Nearly 6,000 miles from the Crypto.com Arena in Limoges, France, a 7-foot-4 basketball prospect pushed the ball between his skyscraper legs before taking a one-footed three-point shot that swished through the rim, evoking some ungodly mix of Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki.
This, everyone assumed, is where the Utah Jazz’s attention would be.
Instead, the team that traded Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Bojan Bogdanovic this offseason is the first in the Western Conference to win seven, blitzing the lukewarm Lakers in a 130-116 win.
If Utah, organizationally, is trying to tank to the bottom of the standings for French prodigy Victor Wembanyama and projected No. 1 pick, no one has informed the players.
Friday, the Jazz were more disciplined, more skilled, more active and in the broadest sense, way better than the Lakers – a team with its eyes much more in the present.
But it just wasn’t that the Lakers lost – after all, it’s the sixth time it’s happened this season. It was very much how they lost.
“We took a huge step backwards tonight,” Darwin Ham said. “…We can’t play like that.”
Offensively stunted for almost the entirety of their time together this season, the Lakers actually made shots in bulk on Friday.
Russell Westbrook, thriving in his role as the team’s sixth man, scored 26 points on just 14 shots, again playing with the strength and energy that were absent as a miscast starter deferring to LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Four others scored at least 12 points and seven players connected on threes.
It was part of one of the Lakers’ best offensive nights of the year.
They hit 42.3% of their threes, were 89.3% on 28 free throws and made 48.2% of their total field goals — numbers that would have made them runaway winners in much of their earlier schedule.
They weren’t even particularly sloppy – 11 turnovers is an acceptable number for a team playing as quickly as the Lakers.
“You can’t even be excited,” Ham said.
But everything the Lakers have vowed would be the ingredients of their foundation — toughness, defensive-minded effort, strength and hustle all vanished against a team that the league at large should probably no longer overlook.
“We have a huge laundry list of things we can show them tomorrow,” Ham said. “… It was the first game I felt like we weren’t there defensively.”
Lauri Markkanen, one of the pieces the Jazz scored from Cleveland for Mitchell scored 27 points, showcasing the size and skill that once made him a lottery pick. Collin Sexton, another part of the Mitchell deal, zipped past every Lakers defender and scored 17 off the bench.
Kelly Olynyk, a bit of a journeyman who landed in Utah from Detroit, scored 18 on only 10 shots. Jordan Clarkson, one of the Lakers’ trade targets in Westbrook discussions this summer, scored 20. And Mike Conley, the veteran point guard whom the Lakers did not want included in any Westbrook deal scenarios, had 15 and 10 assists.
Malik Beasley was one for seven and Rudy Gay missed both of his shots.
“They played hard and they played together,” Westbrook said.
Utah scored 40 points in the first quarter and 75 in the first half, the Lakers were never able to turn off the persistent faucet of points that poured in at least 30 points in three of the game’s four quarters.
Davis, who was questionable to play after missing Friday’s shootaround to rest his ailing back, scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds. James was 17 and Lonnie Walker was 19, although James continued to struggle.
He has missed 13 straight three-point shots dating to the fourth quarter of the Lakers’ win against Denver. James said he’s been dealing with a non-Covid illness for the past week.
If there were positives beyond the general offensive performance, it was Westbrook, who continued to rebuild his reputation with Lakers fans after another strong game.
In the fourth quarter, a “We want Westbrook” chant caught steam. And, later in the game as he shot free throws, some fans even chanted “MVP.”
With the way the Lakers have played this season, normally it would have been more than good enough. But Friday, against the team that was supposed to be in the tank, it only made it so the Lakers’ flattening happened more gradually.
“Our defense,” Ham said, “was inept at best.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.