The Lakers pulled out a surprise win over the Warriors on Friday, not only by being ahead when the clock hit triple zeros but by doing so in a wire to wire fashion with a 20 point final margin. Before the game, I wrote that I was only looking for good execution and the types of incremental improvements I think is the goal of this season. Instead, I saw the Lakers play quite well on both sides of the ball and punish a Warriors’ team who shot poorly and defended even worse than that.
The Warriors’ performance might lead some to give less credit to the Lakers than would typically be the case after such a win. And when you rewatch the game and see some of the open looks the Warriors missed, I can understand that sentiment to an extent. However, what the tape also revealed was the Lakers doing so many little things well, leveraging some of their advantages against a Dubs team who is simply not as deep as previous contending versions, and also countering every run with a big bucket or stop of their own to hold off any hard charge.
These are the things winning teams do often and the Warriors game marks the second consecutive contest in which the Lakers exhibited these traits. Now, I’m not ready to call this a trend and the Lakers have a ways to go before they can be considered much more than the type of pesky opponent who will play hard and stay in games — pulling some out you do not expect. However, if we start to see these things more consistently, it will force many (including me) to reevaluate our projections for what is possible for them.
But that is a discussion for down the line. For now, here are 10 thoughts from a game I did not see coming, but was more than happy to be wrong about.
1. I will start with Lou Williams since he was so crucial to this win and is doing more than what I thought he would to help this team on a daily basis. Like he did against the Hawks, Williams hit timely shots that kept the Lakers ahead down the stretch and provided offense in all the ways we have come accustomed to seeing. He’s was again a magician when drawing fouls, used his uncanny ability to hit tough leaning jumpers, and got to the rim to create shots for himself and teammates. There’s a reason Lou closed out the game and, unlike last year, I don’t think one person was throwing up their hands and asking why or getting upset about it.
2. The other player who was huge against the Warriors was Julius Randle. His 20 points and 14 rebounds were as impactful as they sound, especially when you consider he accumulated these numbers by hitting 10 of his 18 field goals and tallying 6 offensive rebounds. Those ORebs were especially important when you consider how much damage the Warriors like to do in the open court and how much that is predicated on getting stops and securing defensive boards. Randle’s work, then, kept the Warriors hanging back a bit longer and did not allow them to capitalize on their initial stops with leak outs and early offense chances.
3. Speaking of Randle, over the past year-plus it has been difficult to bring up Randle without tangentially discussing Larry Nance, Jr. The latter PF has, by many, been used as a means to try and displace Randle from the rotation and, in some cases, seek out trades for him. Nance’s play last night again showed why fans and analysts are so high on him, including an assault on David West the likes of which could have landed him in prison for murder. The bigger point of Nance’s play, though, is that he did so much damage playing next to Randle rather than in place of him. Nance and Randle shared the floor for 13 minutes against the Warriors and in that time the Lakers were +7 on the scoreboard with a net efficiency rating of +26.9 (including a DEff of 100). This pairing won’t work every night, but against the Warriors it was a fine counter to lineups big and small, allowing the Lakers to switch screens without being punished defensively.
4. That lineup decision leads me to Luke Walton. The former Warrior interim head and assistant coach was masterful and deserves a ton of credit for how he managed the game. I could run off countless examples, but there were three things which I think deserve a shout out. First is how Walton, for the 2nd straight game, did not play either Calderon nor Huertas and instead went with lineups featuring Lou/Clarkson/Ingram on the wing. This gave the Lakers better defense and more explosive offensive options. Second, I loved the way Walton called timeouts, using the stoppages to refocus his players while also trying to halt any momentum the Warriors were building. Third, Walton again made a key substitution late, removing Tarik Black for Larry Nance Jr. The Warriors were smartly starting to trap the Lakers’ P&R’s and that meant Black got a lot of pocket passes in short rolls where he had to make decisions with the ball. Black was not handling these situations well — he committed a charge on one play when he barreled into Kevin Durant and missed several skip pass opportunities on other plays. By brining in Nance, Walton eliminated the Warriors’ ability to trap that action as both Randle and Nance are more natural playmakers out of the short roll. This opened the Lakers’ O back up and helped them get needed buckets in the 4th quarter to squash potential Warriors’ runs.
5. D’Angelo Russell didn’t play down the stretch, but that should not diminish how good he was or how important he was to the win. On several occasions he either hit a big shot to steady the offense or created in isolation or in the P&R to get into the paint and collapse the defense. On more than one play he did this against Klay Thompson who is one of the better wing defenders in the league. Russell’s handle was tight, his decision making was on point, and he played with great poise for his 22 minutes.
6. I thought Luol Deng’s playmaking early in the game was huge for keeping the Warriors guessing defensively. Deng attacked closeouts aggressively, created easy looks for teammates at the rim, and generally made the right decision on most every play. He also hit the glass well — an important point considering how good a rebounder Durant is at SF. Yes, he only hit 1 of his 6 shots and none of his boxscore stats stand out as exceptional in any real way. But I thought he was so important in helping the Lakers set the tone and jump out to their early lead.
7. Brandon Ingram only hit 2 of his 8 shots, but he still scored 12 points by getting to the FT line 9 times. He also had 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals while churning out a team best +23 in his 27 minutes. Yes, there were times where I thought his lack of strength showed up — especially when working against pressure defense. He’ll learn that he must work with a wider base and tighten up his handle as the season progresses. But, honestly, these things are expected for such a young player. What is not expected is the poise he continues to play with or how deftly he’s leveraging his length on both sides of the ball. I have said this before, but some of the things he’s doing on both ends at this level simply did not show up on tape of him at Duke. The fact that he is doing them now, against pros, impresses me to no end.
8. Earlier I mentioned Tarik Black as not making good decisions in the short roll, but I’d be doing him a major disservice if I did not mention how impressed I was with his hustle, nose for the ball, and extra efforts against David West in the first half. Black simply jumped higher, ran quicker, and chased harder than West and it showed up in every minute they shared the floor. In the 6 minutes both were on the court, Black made all 4 of his shots and the Lakers were +12. This forced Steve Kerr to turn to 2nd year player Kevon Looney (who was quite good) as a spark, but that should not overshadow how important Black was to helping the Lakers extend their early lead and start to pull away in the 2nd quarter (where they scored 41 points).
9. While they did not play great, I thought Nick Young and Jordan Clarkson did some very good things on both ends of the floor. Young hit some timely shots early and Clarkson served as a nice secondary ball handler in the 2nd half to complement Williams. I also thought both players were engaged defensively for most of the night and did a good job chasing Klay Thompson (who shot really poorly). All of Klay’s struggles were not due to these guys’ defense of course; Klay is in a real funk that exists regardless of how much pressure he’s seeing on that end. But I like the way both guys competed on that end.
10. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. The Lakers were both last night and that’s how you win by 20 against such a good team. But, I will say that nearly every 50/50 play went the Lakers’ way and they got a lot of bounces which either helped them maintain their lead or stopped the bleeding when it looked like the Warriors were going to make a run. I know there’s the saying that luck favors the prepared and, to a certain extent, I think you could argue the Lakers were as locked into their game plan as they have been all season. That said, you rarely see the Warriors miss the types of shots they did on Friday nor do you often see one team benefit so much from the types of bounces the Lakers got on some possessions. This takes nothing away from the win. Again, the Lakers led wire to wire. But it is worth pointing out.