LOS ANGELES — A narrow win over the Dallas Mavericks on Halloween signaled the end of a tumultuous first month of the season for the Los Angeles Lakers.
While the victory allowed Los Angeles to conclude October on a high note, the Lakers’ night against the Mavs (2-6) resembles their 3-5 start overall: moments to marvel at and moments so heinous they mar anything else done right. The Lakers let a 14-point lead with four minutes to go slip away, as Kyle Kuzma and LeBron James managed to make DeAndre Jordan, of all people, look clutch from the free throw line.
“Once we make the playoffs,” Lakers center JaVale McGee said Wednesday, “we are going to be thrown out there. There’s not any slippage. You can’t slip in the playoffs. So we got to get our slippage out right now so we are not out in the first round.”
Putting aside the presumption of a postseason for the Lakers, it’s not a mystery why they’re off to such an uneasy start. The suspensions to Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram notwithstanding, there have been a catalog of mishaps that keep recurring.
Decision-making in the clutch
As jarring as it was to see the Lakers nearly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against Dallas, at least they got the win. The same couldn’t be said about their two-point lead with 6 minutes, 49 seconds remaining in Minnesota that turned into a 10-point deficit with 4:56 left; or their 11-point lead late in the third quarter in San Antonio that turned into a four-point loss; or their six-point lead with less than a minute left in overtime at home against the Spurs that finished as a one-point heartbreak.
“I’m extremely happy we’re going through this,” James said, spinning things positively after the Dallas game. “You can talk about it, you can preach about it, you can watch film about it, but the best teacher in life is experience.
“It’s great that these guys are getting this experience of playing these tight, close games, and then tonight we were on the other side of it. We lost a couple. Same situation against San Antonio, we lost. Same situation happened tonight, we won. It’s great to learn from.”
This was a couple nights after James warned, “You probably don’t want to be around when my patience runs out. I’m serious.” So it would appear we haven’t reached that point yet — even if his patience has clearly thinned.
Coach Luke Walton has distilled these disappointments into a message he hopes echoes in his team’s ears forever more: “NBA games are never over. And you have to play the game a certain way. If you mess with the game, the game will mess with you.”
Entering the season, numerous NBA coaches and execs wondered how Walton would utilize a roster heavy on ball handlers and short on centers and shooting specialists.
Through November 1st, the Lakers used 104 different lineups, second only to the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks’ 140. Walton has searched for chemistry and the perfect blend of veterans and young prospects to surround and spell James. He has tried going small at center when McGee rests, putting added pressure on L.A.’s defense and rebounding. Rondo’s and Ingram’s suspensions only complicated matters.
“Every lineup has been different,” James said after the loss in Minneapolis. “And all of them works well, just trying to figure out. Obviously, you can tell Luke is kinda still siphoning through rotations and packages and lineups that are working well together, so those things are coming.”
When asked about having a consistent starting five before the Mavs game, James said: “I mean, that would be ideal. But I think our team is shaped differently than some teams I’ve been on. We’ll see if we can get to that point.”
The Lakers started Lonzo Ball, Ingram, James, Kuzma and McGee for the second straight game against Dallas and that unit helped build a 17-point first-quarter lead. That lineup has outscored opponents by 13 points in 31 minutes through Wednesday. On the flip side, one lineup that has struggled is Ball, Josh Hart, James, Kuzma and Lance Stephenson, which was outscored by 16 points in 28 minutes through Wednesday.
“I mean, we have a really deep team,” said Rondo, who started the first two games of the season before coming off the bench after his suspension. “I’ve probably never played with as much talent, and obviously 10-11 guys are in the rotation every night consistently. So that’s been different. But it’s all about making adjustments on the fly.”
Walton opened training camp preaching defense first and it’s still very much a work in progress. The Lakers have allowed 121.1 points per game this season; only Washington and New Orleans allow more. And while the Lakers are marginally better by defensive efficiency (112.4 points per 100 possessions allowed, 23rd in NBA), even that is a drop-off from a season ago (107.2 points per 100 possessions allowed, 13th best in NBA).
They’re considerably better defensively when McGee is on the floor. But the Lakers have trouble stopping opponents from penetrating in the middle of their defense, as evidenced when Dallas rookie Luka Doncic drove by Ingram, drawing James to help and leaving Harrison Barnes to hit a late corner 3 as Dallas attempted to stun the Lakers late. Following that Wednesday game, the Lakers surrendered 57.0 paint points per game, third worst in the NBA.
And when the Lakers need crucial stops, too often they’ve watched opposing All-Stars like San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan and Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler come up with backbreaking fourth-quarter shots.
“Collectively, we’re not doing things, we’re not on the same page,” Rondo said after Butler scored 32 points, including hitting 5 of 5 3-pointers in the fourth quarter of the Timberwolves’ 124-120 win over the Lakers. “We’re messing up pick-and-roll coverage. We’re messing up box-out assignments. So we got to do the intangibles and come in with a better mindset.”
Freedom of movement calls are affecting the entire league this season, not just games the Lakers play. But for whatever reason, Los Angeles has had a more difficult time adapting to the referees’ point of emphasis than most. The Lakers have allowed 26.4 free throw attempts per game, which puts them 23rd out of 30 teams in the NBA.
Meanwhile, the Lakers have gotten to the line just 22 times per game (ranked 23rd). The free throw disparity has driven Walton mad — he already has been whistled for two technical fouls and picked up a $15,000 fine for a postgame rant aimed at the officials — but the amount of calls granted can’t really be controlled, save for selling contact better (something the coaching staff has encouraged).
What they can improve upon is their positioning and tendency to reach or use their arms on defense, to stay out of foul trouble and keep teams from racking up freebies at the line.
“We understand in order for us to be very successful we have to rebound and not put people on the free throw line,” James said.
Lakers management opted to go into the season with one experienced center, McGee, with visions of small-ball lineups full of long players able to switch defensively on any position. While McGee has exceeded expectations, rebounding has been an adventure.
Following Wednesday’s win over Dallas, the Lakers had a defensive rebound percentage of 70.3 percent, which ranked 23rd in the NBA. The Lakers were a minus-3.7 in rebounds per game differential.
At times, the fast-break-happy Lakers leak out too early before securing the rebound. Other times, bigger teams exploit the Lakers’ size. After the Wolves snagged 20 offensive rebounds in the Lakers’ loss, Walton had his team go through “full, high school, fundamental basic rebounding drills” in a shootaround.
“That’s an excuse,” James said when asked if size just comes into play with the Lakers. “I think what we got is who we have. And we got to go out and rebound.”
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