Say hello to the new guys.
Before Thursday, Andre Drummond hadn’t played one full game as a Laker. It will be days still before Ben McLemore steps foot inside the team’s practice facility. But both were essential pieces as the Lakers (33-20) — short of their top four scorers this season — stunned the Eastern Conference-leading Brooklyn Nets, 126-101, in their own building.
Drummond had a team-best 20 points and 11 rebounds hustling in the paint, while McLemore dazzled with five straight field goals in the second half on his way to 17 points.
It was dramatic considering who wasn’t available: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kyle Kuzma, Marc Gasol and Wesley Matthews. But the victory may have taught the Lakers more about themselves than any other this season.
“I learned a lot from today’s game, that we have a lot of guys in this locker room that are very tough,” Drummond said. “Despite who is on the other side of the court, they’re going to come out and play.”
Perhaps the most important contribution by a newcomer came off the stat sheet. In the third quarter after Dennis Schröder was ejected with double technical fouls in a spat with Nets star Kyrie Irving, Drummond huddled the remaining Lakers together and called for them to lock in on defense.
While the Lakers led for the majority of the evening, from there they took off on a clinching 32-15 run. The Nets shot a paltry 34 percent in the second half and did not make any of their 15 3-point attempts.
“Dre’s going to be huge for us,” coach Frank Vogel said. “It’s great to see that type of leadership early on in his tenure with the Lakers.”
In fairness, the Lakers were desperately short on existing leaders at that time.
Schröder gave a spirited effort in the first half, and finished with 19 points in 20 minutes despite a nasty spill on his tailbone that left him aching. But the Lakers had to finish without him, too, when he was ejected.
Referee Zach Zarba later clarified that Irving was tossed for chattering nonstop back at Schröder after the pair had already each received a technical foul; Schröder was given his second tech for waving goodbye to Irving, a taunt under NBA rules.
As Irving stalked off to the tunnel after scoring 18 points himself, he tossed his jersey into the stands. James Harden was already laid up with a hamstring injury. While Kevin Durant scored a game-high 22 points, one superstar was not enough for Brooklyn to come away with it.
It seemed the Lakers entered Barclays Center with a swagger they had little earthly reason to have. The theme of the team’s morning meeting in New York was that they would have a chance to win this game. And while they’ve won overtime thrillers or taken home impressive road wins already this season, the context meant everything to a team down on its injury luck.
“That’s the best win of the year, I would say,” said Schröder.
Others were inclined to agree: After the team improved to 5-7 since James has been injured, Vogel spilled over with individual props for his players, even the injured ones who were coaching from the sideline themselves. The absences made way for unheralded contributors like Markieff Morris (14 points, three steals) Alfonzo McKinnie (10 points, 9 rebounds).
The Lakers shot a season-best 19 for 34 behind the arc. For once during the stretch without James, they had fewer turnovers (15) than their opponent (19).
The win allowed them to maintain a steady grasp on the No. 5 seed in the West as James and Davis still seem weeks, not days, away from a return to the court.
The surprise of the evening might just have been McLemore — though none of the Lakers seemed surprised and kept shouting for him to shoot when the journeyman (who signed on Tuesday) started catching fire in the second half burst that helped the team pull away. Vogel noted that McLeMore caught passes both high above his head, and all the way at his feet, draining the shots regardless.
McLemore never doubted himself, either: “Once I see one go in, it’s a wrap,” he said.
Seems like he’ll fit right in.