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A couple of days removed from the Lakers beating the Nets, they are back in action tonight at Staples to face the Spurs. The Lakers are 7-5 and tied for 4th in the conference, the Spurs are 9-3 and in 3rd. It sounds like old times and a single tear rolls down my cheek.

Of course, this isn’t old times. This is the first time in 19 seasons the Lakers and the Spurs will play a game with neither Kobe Bryant nor Tim Duncan on the roster. The Spurs, like the Borg they are, continue to roll. They are only behind the Warriors (who they have already blasted this year) and Clippers, boasting both an offense and defense in the top 10 of the league.

They do this even with our old friend Pau Gasol and old foe LaMarcus Aldridge anchoring the back line of their defense. They do this even though Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili combined average 16.5 points a game. They do this even though Danny Green has only played in 4 games this year while Johnathan Simmons (who was in the D-League just two years ago), David Lee (who cannot guard you, the person reading this), and Slo-Mo Kyle Anderson playing key bench roles.

In other words, they do this because of Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard are awesome at their jobs. Because whatever weaknesses some of the above players have, they seem to consistently play away from them and towards their strengths instead. Because regardless of who wears the jersey, this team has an identity which is based on teamwork, unselfishness, smarts, and playing hard.

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I am guilty. Guilty of standings watching. Guilty of looking at the Lakers’ win/loss record and celebrating it. The Lakers are 7-5! I’ve written joyfully. On here. On twitter. In texts to friends and family and Celtics fans. I am enjoying not just the way the team is playing or the fact they are improved, but the winning. I like winning. I am guilty.

Things are about to get less fun, though. Or at least they should. Matt Moore of CBS Sports tweeted out the Lakers’ upcoming schedule. It is brutal.

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The Lakers moved to 7-5 on the season with a 125-118 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday. The win wasn’t pretty, but it counts the same in the standings. Standings, which I might add, are something fans of the team are actively watching for the first time in 3 seasons for reasons which have nothing to do with the status of owed draft picks or lottery positioning.

The game itself was a mix of highlights, pensive tension due to a scrappy Nets team, and fast paced action. The game offered roughly 110 possessions, which is even a lot for two teams who love to get up and down and a ton for just a regular NBA game. Within that breakneck tempo, there wasn’t always the highest caliber of basketball — especially defensively — but there was plenty to cheer about from both teams.

From the Lakers side, much of that adulation goes out to D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle.

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The last game the Lakers played was a blowout at the hands of the T’Wolves. Whether they were tired from playing in 3 different cities in 4 days or simply due for a bad night, the hope is that a return home will get them back on track when they face the Nets tonight.

The Nets are an interesting team. When you look at their roster, the assumption would be that they are terrible. Yes they have Brook Lopez who is an all-star caliber player and Jeremy Lin (who was good in Charlotte last year) was a nice addition in free agency. But beyond those two, this roster looks like a bunch of journeymen – Randy Foye, Luis Scola, Trevor Booker — and players who even NBA die-hards might not be familiar with. (Sean Harris? Justin Hamilton? These guys sound like generic roster fillers on a simulated 2K season, but they get real minutes on this team.)

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The Lakers are a surprising 6-5 through 11 games this season. Considering their Vegas over/under was 24.5 wins, being on pace to win almost close to twice that many games isn’t something many (any?) people saw coming. I know I didn’t.

There are several factors which are contributing to the team’s early season success, but I’d argue none are more important than the performance of the team’s bench. The unit of Lou Williams, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance Jr., and Tarik Black is destroying opponents. Seriously. It’s not hyperbole.

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The other night I was out with a friend having a drink and talking basketball. In between some NSFW commentary on topics from around the league, he asked me about D’Angelo Russell. My buddy, an OKC Thunder fan, said he really likes Russell and wants him to do well. He asked me if I had any concerns about Russell (I will get to my answer to that in a minute) and then we went on to discuss how good we think he can be as a player.

In Sunday’s game against the Timberwolves, Russell did not play well. It took him 10 shots to score his 7 points and he struggled defensively, both when trying to contain Ricky Rubio off the dribble and when forced to switch onto other wings/bigs. This type of game isn’t indicative of how Russell has played all season, but it’s also not the first time it has happened. In a loss against the Pacers he scored 11 points on 3-10 shooting and the Pacers attacked him with Paul George down the stretch, intentionally singling him out by forcing switches defensively. A loss against the Jazz saw him score 9 points on 3-14 shooting while George Hill cooked offensively on the other end.

For the season, Russell is scoring 15.4 points a night and dishing 4.7 assists. He’s shooting 40.5% from the floor, including 35.9% from distance. If these numbers sound familiar, it’s because they are quite similar to the ones he posted last season: 13.2 points, 3.2 assists, 41.0% shooting from the field, and 35.9% from behind the arc. Russell is scoring and assisting better and in fewer minutes a night, but if you look at his shot charts, things this year resemble last year.

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In the big picture, if you would have told me the Lakers would go 2-1 on their 3 game road trip I would have taken it happily and not even thought twice about it. I think it important to remind myself of that right now because the Lakers’ 125-99 loss to the Wolves was as ugly as the score implies. In fact, it might have been worse.

As I wrote in my game preview, I thought there might be a chance the Lakers came out sluggish and that’s what happened. The starting group wasn’t just flat, they were slow in pretty much everything they did. Slow in getting into their sets, in moving the ball, in setting screens, in closing out on shooters, in rotating to protect the paint. The result was an early hole for the bench to try to dig out of.

Typically, that’s not an issue for the Lakers’ reserves, but this game they weren’t able to really get anything going either — at least consistently. They did have a nice spurt in the 2nd quarter where they were able to apply some defensive pressure, get some stops, and then get some baskets on the other end. For that brief stint, it looked like it was going to be business as usual but then things dried up again which allowed the Wolves to take control back and close the half with a run.

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The Lakers are 2-0 on a three game road trip which ends tonight in Minnesota. The game is the 2nd night of a back to back and one which has them traveling from New Orleans to Minnesota. This is not the most brutal flight (roughly two and a half hours), but it can be at least somewhat compounded by the fact that they were just in Sacramento on Thursday. That’s a lot of miles in only 4 days and it would not surprise me if some of this caught up to them.

That said, the Lakers continue to win games using a communal approach where Luke Walton has masterfully distributed minutes so on single player is ever overextended. A blowout helped against the Pelicans for sure, but no player was on the court for more than 28 minutes last night which is right in line with season norms. This type of minute allocation helps combat schedule issues by keeping players as fresh as they can be considering the rigors of the season.

How much that rest matters is only a side story today, though. The Lakers could have been coming off a brutal stretch or had a week off heading into Minnesota and I think all the focus would be on the Lakers playing the team many around the league see as the potential heir-apparent. The Lakers, of course, would prefer experts look at them that way, but instead it’s the Wolves, with Andrew Wiggins, Karl Towns, Zach Lavine, and Kris Dunn. That young core (which isn’t even all of them, by the way) is coached by Tom Thibodeau and is hyped as the team of the future.

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