LeBron James helps Lakers hold off Wizards to complete a successful trip

LeBron James grabs a rebound during the first half.
LeBron James grabs a rebound during the first half. (John McDonnell / Associated Press)

The challenge, the Lakers said, was as much mental as anything else. Six games in nine days including contests against some of the worst teams in the league, a stretch that closed Wednesday against the Wizards.

“Those are teams, respectfully, that we should beat,” D’Angelo Russell said the night prior.

And even though the Wizards had just upset the Milwaukee Bucks, the Wizards were another win the Lakers were supposed to get.

That didn’t mean it was going to be easy.

Road weary from a trip that took them from Milwaukee to Memphis to Indiana to Brooklyn and to Toronto before reaching Washington, D.C., the Lakers needed to find some last bit of reserve fuel to finish things off.

Having seen his team's 17-point lead reduced to two in the fourth quarter, LeBron James made sure the offense would be flat-footed no more. He attacked the Wizards zone. Soared for a two-handed dunk and triggered a run that gave the Lakers a 125-120 win and a 5-1 late-season trip.

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“I think offensively we’ve been very consistent. Our ball movement, sharing the ball. We still got to crack down on some of the unforced turnovers, but we’re all in a good rhythm playing off one another,” James said. “I think defensively, we’ve been been good at times. We can be a lot better at times, but when we’ve needed to get stops, we’ve got it done for this whole trip.”

The dunk came after Washington had a chance to take its first lead since the opening quarter, but the Wizards missed two threes on the same possession before the Lakers responded by scoring 12 straight.

“We just [weren't] doing what we're supposed to against a zone. We were taking a lot of quick shots or turning it over. We didn't run one zone offense that we have in our playbook,” Anthony Davis said. “And then I think when they cut it to two, we said, 'Hey, let's run our zone offense.' And it was pretty much over after that.”

Davis scored 35 and grabbed 18 rebounds, staying in the game after a nasty elbow knocked him to the court in the first quarter. James finished with 25 and Rui Hachimura had 19 points and seven rebounds to continue his run of good play over the past two months.

The Lakers led by 14 inside of two minutes when coach Darvin Ham tried to steal some rest for James and his starters. The Wizards, though, scored eight quick points and forced the regulars back into the game with 17.4 seconds left to get one last stop, which they did.

“There's no rite of passage. No one owes you anything,” Ham said of the end-of-game sequence. “And when you're trying to establish yourself and the type of player you are, you have to approach each and every minute ... I hate the term 'garbage time.' Like, you're playing in the NBA. There's only so many spots. And you get a chance to play, even if it's the last 50 seconds, you go hard. You go hard or you stay home pretty much.”

The trip, even before Wednesday, was a success.

The Lakers got guard Gabe Vincent back from his knee surgery recovery, giving their backcourt a level of physicality it needed just in time for a postseason push. And Jarred Vanderbilt ramped up his intensity in a pregame workout Wednesday that included some running ahead of a reevaluation early next week that could determine if or when he’ll be able to return to the court from his foot injury.

He's been out since Feb. 1 and would give the Lakers the defensive impact they need on the perimeter.

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The help is needed, the Lakers having pushed for most of the last month toward a climb out of the single-elimination 9/10 seed play-in game. So far, the gap’s tightened but the Lakers are still in ninth.

“The West is so deep, we hit this stride, we're playing well and everyone else is too,” Ham said pregame. “It's like no one is helping anybody.”

All the Lakers can do is continue to win.

“It took all 48 minutes, but good trip for us,” James said. “Hell of a trip for us.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.