OAKLAND, Calif. -- The most difficult four-game stretch in the NBA this season began last Thursday morning in chilly Cleveland, with Luke Walton letting his young Los Angeles Lakers team know that they would have to face the best player in the world, LeBron James, without their best defender.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was leaving the team to head back to California, in the middle of a legal situation that would force him to miss all Lakers games played outside the state. That meant the Lakers would be without their best wing defender and streaky but at times clutch shooter for half of the four-game death march.
Starting last Thursday, the Lakers played at Cleveland, then Golden State at home, then at Houston and finally at Golden State. In the span of eight days and 6,179 miles -- culminating with Friday's game against the Warriors -- the Lakers not only will have played the toughest four-game stretch in the NBA but also the hardest one since the Spurs played four straight against teams with a winning percentage of at least .700 in 2014-15, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Spurs actually had five straight games against such opponents, dropping the first four and finishing 1-4 over that span.
The combined winning percentage of the Cleveland Cavaliers (24-9), Golden State Warriors (25-6) and Houston Rockets (25-5) entering Friday is .787. As if the task of facing the two NBA Finalists (Golden State and Cleveland) from the past three seasons and quite possibly the best team in basketball (Houston) this season wasn't daunting enough, all three teams were rolling ahead of their games against the Lakers.
If this were the World Cup, it would be the Group of Death times 1,000.
But what could have easily been a disastrous stretch turned into a week many of the youngest Lakers will never forget.
They mixed it up with James, and some like Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram even got some personal advice. They took Kevin Durant and the defending champion Warriors to overtime before falling. They got to experience Kobe Bryant's historic jerseys retirement ceremony while playing in front of many of the legends of the game. And on Wednesday, they dueled with James Harden and snapped Houston's 14-game winning streak. No matter how the Lakers (11-18) finish this brutal stretch on Friday in Oakland, the franchise's up-and-coming stars are coming out of this stretch with priceless experiences.
"For me, it's been a lot of fun," Ball said of what has felt like a whirlwind stretch. "All these guys I grew up watching. Just to be able to play with them and see Kobe get his jersey retired like that, it's all crazy. It's moving like a blur.
"I'm just trying to cherish every moment."
LeBron's lesson: Cleveland 121, Lakers 112
A Southern Californian to the core, Ball isn't thrilled to be in frigid weather in Cleveland, where it snowed the night before.
But not even the inclement weather can dampen his spirits. Ball is perkier than normal when meeting with the media at the Lakers' shootaround in Cleveland. He's excited to face his childhood idol James for the first time.
After growing up with his posters on his walls and even mimicking his game, Ball finally sees James in person. At one point, James comes down the lane like a Mack truck before throwing down a two-handed dunk. Ball is one of three Lakers who see James rumble by him on the way toward punishing the rim.
"Watching him doesn't do him justice," Ball said. "It's very hard to stop him with that size, that speed, that's why I say he's the best player in the world right now and it's hard to deal with."
James finishes with 25-12-12 and Cleveland wins for the 16th time in 17 games. But Ball nearly collects his own triple-double with 13 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. In fact, almost all of the young Lakers play well at different parts of the game. Ingram goes for 26 points, six assists and six rebounds while Kyle Kuzma has 20 points and seven rebounds off the bench. Even Josh Hart, the Lakers' third rookie, delivers a career-night in his first start in place of Caldwell-Pope, with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
If this was an early pitch to James, who can become a free agent next summer, the Lakers displayed a ton of potential in Cleveland. James offers praise for the Lakers' young core and is particularly complimentary of Ball. After the game, James covers his mouth with his jersey in an attempt to hide his message of encouragement to Ball from the cameras.
"None of y'all business," James told the media afterward.
But the young Lakers learned quite a bit from going up against James for the first time this season. Rookies like Ball and Kuzma see firsthand just how easy James can make it look, how always in control he seems to be, how he manages his energy and when to go harder and play efficiently. They also saw, in front of a national televised audience, that they can play and hang with the Cavs and James, albeit in spurts. But they're growing frustrated with being competitive, showing potential but making just enough mistakes to fall short in the end.
"We trying to win," a frustrated Jordan Clarkson says in the corner of the visitor's locker room in Cleveland after the loss. "[People constantly talking about] that potential s---, being young, all that s---, it can get old after a while. Know what I mean? We are trying to win games. We are definitely coming along. I think we should be doing what our potential is supposed to be expected right now."
Kobe's night: Golden State 116, Lakers 114, OT
Ball makes his usual drive to Staples Center, but this isn't an ordinary game day. He pulls up to the arena and sees a Ferris wheel in the middle of LA Live and thousands of fans at the "Kobeland" street festival to honor Kobe Bryant.
"It was crazy outside," Ball said. "I had never seen anything like it."
The Warriors, who were playing without Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, were almost an afterthought with several legends like Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal and Allen Iverson in the arena to pay homage to Bryant. This is also the first time Bryant is watching these Lakers in person at Staples.
It's a basketball junkie's dream, and the young Lakers are absorbing everything.
