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:
- How does Mozgov defend Cousins? Cousins is nearly impossible to defend one-on-one, but Mozgov has some tools to help him: length, decent feet, and an understanding of how to contest without fouling. The battle of position will be huge, so I am looking to see if Mozgov can keep DeMarcus from establishing deep position. I am also interested in seeing how well Mozgov can defend away from the hoop and whether he can slide his feet when Cousins puts the ball on the ground to penetrate.
- Can Russell bounce back? D’Angelo missed a ton of open-to-wide-open looks against the Blazers and never found his rhythm with his jumper. He also had a tough time guarding Dame (who doesn’t?) which seemed to impact his own offense. The last time these teams played, Russell was not as aggressive has he’s been in the 3 games since, so I am hoping to see him be more assertive tonight. After Luke told him post-game he was happy with his shot selection despite the misses, I think he will be.
- Who plays and who sits? Rather than have all the guys battling for spots play in each game, Walton has taken the approach of giving guys turns in the rotation to show their stuff. For example, last game Calderon didn’t play at all and Huertas got all the backup PG minutes. The same happened with Zubac and Yi the last game. After the Lakers made three cuts on Wednesday, the roster is smaller, but the battles for the final spot and who might have a leg up are still ongoing.
- Can Nick Young keep playing well? Before camp I argued for him to not make this team at all. Now that he’s in camp, he’s gotten an opportunity and has made the best of it. He’s competing on defense, shooting 50% from the floor, and higher than that number from behind the arc. The last game, he had several “wait, did Nick Young just make that play?” plays. I want to see how long this can go.
- Will the Lakers go small again? Against the Blazers, Luol Deng saw a heft stretch at PF and at one point was played next to Randle manning the C spot. Now, the Blazers start Al-Farouq Aminu at PF and then brought in Mo Harkless behind him. Those are natural match ups for Deng at PF, so maybe this decision was dictated by the opponent. Still, I will be watching to see if they go that route again tonight.
- I want to see continued assertiveness from Ingram. If this were last year and there were fewer prospects to watch for, I think Ingram’s struggles on O would be getting more play. I’m not concerned, really, but I think it’s noteworthy that the #2 pick in the draft who was being billed as a potential offensive difference maker has really made a stronger impression on defense than anywhere else. Don’t get me wrong, I like what he’s doing on D and think the offense will come. But I want to see continued aggression from him on that end (like we saw against the Blazers) tonight.
The regular season is less than two weeks away. And while the Lakers have a few more preseason games to work through things, the start of the real games will be here before we know it. In saying that, I expect to see more refinement on both sides of the ball in the coming games. Playing every other day does not allow for a lot of practice time, but I would imagine the 3 off-days between the two Warriors games will give the team the type of gym time to continue to ramp things up.