The Lakers fell to 1-2 on the season, losing an entertaining yet in some ways frustrating game to the Pelicans 119-112. The game wasn’t so much a back and forth affair as much as it was a contest where both teams put their stamp on the game, only for the Pelicans superior top-end talent to win out in the end.
We’ll start with the good parts because who wouldn’t prefer to eat their cake before their main course. In the 2nd half the Lakers showed how a frenetic style based on the skill play of some of their small lineups can create advantages.
With Julius Randle playing C and flanked by Jordan Clarkson, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma the Lakers were able to extend their defense, apply ball pressure, and force turnovers or missed shots.
Randle’s play was particularly impressive during this stretch as he was able to draw fouls on DeMarcus Cousins on both ends of the floor and then use his quickness and power to finish around the rim off dives and nifty cuts. Randle was all over the court making hustle plays and showing extra effort and it made a huge difference. Before the game I said I was hoping for an impact performance from Randle and he provided just that.
Beyond Randle, though, the team’s 2nd half surge was driven by Clarkson and the rest of the perimeter players. JC was on fire offensively, hitting all manner of shots and using his live dribble to put the Pelicans into help situations they struggled to recover from. Over the course of the team’s huge run, Clarkson was banging home three pointers, getting to the rim, and then making the types of drop off passes after drawing help that some of his louder critics have been asking him to make for the past two seasons.
While the Lakers small lineup wrestled control of the game back, the ultimate story of the game wasn’t their effort but instead how the team again came out flat and how the Pelicans simply had the best two players on the floor all night.
We’ll start with latter because Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins really were the difference this game. Davis was a monster all night, giving Larry Nance fits early (along with getting him into foul trouble) and then wreaked havoc against every other defender the Lakers threw at him too. Davis’ all-court game was unsolvable and whether he was bombing threes, hitting pull up jumpers, attacking off the dribble, or cleaning up on the offensive boards the Lakers simply didn’t have an answer for him.
As for Cousins, he was not as dominant as Davis but was as impactful in his own ways. His relentless driving and work from the post kept pressure on the Lakers’ defensive paint all night. When the game slowed down late, it was Cousins who the Pelicans featured on the block and he delivered by either drawing fouls or passing out to put the Lakers into rotations that they couldn’t maintain as the ball swung around the perimeter. Again, it wasn’t that Cousins’ numbers were unbelievable, but he was such a load down low that he seemed to always be pressuring the Lakers defense.
Ultimately, though, this game could have been completely different if the Lakers had played with more energy and discipline earlier in the contest. The run the team made in the 2nd half was electric, but at one point they were down by as many as 22. And most of that came early when they lost the 1st quarter by a dozen points.
As we saw in the 3rd quarter against the Clippers on opening night, this Lakers team is not talented enough to play sloppy or disinterested basketball. They need to be engaged and forcing the action on both ends of the floor. Most every night it will be the opponent who has the best player(s) on the floor and the only way to compensate for that is to play harder than them while also playing smart.
That simply was not the case early on against the Pelicans and the Lakers suffered for it. Too many late or missed rotations, too many straight line drives surrendered, too many bad shots taken, too many turnovers. This team doesn’t have the margin of error to have more than one of these things on their ledger, must less all of them.
Overall, then, this was a game that the team can learn from, but these lessons have to start to stick. Not only for the players, but the coaches (more on that in a minute). The game offered some really fun moments and in some ways we can walk away happy after an entertaining affair, but a re-watch of the tape is likely going to drive everyone a bit mad with the combination of mistakes and shoddy effort that plagued the team early.
Luckily, the team does not play again until Wednesday, so the hope is that practice time and film evaluation can help the positives become more permanent while some of the negatives get cut down on. Now, onto the notes…
*Luke Walton has to sort out exactly how he wants to manage his perimeter rotation. I thought he adjusted well enough again by keeping the hot players in the game to push the run going as long as it could, but I hope he’s also starting to see that he has enough ball handling with Ingram and Clarkson and KCP to potentially start to limit the backup PG minutes. Luke went to Ennis early in this game, but he was nowhere to be seen when the team was actually playing well. I would not mind seeing a guard rotation with Hart being the 4th guard and only using one of Ennis or Caruso if the team really cannot get organized on O.
*I did like that Luke trusted Randle this game and I hope that Randle also got the message that he needs to fly around the court like he did in the second half from the outset of games. There’s really not another Lakers big who can replicate what Randle does from a speed/power standpoint and when Randle is engaged he can impact the game in so many ways. The team needs him to play well and Luke needs to try to bring it out of him more often too.
*A really good game from KCP in this one. His shooting was there, but so was his off-ball defense as a chaser and his on-ball defense when navigating screens. He can still get beat a bit too often in isolation and that can really compromise the team’s defense. But overall, I really liked how assertive he was on offense and that he was hitting the 3 ball.
*Not a good night for Ingram shooting. It was much more like the Clipper game with the types of shots he took — taking several mid-range jumpers against good contests from a defender. Some of these shots just rimmed out or were on target, but in the end they didn’t go in and that’s how we keep score, you know? I did like his competitiveness defensively and how he moved the ball, though. After not flashing much as a passer through the team’s first two games (and the preseason), Ingram’s 4 assists were nice to see in this one.
*Up and down game from Lonzo in this one. His shot wasn’t there (he missed all 5 of his threes), but he had 13 assists and managed to lead the team in rebounding again (8). I think we’re going to see plenty of games like this from Ball this year, where he’s impactful as a passer but his shooting might let him down. Ball was also on the bench for nearly all of the team’s big run late and then on the floor when the pace settled back down and NOLA took control back. So his plus/minus was awful (a team worst -24).
*Kyle Kuzma looked good for the 2nd straight game. 7-13 shooting for 20 points and good activity defensively. He didn’t get entirely abused guarding Anthony Davis late, either. I really liked Kuzma’s competitiveness early in the game, too. In the first half when the team was down big, Kuzma didn’t just go through the motions, he was aggressive offensively and it was easy to see with his body language that he was going to do everything he could to get the team back in it. That chance didn’t come until the 2nd half, but he had the right mindset early on too.