LOS ANGELES -- With 3-pointers raining down on both ends of the floor Wednesday night, and LeBron James the most prolific rainmaker of them all, the Lakers upped their record to 8-6 with a 126-117 win over the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center.
The Trail Blazers represent an interesting measuring stick for the Lakers. Los Angeles opened the season in Portland with a uninspired loss, after which James declared that the Lakers' product wasn't instant oatmeal. The Lakers avenged that loss a couple of weeks later in a tight game in which the Trail Blazers missed 10 uncontested 3-pointers.
If Wednesday's win is any indication, then the Lakers have upgraded both food and presentation -- thanks to celebrity chef LeBron James. On a night when he passed Wilt Chamberlain as the NBA's fifth all-time leading scorer, James delivered his most rousing performance of the season, scoring 44 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and distributing 9 assists.
James exacted much of his damage bombing away from ungodly distances, draining 5-of-6 from beyond the arc, his most makes in a single game as a Laker. Just before halftime, he gave the Lakers their first lead since the opening minutes when he pulled up from nearly 30 feet and buried a triple. Twenty-four seconds later, he dribbled to a similarly obscene spot and drained another. As a team, the Lakers hit 15 of their 32 3-point attempts, matching the 15 they converted against Minnesota.
The Lakers, who entered the game fourth in points per possession in the half court, generated an inordinate number of good looks. JaVale McGee has graduated from garbage collector to pressure release, time and again finding himself on the receiving end of passes from James, Brandon Ingram and others while streaking to the rim when the Trail Blazers' defense converged on the Lakers' perimeter scorers. McGee finished with 20 points on 12 shots from the field -- his third game of 20 or more points this season -- along with a couple of blocks.
Finding Ingram opportunities to flourish has been a challenge for the Lakers in the early season. But on Wednesday, he managed to beat CJ McCollum off the dribble on straight-line drives, and discovered and nailed a couple of pull-up jumpers. These weren't the most creative plays nor shots born out of elegant players, but for a young player who has struggled to carve out his own corner of the Lakers' offense, it was a generally effective night with greater impact -- 17 points and four assists, without a turnover.
Though it was hardly a banner defensive performance, as they yielded an unacceptable number of open 3-pointers and allowed Portland a true shooting percentage of better than 70 percent in the first quarter, the Lakers continue to gradually better their fortunes on that end of the floor. They're confronting dribble-penetration with greater awareness, and applying better defensive pressure at the point of attack on pick-and-rolls. That allowed them to play the gaps in the Trail Blazers' half court -- the Lakers racked up 11 steals on the night.
The Lakers probably will be favored in their next five games, an auspicious opportunity to solidify themselves in the ranks of the Western Conference. They're reading the floor with greater proficiency, learning to play off LeBron's instincts, and tightening loose screws in what was a porous defense not so long ago. In a league that's beset by drama from west to east, the Lakers are, for the moment, situated on the feel-good rather than the suspense-thriller end of the continuum.