LOS ANGELES -- The past two wins tease a future that is endlessly bright. Just about any outcome seems reasonable if the Los Angeles Lakers’ young core keeps progressing as it has recently, much to the delight of fans who have been patiently waiting for some glimmer of hope in an otherwise lost season.
But optimism finally arrived Sunday, when the Lakers upset the mighty Golden State Warriors, and it continued Tuesday, when instead of reveling in that win, the Lakers -- playing without Kobe Bryant (sore right shoulder) -- built on it by beating the Orlando Magic 107-98 at Staples Center.
“It was important,” said Lakers forward Julius Randle. “We have to show that we have grown and are not satisfied with one game but are able to come back the next game and play well again.”
It marked the first game that D’Angelo Russell (a game-high 27 points), Jordan Clarkson (24) and Randle (23) each broke the 20-point barrier, an outcome that will probably repeat itself -- perhaps on a near-nightly basis -- in the near future.
Randle, the No. 7 overall pick in the 2014 draft, tied his career high in scoring, and his 11 rebounds gave him his 28th double-double of the season, which is the most among second-year players. Clarkson, a first-team all-rookie selection last season, hit five 3-pointers. Russell, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft, shot 11-of-19 from the field.
"They had the three best players on the floor tonight," said Orlando coach Scott Skiles. "Generally, when you have that, you win the game."
On top of that, Lakers rookie forward Larry Nance Jr., the No. 27 overall pick in the 2015 draft, added eight points and 10 rebounds off the bench.
Granted, the Magic were playing the second game of a back-to-back set and were without one of their top players -- star forward Nikola Vucevic. And granted, the Magic have a losing record (now 27-36). So it’s not as though one could say the Lakers, who are now 14-51, have truly turned the corner or anything like that.
“People keep saying it over and over,” said Russell, who has scored 20 points or more in six of his past seven games. “We’ve got to continue to keep proving it. We believe in each other. We know what each other are capable of. We’ve got to string some more wins together and make progress before we start speaking that far in advance."
Indeed, it’s not time to plan the parade route just yet. But the Lakers’ kids are all right, and they’re displaying the kind of promise that breeds hope. After all, Russell is 20, Randle is 21 and Clarkson and Nance are 23. If they keep this up, who knows where they could lead the Lakers or who might come join them in L.A.
“This is what we thought they could play like,” said Lakers coach Byron Scott.
Scott has taken heat for bringing them along slowly and for benching them for long stretches earlier this season, but he maintains that his approach was vital.
“From the start of the season, we all knew it was going to take these guys time,” Scott said. “It’s just a matter of how much time. As far as the plan goes, it was just to groom these guys and get them ready as much as possible and see which ones would grow a little bit faster than the others; and the ones that were a little bit slower, you just try to help them catch up.”
For now, the Lakers are riding the momentum of a two-game winning streak, of winning three of their past five games. They’re clearly more comfortable on the court together, which is the product of experience and improving chemistry.
“We play with each other so much that we start to get that [feel] for each other and know where guys like the ball and when guys are uncomfortable,” Russell said.
It’s also the product of their growth in Scott’s new offensive set, which was installed in recent weeks and is predicated on ball movement.
“We’re starting to move the ball,” Nance said. “We had a bunch of stats shown to us today where we’ve improved our ball movement, we’ve stopped dribbling so much. It’s little stuff like that that can really spark a team.”
As Clarkson added, “We were very unselfish tonight, and we just played well alongside each other.”
Thursday offers another tough test: LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. If the Lakers win that game, thus knocking off another Finals squad from last season, then the imaginations of Lakers fans will truly run wild with possibility, and rightly so.
But regardless of Thursday's outcome, Lakers fans now know that better days are really and truly ahead, and that those days are really and truly unfolding right in front of their eyes.