Rockets: Kevin Porter Jr., Jalen Green, Jae’Sean Tate, Daniel Theis, Christian Wood
Lakers: Russell Westbrook, Kent Bazemore, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, DeAndre Jordan
Rockets: Kevin Porter Jr. (questionable); Danuel House (out); John Wall (out)
Lakers: Dwight Howard (questionable); Wayne Ellington (questionable); Trevor Ariza (out); Talen Horton-Tucker (out); Kendrick Nunn (out)
With all due respect to folks on both sides of the Red River, if the coming week feels like much more than a series of spirited practices for the Lakers, something’s gone wrong.
Of course, a fair bit has gone wrong in Lakerland in the season’s opening weeks. A 26-point halftime lead against the gloriously tanktastic Thunder ought to have epitomized security. A home date with the very spirited Cavs – who are admittedly much closer to something meaningful – shouldn’t have been three-fourths torment. Fortunately, the Lakers found enough late defensive footing on Friday night to escape with a win whose margin (12) flattered their performance.
On the bright side, the accumulation of offensive reps is beginning to pay dividends, as evidenced by the (mostly) efficient showings from the headline quartet. That LeBron, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony carried the load – combining for 84 points on 61 shots, grabbing 23 rebounds and handing out 17 assists, with four steals and four blocks – shouldn’t come as a shock.
However, that Russ turned in a best-case controlled aggression performance (19 on just 13 shots, and 1-of-1 on 3s) was, if not surprising, then certainly exciting and more than a little encouraging. Similarly firing on all cylinders was Carmelo. Melo was locked in, making 9-of-12 shots, six of them 3-pointers (on eight attempts), for 24 points in just over 24 minutes. As before, the Lakers needed just about all of it, as all six of those triples (on seven attempts) came in a nip-tuck second half in which the Lakers trailed by as many as nine. It’s not accurate to say that the Lakers go as Carmelo goes, but these early showings are revealing how vital a release valve he is, and the catalyst he’s likely to be.
AD, meanwhile, had a quiet night, with 15 on 14 shots (neither number should ever be this low), nine boards, three blocks and a steal. He was far better in the second half, when he had 9 points, 6 rebounds, two blocks and the steal, with a starting five-best plus-13 and, as he did against Memphis, defensively powered the comeback. In either instance, the biggest issue is that a generational talent like AD ought to be throttling opponents and comprehensively dominating games like this on a more frequent basis.
Finally, there was LeBron, who, despite seven turnovers and a brutal 1-of-10 from beyond the arc, made nine of twelve two-point shots on his way to 26 points, along with eight assists and three steals.
Otherwise, in a combined 63-ish minutes, Dwight Howard, Austin Reaves and Avery Bradley contributed 21 points (a very satisfying 7-7-7 slot reel), on 8-of-13 from the field (and 3-of-4 from 3; in all, the Lakers were 11-for-20), 10 rebounds and four assists. Bradley in particular will have enjoyed his evening, as the Lakers were plus-30 in the 23 minutes in which he was on the floor. As far as the backcourt rotation is concerned, even with Wayne Ellington expected back in the next week, Reaves and Bradley have made cases for regular roles in Frank Vogel’s rotation.
The issues remain the issues. By and large, this boils down to matters of focus and attention to detail: turnovers and, most importantly, defense. For the majority of Friday night, the Lakers couldn’t get out of their own way, committing 15 first half turnovers and offering the modest resistance one expects from a defense that’s allowing a fifth-worst-in-the-NBA 111 points per 100 possessions. Both Davis and Vogel have blamed themselves for the team’s defensive woes, while also bemoaning the team’s lack of cohesion, commitment and communication. Too often, defenders are out of position on the perimeter, are getting blown by, while the interior defense fails to prevent easy opportunities at the basket.
On multiple occasions – notably against Cleveland and previously against the Grizzlies – they’ve righted the ship in the second half and pulled out victories. That they’re capable of summoning these efforts is equal parts encouraging and infuriating, as peak effort on defense seems only to show up in spurts. The Lakers’ defense otherwise has been pretty rough. Of course, we can always look to a healthier future in which a plethora of wings return to the active. The problem here is that the best defender of that sidelined bunch is a 37 years-old and coming off of a major injury. Active improvement is probably a better path waiting for the cavalry.
This week brings three opportunities to finetune those issues against intentionally undermanned opposition. Sunday night (and again on Tuesday in Houston), the Lakers take on the Rockets, who’ve won just one of five games they’ve played, none of which have been terribly close. After an opening night blowout in Minnesota, the Rockets hammered the Thunder by 33, but have since dropped three straight, all by double figures, the last a 31-point drubbing by the Jazz.
This season is largely a fact-finding mission for the Rockets. They’ll be looking to confirm the extent to which talented big (and 2020 free agent signee) Christian Wood, who averaged 21 points and 9.6 rebounds in 41 games in ’20-’21 and is putting up 19.8 (46.2% from 3-point range) and 11.2 rebounds thus far this season, is a foundational piece. Meanwhile, also up front, there is the question of Jae’Sean Tate, a solid 26-year-old defender that one (okay, me) would imagine the Rockets hoping develops into a P.J. Tucker-like battler.
In the backcourt, the project to convert Kevin Porter Jr. into a point guard is off and running. Given his size and explosiveness, it’s a long-term move that has plenty of merit, but there are going to be bumps in the road as he learns the position. In the context of this game, Porter, who tweaked his ankle a week ago against Boston, could be a bit limited.
His running mate is the #2 overall pick from the 2021 draft, Jalen Green. An electrifying 30-point outburst against Boston notwithstanding, his shot has yet to fully arrive in the NBA, though that is largely a matter of “when”, not “if”. However, he is hyperathletic with an intelligent and mature game. Green is the quintessential superstar starter kit. At the same time, he is just 19 years of age and trying to find his way on a team with little veteran leadership and no expectations, alongside a fellow youngster transitioning to the lead guard position. This may take a minute.
A week ago that the Lakers were about to embark on a five-game run against lesser competition that would allow for the working out of some kinks, while padding their record and boosting confidence. Immediately afterward came the debacle in OKC and the struggle against the Cavs. Tonight offers a reset.
Given the early-season frustrations and what we’ve heard from the Lakers players and coaches, as well as what we’ve seen thus far from the Rockets, tonight (and again on Tuesday in Houston, and in Friday’s revenge match against the Thunder) the Lakers have no excuse for failing to put together a comprehensive and dominating effort.
Where you can watch: 7:30 pm Pacific start time on Spectrum SportsNet.