NBA Hot Takes 2
So, the Lakers went on the road and lost three straight games. I commented at the time that they look like a 46-minute team — they’ll fight and scrap and hang around, even have a lead as late as the last two minutes of the game. But it was also clear that they don’t have a real go-to guy who can make a series of big plays, nor a defensive player who could stop the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and (surprisingly) George Hill. My dream of the Lakers playing .500 basketball already seemed like a distant memory, but…
There was a nice win in Atlanta, where the Lakers came back from an early 12-point deficit and eventually pulled ahead at the end of the game. Of note, Lou Williams made the game winning prayer with 2:11 left in the game, giving the Lakers a 4-point cushion. It was a terrible possession and a desperation shot, but that seems to be what most great players do. I appreciated the little things the #BabyLakers continued to do on the boards and defensively (9 blocks! while Dwight Howard had none). But let’s face it, the Hawks don’t have a great player who can get his own shot, and the Lakers contested and denied Kyle Korver, their best 3-point shooter. I sighed, thinking how the Lakers might do playing in the weaker Eastern Conference, but thought there was no chance for them to climb back to .500 with the Golden State Warriors coming to Staples Center on Friday.
Happily, I was proven wrong again. And yes, miracles do happen. So here’s my second set of hot takes. I am enjoying Lakers basketball for the first time since 2010 and here’s why:
- Luke Walton is proving to be a really good coach. Tonight, he played his usual 10-man rotation, but four of the bench players played more minutes, especially in crunch time, than the starters. And the starters could be seen celebrating every time the bench guys made good plays.
- Tonight, Walton found his own lineup of death: Clarkson, Williams, Randle, Nance and Ingram. With 9:00 left in the game and the Lakers clinging to a still tenuous 10-point lead, they went on a 14–6 run to make the score 109–91 with four minutes to go, and Golden State raised the white flag.
- Brandon Ingram is showing signs of being a special player. Opponents don’t understand that he has Inspector Gadget extensible arms and he had two huge steals that killed the Warriors’ momentum.
- D’Angelo Russel has officially earned the D in his first name. I originally thought his ceiling would be James Harden (on defense), but he’s making an effort on that side of the court. He’s not great, but tonight he used his length to deny Curry the ball and contest jump shots. He also read defensive situations much better, collapsing to the baseline when he got beat on a drive.
- Lou Williams has also been a revelation. Everyone knows he can score, but he’s hustling on defense and his three steals in the 4th quarter blew open a game that was one Curry 3-point barrage from becoming a nail biter.
- Miracles do happen. Given the huge emotional let down after playing against the Thunder the night before, I knew this was a perfect trap game for Golden State. I just didn’t think it would matter against the amazing talent the Warriors have assembled this year. But Curry was 0–10 from beyond the arc, including a few wide open shots that he may not miss for the rest of the season. The Warriors looked disinterested and confused on defense and under the boards. Combined with their terrible shooting, this led to tonight’s surprising result. As Draymond Green said after the game, the Lakers aren’t bad anymore and they’re hungry. The first step to becoming a respectable team is to make teams who take the night off pay the price at Staples Center.
- These Lakers are sharing the ball on almost every play. If Randle or Ingram get the rebound, they push it up the floor. But even when Russell was on the floor, there were times he ran up the floor and let Clarkson, Williams and even Ingram dribble up the court after inbounding the ball. Even though Ingram doesn’t initiate the offense, letting everyone touch the ball is a symbol of a team that is building real chemistry.
- Larry Nance is my favorite Laker. As I rewatched various plays during the game, I saw all the little things he does for the team, a la Draymond Green: sprinting out to the corner to deny a pass to an open Klay Thompson; setting just enough of a screen as Clarkson curled from under the basket to free him up for a needed 3-pointer; cutting hard to the basket, catching and delivering the Sport Center dunk of the night (see below).
- Transitional defense is now a real thing in Los Angeles. Stephen Curry had a break away and FOUR Lakers ran down the floor to deny him an easy layup or an open three. He ended up backing out and trying to set up the defense. Last year, it seemed like players would go 1 on 4 in transition on the Lakers and score easily. This team is giving us effort every minute.
- What a pleasure to watch every Laker run out to contest 3-point shots. Without the life-sucking drag of the Kobe zombie retirement tour, these young guys are starting to do the things a good defensive team does. And don’t look at the scores. When you push the pace the way Walton wants his team to do, there are more possessions per game. They held the Rockets to 18 points in the fourth quarter in their first win, and held Indiana to 23 points in the fourth quarter to take a lead for the first time in the game (unfortunately George Hill took over and they scored eight straight points to win the game). And they outscored Atlanta 33-22 in fourth quarter to win their first road game.
- In most team defensive stats, the Lakers are no longer the worst team in the NBA. They’re in the bottom third, but they’ve jumped ahead of five teams, so they are showing signs of life. Maybe the most important thing I see (related to #10) is that Lakers opponents are only shooting 30.7% on their threes, which puts L.A. in the top 5 in the league. I calculated this by throwing out the Warriors’ horrible shooting in tonight’s game. I know it’s a small sample size, but this statistic shows me how much Walton understands how the NBA is played now. Without the three, it’s much harder for teams to make those huge runs that turn a small lead into a blow out, or come back and take the lead in a couple of minutes.
- FREE TACOS! Not only did the Lakers completely dominate the night (Golden State got no closer than seven points in the second half, while the Lakers ran the lead up to 18 and 20 points on three or four occasions), they held the Warriors under 100 points. I know it’s annoying, but all those rich season ticket holders chanting “We want tacos!” says more about the Lakers clawing back to being a good team than anything I can think of.
- The next two weeks will tell us if the team has the attitude necessary to become a respectable team. They will play six games against teams with the worst records in the league. If they show the ability to maintain their energy and work ethic when they’re not inspired by playing a top team, the Lakers might have an outside chance of winning a lot more than the expected 25 games this season.
Sweet dreams, Laker fans. It may be years before they beat a top team again, but for one night the ghosts of ShowTime were rustling around the rafters of Staples Center. I leave you with the Sports Center play of the night: