LOS ANGELES -- Like a good prestige drama, the storylines ahead of Friday's contest between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets at Staples Center swirled with intrigue. Ultimately, the episode delivered a satisfying ending for the Lakers, a 124-112 victory.
Between D'Angelo Russell's return, Lonzo Ball's production drought and Thursday night's coming-out party for Kyle Kuzma one night before he faced the team that dealt him for Russell, the game offered far more fodder than a matchup between a couple of 3-5 teams rightly should.
Yet for all the subplots, the Lakers won the game in a rather conventional way -- by attacking the paint relentlessly in every conceivable manner. Brook Lopez lorded over the Nets as a conventional pivot man against smaller units. Jordan Clarkson and Kuzma dominated off the dribble. And Julius Randle exploited undersized mismatches. The Lakers found 40 points in the paint in the first half alone and finished with 68.
Lopez dominated the action with his inside-out game, concluding the night with 34 points and 10 rebounds. In a league that's rapidly downsizing, Friday night was an apt reminder that there will be precious few games on the schedule when Lopez won't be a handful for opposing defenses. When Lopez wasn't making mincemeat of the Nets' interior defense, he was launching bombs from distance and crashing the glass. He drained 6 of 9 attempts from beyond the arc.
With Larry Nance Jr. sidelined with a fractured hand, coach Luke Walton tabbed Kuzma, the other import in the Russell deal, as his new starting forward. Kuzma, the 27th overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft, promptly delivered his full complement of skills. In addition to the aforementioned drives, the rookie drained a 3-pointer and slung a gorgeous pass off a baseline drive to Brandon Ingram for a finish in the third quarter. Kuzma scored 21 points and gobbled up 13 rebounds in 39 minutes, a team high.
Russell was the decisive winner in the point guard matchup and the focal point of the Nets' offense. Was it a performance to salute? Inconclusive. Though he enjoyed little success from long range and posted a less-than-efficient line, Russell was opportunistic, slicing through traffic to the rim with confidence, yet overexuberant with a case of tunnel vision. He finished the game with 17 points on 8-for-24 shooting, along with seven assists and seven rebounds.
"When will Lonzo look for his shot?" remained a persistent question coming out of the Lakers' heartbreaker in Portland. Ball provided a resounding answer over the first three minutes of the game with four field goal attempts -- double his total sum from Thursday night. If his objective was to rack up more shots, then he succeeded unreservedly. On a night that began with an air ball, Ball was aggressive to the basket and eager to a fault, turning in a 3-for-15 outing for 6 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds in a zippy game with 114 possessions unofficially, a pace that appealed to his sensibilities as an open-court point guard. Ball was the only Laker out of ten to finish the game without a turnover.
Whether the Lakers made the correct call in replacing Russell with Ball as their point guard moving forward won't come into focus for the foreseeable future. Whatever unease may accompany Ball's current struggles in his third week as a professional, the Lakers took solace on Friday night in outperforming their opponent in nearly every region of the floor.