Remember my game preview? The one where I said the Lakers were going to lose to the Rockets? Where I said they basically had no chance against a team that had the league’s best offense, the leading MVP candidate, and were just the superior group all around? Remember?
Yeah, about that…nah.
Turns out the Lakers still have some surprises in them and Wednesday’s 122-116 win over Houston was one of them. The Lakers not only won, but did so after going up by 22 points in the 1st half, surrendering almost the entirety of that lead by halftime, and then scrapping to pull away late in the 4th.
In other words, this team showed the type of mental toughness and scrappy play that young teams typically cannot muster on the road and did so against one of the best teams, and on the best players in James Harden, in the entire NBA.
Don’t get me wrong, Harden GOT his. 51 points for the bearded one, as he demolished switches with step-back jumpers and hard drives to the rim. And when he wasn’t making shots, he was drawing fouls (as he expertly does) to get to the line and earn easy points. In a league of offensive forces, Harden is right at the top with the Durant, Curry, and LeBron’s of the world.
The Lakers, though, had a couple of offensive forces on their side too.
The first was Kyle Kuzma, who dropped a career high 38 points on 12-17 shooting, including 7-10 from behind the arc. Kuzma hit his first 9 shots, firing — and hitting — from all over the floor in an offensive display that is rare for a player of any experience level, but especially so for a rookie.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) December 21, 2017
Next to Kuzma, though, was more of an unexpected display of offensive prowess. Corey Brewer, in full revenge game mode against his former team, hit 7 of his 9 shots en route to 21 points. He hit 2 of his 3 shots from behind the arc, got to the basket in isolation for easy buckets at the rim, and did his usual running out on the break to take it right to the Rockets. If you’re a fan of watching Corey Brewer cook, this was a game where dude morphed into an Iron Chef.
In a game like this, though, there’s many more performances which deserve highlighting.
Lonzo Ball didn’t have his best shooting or assist night, but he still managed to tally 16 points and 4 assists to go with his 9 rebounds, 2 blocks, and a steal. I was especially impressed by how he stayed aggressive, hitting 4 0f his final 6 shots, after starting the game 1-8.
Ditto for Brandon Ingram who only shot 4-15, but also had 6 rebounds and 6 assists while staying aggressive throughout. And down the stretch, I thought Ingram played his best ball of the game. In the final 5 minutes, Luke Walton inverted Ingram and Lonzo’s roles, having BI handle the ball to start possessions and initiate the team’s sets. Ingram’s playmaking was then put on display and he kept the defense on its heels by making smart passes. Then, with a little over 2 minutes left, he kept the ball for himself and hit a jumper to put the Lakers up 11 which essentially sealed the game.
Other performances were noteworthy as well — Nance’s work on the offensive glass deserves praise, as does Bogut’s overall defense and (mostly illegal) screen setting — but I think it’d be strange to not comment on Julius Randle only playing 8 minutes, including none in the 1st quarter nor the entire second half.
It’s hard to say if this was a one-off thing by Walton who just rode the hot lineups and groupings, if Randle’s 1st stint in the 2nd quarter — which coincided with the Rockets run that got them back in the game — didn’t inspire confidence to put him back in the game, or reflective of a bigger brewing issue between Randle and the head coach. It could be all three, honestly.
I mean, for Randle to not play at all in the 1st quarter, regardless of how well that group was rolling, is odd. Walton has typically kept his rotations pretty stock early in the game and then made adjustments to groupings and substitution patters in the 2nd half when he has a better feel for how guys have performed.
After the game, Walton spoke about guys (Lonzo, Lopez, etc) not playing in 4th quarters this season, so maybe he really did think this was more of a 4th quarter issue than anything else. Luke could have also been of the mind that with Lopez out, he wants to try new things and this first game this is what he tried. I’m not trying to make excuses here, but more trying to put myself in Luke’s shoes and get to where his mindset could have been. And, after all, the team did win the game so maybe he wasn’t in the mood to answer rotation questions when things clearly worked out in the end.
That said, Randle has consistently been one of the team’s best players this year. Heading into the Rockets game, of the guys who’d played more than 350 minutes, he was the only Laker where the team had a positive net-rating when he’s been on the floor. Think about that. Heading into Houston, the Lakers were 10-18 and had an efficiency differential of -2.3 for the year. But, when Randle was on the floor, they were actually a positive differential team. And that’s in 600+ minutes, which is not a small sample.
Again, Randle has been one of the teams best key performers. It’s reflected in the team’s stats when he plays and in his individual numbers. So, I’m not quick to agree with an approach which marginalizes him for (potential) reasons like a lineup shakeup or to ride a hot unit. Walton’s talked a lot about earning minutes and I think he’s done plenty to earn them to this point in the season.
This is, then, something that should be monitored.
Even when accounting for all the Randle stuff, though, this was a really excellent game and a fantastic win for the team. And, really, that is what matters. As a group, they played well, on the road, against one of the league’s best who absolutely destroyed them the last time they faced off. That deserves praise and I’m going to give it up to them.