Staples is the loudest it has been all season, and Kuzma rises to the occasion with 25 points. Ingram has 19 points, six rebounds and five assists, but also gets reps not just guarding Durant but also trying to go at him on the other end. And Ball quietly continues to put together his most consistent and impressive stretch of basketball as he makes 6-of-12 shots, including 3-of-6 from behind the arc, and an impressive stop-on-a-dime midrange jumper.
The No. 2 overall pick finishes with 16 points, six rebounds and six assists. With the Lakers losing starting center Brook Lopez due to an ankle injury, Ball is more aggressive in overtime and not just looking to pass on pick-and-rolls. He scores seven points in overtime, including an impressive step-back 3, and looks comfortable doing it. He's also beginning to recognize angles and opportunities to attack the rim.
But he has his potential game-tying driving layup blocked from behind by David West with two seconds to go to see Golden State escape. Durant puts up a superstar line with 36 points, 11 rebounds, 8 assists and 3 blocks, rising to the occasion when his team needs it the most. Scorers like Ingram and Kuzma see this, feel it and log yet another heat-of-the-moment experience against a superstar.
Ball is upset as he walks off the floor, knowing he has had quite a few layup attempts blocked near the rim this season and that he will have to make adjustments by either learning how to draw contact and the foul or going harder to the rim and possibly dunking.
But the rookie is able to put aside the frustration of losing a second overtime game to the Warriors at home by thinking of what he experienced on this night -- Bryant's jerseys retirement and sharing another moment with one of basketball's biggest stars when Bryant shook hands and pounded Ball on the chest before the second half.
Ball, Kuzma, Ingram and the other young Lakers listened to Bryant's speech as he talked about the journey that led to this special night.
"That moment," Ball says, "I'll remember that forever."
Mt. Kuzma erupts: Lakers 122, Rockets 116
Despite losing two tough games to the Cavs and Warriors, the Lakers are loose and confident in the locker room in Houston before facing the hottest team in basketball.
In one corner, Ball and Kuzma are giving assistant coaches Miles Simon and Brian Shaw a tough time about how their latest shooting competition between coaches and the rookies went in favor of the players.
Soon, Walton delivers a challenging game plan in the locker room. Stopping one of the game's most explosive offenses and doing so with three rookies in the starting lineup -- Ball, Kuzma and Hart with Lopez and Caldwell-Pope not with the team -- seems like as impossible a task as there is during this four-game set.
But the Lakers respond with their best game of the season. They knock down their first three 3-pointers, Kuzma has a flawless shooting half hitting his first nine shots and first six triples, and the Lakers are up by as much as 22 in the second quarter.
Harden enjoys the challenge and scores 24 in the second quarter alone, nearly matching the Lakers' 26 points in the quarter. A duel breaks out between Harden and Kuzma with the Rockets' MVP candidate exploding for 51 points. But the Lakers don't fall apart when their lead does. Kuzma delivers a career-high 38 points, Corey Brewer scores 21 inspired points against his old team, Ball (16 points and nine rebounds) continues his overall solid play, and Ingram has 13 points, six rebounds and six assists as the Lakers stun the Rockets in their house.
Afterward, Kuzma acts as if nothing special has happened despite the fact that he had the best shooting night of his pro career and his Twitter mentions include props from Bryant and Candace Parker.
Kuzzzzzzzzz geez kuzma bus... 🙌🏾— Candace Parker (@Candace_Parker) December 21, 2017
Kuzma balks at a question about whether he would be surprised if someone told him before the season started that he would score 38 in a game against Harden. While Kuzma admits it was a "cool" moment, the ever-confident rookie also questions why he should be surprised when he has been going up against the elite like James and Durant during this four-game stretch.
If anything, the young Lakers are starting to believe in what they can do, and they're gaining experience while getting more comfortable. Just look at Ball, who over his past four games is shooting 22-for-50 (44 percent) overall, including 11-of-28 (39.2 percent) from behind the arc, and is averaging 15.5 points, 7.7 rebounds and 6.7 assists.
They just need to turn their competitive outings into more wins by making their free throws (Lakers shoot 69.4 percent from the line while every other NBA team shoots at least 70 percent), making more timely shots and limiting mistakes down the stretch.
"That we can compete with people," Kuzma says of what he has learned about the Lakers during this stretch. "If we play the way we do and pay attention to details, we could've won every single game we played in this so far. Could have beat the Warriors twice this year. Could have beat the Cavs and beat the Rockets. We can definitely compete at a high level."
On Thursday, the Lakers celebrated their upset in Houston with a light practice at Oracle before heading to Shaw's Oakland home for some of his barbecue.
If the Lakers can somehow snap Golden State's 10-game winning streak, the Lakers will be doing some of their own special cooking. According to BPI, the average team would win 1.15 games against this four-game slate.
No matter what happens on Friday in Oakland, Walton knows his players will probably never forget this eight-day period filled with LeBron, Kobe, Harden and Durant.
"We are not scared of other teams," says Walton, whose team has to return home to play Portland on Saturday. "We are up for the challenge each night, and when you lose, it makes you hungrier and hungrier.
"A lot of these guys are young," Walton adds. "I think moments like that help them feel more part of the Laker family."