Reusse: With this defense, Lakers will be a tough out
The Los Angeles Lakers did more than give a warning that the Timberwolves don't want to meet LeBron, Anthony and Co. in a play-in game that would start the NBA's postseason.
The Lakers' 123-111 victory in a jammed Target Center on Friday might have given a warning to an underwhelming Western Conference that they could be difficult to eliminate once the real playoffs start with seven-game series.
All right, there's Denver as a favorite, but if the Lakers play defense as they did in the second half — and Anthony Davis (38 on Friday) assumes his role as the best player on any court — just maybe LeBron James has one more run in him at age 38.
The first half was filled with extraordinary moments, then the Wolves made a push at the end to take a 65-55 lead.
Even with Anthony Edwards sick and ineffective and Naz Reid, an igniter in recent weeks now lost to a broken wrist, the Wolves looked very sharp in those 24 minutes.
Mike Conley, terrific. Rudy Gobert, extremely active. Young defensive star Jaden McDaniels making things tough for LeBron.
Darvin Ham, in his first season as Lakers coach, has taken considerable heat for being overmatched as a decisionmaker.
Maybe it was LeBron, but someone did something in the visitors locker room at halftime, because the Lakers defense turned Chris Finch's Wolves into stumblebums in the second half.
The heroes weren't James, or D'Angelo Russell back in town for the first time since the Feb. 8 trade, but Dennis Schröder turning into a defensive maniac against the Wolves guards and Jarred Vanderbilt being what he was in Minnesota, in Utah and now with L.A. — a relentless defender.
Vanderbilt was part of the trade last summer that brought Gobert from Utah. He was in the visitors' locker room after the Wolves' second game of the season — a 132-126 overtime loss to the Jazz on Oct. 21.
On that night, Russell lit up immediately for the Wolves, and they led 41-26 at the end of the first quarter.
And then the Wolves started going backward. Finally, it was overtime, and the Wolves had a 126-125 lead, and Towns missed a couple of shots.
Each time, Vanderbilt rebounded. After the second one, he fed Conley for a three-pointer to give the Jazz a 128-126 lead. The Wolves didn't score again.
Vanderbilt was the MVP of the overtime: six rebounds, a steal and a game-finishing dunk. Later, in the victorious locker room, Vanderbilt was asked what changed after the first quarter.
"Simple; we started getting back on defense," he said. "They had to beat us down the court to score on us. They couldn't score on us in their set offense. We knew that."
Vanderbilt was back in his former home arena on Jan. 16. He had 15 points and eight rebounds in another narrow Jazz win — 126-125.
On Friday, Vanderbilt upped his record as a visitor to Target Center in 2022-23 — and this time it wasn't that close. The Lakers held the Wolves to 18 points in the third quarter, 46 for the half and moved ahead of them in the Western standings.
What happened at halftime? "No big speech," Vanderbilt said. "We had to tighten it up. Took away the space, pressured them a lot more."
Schröder was relentless attacking the guards. "He was playing full court, getting his hands on the ball," Vanderbilt said. "That's him. That's the energy he brings."
Vanderbilt finished with 12 points. He made five of eight shots from the field, including both of his three-pointers. The second came in front of the Wolves bench.
He gave a look to his former teammates after that one. "Little talk going on … that's all," Vanderbilt said. "I have good friends on that team."
Those friends were coming in all directions. He won twice at Target Center with Conley as a teammate, and Friday he was helping shut down the Wolves after Conley had an exceptional first half for the home team.
And now, he's a Lakers teammate with Russell (12 points Friday), the lefty who was lighting up his Jazz early way back in October.
How about the guy in the locker next to you right now, Jarred … King James?
"Being a Laker, being around that greatness, that leadership, is amazing," Vanderbilt said.