I’m going to keep this one short because, honestly, I’m as tired as the Lakers probably are. Well, that’s probably not true. Not when I remember that tonight’s game in Memphis will the Lakers’ 4th in 5 nights and has them traveling from Toronto where they were spanked on Friday by the Raptors. Before traveling to Toronto, the Lakers were in New Orleans and Chicago the two previous days, which, considering these are people who rely on performing athletic feats for a living, probably isn’t ideal.
The Lakers improbably climbed back to .500 on Wednesday, beating the Bulls in an ugly game which saw both teams struggle to score. Of course, ugly wins count the same as the most beautiful ones so I’ll take the result happily. Underscoring/what led to the poor aesthetics was that the Bulls game offered some of the best defense the Lakers played all season. So, I guess if you’re 90’s Knicks era Pat Riley, you might have found the game to be prettier than most.
Wednesday is long gone, though. Or at least it needs to be when the Lakers are now in Toronto to play the Raptors on the first night of another back to back that has them in Memphis on Saturday. Regardless of how good the Grizz are (and with Mike Conley out, they are much worse than they were just a few days ago), that game will be the team’s 4th in 5 nights all in different cities while crisscrossing the continent (New Orleans to Chicago to Toronto to Memphis).
So, if the Lakers hope to go (at least) 2-2 on this trip, getting a win in Toronto is likely to be the best way to make that happen. Of course, considering the Raptors are 12-6 (2nd best in the East), that is easier said than done. When you consider their personnel and how they like to attack teams, the chances decrease further.
A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a podcast between Zach Lowe and David Thorpe about early season trends. The premise was that after a couple of weeks we were starting to get some information about teams and both Lowe and Thorpe were discussing whether these things were “real”. It was a good listen and worth your time even though nothing about the Lakers was discussed.
The caveat to their discussion, though, was that teams had only played about 10 games — thus the question of whether things they were seeing were actually real. Both commented that after 20 games we would have a better idea about whether trends we were observing had staying power and that it might be good to check back in in a few weeks.
Well, guess what, we’re now at the 20 game mark for the Lakers. They are 10-10 after an ugly, but lovely win against the Bulls on the 2nd night of a back to back on Wednesday. Now that we’re at the quarter pole of the season, we have a better idea about what we actually know about this team. What are some of them? I’m glad you asked. Here’s 10.
After Nick Young left Tuesday’s loss to the Pelicans with what was originally being called a strained achilles tendon, we have been waiting on this MRI results to get the official word. Those results are now in and, per the Lakers, Young has a strained calf muscle in his right leg and is out 2-4 weeks.
This is both a dose of good news and stroke of bad luck/timing that will be difficult to manage.
On the good side, whenever the words “achilles” are tied to an injury report and an MRI is needed, I have trepidations. I know full tears can usually be diagnosed without an MRI, but the possibility of a partial tear or damage to the achilles in general could have taken him out of the lineup for a lot longer than the 2-4 week estimate.
That said, the Lakers will now be without Young for upwards of a month which is a major blow to their lineup. As their starting shooting guard, Young plays 25 minutes a night and scores 13 points a game. Replacing those minutes and production is not a minor feat. Further, Young is one of the team’s best 3-point shooters, connecting on 41.8% of shots behind the arc while taking 6 attempts a night. And this says nothing of the fact that Young is often asked to guard the other team’s best wing scorer.
There’s simply no replacement on the roster who can step in and mirror Young’s skill set. (Imagine saying this two months ago! Life comes at you fast.)
As I wrote in my game preview, Tuesday’s game vs. the Pelicans was a real threat. Jrue Holiday’s return has added a legit two-way player who is also the team’s best playmaker (yes, even better than Davis). Adding him to the lineup has made them formidable in ways that are even greater than his individual talent as he helps them slot their lineups appropriately while also bringing out the best in teammates due to his playmaking and scoring ability.
