“Not much to say… can’t be mad. The other team is just that much better.”
That was from commenter LKK during/after the Lakers’ loss in San Antonio to the Spurs on Thursday night. While I do think there were some things to get somewhat upset about, I think LKK captures about how I was feeling while I was watching San Antonio build their lead, then extend it, then maintain it until the final buzzer.
In fact, right around the end of the 1st quarter, I actually said out loud (to myself, since no one was in the room) that “both teams are showing their quality, the Spurs are just showing they have more of it.” Beyond that, they were also showing that they know how to exhibit that quality for longer stretches within a game.
So, no, I’m not that mad about the game. I’m not happy either, of course. The team played poorly for the 2nd straight game and lost. Does the fact that they lost to a very good team on the road soften that blow a bit? I guess, but when you see the final margin, whatever softening occurred goes away. Losing by 40 is bad times regardless. There’s not much spin to be able to put on that type of game.
Again, though, I’m not really upset. What I am is understanding of how different these teams are and of how the Spurs represent a certain goal the Lakers should be chasing. Whether they ever get to that point is a real question that, honestly, I have my doubts about — as I wrote in my game preview, the Spurs join the Warriors as the only team with single digit losses and as ranking in the top 5 of both offensive and defensive efficiency. If this version of the Lakers is never that good, it would not surprise me. Most teams are never that good. But I’m off track now…
During the early part of the game, one thing that stood out to me was how much more comfortable within their game plan the Spurs are than the Lakers. They have that innate trust that comes from not just thinking, but knowing, where your teammates are going to be, what they’re going to do, and how you should be interacting with them.
An example of this was a random play in the 2nd half where the Lakers allowed some dribble penetration baselinebut actually defended the play okay overall. They helped on the drive to deter a shot at the rim. Then, when the driver passed to the man in the corner, the closeout was quick enough to not only deter a shot, but also any potential drive. In fact, the closeout was so good, the fact the pass got through at all was a bit of surprise. However, right when the Spur in the corer received the pass, he immediately kicked the ball to the shoulder of the arc where he had a teammate waiting. That split second pass was so quick the Lakers did not make their 3rd rotation on the possession and surrendered an open 3 which, of course, went in.
It was the Spurs 2nd unit which ran that action to perfection, which, in and of itself, is impressive. Maybe most impressive, actually. But what I noticed was the trust involved in that set. That when the first player drove baseline he knew that he could either shoot or pass. And that even when the pass looked to be covered up, he still made it because he knew his teammate would be where he was supposed to be and would make the catch. Then, upon receipt of the ball, the corner man barely even looked and instantly shoveled the ball along to his waiting teammate because, you guessed it, he too knew that the opening was there and that his ‘mate would be ready to make a play with the ball.
The Lakers don’t play this way yet. Maybe they never will consistently. There are flashes of it now and the fact that they’re there at all is encouraging. But they are fleeting. And that is frustrating. I know it is for the coaches. After games Luke Walton often says “we stopped moving the ball” and while I have said that the Lakers don’t yet have all the player movement and counters installed to consistently ping the ball around the floor like the Spurs, what that type of analysis misses is that they also don’t yet fully have the trust or instincts to make the types of passes the Spurs made on that possession described above. At least not as often as they need to have them.
So, yeah, the Lakers are far away from where they need to be. And the Spurs, in that single possession, and over the course of the full game reminded me of that on Thursday. Now, onto some notes:
*Julius Randle was awesome early, taking it to both Pau and LaMarcus Aldridge offensively. One thing I love about how Randle is playing lately is that he knows teams don’t respect his jumper and that they’re giving him space. Rather than get tentative, though, he’s eating up that space with his dribble to put his defender on his heels. Even if Randle doesn’t get to the rim when doing this, he does set himself up to take the type of jumper that he wants to take (a little leaner or fade shot he’s clearly more comfortable with) than the type defenses want him to (pure spot up, without a good rhythm).
*Brandon Ingram only shot 3-7 for 9 points, but he hit another 3 pointer (1-3 behind the arc). That may not seem like a big deal and maybe it’s not. But, I will say that for the season Ingram has hit only 26 threes in his 43 games played. In 7 January games, though, he’s already hit 7 and is shooting 41.2% from distance over that stretch. I don’t know if he’s finding his range or if this is just a mini hot streak, but it is encouraging to see him start to flash some of the shooting ability that he did in college.
*Before Thursday, Ivica Zubac had appeared in 7 games and played a total of 55 minutes. In that time he’d scored 15 points and grabbed 3 rebounds. In 14 minutes of action against the Spurs on Thursday he scored 8 points and grabbed 4 rebounds. Was this pure garbage time? Yes. Was the quality of player on the floor very high? No. But the Spurs continued to play well (and hard) during that stretch and Zubac acclimated himself well. He showed his soft touch around the rim, played big in the defensive paint, and even changed ends (both from D to O and the opposite) well. He did drop a couple of passes (one his fault, the other was a low bounce pass from Russell that should have been caught too, but it was low), but I think part of that was just not being used to getting those types of passes very often. I’d like to see him get more minutes as the season progresses, though I know the C rotation can be crowded.
*A nice homecoming for Jordan Clarkson who scored 14 points on 6-11 shooting. He was his normal aggressive self in looking to get into the teeth of the defense and did a nice job converting once there.
*After a nice run of drawing some fouls and getting to the FT line in the last couple weeks, D’Angelo Russell had a zero FT night. There was one play where the refs missed a foul where Tony Parker hit Russell on his shot and there was another drive where he got stripped that, based on recent games, could have been a call. But, it didn’t happen. I’m not the biggest proponent of FT rate as a driver for offensive success for all players and Russell plays the type of game where his numbers are going to be lower than a guy like Harden. That said, if Russell’s going to be a 20 point scorer in this league, he’s going to need to take 4-6 FT’s a game. To have a night with zero is tough.
*It was nice to see Pau again. It was also nice to see him play well. I’ll always have a soft spot for the big Spaniard.