-day contract with the Lakers (22-22) earlier Monday, playing like someone whom the team needs to keep from walking out the door again.
Playing center with James and mostly reserves, Johnson repeatedly attacked Gobert without any fear for the player nicknamed “The Stifle Tower.”
Possession after possession, his confidence grew, Johnson playing to the crowd, flexing at Gobert and refusing to back down even though he’s functionally an hourly employee playing against a bunch of tenured professionals.
Johnson scored 15 points on seven-for-nine shooting against the Jazz (29-15), with 10 coming in the fourth as the Lakers needed to mount a comeback.
“LeBron’s a smart player,” Johnson said, crediting the Lakers star with seeing a matchup the team could exploit.
Spurred on by his play, the Lakers started flying around the floor with the kind of energy they’ve been unable to sustain all season. Players such as Westbrook challenged the team to play harder after getting blown out Saturday in Denver.
“We want to change too,” Johnson said. “It was loud and clear.”
It all had to mean a lot to the Lakers and to their coach, who was starting to lose his ability to disguise how losing affected him.
They’ve compared him to Ted Lasso around Lakers headquarters, Frank Vogel earning fans with his positive outlook, quick wit and arsenal of corny dad jokes.
But when it comes to the way his team is playing, there’s always been a seriousness — Vogel trying to get the Lakers to be a team defined by effort, intensity and defensive aggression.
It’s why that veneer of positivity briefly got pulled back Monday, the stench of the worst loss of the Lakers’ season still following the team into the game against the Jazz.
Vogel talked about how Lakers legends should be disappointed, about how his team wasn’t playing hard enough and didn’t have the necessary defensive habits. He said Saturday’s blowout loss did stick with him … only to add that each of the last three losses felt that way.
And, most telling of all, the Lakers’ patron of positivity admitted this was all grinding on him a little bit.
“Not seeing the results wears on you,” Vogel said before the game. “I will say that strongly.”
Finally, the Lakers responded, hours of rough film sessions finally breaking through.
Even though the team got bad news on guard Kendrick Nunn — he was nearing a return from an injured knee but suffered a setback with his bone bruise — the team proved it could grind out a victory when things didn’t exactly go its way.
After making eight of their first 12 from three-point range, the Lakers finished with just three more makes on 25 attempts. They were outscored by seven at the foul line. And Trevor Ariza, pushed into the starting lineup, went just one for eight from the field in 27 minutes.
Any of those things could have sunk the Lakers. None of them did.
Whether it was showy stuff such as Westbrook’s dunk, James’ repeated aggression or Johnson’s fearlessness, the Lakers grabbed a win and some good vibes for a team — and coach — that needed them.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.