I have been a bit more bullish on the Lakers recently than, from what I can tell, your average fan. The Lakers won two games in December and wrapped the new year holiday with losses to the Mavericks (who are bad) and the Raptors (who are good). The Mavs loss was particularly dispiriting since the game featured a big lead, a 2nd half collapse, and effort levels that could be at best called sporadic and at worst at times reprehensible.
I remained optimistic about the team, though, because though stretches of poor play persisted their were lineups which were still performing well and, as noted, they were still taking leads in nearly every game they played. So, I chose to focus on the good aspects they were doing with the hope they would get more consistent at them rather than continue to find ways to undo those positives.
Partially against the Raptors and then fully against the Grizzlies, that’s exactly what occurred. The team played better, for longer, driven by strong performances from multiple players but especially D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and Nick Young. Those first two names are important, of course. While Brandon Ingram’s two-way potential might exceed both Russell and Randle long term, what Ingram can be is ultimately an idea and not yet close to being actualized. We see flashes of light, but you cannot draw a masterpiece using a strobe light as your guide.
Russell and Randle, however, are closer to being more of what they can be and for longer periods in each game. This was on full display against the Grizz where the latter notched his 2nd triple-double of the season and the former passed and shot the hell out of the ball to be a true difference maker on offense. Add in a level of engagement and activity on defense from both which has not been there for most (if not all) of the season and you had two players who are still so young showing that they could carry a team. This is not a small thing, even if it’s what we all hope (and some expect) to be the case.
All of this matters for tonight’s game against the Blazers because I’m quite interested in seeing if the momentum can be carried forward — especially for Russell. The point guard will face Damian Lillard in his direct match up — one of the toughest and individual defender can find in the league. So, I wonder, can Russell continue to show defensive engagement and effectiveness? And, maybe more importantly, can he still bring a top level offensive game to the table when working hard and expending the amount of mental energy it takes to defend Dame? Inquiring minds want to know.
As for Randle, he will do battle against a rangy forward who will not be as strong as him but will be able to match quickness. Al Farouq Aminu is the Blazers’ best defensive player and he will hound Randle’s dribble and make it hard to create off the dribble — which is Randle’s primary strength. Still, I want to see if Randle’s patience and ability to use his power in tight spaces can get him good looks. Further, I want to see if those things can also continue to translate to the type of playmaking which has Randle averaging nearly 4 assists a game.
The other wrinkle for this game is who will start for Luol Deng, who is out with biceps tendonitis in his right arm. Will Luke put Clarkson in at SG and slide up Young? Will he just start Ingram? Both have their benefits and offer a nice lineup experiment worth looking into for longer stretches. Ingram offers defense, rebounding ability, and another ball mover to the starting lineup. His ball handling and ability to credibly set up the offense also has the ability to put Russell off the ball for longer stretches, which can unlock key aspects of Russell’s game and open up the offense by allowing him to post up and screen for teammates to help get them and himself open.
As for Clarkson, he could really benefit from playing in the more structured 1st unit and away from the pairing with Lou Williams where the team’s leading scorer tends to monopolize possessions. Lou leads the Lakers in usage rate and while Clarkson still boasts a healthy usage as well, it is often within the context of a “your turn, my turn” type of flow. Getting touches more organically out of the natural rhythms of the offense could do him some good. Playing with more floor spacers and, in general, more versatile offensive players in the starting group could also open up more playmaking chances for Clarkson too.
Getting back to Portland, just because the Lakers have the chance to do some of these things doesn’t mean it will happen easily. The Blazers are a bad defensive team, but have enough offense to turn the tenor of a game into a shootout where they can thrive. Further, that type of game tends to throw off game plans and get players into the type of mindset where they think everything will come easy. Until it doesn’t. Which is how a nice chunk of Lakers’ leads have been blown of late.
And Lillard, CJ McCollum, and role players like Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner do have the ability to turn a game. They can score in bunches and if the Lakers aren’t attentive and engaged defensively, they’ll do just that. They may do it even if the Lakers are. They are that good. So, I’m interested in seeing how it all goes. Dame normally kills the Lakers and that alone makes this game worth watching, even if he might carry some rust with him.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet and TNT.