For many years, a trip to the playoffs meant at least a few nights in San Antonio for the Lakers.
But in the regular season? Two games on the road against the same opponent is something new that Frank Vogel was wary of from the start. After beating an undermanned San Antonio on Wednesday, he worried even before the game whether the Lakers would bring the same effort.
A little of that complacency leaked through in a 109-103 win on Friday night, in which the Lakers (4-2) got the same result as two nights before in a much uglier fashion. If not for Anthony Davis, who scored a season-best 34 points, and a few gutty plays in the closing minutes, the Lakers might have started 2021 on a discordant note.
But they did just enough: They outscored the Spurs 9-0 in the final 2:26 of the game, as LeBron James (26 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) bowled Derrick White over then dodged a flying Keldon Johnson to kiss a clinching basket off the glass.
“I think we just persisted through our struggles and that’s going to happen from time to time,” Vogel said. “You’re going to have some wins that are a little uglier than others.”
After a number of games in which they blew opponents away with on-target shooting, the Lakers slumped from the floor. They were worse inside the arc (39.7 percent) than outside of it (42.4 percent). James and Dennis Schröder in particular struggled for efficiency, scoring a combined 41 points on 37 shots.
But Davis had his best offensive game, and his range was the weapon that the Spurs could not counter. The 27-year-old was 4 for 6 from deep, adding to his 11 rebounds and five assists for an effort that helped lift his team.
His 3-pointer to tie the game with 2:26 left started the closing rally, in which he also grabbed a key defensive rebound.
The 3-point shooting is an aspect that the Lakers hope will continue to open up their already well-spaced offense. Who can stop a 6-foot-10 forward with a reliable deep shot?
“Coach wants me to shoot at least five, average five, a game this year,” Davis said. “I had a lot of good looks. Sometimes I pass up for a better shot. But I just got to shoot it.”
The game was tied 15 times, with 21 lead changes. Even though the Spurs were without LaMarcus Aldridge for a second straight game, Johnson scored a team-best 26 points while DeMar DeRozan had 23.
The Lakers were frustrated by a lack of whistles: They had 10 fewer free throw attempts than the Spurs. After his final basket, James gestured to an official wanting a foul on Johnson — a continuation of a steady dialogue throughout the night. He did make the most of his appearances at the stripe, going 7 for 7.
It was a game when James acknowledged he felt the lack of fans drained the game of energy.
“It’s going to be a long season. It’s going to be a difficult season,” James said. “You’re going to have to have games where you’re going to have to give energy to one another. Manifest energy for yourself without the fans and things of that nature.”
The pandemic drove the NBA to create a more conservative travel schedule with consecutive road games in the same cities. Before Friday night, the Lakers hadn’t played two road regular season games against the same opponent since 1965.
Vogel said there are some restrictions that make normal routines difficult: Players and staff have to do rapid coronavirus testing every morning before meeting, and they can’t use hotel weight rooms. Many other aspects are normal, but trying to sweep an opponent twice on one trip can seem daunting, if only because of human foibles.
“There’s a mental challenge to that that I think of teams are going to see throughout the year,” Vogel said. “I think you see a lot of splits in these situations and we were susceptible to that tonight, but like I said, we were able to persevere and get the W.”