Archives For Game Preview

The Lakers’ preseason ends tonight with a match up against the Suns. While the team still has a couple of roster cuts to make — and maybe an assistant coach to hire? — and then sort out whether or not to treat this game like a real dress rehearsal, I think there is really only one goal for tonight: No one get hurt.

The regular season starts next Wednesday. The Lakers have plenty of work to do before then and pretty much all the goals should be to get to that date healthy with several practices and teaching sessions leading up to that point to help fine tune this team. So while tonight’s game is happening, I wouldn’t say it “matters”.

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The Lakers have not played since Saturday and, from their last few games, they needed the break in action. After winning two of their first 3 preseason games, they’d lost their last three. And while the final score for two of those contests were close, the circumstances of the game and how the team actually looked tell a different story.

Some of the gains the team had made on both sides of the ball saw regression — especially offensively. Too much standing around, not enough ball or player movement. Some of this was lineup experimentation, some of it was quality of opponent (Portland and Golden State showed much better quality defense than the Nuggets). But a lot of it was simply the team not doing what they had done in previous games, and with less urgency.

The time off, then, hopefully did them some good. As with any team featuring young players while trying to integrate new faces expected to be key contributors, the Lakers need time to install sets and schemes and then drill them in practices. They need to scrimmage to simulate game situations to test them, then drill them some more when players make mistakes. In the last week and a half, they have not had this luxury as they’ve basically played every other day (or so).

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After a loss to the Kings on Thursday, the Lakers are now 2-3 in the preseason. Thursday’s game saw a fantastic offensive performance from D’Angelo Russell undone by bad defense across the board. The Lakers couldn’t contain dribble penetration, didn’t tag cutters, had slow rotations back to the 3 point line, and gave up open jumpers all over the floor. Luke Walton said the team just didn’t have good defensive energy which was a nice way of putting things.

That defensive intensity will, of course, be even more tested tonight against the Warriors. I don’t need to go into how good they are on that end, their personnel makes it obvious. Anytime you add Kevin Durant to a team, you are going to thrive on offense. When you add him to a team with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, you are going to demolish teams on that end of the floor.

The Lakers are not going to stop this team tonight. That said, they can do some things to make the Warriors’ lives more difficult. They will need to communicate well, switch when necessary, rotate hard to the 3 point line, and help the helper. The Warriors will still score against these tactics, but what I am looking for is good effort and sticking to the scheme as outlined by the coaches. In other words, the Lakers need to focus on process and try to execute every possession. If the results don’t come, you live with that. The Warriors are going to have a season of gaining their own results regardless of their process, but based on their quality of coaching, they will also have fantastic process.

Tonight, then, I couldn’t care less about a win or a loss. Even if a win would be great for confidence and to reward a team working hard to improve, my focus is still on doing the little things better and having the team make the small, yet important, strides forward which help establish their program and who they want to be over the long haul.

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Even if it’s only preseason, Tuesday’s overtime loss against the Blazers felt disappointing. The team did not play that well overall, but still had a two point lead with 50 seconds left and possession of the ball only to commit a bad turnover that led to OT. Then, in the extra frame, the Blazers played a makeshift unit devoid of any starters while the Lakers played Russell, Clarkson, Ingram, Randle, and Yi. Based on those groupings, you would hope the Lakers could find a way to win. They did not.

This is where we must all be reminded that the Lakers are a young team that will not always play well or do the right thing on any given possession. As noted above, they had the lead, the ball, and there was under a minute to play. Rather than pull the ball back and give it to a guard, Randle pushed up court, tried to attack the paint for a basket or kickout, but instead turned it over. As frustrating as it was to watch that unfold in real time, it’s a moment he’s going to (hopefully) learn from.

The season will be full of these moments. Having some veterans around will help, but inexperienced players make mistakes. The goal is to make fewer and fewer of them as time passes, of course. But we are in the early stages of this with multiple guys. They are going to need to take their lumps.

As for tonight, the Lakers are in Las Vegas facing off against the Kings. When these two teams played earlier in the preseason, the Kings had the best player (Cousins), the better first unit (on the whole), and hit a lot of shots (contested or otherwise). Meanwhile, the Lakers had the better reserve unit and ended up taking control of the game because their bench carried them vs. the Kings’ 2nd (and 3rd) unit.

