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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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The Lakers played a strong second half to come back and beat the Kings on Thursday night and then hopped on a plane to New Orleans to continue their road trip. The NBA grind stops for no one and today’s game against the Pelicans will be the Lakers’ sixth game on the road of their first 10 contests. The trip ends with another game tomorrow against the T’Wolves.

That Wolves game is a match up against two up and coming teams and, just as I did with this sentence, it would not surprise me to have some on the Lakers looking forward a bit to Sunday. That, however, would be a mistake for a few reasons. One, the Lakers aren’t good enough to look past any opponent. And, two, while the Pelicans are only 1-8 on the season, they have Anthony Davis who is, well, a monster.

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Luke Walton was not happy after Thursday’s game against the Kings. That might seem odd considering the way his team rallied in the 2nd half, holding the Kings to 36 points over the final two periods to win the game 101-91. He was not protesting the way his team closed, of course, but rather the way they played to dig themselves the hole — at one point they trailed by as many as 19 — to need that type of 2nd half performance in the first place.

This is what Walton is trying to teach and just as lessons can be learned from losses, they also can from wins. Walton did not demean his players or question their manhood, but he did let them know coming out with lackluster energy or attention to detail is not who they want to be as a team. He drilled that lesson after a W and I’m sure he was happy to be able to do so. But, and I’ve harped on this all season, Walton is clearly coaching for something bigger than wins this season (even if wins clearly matter to him — more on that later). He’s coaching to instill his team with the right mindset, the right habits, to have them truly turn the corner and become competitive over the long haul.

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After a loss to the Mavericks which was both disappointing yet offered some teachable moments, the Lakers are back in action against the Kings tonight. Sacramento, with new coach Dave Joerger, is 4-5 on the year and looking to get their 3rd straight win while also climbing back to .500 for the season.

As with past seasons, the Kings are difficult to wrap your head around. They have beat teams they should, but also went on a 5 game road trip which saw them lose to the Magic, Heat, and Bucks but beat the Raptors in the final game of the trip. They have the supremely talented DeMarcus Cousins but also a ton of front court depth beside him, but also want to play faster and small which means sliding Rudy Gay up to PF for stretches.

Another wrinkle for Sacto is that Darren Collison returned from his 8 game suspension in Tuesday’s win over the Pelicans, scoring 9 points and dishing 4 assists in his season debut. Getting Collison back finally organizes their lineup and helps to normalize their rotation. With everyone now properly slotted and without having to rely on short term answers, we will finally get a look at what the Kings real potential is.

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I’m going to keep this brief because, well, I just am.

The Lakers went for their 4th straight victory on Tuesday night, but fell short against the Mavs. The game itself was a back and forth affair and one where the Lakers found themselves “in it” until the end. If going down a certain road of analysis, this is a good sign. This team competes and finds a way to either hang around or be in control long enough to make wins possible. In some games they’ve pulled it out, in others they haven’t.

Tuesday was one of those nights and there’s nothing wrong with that, really. This team was projected to win around 27 games this year. The expectation, then, should be that more often than not Tuesday’s result will be the default, not the exception.

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