Of all the coaching challenges Darvin Ham has had this season, this might’ve been the toughest.
After a rough 12-day trip that began with a flight to Dallas late on Dec. 23, the Lakers crossed three time zones Tuesday to come back to Los Angeles, where the Heat have been waiting since Sunday.
And to make matters worse, Ham wouldn’t have LeBron James.
“Next man up,” Ham said seriously before cracking. “Somebody’s gonna have to give us 43, 15 and nine.”
With James home sick with what the Lakers called a “non-COVID illness,” the short-handed Lakers had even less firepower than usual. The team, of course, was still without Anthony Davis and, in a development, had to play without Lonnie Walker IV because of knee tendinitis. Add in Troy Brown Jr. being sidelined at halftime because of a sore quad muscle and suddenly the Lakers’ bench became the least densely populated real estate downtown.
It only got worse, Dennis Schroder injuring his right ankle late in the fourth.
Under all of those circumstances, a close game would be validation for the Lakers’ culture under Ham — one built on toughness.
Circumstances, though, mean nothing in the standings.
But wins, like the Lakers’ unlikely 112-109 victory Wednesday night at Crypto.com Arena, definitely count.
“We had multiple big plays from multiple players,” Ham said after. “… Everyone just banded together. That’s what we have to be about.”
Schroder played through the ankle pain, hitting huge shots and clutch free throws. Russell Westbrook did a little of everything and Thomas Bryant continued to fill in for Davis admirably.
Schroder scored a season-high 32 points, including the team’s last two points on free throws, in the Lakers’ third straight win.
“We all knew that everybody had to step up…play together,” Bryant said. “Talk. Communicate. Be the most competitive team out there.”
With tons of hustle and toughness, the Lakers set the tone early, opening a 13-point lead as their Westbrook-led second unit dominated the Heat reserves.
But mounting turnovers in addition to the Lakers’ inability to stop Miami’s best players — Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo — helped the Heat chip away and eventually lead.
The Lakers would again push ahead, leading by six with two-plus minutes to go, but the Heat would cut it to one before Schroder and Westbrook closed the door just enough. Schroder scored 14 points in the fourth.
Adebayo finished with 30 points and 13 rebounds and Butler had 27 but missed a potential tying three-pointer at the buzzer from the right wing.
Westbrook scored 21 off the bench with eight rebounds and nine assists. Bryant had 21 points and nine rebounds, Austin Reaves scored 11 and made a clutch pass in the final minute and Wenyen Gabriel scored 10.
Seldom-used Kendrick Nunn even played through some shoulder pain to score nine in 15 key minutes.
The Lakers hope to get somewhat healthier by Friday’s home game against Atlanta.
Before the game, Ham said James was dealing with what sounds like the “common cold.”
“We told him to shut it down,” Ham said. “Stay at the house. Get fluids, get meds and try to get better.”
Walker’s knee injury comes as a bit of a surprise after the athletic guard sat out the two previous games because of a bruised tailbone. Ham said he received a MRI on Tuesday after the team’s return to Los Angeles.
“It was something that was discovered,” Ham said pregame. “He started having a little bit of problems with it, and it’s normal for a kid that plays the way he plays: athletically and above the rim. And just running up and down the court, you’re gonna have the little bit of tendinitis, especially off the knee that you rely on heavily.
“So we’re managing that and just trying to bring him along slow — in terms of him just not causing ripple effects suffering from that issue.”
The Lakers weren’t going to make excuses for their situation — Ham especially. But the reality meant that good effort and fight would be a win in its own right.
The most exciting part of the night, though, was that the healthy Lakers decided down the stretch that “effort and fight” wouldn’t be good enough.
“We know we’ve let some games get away from us, some games we should’ve won. Nothing we can do about it now,” Ham said. “… I think we’re better for it.”