Since that game, the Lakers’ first 5 has improved while the bench has continued to play relatively well. The Portland game was a setback in some areas, but again, that’s to be expected with an inexperienced team. Will this rematch from the exhibition opener offer us a repeat from the first time they played or the PDX game? Or will they play as they did vs. the Nuggets?

Now, onto some specifics I will be watching for:

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After playing a couple of teams who are not likely to be in the playoff mix this upcoming season, the Lakers’ face off against the Blazers in their 4th exhibition game. Portland, of course, was one of the surprise teams last year, turning the loss of LaMarcus Aldridge into a positive where a group of young players, all on the same timeline, found chemistry (and a run to the playoffs) through competition and hard work.

This year they hope to go even farther than their 2nd round run, continuing on the path they started down last year. They bring back almost the same exact team as they did last year, save for FA acquisitions Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli. The latter is out with an injured knee, but the former hopes to be an on ball creator and mid-range scorer who can complement Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on the perimeter. Turner filled this role well for the Celtics last year, but it remains to be seen if he can do the same with two high usage players.

I say all this about the Blazers to make the point that the Lakers have their toughest match up of the preseason so far. Nothing against the Kings and Nuggets, but they (like the Lakers) are trying to get to where Portland has already been. And while the “it’s only preseason” caveats still apply, this game offers enough intrigue and several things I will be watching for:

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The Lakers’ preseason rolls on today with another match up against the Nuggets. The Lakers may have lost the last game against this team on Friday, but showed new tweaks on offense which allowed them to be in control for most of the contest. Defensively they also continued to look solid, though there were still breakdowns to work on.

Of course these types of growing pains are to be expected. The Lakers are relying on several young players while also integrating new veterans who will play meaningful roles. With a new coaching staff in place as well, all sides need to get familiar with each other and find ways to get on the same page. After this happens, the level of play will go up even if wins don’t always follow.

That said, I don’t want to undersell some of the real progress we have seen. As noted, the offense is taking a more modern approach and we are seeing the fruits of this improved focus. The team has also been drilling fundamentals on defense and, if watch closely, those things are showing up on tape and helping the team win possessions. Watch how D’Angelo Russell dips is inside shoulder when navigating on ball screens. Look at Jordan Clarkson’s hand placement when defending back door cuts. Look at how Larry Nance is passing off cutters and rotating early to stop dribble penetration.

These are small things, but small things help you win; small things are what good teams execute every possession because they have become second nature. The Lakers are not there yet, but seeing them starting to do them more often gives me hope that they will become habits which can be built upon.

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The Lakers had what was almost the exact kind of win you want in their preseason opener against the Kings. They got the W on a strong second half performance which saw them pull away, but also had enough of a struggle in various parts of the game to provide multiple teaching moments and offer lots to improve on.

So, when the team takes the court on Friday night against the Nuggets, there will be plenty to look forward to in seeing what adjustments are made and whether some of the general sloppiness can be cleaned up — especially by the starting group.

Speaking of the starters, it remains to be seen who will actually be in that first five. Loul Deng is listed as doubtful with a bruised knee after running into Anthony Brown at practice. There is also the question of whether Lou Williams will be swapped out for Jordan Clarkson after the latter was moved the bench vs. the Kings.

If I were making the call, I’d probably start Ingram and Clarkson, getting the “young” group that Walton highlighted as wanting to see as reserve unit into the game right away. Then my first subs would be Nance and Black for Randle and Mozgov. Of course, we’ll see if that’s how Walton plays it, but with Deng out, why not see if the young guys can find an early flow like they did in Summer League.

Beyond the lineup and the general flow of the game, here are a handful of things I will be watching for:

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I know the caveats. It’s only preseason. Training camp is only a week old. The team is still getting acclimated to new head coach Luke Walton and is still getting up to speed on what he and his staff are installing on both sides of the ball. All of this means don’t take too much away from tonight. And it’s true. You really shouldn’t.

You know what, though? I don’t even care. Lakers’ basketball is back and I’m here for it.

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