The night always starts the same, highlights from the Lakers’ star-filled past projected onto an oversized white sheet before it drops to the floor.
This curtain drop, though, felt as if it could have been followed by a giant shoe.
Under normal circumstances, a visit from one of the worst NBA teams wouldn’t elicit any feelings of dread. But this season, these Lakers have been anything but normal — a team capable of talking about 10-game winning streaks with a straight face despite having barely won 10 of its first 21 games.
No, the moments before tipoff at the Lakers’ home arena are more tense, another stinker performance moving the team closer to some fundamental changes.
The Lakers avoided disaster, albeit barely, beating the Pistons 110-106 in a game in which they led by as many as 19 points Sunday night.
The crowd howled as the streamers fell and as Randy Newman pounded the keys, but this felt more like a cause for brief exhalation and not celebration.
“An opportunity to learn in a win,” coach Frank Vogel said after the Lakers nearly coughed up another game to a lesser team.
Though, Sunday maybe felt a tinge different, the Lakers looking better for longer stretches.
“We got a great group of guys. We have a good team. It showed tonight,” Anthony Davis said. “Late in the game, a ton of miscues defensively on our end but for the most part, we played a hell of a game on both ends of the ball.”
The stakes shouldn’t feel this high, not nearly a month before Christmas, but the Lakers’ struggles over the first quarter of the season have made every 48 minutes feel like a referendum on the team’s championship chances.
With chatter among league insiders about the security of Vogel’s job, nights like Sunday when the team is expected to cruise can be the scariest.
“When they’re not performing at a high enough level, you challenge them,” Vogel said before the game. “We’ve challenged them again … to play at a higher level.”
For the longest stretch of the season, the Lakers got there — 16 straight points in the third quarter to turn a potential upset into a desperately needed double-digit lead. But a season isn’t saved in a night.
Another fourth-quarter letdown saw a 19-point lead evaporate down to three in the final seconds before the clock ran out on the Pistons’ comeback.
The win came with plenty of preview attention focused on how the two teams would react to a near on-court brawl last week in Detroit.
After LeBron James struck Detroit center Isaiah Stewart in the face while fighting for position on a rebound, Stewart repeatedly stormed at James and the Lakers with blood streaming down his face. Both players were ejected and later suspended.
James repeatedly said that the play was unintentional and Stewart disagreed.
Pregame, neither Vogel nor Detroit coach Dwane Casey expressed concern about any spillover. And beyond some pretty robust boos for Stewart, there really wasn’t any.
The attention, instead, was centered on whether the Lakers would inch toward their potential or continue to sputter in a mixture of unfamiliarity and indifference.
“It ranks right at the top with any other challenge I’ve had in my career — which actually brings out the best in me and I love that,” James said after the win. “I love trying to figure out how we can be better. You know, get through the mud or get through adversity and just make it sweeter on the back end.”
Davis, who has been one of the worst jump shooters in the NBA this season, got going inside at the basket before swishing his first three-point shot. Davis would also swish home his second.
He’d made just one three in his previous six games and was hitting just 16.7% from deep this season before Sunday.
“He’s just in a bit of a shooting slump. I’m comfortable with the shots he’s getting,” Vogel said. “… We want him attacking the basket. But his jump shot is gonna come around, so we’re comfortable with that.”
He and James also connected on one of the truest highlights of the season, with Davis slamming home an underhanded lob that pushed the Pistons into a timeout.
Sunday, the Lakers’ stars did their part. Coming off a game in which James said he was “horrible,” he led the Lakers with 33 points on 12-for-20 shooting. He also had nine assists, five rebounds and only two turnovers.
Russell Westbrook played an all-around floor game, scoring 25 to go with nine assists and six rebounds. And Davis’ interior dominance and hot shooting gave him 24 points and 10 rebounds.
Their play, combined with good stretches from DeAndre Jordan, helped the Lakers survive a night when Carmelo Anthony missed all seven of his shots and Avery Bradley missed all five of his.
Jerami Grant scored 32, and the Pistons’ bench outscored the Lakers’ 42-19, but the Lakers held on.
The Lakers play the Kings on Tuesday in Sacramento, another night when the result feels so extreme, a win meaning the team is grabbing at momentum while a loss would be another example of the Lakers’ championship plans continuing to slip away.