Steve Kerr recognizes this.
The Warriors coach saw it in Chicago, where he stepped into huge jump shots alongside Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and again in San Antonio when Tim Duncan and David Robinson patrolled the frontcourt for the Spurs. Kerr was once again a witness in Golden State, where he ran things from the sideline while Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant became fixtures in the NBA Finals.
And on Monday night, he saw it again.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis fit together “perfectly,” the eight-time NBA champion said before the Warriors and Lakers met at Staples Center. The two are always in step, the result of an ego-free partnership that led to an NBA title last season in their first year together.
Neither player was at his best Monday, James getting bogged down with the ball in his hands in the first half as he tried to find the right seams in the Warriors’ defense. And Davis couldn’t get his shot going, instead focusing on facilitating, letting the Lakers’ supreme depth do their work.
And in a 115-113 loss that ended a five-game winning streak, that stuff definitely mattered. But the Lakers should take long-term comfort in knowing that playing the right way — which on Monday meant the stars taking a bit of a back seat — is the recipe they want to follow.
It wasn’t Curry who put the Lakers away — it was Kelly Oubre Jr., a player who had been mostly lost in his role with Golden State through the season’s first 12 games. It was Green, a player who rarely affects games with his scoring, hitting two key buckets. And it was second-year big Eric Paschall dragging the Warriors back into the game in the first half, and again in the third quarter.
By the end of the year, the Lakers will probably be able to count on one hand nights like this when both Davis and James sputter so helplessly.
But even on a night when the two combined for just 36 points, there was enough production for the Lakers to win. And if James’ last-second jumper would’ve gone in, the Lakers would have.
First it was Dennis Schroder, the speedy point guard the Lakers signed exactly for nights such as this. From the team’s first possession, Schroder was in attack mode, carving up the Warriors’ defense as he quickly worked his way into double figures by the midpoint of the first quarter.
Later it was Montrezl Harrell, the Lakers’ long-haired energy machine, swinging from the rim after flying down the court to finish one of the team’s rare fast-break opportunities.
And then it was Kyle Kuzma, responding to a rocky defensive possession with a handful of offensively brilliant ones, knocking down jumpers for huge baskets with the Warriors committed to keeping the Lakers from running.
All the while, James and Davis didn’t push, rarely forcing the action that wasn’t there and allowing for the Lakers’ other players to make the key plays.
The Lakers weren’t selfish. They were just careless — 19 turnovers at the root at so many missed opportunities.
But those mistakes weren’t indicative of anything more than a bad night. The truth remains that the path the Lakers are on, one paved with the tone set by James and Davis, is pointing in the proper direction.
“It just shows up in the way we play,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said pregame. “Those guys are really focused on one thing, and that’s winning as many games as we can and building habits necessary to win a championship. And there are a lot of times with other teams in other situations where there can be conflicting interests. And the absence of that is a big reason we won a championship last year, and they’re off to a strong start this year.
“They’ve got a great partnership.”
Most nights, two of the NBA’s best players won’t have to be so deferential. Most nights, James will have a firmer control of the offense and Davis’ silky jumper will splash through the net.
But by playing with unselfishness, the Lakers will be in position to win way more often than not.
“That’s been kind of a hallmark of a lot of championship teams, when you have championship-caliber stars who complement each other on and off the court,” Kerr said.
The Warriors have lived this life before and were on their way to igniting a new round of rivalry with the Lakers.
Injuries to Thompson and Durant’s move to Brooklyn put an end to that, the teams now in wildly different positions.
Still, Golden State is plenty of dangerous, the embers from its championship culture still burning brightly.
It’s a quality that championship teams need to have — selflessness at the top. And on a night when the best weren’t at their best, it was the quality that was most evident and a quality that should do the Lakers plenty of good in the future.
“They have two of the very best players in the game who complement each other very well and are very comfortable in their respective roles,” Kerr said. “It’s obviously a hell of a foundation upon which to build.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.