The night always starts the same, highlights from the Lakers’ star-filled past projected onto an oversized white sheet before it floors to the floor.
This curtain drop, though, felt like it could be 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 where they led by as many as 19 Sunday night.
The crowd howled as the streamers fell and as Randy Newman pounded the keys, but this felt more like a cause of brief exhalation and not celebration.
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 some referendum on the team’s championship chances.
With chatter among league insiders about the security of Frank 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 Lakers hosted the Pistons. “We’ve challenged them again, they’ll continue to be challenged to push 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 potential upset into a desperately needed double-digit lead. But a season isn’t saved in a night, and the Lakers’ sure wasn’t Sunday.
Another fourth-quarter letdown saw their 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 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 while Stewart said he thought in was on purpose.
Pregame, neither Vogel nor Detroit coach Dwane Casey said they were concerned about any spillover. And beyond some pretty robust boos for Stewart, there really wasn’t any.
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 percent from deep on the season before Sunday.
“He’s just in a bit of 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 year, with Davis slamming home an underhanded lob that pushed the Pistons into a timeout while James held his hands in the air, calling for the crowd to shower the Lakers with praise.
Mostly this season, they’ve been undeserved cheers, the Lakers fighting for every inch against whoever they’re playing — including teams like the four-win Pistons.
Sunday, the Lakers’ stars did their part. Coming off a game where James said he was “horrible,” he led the Lakers with 32 points on 12-of-20 shooting. He also had nine assists, five rebounds and just two turnovers.
Russell Westbrook’s four missed free throws and a few defensive gaffes were the only real miscues with an all-around floor game that ended with him scoring 25 points 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 (Dwight Howard was a healthy scratch) helped the Lakers survive a night where Carmelo Anthony missed all seven of his shots and Avery Bradley missed all five of his.
Jerami Grant scored 30, and the Pistons’ bench outscored the Lakers’ 42-19, but the Lakers were able to hang on.
The Lakers play the Kings Tuesday in Sacramento, another night where the results feel so extreme, a win meaning the team is grabbing at momentum while a loss would be another example of the Lakers’ preseason plans continuing to slip away.