The Lakers saw that first hand and were not able to overcome. Yes, Davis was brilliant in his typical ways. Any time a player goes for 40+ points and 15+ rebounds, he is the guy who put his stamp on the game. But I thought it was Holiday’s 22 points and 5 assists which were also difference makers in the Pelicans’ attack. His scoring ability opened up the floor more for his teammates and being a threat from the perimeter in general helped Davis get more 1-on-1 opportunities against Lakers’ defenders who could not handle him.
Ultimately, games like these happen and while they are discouraging, I won’t be too upset. The Lakers are now 9-10 on the year which, if we’re being honest, is pretty good. Not only within the context of the expectations heading into the season, but within the context of the current standings for the conference.
One thing that is harder to live with, though, is Nick Young’s injury. After challenging a fastbreak layup attempt, Young landed and instantly hopped around with a lower leg injury. He did not return after being diagnosed with a strained achilles tendon. An MRI will be performed today and the hope is that it’s nothing too serious. But Young will not play tonight in Chicago and that only further compromises the Lakers’ wing depth.
The Lakers continue to show grit and fighting spirit — there’s really no other way to explain their 9-9 record at this stage of the season, their latest win coming against the Hawks without D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. The team simply battles hard, does their best to execute the gameplan, and finds ways to either keep games close or pull ahead with timely runs (mostly by the hands of their destructive all-bench unit).
Tonight is another test, though. The Lakers are in New Orleans to play the Pelicans, starting a 4-game road trip and the first night of a back to back which lands them in the Windy City Wednesday. The Pelicans’ record is poor, but have been playing better lately after Jrue Holiday returned to action after managing family health issues. The Pelicans also have that Anthony Davis fellow. I hear he’s pretty good.
I’d be lying if I was in any way confident the Lakers would beat the Hawks, but I did believe they could compete and make enough of a game of it that they could win it. Maybe I should have been more confident. The Lakers beat the Hawks 109-94 to sweep the season series and push back up to .500 at 9-9 on the season.
The way the game started, however, it did not look like this would be the result. As he did in the first match up in Atlanta, Dwight Howard was controlling the action, catching lobs for dunks, getting drop off passes for dunks, and controlling the backboards. Dennis Shroeder was beating Jose Calderon off the dribble and it all domino’d from there, the Lakers’ defense unable to help the helper in a way which would stop the onslaught. By the end of the 1st quarter, the Lakers trailed by 11 and it looked like it might be another one of those nights.
In the 2nd quarter, though, it all changed. The Lakers’ all bench unit clamped down defensively all over the floor. Suddenly dribble penetration didn’t come as easily, lobs for Howard were contested by Tarik Black and Larry Nance with shots either disrupted or passes deflected entirely. The team then turned those defensive stops into offensive opportunities, with Lou Williams and Jordan Clarkson feasting in transition and early offense. The result was the Lakers holding Atlanta to 16 points while dropping 35 of their own. That 11 point deficit turned into an 8 point lead and the team never looked back.
After losing to the Warriors in back to back games, the Lakers are now 8-9 and under .500 for the first time since they were 2-3 on November 2nd. That day they played the Hawks on the final game of a 4 game road trip and surprisingly won even though they played without Timofey Mozgov to anchor against Dwight Howard.
That game served as a bit of a turnaround for these Lakers, not only rewarding them for their hard play, but because it served as the 1st game of the team’s new rotation which saw them scrap playing a traditional backup PG in favor of giving Brandon Ingram more ball-handling duties and riding a Clarkson/Williams tandem in the back court.
It’s a bit ironic, then, that the Lakers get the Hawks again tonight, though under vastly different circumstances. Tonight the Lakers are playing their final game at home before going out on a 4 game road trip, are now featuring Jose Calderon as a rotation mainstay due to D’Angelo Russell’s sore knee which will keep him out another week and a half, and have lost 3 of 4 before facing this team. Wait. Sorry, that last part is exactly the same as the match up in Atlanta almost a month ago.