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Rookie of the Year Kyle Kuzma guarded by Jayson Tatum in a Summer League that previewed their potential

NBA Hot Take 1–23–18

The night the 2015 Boston Celtics beat the 2018 Boston Celtics

In November, I wrote about how much the Lakers resemble the 2015 Boston Celtics in their overtime loss to the Golden State Warriors.

On Tuesday night in Los Angeles, the Ball-less young Lakers finally showed some balls in overcoming an early 14-point deficit and fighting for the entire 48 minutes to edge out their older and more experienced role models.

Chapter 1: the Boston-L.A. rivalry is alive and well

With Lonzo Ball out of the lineup, the Lakers beat the Celtics 108–107 in a closely contested game that had Staples Center rocking like it was 2010 all over again. A casual observer would have had a tough time figuring out which team was the #1 seed in the East and which one is struggling to climb out of the bottom 5 in the NBA.

In this nationally televised game, Kyle Kuzma laid a strong claim to Rookie of the Year, scoring 17 points and dishing a key assist in the 4th quarter, while Jayson Tatum shot 1 for 6 with 3 turnovers.

The Lakers did pretty much the same things they’ve done the entire year: play good defense, dominate the boards and score tons of points in the paint, while shooting poorly at the free throw line and beyond the arc.

But the biggest difference between this game and all the other close games they’ve lost this season was their ability to protect the ball with only 10 turnovers in tonight’s game. (By comparison, the Lakers lost to on the road to Boston by 11 last November as they missed 16 layups and committed 21 turnovers.)

Given the Lakers’ offensive efficiency (101.7 points per 100 possessions), cutting down on turnovers is the biggest area that separates them from winning games against the NBA’s elite. With time and more maturity, one would hope they could make a few more free throws, as well.

Boston Celtics analysis

While they have the #1 rated defense in the NBA, the Celtics are tied for 19th in offense, and are overly dependent on Kryie Irving’s brilliant one-on-one skills and some impossible 3-point shooting by rookie Jayson Tatum, who led the league, shooting 52% earlier in the season. However, Tatum has been regressing to the mean with each passing month. It’s no coincidence that the Celtics are 4–4 in the month of January while Tatum has shot only 34.6% from distance. (The team went 19–5 to start the year as he shot almost 50% from beyond the arc, and then went 11–6 when he shot 45.1% on his 3’s in December).

With a small ball lineup that features Al Horford often playing the pick and roll by spotting up at the 3-point line, the Celtics have no player taller than 6–9 to protect the paint and secure rebounds, so they’re unable to score easy baskets on fast breaks or in transition. When opponents like the Lakers post their center at the 3-point line, the Celtics are vulnerable to opponents crashing the boards for offensive rebounds and second chance points. And with their dependence on Irving’s one-on-one offense, there is less ball movement and the chance for easy baskets in the paint, so Boston ends up depending on jump shots.

Sure enough, these weaknesses show up in a number of key metrics, and it just so happens that these are the Lakers’ strengths. The following list are Boston’s ratings, with the Lakers’ ranking for comparison in parentheses:

#12 in rebounding percentage (Lakers #10)
#22 in offensive rebound percentage (Lakers #7)
#19 in transition frequency (Lakers #1)
#22 in second chance points (Lakers #4)
#23 in fast break points (Lakers #2)
#29 in points in the paint (Lakers #1)
#21 in total assists (Lakers #6)

In this game, the Celtics’ were fortunate that Marcus Smart (career .292 3P%), made 3 of his first 5 shots from beyond the arc, while the Lakers shot 26% on their 3-pointers, otherwise they wouldn’t have been close at the end of the game.

As bad as the starters might be on offense, the Celtics’ bench is worse. In spite of their excellent defense, they can’t score, resulting in a bench rating of #18 with a point differential of +0.7. In tonight’s game, the Lakers bench (#5 in the league, +7.4 point differential) outscored the Boston reserves 64–48.

At the end of the game, with the Lakers clinging to a 6-point lead with 4:47 left in the 4th quarter, Irving tried to take over the game and scored 7 points in a two and a half minute span. The Lakers made a couple of smart adjustments: they put the much taller Brandon Ingram on him, and Ingram blocked an Irving attempted 3-pointer that would have closed the lead to 1 point.After Irving hit another 3-pointer to cut the lead to 2 points, the Lakers finally made the decision to trap and double team Irving on the pick and roll, which forcing him to pass to a teammate.

With 26 seconds left, and the Lakers up 106–100, the decision to trap Irving led Brad Stevens to use him as a decoy and it almost worked as Terry Rozier scored 5 quick points, while the Lakers missed 4 out of 6 free throws to keep the Celtics in the game.

After missing their 9th and 10th free throws of the 4th quarter, the Lakers gave the Celtics one last chance to win with 5 seconds left and no times outs. Ironically, Marcus Smart, the Celtics’ irrationally confident bad shooter decided to run down the court and take a tough 3-pointer on the last shot of the game, instead of passing to a wide open Rozier in the corner. The Lakers survived with a 1-point win in a game they might win by 15–20 points in the future, if they ever learn to make their free throws and shoot 3’s at the league average.

