The 2021-22 season has undoubtedly gotten off to a disappointing start for the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite entering the season as Western Conference favorites, they came into Sunday's game against the Detroit Pistons below .500 at 8-9. The 78-66 lead they gave Detroit early in the third quarter suggested they were about to lose their 10th game. When they won the championship in 2020, that didn't come until the end of January.
And then, the entire season changed in a single moment.
When LeBron James was ejected for an ugly hit on Isaiah Stewart, it looked like it might change for the worse. The Lakers, with two games left on their road trip, had to prepare for the possibility that James might be suspended. A 10th loss could have lead to an 11th or 12th before even making it back to Los Angeles. It was less than a decade ago that the Lakers needed only a 1-4 start to fire coach Mike Brown. This is not an especially patient franchise. A loss could have derailed the entire season.
That loss didn't come. Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook took over the game. With Stewart gone, the Pistons lacked any semblance of rim protection. Westbrook scored or assisted on 28 of the last 37 Lakers points. Davis scored 21 of his 30 after Stewart was tossed. The Lakers erased a 17-point deficit in a little more than a quarter, and suddenly, all of those bad vibes disappeared.
"To me it's one of those things that can change the momentum of your season," Lakers coach Frank Vogel said after the game. "To see guys rally around a teammate that just got ejected like that in a strange circumstance. Played with incredible guts, start of the fourth quarter down 15. That's the determination that this team is gonna need."
The Lakers have desperately sought out something to shift the momentum of the season for weeks. When LeBron's return didn't do the trick on Friday, Vogel tried a lineup change on Sunday. He inserted DeAndre Jordan into the starting five. Jordan wasn't a factor in the comeback, but he agreed with his coach.
"It could have made us unravel or it could have brought us together." Jordan said. "I think it did exactly that. It brought us together."
"We could've easily let the game slip away," Anthony said. "But as a team we needed to come together at that moment. It's unfortunate about what happened, but we needed something like that to spark our fire. We haven't had anything like that to test us from a physical standpoint. Although like I said, it's unfortunate what happened but we needed that to spark something -- and it did."
The Lakers head to New York on Tuesday to face the similarly struggling Knicks before closing out their road trip on Wednesday in Indiana. Both are more talented than their records suggest, but they are the sort of opponents that a team as talented as the Lakers should be favored against comfortably. The Pistons fell into that category Sunday, but the Lakers needed a brawl to realize it. The last two games of the trip will show us whether that spark is enough to light a season-long fire, or if it was only enough to power the Lakers through a single win over a lottery-bound opponent.