Sunday, no matter the 116-103 Lakers win over the Brooklyn Nets, what about the could-haves.
The Lakers and the Nets helped reshuffle the future of the NBA in the summer of 2019, the Nets adding Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the Lakers pairing Anthony Davis with LeBron James.
It was expected that these teams would play against each other in the most meaningful games, some of the most talented players to ever play in separate conferences separated by an entire continent. Those odds only increased when the teams added James Harden and Russell Westbrook, respectively.
If they could have stayed healthy, if the teams could have avoided the off-court drama, the flawed free-agent signings and the wrong trade targets — Sunday could have been an NBA Finals rematch or preview.
But since the Lakers dealt for Davis and the Nets added Durant and Irving, the teams never came close to meeting in the Finals. Instead, they’ve become cautionary tales for roster builders around the league, reminders that fit and function might not matter as much as talent, but they 100% still matter.
Sunday, with James and Irving out, the Lakers and Nets met again, both heading into the night under .500, both still hoping that the team they’ve been isn’t the team they end up being.
Despite all the reasons for hope to be abandoned, the Lakers put together the kind of win they need to build on, the stars that they had leading the way and snapping their second five-game losing streak of the season.
Davis was as dominant as he’s been all year, scoring 37 points and grabbing 18 rebounds, feasting against Brooklyn’s smaller, weaker interior.
Lonnie Walker IV, in his second game back after missing two with an illness, gave the Lakers plenty of outside-inside punch, hitting four three-pointers and slashing to the rim with minimal resistance for 25 points, his fifth game with at least 18 points in his last six.
“He’s the one who led us to this win,” Walker said of Davis.
Austin Reaves, a new addition to the starting lineup, scored 15 points and Russell Westbrook played better than his shooting numbers would suggest, scoring 14 points with 12 assists and six rebounds.
The Lakers never trailed in their most consistent performance of the season. Brooklyn had won four of its previous five games.
“Just trying to get to the paint and score inside knowing that they had limited shot-blocking,” Davis said. “… Just trying to be dominant in the paint.”
The Nets, playing for the second time in two days in Los Angeles after beating the Clippers, were without Ben Simmons and Seth Curry in addition to Irving, whom the team suspended in the aftermath of him posting a link to a film with anti-Semitic content on Twitter.
Kevin Durant led the Nets with 31 points.
James missed his second straight game with a strained groin, though there’s optimism that he could be back in time for the team’s next game on Friday against Detroit.
“Him being out is just as much about precautionary,” coach Darvin Ham said before the game. “And him — this part of the season, being 12 games in, not just rushing him out there because of the circumstances. Obviously, we’re 2-10, but at the same time, there’s 70 games left to be played, and here we have the schedule, a favorable schedule in terms of him straining his adductor where he can sit. And now we have four days without a game and he can continue to rehab, and continue to get stronger, and prepare to come back.
“… We can feel good about that knowing he’s had these days to be rested, to not put any pressure on it, but to strengthen it, treat it to get it to the point where he’s able to get back out there.”
The Lakers also could get back guard Dennis Schroder and center Thomas Bryant this week after both underwent thumb surgeries this preseason.
Maybe if the Lakers had been whole from the jump, they could have navigated their way through this rough opening stretch of schedule — a run that got only tougher thanks to the Utah Jazz’s surprising start to the year; Utah has beaten the Lakers twice this season.
“We wanted to win tonight for sure, let us feel good going into this off week,” Davis said.
Sunday, at least, the Lakers played well enough to squash any hypotheticals. Maybe it wasn’t the Finals, but it certainly was a game that mattered.
“We got to run some off in a row,” Davis said.
And no matter how things have been or what things weren’t, the Lakers at least got one of them.