PORTLAND — With heightened attention on Luke Walton following his tense meeting with Magic Johnson, LeBron James said the coaching staff put the Los Angeles Lakers “in a position” to score perhaps their biggest victory of the season thus far.
ESPN reported Friday that Johnson had chided Walton in a meeting earlier this week. The Lakers responded by holding on for a 114-110 win in Portland and snapping a 16-game losing streak to the Trail Blazers on Saturday.
“I mean, it’s great to win, period,” James said when asked about winning amid the drama surrounding Walton. “Listen, coaching staff put us in a position to win, and it’s up to us to go up and execute.
“Luke can care less about what’s going on outside. We could as well. I’m the last person to ask about scrutiny or anything of that nature. So none of that stuff matters to me. The only thing that matters to me is what goes on inside this locker room, both home and away.”
The Lakers (4-5) led 97-77 with 9:16 remaining, but had some nervous moments when Portland sliced it to five with 1:03 left. JaVale McGee, who continues to be a revelation for the Lakers, came up with a big offensive rebound and then a reverse layup to push the lead to seven before the Lakers held on.
James scored 10 of his 28 points in the fourth and delivered a key block on Jusuf Nurkic under the basket with the Lakers clinging to a six-point lead with just over a minute to go.
This was the second straight game in which the Lakers avoided a collapse. They nearly blew a 19-point lead to the Mavericks on Wednesday at home.
Nevertheless, the Lakers — who are still learning to mesh with a roster made up of veterans and a young developing core surrounding James — believe their ability to survive the last two tension-filled fourth quarters was a sign of their growth.
The Lakers have struggled at times to come up with stops and scores in the clutch. Despite going through more fourth-quarter difficulties in Portland, they were very encouraged to come away with a win in a place where they lost in the season opener.
“It just shows that what we’re doing is working,” Walton said of beating the Blazers for the first time since March 3, 2014. “It’s tough to get a win in Portland [even] when they don’t have a good team. When they got the team that they have right now, it’s even more challenging. So you don’t just come up here and get hot and beat Portland.
“You have to play a solid, solid game that starts with defense, and I thought we did that and got ourselves a big enough lead that even when Dame [Lillard] and CJ [McCollum] got cooking at the end, we were able to hold them off. And then, obviously, having LeBron there at the end to kind of close down those final few minutes was big as well.”
James and the Lakers said they were focused on blocking out the drama surrounding Johnson’s Tuesday meeting with Walton. Johnson, the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, let Walton know how upset he was with the Lakers’ slow start after the team returned from two road losses at San Antonio and Minnesota. At the time, their record was 2-5. With Saturday’s win, they now sit at 4-5.
Several Lakers contributed in Saturday’s pivotal win, including Rajon Rondo, who had 17 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and three steals off the bench. McGee finished with 12 points, nine rebounds and six blocks after James hyped the Lakers center as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate the morning of the game.
James described snapping the 16-game losing streak to Portland as the Lakers getting “over the hump.”
“For us to be able to snap that versus a very good team obviously and then for us to come here, we haven’t played as well as we’d like to on the road in one of the most hostile buildings in the Western Conference, it was a good win for us.”
As the team left Portland feeling good before they host the Toronto Raptors tonight at Staples Center, Walton said being scrutinized earlier in the week didn’t necessarily make the victory more gratifying for him.
“No. It feels good knowing [the Lakers won after] we haven’t beaten this team in 16 tries,” Walton said. “It feels good knowing that our team is getting better. That we just had a really good, pro game. That the group came together. Those are the things that feel good. That’s where my focus is and where it will always be.
“It’s, what can I do to make this team the best that we can be and are we getting better? And I thought tonight was a sign that we, as a team, are doing things the right way.”