After beating the Miami Heat on Friday, the Lakers are back in action tonight to take on the Magic. Orlando, like the other Florida team, are on a Western Conference trip with tonight’s game the first of a 6 game venture away from Disney World. Orlando is currently 12th in the East, certainly not where they’d want to be after bringing on Frank Vogel as coach and several new players — including Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo — in an attempt to make the playoffs.
The Lakers are also in 12th in their conference, but things are (somewhat) looking up. The team has won two of their last three, but have been truly competitive in their last 7 games even though they’ve only got 3 wins during that period. They are defending better by the eye test even if some of their numbers don’t show it and their offense has been showing more flashes of what it was to start the season.A strong driver behind the offensive bounce back is due to D’Angelo Russell. He’s been playing more minutes, showing more aggression in looking for his own shot, and has been threatening the paint more consistently. That last point is important, as it has opened up easier scoring chances for him and his teammates, while also earning him more trips to the foul line.
The other key to the team’s recently improved play is Julius Randle. Over his last 10 games, Randle is averaging 17.1 points on 52.5% shooting, 8.0 rebounds, and 5.4 assists a night. He’s been engaged on defense and, in general, has been more in tune with what the team has been wanting to do on both sides.
A key in this, I think, is the combination of Luke Walton challenging Randle to do even more on the floor while empowering him to do so by putting the ball in his hands more often to be a playmaker in the half court. Randle’s jump in assists is mostly due to improved effectiveness creating shots in the half court, where he’s been initiating more sets in early offense and being a secondary play maker out of the team’s elbow sets and when he posts up on the shallow left wing.
Regarding tonight’s game vs. the Magic, then, Russell and Randle are keys to how this game will go. If both continue to play well, the Lakers have a good chance of winning. That’s stating the obvious, I know, but what’s becoming more and more clear is that those two, specifically, are the drivers to the first unit and have the ability to prop up the starting unit because of their ability to be both scorers and playmakers for others. The rest of the starting group are not really creators of their own offense (though Young has that ability, he’s done his best work coming off screens and then shooting without dribbling), so Russell and Randle will need to elevate that group through their own individual play.
On Orlando’s end, the strength of their team is the front line, so I am interested in seeing how the Lakers’ stable of big men match up. Since his return from injury, Tarik Black has been playing well and when he is paired with Thomas Robinson the impact they can have on the offensive glass is substantial. When you add in Mozgov’s recently steadier play and the aforementioned Randle, there are interesting match ups up front which could turn the tide of the game — especially if Lou and Clarkson bring their normal level of production.
Ultimately, this is a winnable game for the Lakers and it would be good for them to continue some of their positive positive momentum by not only playing well but by getting the victory.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet.