With the Lakers below .500 and failing to draw sellout crowds, the disappointments in this season’s team are easy to spot. Sometimes, you don’t even have to look.
Take early in the second half when Dwight Howard spent one second joking about a missed Portland free throw and the very next knocking a rebound out of Russell Westbrook’s hands. Or when Westbrook felt a Trail Blazer on his back and saw a wall of defenders in front of him, coughing up the ball as he pushed into certain failure. Slow to get back, the Trail Blazers capitalized on the numbers advantage and hit a three-pointer.
Those were some of the more embarrassing mistakes Wednesday, a rotating list of errors that have kept the Lakers from coming close to any level of sustainable success.
But amid all that chaos, there has been one sign of consistency — Carmelo Anthony with the same braids, the same headband, celebrating three-point shots with the same sideways shuffle and the same fingers pointed to his temple.
“Just stay ‘Melo,” Anthony Davis said with a grin.
Anthony hit five threes on his way to scoring 24 points in a 99-94 victory, the Lakers winning for the first time since LeBron James left the lineup with a swollen knee.
“LeBron gets a lot of credit for what he’s doing in Year 19,” Frank Vogel said. “And I don’t think people are talking enough about what Caremlo is doing in Year 19. It really is remarkable.”
The Lakers are 10-4 when Anthony makes at least four three-pointers.
James, who was listed as doubtful throughout the day after missing the previous three games continued receiving treatment away from the team and wasn’t in the building for Wednesday’s game. Without him, the Lakers relied on Davis and Anthony to power them through a gritty game against Portland. Davis had 30 and 15 rebounds, a physically dominant performance in his fourth game since returning from a knee injury.
“Just trying to lead the team,” Davis said. “… Just tried to come out with the mindset of ending this streak. … Play with a force, play with some urgency.”
Fresh off a defense-focused practice Tuesday, the Lakers held Portland to just 16 points in the first quarter while opening up a double-digit lead. But a series of lazy closeouts on Portland’s shooters allowed the Trail Blazers to get hot in the second, scoring 37 points against a suddenly helpless defense.
Despite the errors, the Lakers locked in enough on defense to steady themselves and finish off the Trail Blazers, ending their three-game losing streak.
The defensive gains, albeit against a Portland team without Damian Lillard, were a positive considering how much Frank Vogel and the Lakers coaching staff challenged the team in an intense practice Tuesday.
“It’s got to be better. The execution has got to be better with what we’re trying to get done,” Vogel said pregame of the team’s defense. “… Effort, focus, concentration, toughness, hustle, alertness, execution of the scheme. It’s new to a lot of our team this year, and it takes time for the guys to learn it.
“And obviously the lineups have changed a lot, and so there’s a lot of moving parts there. So just trying to lock in and do the work.”
By no means are the Lakers’ issues singular — they’re actually ranked lower in offensive efficiency (23rd) this season than on defense (17th).
Westbrook, who made just three of 12 shots from the field, finished with 10 rebounds and 13 assists. Westbrook had four of the Lakers’ 17 turnovers, the errors resulting in 24 Portland points.
Before the game, Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups defended Westbrook’s play.
“I feel like Russ has taken a lot of heat he shouldn’t be taking — to be honest with you,” Billups said. “Russ has always been this dude. He’s one of the best competitors in this league. He’s shown that forever. … His competitive fire never changes. He’s trying to win every single game. But when you’re playing on a team where you don’t have the same usage, if you will, then of course your numbers will look different. And of course, some of your mistakes will look louder, bigger. You’re in L.A. playing on this team.
“… It’s not just Russ. I’ll just say that. When you look at their team, it’s a lot of other things that actually contribute to that.”
The Lakers fought off one of those problems Wednesday, defending with the right spirit and attitude — things that have eluded them all season.
“It was a great game for us,” Davis said.
Whether they can do it again Thursday against the Clippers is a different issue, the shortcomings still easy to spot on a night they won.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.