The Los Angeles Lakers earned a hard-fought victory Tuesday night over the stubborn Brooklyn Nets, who are better than advertised and kept the game close. Afterward, reporters lavished praise on Julius Randle who finished with a triple-double (17 points, 14 rebounds, and 10 assists) and D’Angelo Russell who grabbed eight rebounds to go along with a season-high 32 points including 17 in the first quarter alone.
Randle and Russell were impressive, but they had plenty of help. The Lakers received an impressive 32 points and 15 rebounds from their centers, Timofey Mozgov and Tarik Black. Both are season highs from the center position.
Mozgov played 29 minutes and finished with 20 points on 7-for-11 shooting and was a perfect 6-for-6 from the free-throw line. He also grabbed six rebounds and was a force in the paint on defense. His counterpart on the Nets, Brook Lopez, is a prolific scorer who finished with 30 points, but he made only 10 of 25 shots. Mozgov’s overall defense was solid, as it was in recent games against DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings and Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans, both of whom were sufficiently contained to allow the Lakers to come away with wins.
Black had one of the best games of his career against the Nets. He played only 13 minutes but scored 12 points and had nine rebounds. He made four of six shots from the field and made four of five from the free-throw line. Black reportedly worked very hard on his free throws this offseason, and so far it shows. Mozgov is one of the best free throw shooters on the team, which is highly unusual for a center. Mozgov and Black are both making an impressive 87 percent of their free throws this season.
Equally important, on a team prone to turnovers, neither center had a single miscue against the Nets. Mozgov and Black are an unlikely pair, both bringing something different to the team, but so far they have played their role admirably.
Mozgov, of course, was a much maligned free agent signing of the Lakers this past summer. Fans and sportswriters expected very little of him, but head coach Luke Walton knew better. He has started 11 games and averaged 22 minutes a contest. He scores 8.9 points while making 64 percent of his attempts, with 5.2 rebounds a game. These modest statistics do not tell the entire story, however.
Mozgov is big, tough, aggressive, and doesn’t back down. He is not quick or nimble but plays very hard at all times on both ends of the court. He can score in a variety of ways with both hands, and it bears remembering that when he was a member of the Denver Nuggets, he would regularly excel against the Lakers. On defense, he contests every shot, and while he is not a high volume shot blocker, he has made some impressive stops in key moments.
Black was written off after last year when he spent time in the D-League and in street clothes behind the bench but rarely on the court. Center was a real weakness for the Lakers last season, but then-coach Byron Scott would not play him.
Black is vocal on the court, and he shows signs that he can be a leader. He is always energetic and battles hard no matter how long he plays. Like Mozgov, he is not a prolific shot blocker, but he has shown a knack for blocking shots in key moments. His offensive game is limited, but he can score at the rim with both hands and throws down monstrous dunks which ignite the team.
Black plays relatively few minutes and almost always alongside Larry Nance Jr. with the second unit because Walton likes to go with different combinations up front like Nance and Randle, Randle and Deng, and Nance and Deng. Still, despite limited opportunities, Black has played in all 12 games and contributes something of importance each time, whether it is a key tip-in off a missed shot, a timely offensive rebound, or a blocked shot at an opportune moment.
Of course, the Lakers have a tradition of featuring great centers on the roster from Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O’Neal to Pau Gasol. Andrew Bynum looked like he would continue the tradition but ultimately fell short, and for one year the team looked to Dwight Howard to carry the mantle.
Since Howard and Gasol took their talents elsewhere, the Lakers have struggled at the center position. For that reason, it was expected that they would draft Duke’s Jahlil Okafor last year when they had the chance. Instead, they shocked the basketball world by forsaking the opportunity to get their center of the future and opted for Russell instead. This was another sign that the NBA has evolved to the point that teams no longer need or want a dominant back-to-the-basket center to compete at the highest level. The teams who are currently thought to be the serious championship contenders do not feature a traditional, dominant center.
Enter Mozgov the giant and Black who is undersized, an unusual pairing but one that has been quite effective so far. Pundits enjoy denigrating both of them, but those people are clearly not watching the games carefully or at all.
The Lakers have plenty of sizzle with Randle, Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Lou Williams, and Nick Young. What they need is toughness to go along with a consistent contribution from the center position, like the Golden State Warriors so successfully coaxed out of Andrew Bogut the past few seasons. That is precisely what Walton was counting on and so far has gotten. In fact, Lakers centers seem to be getting more and more comfortable with their role and making bigger contributions with each new game.
Mozgov and Black are making an important statement that opponents should ignore them at their own peril. They have been key contributors to the Lakers’ early season success, and there is reason to believe they will become a force in their own right as the year progresses.