The Lakers have lost 3 straight games since returning from the All-Star break and trading Lou Williams. The games themselves have been a mixed bag from a team perspective, competing for stretches, having a couple of double-digit defeats, and then battling throughout against the Hornets only to fall short at the end.
The main takeaway, from a team perspective, is that this group still lacks the defensive ability — through gained experience and chemistry — to be impactful on that side of the ball. The needed stops do not come and the breakdowns are ones which leave you frustrated an questioning whether they will truly ever get it. I wish I had an answer to that question or that I had a more positive outlook on what the future may hold on that side of the ball, but my opinions, for now at least, are that without an infusion of defensive talent and a greater commitment from the players currently on the team to become better at it, this team will continue to flounder.
Offensively, and from an individual perspective, it’s easier to see the seeds and roots of something more dynamic. D’Angelo Russell has offered some especially strong play, mixing scoring and playmaking that inspires hope of him starting to get “it”. There are still fits and starts and some aspects to his game which need more sharpening (like penetration both in isolation and out of P&R’s), but the passing, shooting, and overall decision making is coming around. Maybe it’s a renewed focus because Magic Johnson has taken over the front office, maybe it’s Lou Williams being gone and a sense of added responsibility shifting, or maybe it’s just him finding his stride again after a season which has featured too many injuries and missed games. But it’s coming along. Hopefully it lasts.
Julius Randle, like Russell, had a strong showing against the Hornets and one has to wonder if the light bulb is also turning on for him or if it was just another stellar peak in what has been an up and down season. I won’t reiterate my belief in Randle’s talent again, but I will say that games like the one against the Hornets are a peek into what’s possible for him — even if it was in an advantageous matchup. Still, though, Coach Walton highlighted after the game how it was as hard as he’d seen Randle play over an entire game all season. The implication being, of course, is that if Julius brings that type of effort nightly, those results become more possible. Like Russell, it’s fair to wonder if Randle has that in him every night, but bringing that effort 4 out of 5 nights rather than 1-2 out of 5 would be a nice place to start.
There’s always more to discuss about the young players, but I think it’s better to pivot to Friday’s opponent, the Celtics. Coming off a big win of their own on Wednesday vs. Cleveland, the C’s are surely riding high. They showed toughness, timely shot making, and some defensive fortitude in the final minutes to give the Cavs their 1st loss of the season in a game they led at any point during the 4th quarter. After standing pat at the trade deadline and not emptying their coffer of assets for Jimmy Butler or Paul George, I’m guessing there is a bit of “we’re going to prove ourselves” from this group and a win over the Cavs is a nice start to establishing their readiness.
How this translates to tonight, though, is anyone’s guess. I could easily see the Celtics ready to pounce, riding the high of their win over the Cavs, and winning by 20. I could also see them being a bit worn down from traveling cross country, playing down to the level of their opponent, and struggling on the first of a five game roadie. If I was going to guess at which occurred, I’d lean towards the former because they are well coached and have a real chance of catching the Cavs for the top overall seed in the East. Combine that with whatever sense of the Lakers/Celtics rivalry these players feel, and that should be enough to get them motivated. Even in saying that, though, if they came out flat, I wouldn’t be too surprised.
As for the Lakers, what I’m looking for tonight is about what I’ve been saying for every game for the last few weeks. I want to see the young players get minutes, I want to see them be aggressive, and I want to see them play well. This is especially true for Russell, Randle, and Clarkson. For Ingram, I think the first two are more important to me than the last point (playing well), simply because if he’s aggressive and on the floor, that’s enough for me. It’s clear, to me at least, that Ingram’s jump as a player will come (if it comes at all) after a summer in the weight room and in doing individual skill development. These last 20 games are just about getting him more reps and exposed to game situations so he has that foundation of experience to inform his development moving forward.
Lastly, I know many are most interested in seeing the Lakers continue to lose games as the season comes to a close. The lottery implications are serious, as are the implications for the 2019 draft pick which is currently owed to the Magic. As it stands, the Lakers are currently tied with the Suns for the 2nd worst record in the league and would have a coin flip chance of keeping their pick if the lottery were held today. That said, I hate losing to the Celtics and if there’s only a single game won the rest of the year, I would root for it to come in this game.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet.