The Lakers loss last night offered varying levels of frustration for everyone. In case anyone thought otherwise and needed proof, there’s no flip to switch from preseason to regular games, there’s only a path to travel to try and get better as a group. And while there were some very good individual performances, the group as a whole didn’t do well. Thus the team is zero and one to start the year.
There are a few takeaways from last night that deserve mentioning because they’ll serve as the back drop for tonight’s contest.
First is that the Lakers’ biggest issues, despite popular belief, are actually on the defensive side of the ball right now. The Lakers big men were slow in their rotations to confront dribble penetration. This was compounded by the fact the guards in front of them allowed too many opportunities for those big men to be late. As individuals, Howard did not yet look himself in stepping up to protect the rim while Gasol took some poor angles in P&R defense that left holes in the middle of the floor that the Mavs exploited.
The Mavericks also did the opposite of what teams used to do to the Lakers on defense. Rather than attack the center in the P&R, they went away from involving Dwight in any on ball actions where he could thwart an initial drive attempt and instead picked on every other Laker. Gasol, Hill, and Ron all had to be the hedge/recover man in this action and all were taken advantage of on more than one occasion. With Howard reacting slowly on the back end, this led to trouble.
Offensively, the Lakers still lacked balance. Ask Steve Nash and he’ll tell you that he could have been more aggressive in attacking with the ball rather than initiating the Lakers’ sets via quick passes to the wing and floating on the weak side. Nash did start to attack late in the game but by that point the deficit was too large and the rhythm of the game favored the Mavs. Doing more of that earlier — while still not abandoning the actions that allowed Gasol and Kobe to thrive — is something that Nash is burdened with nightly. It will be this way all season and his ability to carry that burden will often dictate how the offense looks. Not to put it all on Nash, but when he’s in the game he may be the most important Laker simply because he’s driving the car.
Tonight then, the Lakers have another challenge waiting for them. They visit an arena that they typically leave as losers and do so on the second night of a back to back against a team playing in their home opener. Add in the fact that the Lakers will get every team’s best effort and tonight is a challenge regardless of what quality you deem the Blazers to be.
With that in mind, here are a few things to look for tonight:
- How tired is this team? Dwight played 38 minutes last night. Pau played 40. Kobe and Nash played in the 35 and 34 respectively. If this were a few weeks into the season I’d be less concerned but this is the most real game action these players have seen and with the increased stakes of the regular season they’re bound to feel the affects a bit more than if they were coming off a preseason game. Sustained effort from these four will be key, but so will the reserves behind them providing some sort of relief in the form of minutes and production.
- Speaking of the bench, Mike Brown’s rotations have already come into question and it’s only been one regular season game. Last night was actually the first time — even through the preseason — that every player in Brown’s rotation was available in the same contest so I’m not going to jump on his back about rotations at this point. He deserves time to figure it out. That said, he did substitute Nash and Kobe at the same time while leaving Dwight and Pau to shepherd the back up guards on offense. Later, he went with units that featured only one of the big four for stretches at a time (usually either Gasol or Howard). These lineup combinations were hit and miss (there was some success with Pau the only starter on the floor anchoring the bench) but I’d be lying if these rotations didn’t feel strange while also inspiring various questions about what his plan was (here would also be a good time to ask about Devin Ebanks’ DNP-CD). Again, it’s one game in and I’m not casting final judgement but I will be keeping a close eye on personnel groupings and how the rotations play out.
- Can the Lakers manage both transition games better? The Mavericks pushed the ball hard up the floor every time down and that led to a D on its heels and multiple in rhythm shots being taken and knocked down. Blazers’ rookie Damian Lillard will try to duplicate this tonight (as he did during the preseason). The Lakers must do a better job of getting back, building a wall and forcing the ball to the wing rather than allowing it to get middle. On offense the Lakers must push the ball more, but that comes with two caveats. First is that the team must get stops. It’s harder to push the ball when taking the ball out of bounds after a made basket. Second, the team must rebound better. Even though the Mavs didn’t earn many second chance points, they succeeded in slowing down the Lakers transition game solely by grabbing offensive boards and by disrupting rebounds from being grabbed cleanly. Even on rebounds that were eventually secured, Dwight and Pau had the ball tipped away too often. They must be better in this area tonight.
- This team can’t shoot better from the field than they do from the FT line. Dwight and Hill went 4-20 from the line. I understand that one of the tradeoffs from Bynum to Howard was a dip in free throw effectiveness. However, making 50% isn’t too much to ask. It’s what he shot last year (actually 49.1%) and that was a career low. Hill has no excuse as he’s a career 66.5% foul shooter. Dwight will continue to be fouled and there are already reports that the Blazers will use the hack-a-Dwight tactic tonight. I’m not looking for him to turn into Steve Nash at the stripe but making half is a place to start. Also, if Howard is getting fouled a lot, that means the team will get into the penalty earlier and it should lead to more FT’s for other players should they attack the paint. When they go to the line (that means you Ron and Hill and Pau) those must get knocked down with better consistency.
The Lakers are in an interesting place right now. Based off the steepness of their learning curve, their output is less than the sum of its parts. This is frustrating to watch. The end game is, hopefully, them finding their stride evenutually. But, and this is me sounding like a broken record, it will take some time. In the interim, they need to do other things better to compensate for the things that they’ll not yet do well consistently. That means better defense and better rebounding. It means sustaining effort throughout the entire game. It also means Mike Brown starting to find his way with who he plays together, for how long, and at what part of the game.
It can start tonight in Portland. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope it does.