In the back of the house at the Spectrum Center, the Hornets’ home arena, workers are greeted with a wall of quotations from an array of famous people, from Jeff Bezos to Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, all surrounding an incredibly basic quote from their former boss, Michael Jordan.
“Just play” it reads on the wall. “Have fun. Enjoy the game.”
For a time on the Lakers’ trip that ended Monday with a 124-118 win in that same building, the Lakers were doing none of the three. But after beating the Hornets to win their third straight, faint traces of optimism emerged as the team moved toward Thursday’s trade deadline.
“When we put our minds to it, we can beat any team in this league," Anthony Davis said. "You know, we lose two we felt like we should’ve won. Maybe won two that the people in Nevada thought we should lose. When we buckle down defensively and play the right way, play Laker basketball, then we're a tough team to beat.”
Blowout losses to Houston and Atlanta completely erased any of the momentum built after their two-overtime win against Stephen Curry and the Warriors. LeBron James’ hourglass emoji post only escalated trade-deadline tensions, and Thursday when it was determined that he and Davis would miss the Lakers’ game with the Celtics, a sense of dread kicked in.
Then, the Lakers won and won again, and by the time they took the court in the first half on Monday, they were playing. Having fun. Enjoying the game.
D’Angelo Russell wagged his head and celebrated with the Lakers’ bench after splashing a three. Austin Reaves flipped no-look passes while Davis and James traded turns slamming home dunks, the Lakers looking very healthy against a short-handed 10-win Hornets team playing on the second night of back-to-back games.
“Super fun. Guys are making shots. We're playing the right way. Swinging the basketball. Getting stops. It's who we are. It's who we want our identity to be,” said Davis. “It doesn't always seem to happen that way, like, kinda at the end of the third and most of the fourth.”
Davis finished with a triple-double of 26 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists, while Russell contributed 28 points and six assists and James had 26 points and seven assists.
The Lakers had 74 points in the first half and they would lead by as many as 21 points. And it seemed they would fully recapture the vibes their Grammy trip started with.
But as the lead slipped away in the fourth quarter, the issues that have plagued the Lakers through much of their season resurfaced.
Barely playing. No more fun. Who could enjoy it?
James’ legs filled with cement. The rims tightened on Russell and Reaves. And the touches didn’t find Davis often enough to exploit their clear interior advantage.
As the Hornets chipped away, the Lakers even resulted to letting the basketball sit untouched in their backcourt while the seconds ticked off the clock — a time-burning strategy that wasn’t quite the same as grabbing the game by the horns.
Miles Bridges and Brandon Miller, two of the only healthy Hornets usually in their best lineups, exploded for 74 combined points. Only when Davis blocked a three-pointer from Bridges could the Lakers exhale, their 4-2 road trip secured.
“We dropped our guard a little bit,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “…But all of that said, we kept fighting, making big defensive plays when we needed to.”
Monday’s win in Charlotte was the Lakers’ final piece of data for the front office as they enter Thursday’s trade deadline, an incredibly tight eye of a needle that needs threading considering their strengths, their weaknesses and their limited pathways for making changes.
With access to just a lone first-round pick — from 2029 nonetheless — and limited players they are willing to trade who are healthy and hold value around the league, the organization is in a tough place as it enters what appears to be a seller’s market.
With playoff expansion putting 20 teams into the postseason mix (counting the play-in tournament), a poorly regarded draft class and low appetites for rebuilds, sellers are scarce, with prices still inflated in the eyes of executives around the NBA.
The Lakers, still in the middle of so many trade rumors, felt at least somewhat confident in the group they headed home with.
“This is who we have,” James said, “so there's nothing else to talk about.”
Jarred Vanderbilt injury update
Vanderbilt, who usually defends an opponents top perimeter player, suffered a noncontact injury to the foot during the first half of the Lakers’ upset win in Boston on Thursday.
After consulting with multiple foot specialists, it was determined surgery is not needed now. He’ll be reevaluated in about a month.
Vanderbilt missed the first 20 games this season because of a heel injury in his left foot. During his absence, his defensive versatility, ability to force turnovers and rebounding were sorely missed.
Over the last 12 games he played, Vanderbilt averaged 8.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 steals. He was a plus-30 in 41 minutes against Golden State in the first game of the six-game road trip, which ended in Charlotte.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.