The Los Angeles Lakers just played their first competitive basketball game in four months, and all things considered, they have to be fairly happy with how it went. Though they lost 108-104 to the Dallas Mavericks, LeBron James and Anthony Davis sat out the second half. That duo led the Lakers to a 55-44 thrashing in the first half punctuated by excellent shooting and the lockdown defense that carried them to a 49-14 record before the season was suspended.
Ultimately, this was a scrimmage. It's hard to take too much from a game that neither team cared about winning. But there was no telling how the Lakers, or any other team, would look after four months off. Thursday gave us our first indication that the Lakers are still their dominant selves. Here are the biggest takeaways from our first dose of Laker basketball since March.
Welcome to Waiters Island
The raw numbers don't tell the whole story. A 3-for-7 shooting night on 1-for-3 from behind the arc looks like par for the Dion Waiters course, but what matters is his impact on the team. There is no more consistently precarious point in games for the Lakers than the final few minutes of the first quarter. That is typically the stretch in which LeBron James goes to the bench and the Lakers cough up part of the lead their dominant starting lineup just built. The rotations weren't quite that clean on Thursday, but the results were encouraging. The Lakers ended the first quarter on a 15-3 run.
Waiters' ball-handling and shooting was a major driver of that run. All season long, the Lakers have been forced to lean on Rajon Rondo as their backup point guard due to the political minefield benching him would present. The results have been disastrous: the Lakers are 8.1 points per 100 possessions better without Rondo on the floor. If Waiters can match his ball-handling while providing superior shooting and a bulkier defender, the Lakers may be on the way to solving their bench offense problem.
We don't appreciate LeBron enough
There is a layer of separation between fans and players that makes it virtually impossible to appreciate everything a superstar does on the court. The fan-less setup of the Disney bubble offers a rare glimpse into some of the less visible ways LeBron adds value.
James spends the majority of his time on defense at or near the baseline, typically in the corner on a lesser assignment as his primary role in the Lakers' scheme is to serve as a help defender. That gives him a clean view of practically the entire court, which allows him to essentially quarterback his defense in the way he does his offense. With no fans obstructing the audio quality of the game, it was apparent just how valuable LeBron's basketball IQ really is. He routinely called out Dallas' plays and pointed his own teammates into position. He's been doing it all season long, and what happened in today's scrimmage does nothing to change his team's fortune. It's just a reminder that LeBron is one of the smartest basketball players ever, and that he should be appreciated while he's still at his apex.
Kyle Kuzma has a way to go
Every Laker shot at least 60 percent from the field in the first half... except for Kyle Kuzma. He finished the game an underwhelming 4-of-13 from the field, settling for the exact mid-range looks the Lakers would prefer he never took. He rebounded well, but generally speaking, Kuzma's effectiveness is derived from his offense. When he isn't scoring, he doesn't do enough off of the ball or on defense to justify major minutes. That was the case again Thursday.
Consistency has never been Kuzma's bread and butter, and he is such a rhythm player that four months off were never going to be kind to him. But the majority of the Lakers' core didn't miss a beat. Kuzma did, and that's not the best news under the unusual circumstances this postseason will present.
So does JR Smith
Nobody expected JR Smith to be his old self from the jump. He hasn't played in an NBA game since November of 2018. He has only been a Laker for a few weeks, and the Disney bubble hardly represented ideal acclimation conditions. Even so, Smith's slow start was discouraging. He committed four fouls in 14 minutes and failed to score until garbage time.
Smith is a lottery ticket. The Lakers didn't sign him expecting major playoff minutes. They did so to give themselves another bite at the apple in their deep backcourt. If all goes as planned, Smith will never have to play. But today's scrimmage did little to suggest he would be capable of doing so if needed. Even if that was the expectation for his first minutes in almost two years, it was still disappointing.