Spurs: Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Doug McDermott, Keldon Johnson, Drew Eubanks
Lakers: Russell Westbrook, Kent Bazemore, Avery Bradley, Wayne Ellington, Anthony Davis
Spurs: Keita Bates-Diop (probable); Jakob Poetl (out); Jock Landale (out); Zach Collins (out)
Lakers: Avery Bradley (questionable); Austin Reaves (out); LeBron James (technically “day-to-day”, but still out); Trevor Ariza (out); Kendrick Nunn (out)
Closer-than-they-ought-to-be wins that send everyone home unsatisfied and the business end of unholy second half beatdowns isn’t what the Lakers would have expected or hoped for entering the season, but their commitment to the bit is… well, it certainly is.
It was all too easy to look at the Lakers on Friday afternoon, riding a two-game LeBron-less win streak, fresh off of a victory over one of the favorites in the East, breathe a massive sigh of relief, and sound the all-clear.
Wait… no. It was not like that. Like, at all. I’ll level with you, I barely had the nerve to finish typing that sentence. The Timberwolves first visit of the season to Staples did little to help.
Things started out well enough for the Lakers, who jumped out to an early double-digit lead, held the Wolves to just 44 first half points, and took a five-point advantage into the break. What happened after the intermission was simply cataclysmic.
The Lakers sleepwalked out of the locker room and were duly punished for it. Minnesota scored thirteen of the third quarter’s fist fifteen points (and 22 of 25, AND 29 of 33…) and extinguished any hopes the Lakes had of putting together the season’s first three-game win streak. The destruction was comprehensive. The Lakers allowing nearly as many points (40) as they had in the entire first half, while, at one point, failing to make a field goal for more than seven minutes. The dust settled with the Lakers having scored just 12 points in the quarter, and trailing the Wolves by 23. In actuality, the dust never actually settled as much as the Wolves were forced to take a short break before scoring thirteen of next sixteen, to extend their lead to 33.
With the modest exceptions of Anthony Davis (7-of-13, for 22 points, with 8 rebounds, 3 steals and 3 blocks) and Dwight Howard (9 and 10, with 2 steals and a block in 22 minutes) and Rajon Rondo (7, 8 and 8, with 2 steals in 24), not a single Laker made a positive contribution. Carmelo Anthony missed twelve of thirteen shots, while Malik Monk missed eight of eleven. The non-star starters – Wayne Ellington, Avery Bradley and Kent Bazemore – combined for just 11 points (on 4-of-18 shooting), four rebounds and a single assist in 68 minutes. Russell Westbrook, meanwhile, had a superficially efficient night (20 points, on 7-of-11, 2-of-4 from 3), but had fewer assists (3) than turnovers (5), and somehow managed a minus-THIRTY-TWO in half an hour of action.
The fact is that the Lakers ran into a perfect storm – not so much the Timberwolves (who, of course, played very well) but of their own circumstances. For starters, even the best of teams are going to have off nights. Plain and simple. Add to that a relentless rash of injuries that’s cost LeBron the last five games (and counting) and sapped the depth on the wings (now it’s Austin Reaves for at least a couple of weeks), and a pair of overtime games in the preceding four days, and it’s fair to assume that these dudes were gassed. That’s not an excuse, just a fact.
That may explain away this most recent defeat, but the fact remains that this group has exhibited a rare gift for self-inflicted adversity from Day One. I mean, leading after three quarters while Steph Curry makes less than a quarter of his shots ought to be a good thing. Twenty-six-point halftime leads don’t simply turn into losses against opponents whose interest in winning games is largely notional. When you lead by 28 at any point in a game, you shouldn’t wind up making the gamblers sweat. Up 14 at home with nine minutes to play against a not-elite opponent on the second half of a back-to-back? You shouldn’t need overtime.
A looming problem is that, injuries aside, the odds have actually been stacked in the Lakers’ favor. This afternoon’s game against the Spurs, the Lakers’ fourteenth of the season, will be their eleventh at Staples Center, and their eight against the against the Thunder, Rockets, Spurs and Wolves, who’ve combined for eleven wins in 39 games against teams other than the Lakers (and three against the Lakers). Things are going to get much, much tougher. With Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and the much-improved Bulls visiting Staples on Monday night, and a five-games-in-eight-nights Eastern trip that includes matchups against the Bucks, Celtics and Knicks, this one looms large. It’s hardly a gimme, though.
Though the Spurs have won only a third of their games to start the season – three of them against the Magic and the Kings – Gregg Popovich’s squad is playing some decent ball. The Spurs rank in the top half of the NBA in both defensive efficiency (they’re 19th, 0.5 points/100 possessions below average on offense), with a net rating (+0.8, also 14th in the league) better than those of the Bucks, Knicks, Mavericks, Lakers and Celtics.
The Lakers saw this firsthand in the season’s opening week in San Antonio. Again without LeBron, they trailed by twelve after three quarters, before mounting a comeback to force overtime, where they ultimately ground out a four-point win. Unsurprisingly, AD (35, 17, 4 assists and 4 blocks) and Russ (33, 10, 8 and 3 steals, with just 3 turnovers) led the way, with Monk and Reaves (27 points combined, with 6 made 3-pointers) making up for rough shooting nights from Carmelo (1-of-7) and Baze (2-of-6).
The Lakers were tormented by the Spurs’ young core, as Dejounte Murray put up an awesome 21-12-15 triple-double (with two steals and two blocks), while Lonnie Walker IV and Devin Vassell poured in a combined 40 points (with nine rebounds and eight assists) off the bench. And, in the middle was Jakob Poetl, hitting on 13 of 17 shots, for a team-high 27, to go along with 14 rebounds (7 offensive) and three blocks.
In a rare bit of positive injury news, at long last, Talen Horton-Tucker returns to the lineup. Of course, THT, who must replace Reaves’ energy, toughness and smarts, may need to step right into the starting lineup immediately if Bradley is unable to go. Because, why not?
Regardless, the recipe for a Lakers win remains the same: AD (preferably starting at the appropriate position) shoulders a superstar workload at both ends. Russ provides an efficient secondary threat and facilitates while limiting turnovers. Carmelo and someone else (take your pick) hit from the outside. The group, as a whole, demands of itself sustained effort, focus and accountability, particularly at the defensive end.
In Murray, Derrick White, Doug McDermott, Keldon Johnson, Walker, Vassell and Poetl (once he’s back), the Spurs have the bones of an interesting and potentially quite good young team. Where they come up short is on size (especially today) and genuine top-end talent. As Poetl (and delightfully named fellow big body Jock Landale) are unavailable today, the path to dominating the interior and a respectable showing on the glass should be fairly clean. These are the advantage the Lakers must exploit.
For basically all of NBA history, the ancient apparently-not-Chinese curse that’s permeated Lakerland has been “May you find what you’re looking for”. By and large, that one’s worked out just fine. These days, we’re working with Team May You Live in Interesting Times – and could all probably go for a bit of boredom.
Where you can watch: 12:30pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet.