Suns: Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, DeAndre Ayton
Lakers: Russell Westbrook, Kent Bazemore, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, DeAndre Jordan
Suns: Dario Saric (out); Landry Shamet (game-time decision)
Lakers: Trevor Ariza (out); Wayne Ellington (out); Talen Horton-Tucker (out); Kendrick Nunn (out)
Once upon a time, I declared myself “all in on every Laker game feeling like a hazy recollection from a whiskey-soaked night”.
That original statement came on the eve of LeBron James’ first season a Laker, on the heels of an offseason in which the front office surrounded Lebron and the kids with a Voltron of Guys to Remember.
Three years on, plenty has changed in Lakerland. And yet, precious little has changed.
The kids are all gone, of course, shipped out in order to secure superstar running mates for LeBron. The first generational talent to arrive, Anthony Davis, linked up with LeBron to deliver banner #17. That was 376 days ago.
A season in which injuries and fatigue from an accelerated post-Bubble offseason forced the Lakers into a tooth and nail fight just to reach the playoffs, and then shut down their titles defense after a single postseason round, brought about another wholesale retooling of the roster.
The dominant storyline in Lakerland this offseason – other than the general agedness of the roster – was the issue of “fit”, particularly as it pertained to Russell Westbrook. One game in, the skeptics have plenty grist for their mill.
In 35 minutes on the floor in the 121-114 opening night loss against the Warriors, Russ made just four of thirteen shots, scoring eight points, and posting a woeful minus-23 in his time on the floor. You’ve probably seen this by now, but no other Laker was worse than a minus-10, and the team was plus-16 in the 13 minutes that Westbrook sat. That’s not great.
More frustrating is the fact Russ, who’s averaged a triple-double four of the past five seasons, grabbed just five rebounds, handed out just four assists and did not attempt a free throw. In a way that we’ve never seen before, Russ was passive. The good news is that this will not last.
Naturally, after 13 seasons as a ball-dominant primary ball-handler and #1 (or 1A) scoring option, being cast the scoring #3 option and secondary ball-handler with the first unit has got to be incredibly disorienting. If there’s another modest positive to be taken from all of this, it’s that Russ is trying to tread lightly, rather than to impose himself on every aspect of the game. The problem, of course, is that no one – least of all Russ himself – has meaningfully deployed that version of this guy.
One game in, we can reasonably surmise that that dude doesn’t simply spot up in the corner. He still attacks the paint with abandon and – I really can’t stress this enough –doesn’t share a backcourt with Rajon Rondo.
Success probably involves getting him the ball on the move and getting him to move without the ball while playing with LeBron and AD, and letting him command the ball and the floor in spurts with the second unit.
Russ is going to figure it out. He’s too talented, intelligent and hard-working not to. How long it takes and what exactly the finished product looks like are puzzles that need solving,
The next shot at cracking that code comes Friday night at Staples, with the first visit form the defending Western Conference champions – and the Lakers’ ushers out of the 2021 playoffs – the Phoenix Suns. Like the Lakers, the Suns kicked off their 2021-22 season at home and, like, the Lakers, they jumped out to an early lead, only to be undone by another presumptive West contender.
Thanks to a 34-10 run, Phoenix led the Denver Nuggets by as many 16 in the second quarter, and looked well on their way to an easy opening night win. Deandre Ayton charged out of the gate, scoring eight points (on four-of-five shooting) and grabbed three rebounds in the game’s first five minutes. Chris Paul, meanwhile, took care of business as usual, with 11 points and six assists in the first half.
Somewhere along the way, however, the Suns’ intensity waned, particularly on defense, waned, after which their shooting touch abandoned them. By halftime, their lead was down to 58-51. They then proceeded to make three of 16 shots to start the third quarter, entered the fourth quarter trailing by three, and ultimately fell by a dozen points.
For reasons that defy easy explanation, over the game’s final 43 minutes (of which he played 28), Ayton attempted just five field goals (two of them 3-pointers), of which he made two, scored seven points – two after halftime – and grabbed just three rebounds. Similarly, Paul managed just four points and four assists in the second half. All the while, Devin Booker struggled, connecting on three of fifteen shots, and finishing with just 12 points.
Given the manner in which Phoenix started against the Nuggets, it’s safe to assume their second half sleepwalk will serve as a wakeup call.
Looking ahead to tonight, the Lakers are going to need more of the same from LeBron and AD, who combined for 67 points, 22 rebounds, 7 assists, three blocks and two steals against the Warriors. In addition, they’re going to need something from the rest of the gang, none of whom reached double-figures in scoring.
The question of who’s going to wind up as the “fourth-best” Laker is one that’s gotten some attention in the runup to this season. It’s a title that may get passed around a bit as the season progresses, especially with Talen Horton-Tucker and three of the Lakers’ best shooters – Kendrick Nunn, Wayne Ellington, and Trevor Ariza – in street clothes for the foreseeable future. However, that Avery Bradley – a pleasant surprise to be sure – cruised into town and assumed the title in eight opening night minutes should raise some eyebrows.
Of course, that Bradley wasn’t in the top three is a result of Kent Bazemore’s solid showing. Despite hitting just three of nine shots (and two of eight 3s) in 31 minutes, Baze was a team-best plus-10, and put in an excellent defensive shift against Steph Curry, holding him to just 3-of-10 shooting while guarding him. A similar task – on either Paul or Booker – awaits Friday night.
Assuming (safely) that Russ looks more like himself, the combo of Baze, Bradley, Carmelo, Malik Monk and Dwight Howard (against Ayton) will surely manage a stronger effort, and snap the Lakers’ 10-game losing streak that dates back to last season’s playoff series against the Suns (3 there, an 0-6 preseason, and the ’21-’22 opener).
Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and ESPN.