Suns: Ja Morant, DeAnthony Melton, Desmond Bane, Jared Jackson Jr., Steven Adams
Lakers: Russell Westbrook, Kent Bazemore, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, DeAndre Jordan
Suns: Dillon Brooks (out)
Lakers: Trevor Ariza (out); Wayne Ellington (out); Talen Horton-Tucker (out); Kendrick Nunn (out)
Two games is not a meaningful sample. And yet, in the absence of additional data, it’s enough to fuel overreaction.
On the heels of a frustrating defeat to kick off the season, the Lakers looked to get their season on track against the team that put an end to their last campaign. Suffice it to say, the evening was a disaster.
Friday night’s outing against the Suns brought not only the franchise’s first-ever two-game home losing streak to kick off a season, but an avalanche of ignominy. By now we’re all well aware of the sideline dustup between Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard, as well as Rajon Rondo’s mini-altercation with a sideline fan, as well as Frank Vogel near-brush with ejection.
All the while, the Lakers struggled with a lack of continuity and intensity – particularly on defense – that prompted none other than Magic Johnson to hop onto Twitter and proclaim that the Lakers have both “a team issue and a basketball issue.”
Whether or not that’s true very much remains to be seen, but there’s no denying that the Lakers were undone by emotional reactions to officiating, and their own inability to execute. They trailed the Suns by as many as 32 points, en route to an eleventh straight loss dating back to last season’s playoff – six of which (counting the preseason) have come against the Suns.
The most damning stat of the night is that the Lakers were doubled up in the paint, allowing Suns 52 points (despite just 8 for DeAndre Ayton), while tallying just 26 themselves. Two games in, the Lakers are struggling get to the paint as we’d expect, failing to convert when they go get there, allowing opportunities in transition, and not protecting the paint defensively.
After the game, both AD and Dwight said that their altercation was the result of a miscommunication over pick-and-roll coverage, and that everything is fin going forward. Vogel echoed those sentiments. Russell Westbrook, who had a far more Russ-like 15 points (albeit on just 6-of-15 shooting), 11 rebounds and 9 assists) and a couple of steals, said nothing at all.
Two games in, we’re left to read tea leaves.
What we do know is that the Lakers – who, per NBA.com, rank last in the NBA in shooting percentage in the restricted area and are barely hitting on half their shots in the paint, can’t find any offensive efficiency. A team that’s rolling out LeBron, AD, Russ, Dwight and DeAndre Jordan should, at the very least be feasting at the rim. However, the Lakers rank in the league’s bottom third in offensive efficiency and field-goal percentage. Defensively, the Lakers, in addition to not protecting the paint, are allowing the most free throw attempts in the NBA, while rebounding and forcing turnovers at a bottom-third rate.
It’s entirely possible that this just a two-game sample, that the Lakers have simply stumbled out of the gate, and a righting of the ship is imminent. The talent, savvy and experience is all here.
That being said, a visit from the Memphis Grizzlies is not an ideal scenario. Based on what we’ve seen from each side thus far, the Grizzlies – who are 2-0, and fresh off of a win over the Clippers at Staples just last night – are a nightmare matchup for this Laker team. Through two game, Ja Morant, whose genuine superstar turn has begun in earnest, has scored 46 of his 65 points through two games (including an incredible 30 of 37 in the opener) in the paint. And, for a team that’s playing with as little conviction inside as the Lakers are, it’s tough to think many guys you’d like to run into less than Steven Adams.
Meanwhile, Morant is surrounded by a 6’5”-to-6’11”crew – headlined by Jaren Jackosn Jr., Desmond Bane, De’Anthony, Kyle Anderson and Brandon Clarke – that’s young, fast, athletic and tough. Only two members of the Grizz roster (Anderson and Adams, each of whom is somehow still just 28) are over 25 years of age.
The Lakers’ biggest challenge tonight will come at the defensive end, where Morant promises to be an absolute terror. The job of slowing him will predominantly fall to Kent Bazemore, whose goal will be to restrict him to the perimeter. When he does get into the paint – which he’s going to do for years to come, against even the best perimeter defenders – it’s going to be vital that AD, DeAndre and Dwight protect the rim and hold their own in the physical battle against Adams.
Offensively, the Lakers must be able to depend on players other than LeBron and AD for scoring. This is especially true on the perimeter, where, in the continued absence of Kendrick Nunn, Wayne Ellington, Trevor Ariza and Talen Horton-Tucker, some combination of Russ (who’s thus far missed all seven of his 3-pointer attempts and has a sub-36% field goal percentage), Carmelo Anthony, Malik Monk, Avery Bradley and Austin Reaves (who, SMALL SAMPE SIZE ALERT, is a team-best +17 in just 12 minutes) must provide a spark.
The key here, outside of Westbrook, may be the least known of these quantities, Reaves, who’s shown a touch from the outside and can handle the ball make plays in spurts. Every bit as importantly, he gives max defensive effort every possession, particularly one-on-one, and is not afraid to mix things up physically. His becoming a part of the regular rotation (at the expense of Rondo) seems more a matter of when, not if. This should probably be accompanied by more small-ball lineups, both with AD in the middle and, occasionally, with no center at all.
In the wake of Friday night’s showing, concerns are festering as to whether the Lakers are a meltdown in waiting. In all likelihood they are not. Again, there is too much talent, experience and pride for this crew to simply flame out. At the same time, pressure is going to mount on this team, rather quickly, to channel their energy and passion toward finding the chemistry that will allow them to contend for a championship.
Where you can watch: 6:30 pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet.