Whether or not the Lakers won this game, it would have been their best effort of the season. Their overall competitiveness, their commitment defensively, and how they stayed with the gameplan offensively — all against a really good team, too — to stay connected on the scoreboard over the course of the full game made that so. But the team did win, 102-99, after forcing an overtime period and then simply playing better down the stretch.
A favorite saying of mine, not only in sports but in real life, is crawl-walk-run. Trial and error, failure then success, is the path traveled to get where you want. You cannot skip steps, lest you want to crawl forever. The Lakers are still in the crawling stage, but Wednesday’s game against the Wizards showed glimpses of them starting to know what it takes to walk. Progress was in the air, and more than what the scoreboard said at the end, that is what I take from this contest.
What got them there, though, was a bunch of spirited play both from individual players and as a collective.
The game itself was a back and forth affair, which on the face of this matchup was a win in and of itself. The Wizards are a playoff team and a group looking to take the next step into the realm where contenders reside. The fact the Lakers were able to hang tough throughout, playing defense as a group and not falling into the trap of trying to win the game by themselves was great to see. At any given point of the game, it would have been easy for bad habits to re-emerge, for some of the young guys to want to be the hero.
That never happened, though. All throughout, every player, more often than not, made the correct play in front of him and trusted their schemes to lead them to where they wanted to go. Whether it was defensively when trying to contain John Wall and Bradley Beal or offensively by continuing to run their sets and not settling for threes/bad jumpers early in the clock, the team was locked into what the coaches wanted.
It’s hard to overstate how important this really is for a young team. After the contest Luke Walton said that while his team isn’t there yet, they want to “hang their hats on defense”; that the message consistently delivered is that even when you don’t shoot well you can win a game if you get defensive stops. This game evidenced that, and more than anything else both the players and coaches need that in their back pocket — to help with their message from this game, and for every one that follows.
Crawl, walk, run.
Individually, so many players deserve recognition. I’ll start, though, with Brandon Ingram who made big plays down the stretch and hit the key basket which forced overtime. Ingram’s isolation drive, miss, then subsequent tip-in which tied the game in the closing seconds was a perfect metaphor of his progression as a player.
Things don’t always work out the first time for BI, but his persistence and extra work paid off. I thought Walton put it perfectly when he said Ingram’s will to be great is there, his game simply needs to catch up to where his mind is — with the implication the work Ingram does will get him there eventually.
The other player who really stood out was Julius Randle. After only playing about a dozen minutes and not playing at all in the 2nd half before entering with 8 minutes left in the 4th quarter, it would have been easy for Randle to no have the energy or focus needed to close. As Walton said, though, Randle was ready when his number got called and played an inspiring final stretch of the game, making huge plays down the stretch of regulation and through overtime to help the Lakers win.
He worked the glass. He defended the likes of Wall and Beal on the perimeter after the Lakers went to a switching defense. He protected the rim — including a major verticality stop against Wall when the latter barreled into him full speed on a great drive. And he hit a huge 3 pointer to bring the Lakers to within a single point in the final minute of regulation. If you’re wondering why I remain high on Randle and a believer in his talent, it’s those sequences late which anchor me. There’s not another player on the roster who makes the combination of plays Randle in the 4th quarter and OT.
The Lakers now stand at 2-2, but the record doesn’t mean as much to me as some of the steps the team is making. There’s still a long way to go, of course. But the competitive spirit and general commitment to each other from this game was a sight for sore eyes. It’s way too early to say that they’re getting it and with a young team it’s easy to see what you think is progress evaporate into the ether the following game. But I’m going to take this effort and hold it close for a little while as a reminder of what can be for this group.
Now, onto the notes…
*Props to Luke Walton who seems to be sorting out some personnel groupings that can do some things — especially small lineups (something we discussed wanting to see on our most recent podcast). The team’s three most played lineups vs. Washington all had positive net ratings, and the group that closed the game (Lonzo, KCP, Ingram, Kuzma, Randle) had a 57.9 Defensive Rating in their 13 minutes of game action.
*Speaking of Walton and that closing group, I thought it was very smart of him to change up his defense to a switch everything style with that player combination. No one in that group is shorter than 6’6″ so their guards have enough size to hold up against some bigs in the post and on the glass while both Kuzma and Randle can handle themselves adequately enough on smalls in perimeter isolations. The Wizards got some good looks against the group and hit some shots (especially Beal), but overall the Lakers were really good playing this style.
*With all the love I’ve given Randle, it’s important to note that Larry Nance had 16 points and 10 rebounds in only 24 minutes. He hit 8 of his 10 shots, was active defensively, and had a nice floor game overall. In any other game, Nance could (should?) have been put back in to try to close out the game. But the group that was in there had it going so well, he had to be a bystander.
*Kyle Kuzma’s overall numbers (6-15 from the field, 1-6 from behind the arc, 15 points) don’t stand out as impressive at all, but he was 4th on the team in minutes played this game and those were well earned. He simply played another really good floor game on both ends. He spaced the floor offensively, defended in space defensively, and just competed hard. This kid keeps showing me things and I’m glad the coaches are finding the time they are for him.
*Lonzo didn’t shoot well this game, only hitting 2 of his 11 shots and missing all 5 of his three pointers. He only took one shot in the 1st half, too. Ball also had 8 rebounds and 10 assists to only a single turnover. He also played really good defense on John Wall in isolation, had a nice block as a help defender, and contested shots well all night regardless of his defensive assignment. Ball, in other words, made winning plays all night even if his shooting efficiency was a minus overall. I want the shots to start falling soon, but the fact he’s making a big impact in other ways is so great to see.
*When it’s all said and done KCP won’t get a ton of recognition this game, but he led the team in minutes at 41, went 3-8 from distance, and played solid defense against multiple players all night. There’s a steadiness to KCP that deserves praise.