On the second night of a back to back, on the road, and coming off a one sided loss in their home opener I did not know what to expect from the Lakers. Would they come out flat again? Discouraged? Would they play hard and compete? I really didn’t know.
After a 132-130 win against the Suns, maybe I shouldn’t have had so many doubts. Or maybe it was just one game and they won’t always be this fun. Either way, I’m going to enjoy this win for what it was. A fun contest that saw the cornerstone young players show out and some key veterans really play well, showing the poise and resiliency to keep the game close and seize control when it really mattered.
I’ll start with Brandon Ingram who set the tone early on. On the Lakers first possession of the game, they ran a set play specifically for the 2nd year forward, initiating an action to get him the ball on the move off a DHO (dribble handoff) that got him matched up against rookie Josh Jackson. After receiving the DHO and pausing for a moment, Ingram exploded to his right hand and got to the rim for a layup.
Ingram then proceeded to get another basket going to the rim. Then he hit a three pointer. Then another. Then he got a monster open court dunk, finishing over and through a late challenge from Jackson (again). After Thursday’s loss Ingram said the shots he missed vs. the Clips were the exact shots he practices and they’re shots he planned to take again on Friday. That ended up not being true. Ingram barely took any mid-range jumpers, instead getting to the rim when he saw an advantage or shooting the long ball when he had the space.
This approach led to a 17 point first half and a career high 24 points on the night. He hit 9 of his 12 shots and looked like a completely different player than the one we’ve seen through the preseason and the team’s first game. Not just the confidence and the shooting touch, but the decisiveness and approach to how he was going to get buckets. Maybe it helped that the Suns don’t defend well. I don’t care, though. You want your young guys showing you they belong regardless of the competition level. Ingram’s spent a lot of time giving us flashes of that, but rarely a full game. Friday night he did.
If Ingram’s scoring punch kept the Lakers in the game against a hot shooting Devin Booker and bullish Eric Bledsoe early on, it was the play of Lonzo Ball and Brook Lopez which carried them home.
Lopez was steady as could be this game, finding more success against Tyson Chandler and Alex Len than he did against DeAndre Jordan a night earlier. Chandler and Len offer size, but not the same mobility and Lopez took advantage by spacing out the three point line to find buckets. He then went into his mid and low post attack to grind baskets out of nothing, showing off his tremendous shooting touch. Lopez scored 12 of his 19 points in the 2nd half, including 8 in the final period to help keep the Lakers in it and ahead.
The star of the game was Lonzo, though. While Ball actually played fine against Patrick Beverley and the Clippers a night earlier, the narrative was quite different. People were going to go after Lonzo, they were going to make his life hard. While narrative isn’t going away anytime soon, his 29 point, 12 rebound, 9 assist night sure as hell made it look like he was the one making people’s lives hard and not the other way around.
After a nice enough first half, Lonzo took control of the game in the second half, scoring 16 of his 29 points (8 in each period). In the 3rd quarter he bombed two 3’s, continuing to shoot the long ball when defenders gave him too much room by either going under screens or dropping too low in transition. It was the 4th quarter, however, that saw him totally take over the game late by using drives and exploiting the Suns horrid P&R defense.
Beyond the nifty left hand finishes around the rim after dissecting the Suns with hard, straight-line drives, it was Lonzo’s approach to it all that impressed me most. After pretty much playing his style all game — throw ahead passes, really pushing in transition, etc — when the game slowed in the 4th period, Lonzo saw where his opening would be and punished it. To that point in the game he’d run the Lakers O dutifully, calling out sets and executing their delay series. But late in the game, he just called P&R after P&R, against a spread out Suns defense and brutalized them by getting to the rim.
He scored, scored, and scored again on layups. All 8 of his 4th quarter points came at the rim. Two were uncontested, two were over/around Tyson Chandler. Both of the latter were fantastic plays, which showed his creativity around the rim and how his ability finish with both hands can aid in his scoring once at the basket.
Overall, then, I was impressed with this game. Not just by Lonzo and Ingram and Lopez, but by the poise the team showed and how they were able to take control on the road late to close out a young team that was coming off their own embarrassing home opener just two nights earlier. Like the Lakers, the Suns have some young talent they’re looking to grow and turn into franchise players. On this night, though, it was the Lakers young crop that made the winning plays down the stretch.
The game wasn’t perfect, but the ending was fun and worth hanging onto as a potential building block for future success. If nothing else, it can serve as a reminder of what they can do when they play smart and to their strengths down the stretch of a close game. Now, onto the notes…
*Props to Larry Nance. During the game I tweeted that Nance is playing like a guy who has no intentions of surrendering the starting PF spot. He’s playing hard, smart basketball and is doing exactly what the first group needs. He’s attacking the backboards, is trying to be more assertive as a scorer, and is activity level on both ends is making a difference. Good for him.
*Now, about the player who used to start at PF, I don’t know if it’s sulking or him simply not yet finding his stride as a reserve, but Julius Randle had his 2nd straight meh game. He forced the action offensively, didn’t play hard defensively, and as a result only found the court for 12 and a half minutes. Down the stretch Luke Walton played Kuzma at PF instead of Randle before turning back to Nance for defensive possessions. Look, Randle’s my guy and I’m a believer in his talent. And it’s quite a difficult situation to be demoted in a contract year. I get it. I also see a player who simply isn’t playing that hard and, as a result, isn’t earning his time on the floor. It’s really that simple right now and I’m guessing it’s going to be Randle who has to change if his situation is going to improve.
*Shout out to Corey Brewer, man. In a game that was defense optional, Brewer took his matchup with Devin Booker seriously — especially in the 2nd half. After scoring 17 points in the first half, Booker only scored 8 in the final two quarters and did so on 3-9 shooting. Brewer denied Booker the ball, got up into his jersey when he did make a catch, and just made Booker’s life as difficult as possible. In a game this close and in a matchup where he’s on the other team’s best scorer, Brewer’s defensive contributions should not be overlooked.
*Give it up to Luke Walton. After the Clippers game I noted my frustration with his rotations and how he formulated his lineups. This game he deactivated Deng, started Brewer, and played more fluid lineups with more athleticism and scoring on the floor at all times. Bogut only played 7 minutes while Kuzma played 28. That might seem like a simple thing to fans, but Walton went out there and adjusted to put his team in the best position to win. Good on him for changing up so well after a rough outing for him on opening night.
*Speaking of Kuzma, he was back to looking like one of the steals of the draft this game. He hit 6 of his 7 shot attempts to score 15 points. He also added 3 rebounds and 2 assists. He took what the defense gave him, played under control, and leveraged his speed, athleticism, and scoring ability in ways to help the team win.
*Jordan Clarkson looked good again and is starting to solidify himself as a really important bench player. He only played 17 minutes (mostly because Brewer’s defense was so important on Booker), but in those minutes he scored 17 points and really impacted the game. He didn’t force the action at all, either. Just another good game from JC