Chapter 2: Turning the corner?

Why the Boston win matters so much.

Besides the fact that the Lakers hate the Celtics more than any other team, winning against the Celtics is like winning against a young version of the Spurs. They have one of the top three coaches in the league, play incredible defense, and have an All-Star closer. This is a team that rarely plays loses a game — they force opponents to play hard and execute well for 48 minutes.

Tonight’s game was a great mid-term report card that shows how much the team has learned since the loss at Boston.

It’s especially gratifying that Lakers beat the Celtics without their starting point guard, and with Ingram and KCP hampered by injuries, who combined for 15 points on 4 for 19 shooting. Without a single All-Star player, these young Lakers fight throughout the entire game and prove that Luke Walton’s Golden State system can work without the court vision of their wunderkind point guard.

The Lakers are 7–3 in their last ten games; only Golden State is better at 8–2.

What a difference a month makes when you’re dealing with NBA rookies. On New Year’s Eve, I wrote about a devastating double-overtime loss to the Rockets which happened toward the end a disastrous journey of 40 days and nights through a desert of close losses, injuries, the tail end of a 9-game losing streak , and, a few days later, the omnious rumblings from the East (yes, Lavar’s voice carries that far) that Luke Walton had lost his team.

Three days after the Houston loss, the Lakers hit absolute bottom, showing no fight in a 37-point loss to the Thunder.

But the next game, Lonzo Ball came back from his shoulder injury, and the Lakers went on to have their first four-game win streak, with three double-digit wins by dominating the 4th quarter, and a tough overtime win on the road that broke a 14-game winning streak against the scrappy Mavericks. They went back to playing great defense (opponents averaged 95.25 points per game), running the court and sharing the ball (27 assist per game).

When he woke up with a sore knee the next day, the Ball-less Lakers continued their losing ways with a bad loss against a weakened Memphis team, followed by another totally listless performance against the Thunder (who happen to be a match up nightmare for the Lakers). This extended their record to 0–8 when Ball does not play.

Coming home, the Lakers played without three starters and set a record for the most missed free throws (2–14) in a win by 13 over the playoff-bound Indiana Pacers. Two days later, they reduced their turnovers and beat the Knicks by 20 with a 17–4 run over the last 6:48 of the game.

Since the mini rebirth starting on January 5, the Lakers are now 5–2 against bad teams, beating Atlanta, Sacramento, Dallas, Indiana*, and New York. (Yes, Indiana is a bad team, but they play in the East, so they’re a playoff team. In the footnotes at the bottom, I did a thorough comparison of the Pacers and the Lakers, and believe if the teams switched conferences they would also switch records.) In addition, they have signatures win against the Celtics and the Spurs, an elite but old team that does not match up well with the Lakers, while missing an MVP-level player in Kwahi Leonard.

The process of becoming a champion (change the culture; develop young players; and finding an elite go-to guy) is rarely without bumps in the road. We’ll have to see if that process continues in a fairly linear fashion for the rest of the season, or whether there will be new turmoil (injuries, trades, firings, etc.).

Chapter 2: Midterm Report Card

The addition of Ball, KCP and Lopez in place of Russell, Young and Mozgov has been a massive improvement.

Last year, the starters were the worst team in the league, with a -26.7 point differential. They could score lots of points but played no defense. This year, the starters have helped the Lakers become a top 10 defensive team. And while they have struggled with their 3-point shooting so far this season, the starters have improved to #26, with a -12.8 point differential, almost a 14-point improvement.

If recent shooting trends continue, the Lakers could make another big jump in their point differential and greatly improve their expected wins. (Almost every team in the league with a positive point differential has a winning record. The Lakers — the NBA’s worst in 3-point and free throw shooting percentage — are only one more made 3-point shot per game, and one more made free throw from being in positive territory. Only 7 teams in the league have better than a +2.0 point differential. That’s one more made layup per game.)

With Kuzma’s incredible talent and the hard work of Hart and Caruso, the bench looks to be just as dominant, even with the departure of Lou Williams.

A big part of this improvment is the development of two unsung rookies: Josh Hart and Alex Caruso. Hart is basically a Marcus Smart who can shoot and doesn’t have that streak of irrational confidence that leads to bad shots and risky turnovers. Caruso is potentially a perfect back up to Lonzo Ball, as he has great court sense and a pass-first mentality. When he played with Ball during Summer League, and they got in transition, the team looked liked the Warriors. He’s a tall defender who can guard many positions and he specializes in pushing the ball ahead with quick passes.

When two more guys can contribute at a high level, this allows the Lakers to play a 10- or 11- man rotation and push the pace the entire game. Even though the All-Stars on other teams can dominate the young starters, the Lakers bench is so close in ability to the starters, they dominate opposing benches and even do well against opposing starters get tired at the end of tough games. (For the season, the Lakers bench is #4 in the league with a+7.4 point differential. Last year, they were #2 with a+8.3 point differential. The drop off is due to all the injuries that caused the bench guys to move into the starting lineup at various points throughout the season.)

Chapter 4: Looking Forward

The secret to being good is consistency.

The most encouraging thing about this period is the Lakers’ mental improvement, as they are learning how to beat the teams they should beat. Any team can get pumped up to play against the Warriors, Rockets, Spurs and Celtics. The Lakers may not win, but everyone feels encouraged if they can play a competitive game. The real challenge is staying focused and working hard against beatable teams. Here’s a little secret I’ve learned about being an elite athlete that applies as much to basketball as it does to tennis.

To be a playoff team, all you have to do is always beat the losing teams and play even against the teams at your level. You hardly ever need to beat the best teams, but any win over a great team is just gravy.

How the rest of the schedule breaks down.

Currently, there are 15 teams in the NBA that are under .500. The Lakers record against these teams in the first half was 10–7. They gave very little effort and played no defense (their new calling card) in 5 of these games, and lost two other winnable games because their opponents just got really hot at the right time. Starting Friday in Chicago, they have another 16 games this season against teams with losing records. If the Lakers maintain their focus, winning 12 of these games would raise their record to 30 wins.

There are another 7 teams that are at .500 or marginally better: Indiana, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Portland, New Orleans, Miami, Washington, and Denver. The Lakers have either beaten, had double digit leads, or blown 4th quarter leads against every team in this group (except for no games with Miami yet). But their inexperience only resulted in a losing record. With 9 games left against teams in this group, continued solid play would give perhaps 5 wins, raising their record to 35 wins.

Against the NBA’s top 8 teams, the Lakers are 4–13, including two overtime losses to the Warriors and a double overtime loss to the Rockets. The Lakers had the lead in the last minute of regulation or overtime in all three games, and had the chance to win each game with the last shot in regulation.

Without a true go-to guy, three different players took the last shot of the game, with little thought about the best way to attack the opponent’s defense. The wins against San Antonio and Boston give hope that they might have learned enough about winning close games to hold on to leads moving forward. They have 10 more games against the top teams, of which 5 are at home, and three are at the end of the season when playoff teams may start resting players.

With some luck, could they win 5 of them? That would be 40 wins, and an outside shot of making the 8th seed if Denver and the Clippers fall apart.

But even if they only win 3 of these games, they would end the season with 38 wins, a 12-win improvement over last year’s team. Considering how people were predicting the Lakers would be a bottom 5 team again this year, that’s a huge step forward for a team that has seven guys under 24, including four rookies, no All-Stars, and no go-to guy they can trust to finish a game.

Don’t Stop Believing.

Flush with the excitement of a close win over a top team, the Lakers will go on a long road trip leading up to the All-Star break. This will be another test of the Lakers’ recent maturity. They will be underdogs against Toronto and Oklahoma City, favored against Brooklyn and Orlando, and possibly a toss up with the improving Chicago Bulls.

A 3–2 road trip would be a great way to consolidate the team’s growth, improve to 21–31, and give this young team an outside shot at catching Denver for the last playoff spot.

The NBA season is full of ups and downs. My only message to the Lakers is to embrace the journey and don’t stop believin’.


*Regarding the Pacers, the season stats for each team seem to indicate that Indiana would be a bottom 5 team in the West, while the Lakers would be fighting for the 8th seed in the East if they switched conferences.

Indiana is mediocre to bad in most major categories: #21 in rebounding, #21 in defensive rating, #16 in steals, #22 in blocks, #18 in assists, and #19 in pace. They are good in these categories: #3 in fast break points, #4 in fewest turnovers, #4 in 3-point percentage, #6 in transition frequency, #7 in offensive efficiency, #13 in free throw percentage and #9 in 3-point percentage defense.

Basically, this is a bad defensive team that can’t rebound and doesn’t share the ball. But they don’t turn over the ball so they get up and make lots of 3-pointers. If they shoot well from beyond the arc, they have a chance to win.

The Lakers are good to elite in the following categories: #1 in pace, #1 in transition frequency, #2 in fast break points, #3 in rebounding, #4 in 3-point percentage defense, #6 in steals, #6 in assists, #9 in defensive rating, and #12 in blocks. But they are terrible in a few key offensive categories: #29 in fewest turnovers, #30 in free throw percentage, #30 in 3-point percentage, and #29 in offensive efficiency.

The Lakers are a team that creates favorable situations by getting stops and rebounds that lead to fast breaks and transition plays that lead to layups or open 3-pointers. But they shoot themselves in the foot with turnovers, missed layups and missed free throws. In the long run, when a team can play defense and run, they have to potential to be consistently effective because they don’t need to rely on great outside shooting. That’s the Warriors’ formula, in spite of the brilliant shooting by the Splash Brothers and Kevin Durant. For the Lakers, it’s just a matter of time before the young guys improve in the areas within their control.

In the Pacers-Lakers game, then, it should have come as no surprise that the Lakers had more rebounds, assists, fast break points, points in the paint, and turnovers. The only difference in the game was Indiana shot really badly from beyond the arc, which could be explained as partly good Laker defense and partly tired legs from Indiana playing the second night of a back-to-back.

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Ad agency creative director, writer & designer at Former pro tennis player and peak performance coach for professional athletes.

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