A bullet point summary of Wednesday’s Lakers’ game against the Blazers would go something like this:
- The Lakers competed well for most of the evening, finding a way to keep their deficit reasonable and then come back to take a lead with 5 minutes left. This was great to watch. It really was.
- The key offensive performer was Lou Williams who, once again, showed off fantastic shot making and general scoring savvy.
- Down the stretch, though, the Lakers’ defense failed them, Williams got a bit too ball-hoggy while also missing shots, and the Blazers made a late push to take control and ultimately win the game.
- The other overarching theme was that the Lakers’ starters — playing without D’Angelo Russell — were terrible and, for stretches, lacked the needed effort. Walton responded by playing the bench heavy minutes and offering quick hooks to certain starters. The result was Julius Randle playing only 20 minutes and Timofey Mozgov only tallying 13.
After the game Walton commented that it “just wasn’t (the Lakers’) night” while also noting that Lou could have moved the ball better late in the game when the Blazers’ defense started to blitz him more. Walton was also asked about changing up his starting lineup and responded by saying it would be something they continue to look at, but did not offer specifics nor a timeline for making any potential change.
The above was worth hashing out again because, honestly, this reads like any number of losses the Lakers have taken over the last 6 weeks. Whatever fun the team had harnessed through their first 20 games is mostly gone, replaced by second guessing and players reverting to the types of habits which were strong contributors to 21 and 17 wins in back to back seasons. None of that sounds good and, frankly, it’s not. The Lakers are in the midst of a tumble downwards and while there are stretches in many games which offer hope, those things are not sustained to the point where it’s as easy as it once was to feel good about the direction of the team.
This has little to do with tonight’s game against the Jazz, but does offer the backdrop the game will be played against. Can the Lakers find a way to be better for longer? Can they do it with real teamwork rather than having Lou Williams (or Nick Young) do his best Kobe-lite impersonation? Can they get the stops they need against a methodical, but potentially potent offensive attack of the Jazz? And can they do it all on the 2nd night of a road back to back?
If you’re shaking your head “I doubt it” to those above questions, I don’t really blame you. The Lakers have taken on a similar identity to the bad teams of recent seasons. Luke Walton isn’t Byron Scott — he of the punishing rhetoric and heavy hand in the press; he of the poor schemes on both ends of the ball and the very public double standards offered in deference to veterans over his young players. But Luke is providing stewardship of a unit whose recent dip in play looks all too familiar on the court anyway.
I’m not hear to bury Walton. Some of the same roster issues which were handed to his predecessor were recreated on this current team. Walton is looking at a high usage guard who is seen as a leader, not enough defensive talent, and the general mistakes and immaturities (of player game(s), not necessarily of player actions/mentalities) that comes from having young players in key roles. If nothing else, I credit Walton for continuing to take a diplomatic approach to his team’s struggles rather than blasting them for, ultimately, not being good enough. (Though, I will say, when the team gives games away as they have at certain points this year, Walton has been sharply critical, which is more than fair, in my opinion. But that’s another story for another day.)
So, in some ways, my take on what the Lakers need to do to be better and win any specific game has less to do with the opponent and their specific strengths and weaknesses and more about countering their own systemic issues to the point where they can be overcome for long enough to be leading when the final buzzer sounds. Which speaks to that paragraph of questions above.
If the Lakers do those things better, they can compete against the Jazz. They can compete against most teams, actually. Because they’ll be locked in defensively and will produce the types of shots offensively which they are more than capable of knocking down. They’ve not done those things as much as they’ve needed to lately, though. So to think they’ll actually do them against a very good Utah team playing on their home court is probably not the wise choice.
I have not abandoned hope it will happen, but I do believe it’s time to recognize that it’s not as likely as any of us would want it to be.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TNT.