SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The game hadn't even started yet and LeBron James could feel a throbbing headache come on that he could only surmise was from the smoke that had enveloped downtown Sacramento and the haze hovering inside the Golden 1 Center.
Smelling smoke in the arena during the team's morning shootaround, James wasn't sure how the conditions from the Camp Fire that originated about 70 miles north of Sacramento would affect the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday.
But the Lakers of late have been a team that appears to be learning how to handle adversity. Or perhaps they're discovering how to better deal with it.
With exception to perhaps the ugliest first quarter the Lakers have ever played that led to a hideous loss against the Toronto Raptors last Sunday, the team has won four of its past five games. The Lakers put the brakes on a Sacramento Kings team that had won seven of their past 10 games with an impressive 101-86 victory.
And for the first time in the still fresh James-Lakers era, the Lakers reached .500.
Perhaps this feels like significant progress since the Lakers (6-6) lost five of their first seven games and the sky felt as if it were on them just a little over a week ago.
The Lakers were already expected to have a potentially rocky start, but no one counted on Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram drawing multiple-game suspensions for the Houston Rockets brawl just two games into the season or Magic Johnson chiding Luke Walton after only seven games. Walton found himself engulfed in scrutiny over his job security until Johnson came out and said his coach was safe barring something drastic.
But after all the turbulence, the Lakers might be approaching 35,000 feet and "cruising altitude." Could things be stabilizing? There will undoubtedly be more drama in the future ahead for the Lakers because it's LeBron and it's L.A. But this win in Sacramento was a definite sign of progress.
Look no further than the effort on defense. Just a few days ago, Johnson, the Lakers' president of basketball operations, expressed his displeasure by explaining that part of his meeting with Walton was because "we're last in defense. We got to get better."
Entering Saturday, the Lakers had given up 110-plus points in each of their first 11 games, tied for the longest streak in franchise history to begin a season (1961-62). It was the longest streak by any team to start a season since the 1983-84 Nuggets, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
But facing an improved Kings team that was No. 1 in pace at 109.0, the Lakers managed to slow down Sacramento at times and shut down the Kings in the half court. According to Second Spectrum, Walton's defense held Sacramento to 24.7 percent shooting in the half court, the best by any team in any regular season or playoff game over the past five seasons.
The Lakers had emphasized limiting fast-break points for the past couple of days and the team heard the coaching staff.
"Gotta get back in transition, misses and makes, dead balls, everything," James said. "Just gotta get back. De'Aaron Fox is one of the quickest guards that we got in our game, and they're No. 1 in pace right now. So we made a huge emphasis on getting back and putting multiple bodies in front of all of 'em."
"We stuck to the game plan for 48 minutes," James added. "And we've been doing that of late, and it's been resulting in wins."
Several factors have contributed to the Lakers' uptick in play. Their chemistry appears to be forming now that they are 12 games into the season. Sure, the young players like Ingram and Lonzo Ball still look as if they're searching for their comfort zone with the improved roster. And vets like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Lance Stephenson are still struggling to adjust to their fluctuating playing time.
Lonzo throws up three air balls
Lonzo Ball misses badly on a short floater, jumper and 3-pointer.
But after tinkering with lineups and rotations, Walton is getting a better feel for which groups work best together, and the Lakers are getting more comfortable with one another.
"We were just in sync," said power forward Kyle Kuzma, who is looking more at ease in the starting lineup and not having to play as much backup center. "We knew the game plan and everybody followed it and we had each other's backs. There was a time I was in an iso with De'Aaron Fox and I knew Rondo was on my left side and he gave me confidence. So, building that chemistry is going to help.
"That Toronto game kind of kicked us in the butt, but we just got to take it day by day, game by game and I think that's what we're doing for the most part and you can see it with the chemistry building."
Another significant factor has been the addition of center Tyson Chandler. Like a Magic no-look pass, you might not have seen the Chandler buyout and signing with the Lakers coming -- specifically this early in the season. But the results so far have been terrific.
Chandler almost seems to be the perfect fit for what the Lakers need -- a backup center who does many of the things JaVale McGee provides. He provides a rim protector, a lob option off pick-and-rolls, bone-rattling screens, championship experience, Rondo- and James-like communication skills and a calming veteran presence in the locker room.
Before Chandler's arrival, Walton had to either go small with McGee on the bench by putting Kuzma at center or undersized two-way contract player Johnathan Williams or go to the still somewhat raw Ivica Zubac. Now he has Chandler, who grabbed 12 rebounds and helped limit Willie Cauley-Stein to 12 points and 12 rebounds one game after helping hold Karl-Anthony Towns to 13 points and nine rebounds in a win over Minnesota.
"He just shored up our front court," James said. "We have a great 1-2 punch now in JaVale and Tyson. JaVale gives us so much to start the game with his ability to protect the rim and also be so efficient offensively. And when he comes out the game we don't have no dip-off, no drop. And Tyson comes in and he brings even more intensity. And it's just great to have that in our front court."
Limiting Sacramento to 34.8 percent shooting and outscoring the Kings 52-38 in the paint, the Lakers actually got to exhale in the fourth quarter for once with a double-digit lead. Though they had a 20-point cushion sliced to 10 with 4:45 left, the Lakers never let it slip any further. That's a step forward after they had to hold on for dear life against the Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers in their previous three wins.
"It's progress," Walton said. "I've been saying it the whole time. Not being able to win games at first but keeping them all close and then getting leads and not being able to hold onto those but finding a way to win still at the end. Tonight was the first time we really took a lead and held onto that lead.
"We know it's never gonna be a straight line where we're going. We're going to deal with more adversity, but as long as we keep working as a group to get better, we'll be fine."
By the end of the game, James' headache had long passed and he could be heard laughing along with Ball and chatting it up with Rondo in the locker room.
Rondo dishes to Kuzma for one-handed slam
Rajon Rondo pushes the ball upcourt and passes to Kyle Kuzma, who finishes the fast break with a dunk.
With the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks in Los Angeles for the Lakers' second of a road-and-home back-to-back set, James knows his team can't afford to fall into the trap of not showing up early the way it did last Sunday under the same circumstances against Toronto.
But this Lakers team is playing better than it was a week ago. And that's the perfect cure for any James headache.
"The record is gonna speak for itself obviously, but at the end of the day, it's about how you're playing at that time," James said when asked about the Lakers reaching .500. "And right now, we're playing good ball both offensively and defensively."