LOS ANGELES — In the opening stages of LeBron James’ Los Angeles adventure, the Lakers’ problem was that they weren’t yet good enough.
That got fixed, but now there is a new issue. They’re not ruthless enough.
Having turned around their campaign by adopting the mentality of a scrappy underdog, James and the Lakers no longer have that luxury. Now sitting at 11-8, even after a disappointing 108-104 home defeat to the Orlando Magic on Sunday, Los Angeles will go into most of its games, especially those at Staples Center, as the favorite.
With James having gotten used to his new teammates — and them to him — perhaps more quickly than looked likely following a dismal 0-3 (and 2-5) start, the Lakers will sometimes be presented with opportunities to dominate games in the way that serious contenders can and should.
That’s what happened against Orlando, but instead of building upon an early lead and grinding the Magic down, the Lakers got sloppy and complacent and showed they don’t yet know how to be a bully.
“We have got to get back to battling for the basketball,” head coach Luke Walton said. “There were some turnovers, some selfish plays, there was a lack of energy on our part, a little bit of all those things suck at the core of what we are trying to do.”
What the Lakers are trying to do is show they can get themselves into the mix come playoff time, having already proven that the stacked Western Conference is not too hot for them to handle.
Sunday’s contest was entertaining stuff, unpredictable and energy-filled, with a tense conclusion and plenty of fireworks. In that sense, it was much like most of the Lakers’ season, which was never boring even when it was previously mediocre.
But something has shifted with L.A., and the way it handles the difference will determine whether its campaign will go down as a highly-watchable but still-flawed spectacle or something that can legitimately be called a success.
When James hit a pair of free throws to tie things at 104 with 2:24 left, it looked as if the Lakers would assert their authority. They couldn’t, instead getting sloppy over the closing stages and failing to manage another point.
Earlier, when they went up 39-28 and were rolling in the second quarter, the chance to capitalize and have what might have turned into a comfortable afternoon slipped by.
Having seemingly taken the sting out of Orlando with an intense and purposeful start, L.A. was in firm control. JaVale McGee had four blocks to himself within the opening six minutes, and the match-up was at the Lakers’ mercy.
But then the wobbles crept in. Right at the time when experienced teams enforce their dominance to put the game to bed, the Lakers eased off and paid for it. The defensive sparkle was lost, mistakes crept in and, by the end, the team had missed 11 of 31 free throws.
When they are playing from behind, or playing in a game no one expects them to win, the Lakers are at their best. They need to learn how to churn out victories in a machine-like fashion, not have every encounter come down to a thrill-a-minute late-game lottery.
A couple of factors played into L.A.’s revival following its initial struggles. There was greater cohesion between James and his new colleagues, players like McGee stepped up, Tyson Chandler was a worthy addition and the number of silly mistakes was significantly reduced.
More than anything though, it was all about mentality. The Lakers found strength in being dismissed and doubted, and played with the hunger of a team determined to prove its critics wrong.
In doing so, the Lakers began to put a proper season of substance together and James started to find some genuine reasons for optimism instead of wondering what he had gotten himself into.
Now that things have turned around, it is different. No one is writing the Lakers off anymore, accepting that at least a playoff spot is a likely outcome and maybe a postseason run if things come together.
The potential shown by Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma has been missed by no one, along with the reality that James is making sure he keeps plenty in the tank for when he needs it most.
Orlando is not widely respected but now stands at 10-10 and is a solid squad. The Magic moved the ball well and, in Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic, have a pair of players capable of high-level, consistent productivity.
They are no fools, but neither are they a team that should strike fear into the hearts of anyone, including these improved Lakers.
L.A. has shown, after some initial doubts, that it can cope with this league. Whether they can handle their own mindset will dictate how far they can go.
Follow Martin Rogers on Twitter @RogersJourno.