The Los Angeles Lakers have started the season with a record of 2-3, but they could be undefeated. They were in every game to the end and actually had a lead deep into the fourth quarter in four of the five contests. At the moment, they lack one the one key asset that separates those teams who have a knack for winning close games from those who don’t.
In the Spring of 2013, the Lakers played a home game against the Toronto Raptors needing a victory to stay in the playoff hunt. The team trailed most of the game and time was running out when Kobe Bryant hit three consecutive three-point shots in a row to tie the score and send the game to overtime, where the team won on a magnificent Bryant drive to the basket. Everyone on the Raptors knew where the ball was going that night with time running out, but no one could deny Bryant the ball, the baskets, or the win.
Flash forward to the Lakers’ recent game against the Indiana Pacers. They were trailing the entire game but clawed back to take the lead by a point with 90 seconds to play. With a victory within reach, they did not score another point as D’Angelo Russell missed two shots, and Jordan Clarkson Lou Williams and Larry Nance Jr. missed one apiece. Meanwhile, with the game on the line, the Pacers’ Paul George, one of the league’s best players, scored 12 consecutive points and made one great defensive play, winning the game for the Pacers almost by himself.
For five games in a row, the Lakers trailed but came back in the fourth quarter and could have won. They won the first game because of a single player, Jordan Clarkson, put the team on his back and carried them with 23 second half points. They won the last game against the Atlanta Hawks because Lou Williams did the same. They lost the three games in between because at the pivotal moment, when it could go either way, no one stepped up. The Pacers won because they have Paul George and the Lakers lost because they don’t.
This is how the NBA works. With time running out and the win there for the taking, teams generally turn to their best player who takes over the game himself and wills his teammates to a win. Unfortunately, most other teams have such a player, but presently the Lakers do not. It may be their biggest weakness.
In the second game of the season against the Utah Jazz, the Lakers trailed all game but somehow managed to take the lead in the fourth quarter. But Russell had a turnover and then missed a shot, while George Hill took over and pretty much won the game by himself for the Jazz. Against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Lakers came to within four points of the Thunder in the fourth quarter only to hit a wall, resulting in turnovers and missed shots while Russell Westbrook could not be denied. Then came the same scenario against the Pacers, and Paul George was the hero.
In contrast to last year, when the Lakers fell behind early and often and most games were over after the first quarter, this year things really are different. They still manage to fall behind, but they have kept their opponent in sight and are in a position to win in the fourth quarter which is a great sign of improvement. However, because they don’t have that one player who consistently thrives at the end of games, like a LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Kevin Durant, or Russell Westbrook, they struggle to find a way to win when the outcome could go either way.
In recent years, with Kobe Bryant injured so often, the Lakers had no one who could assume his role at the end of games. Byron Scott believed that Lou Williams was the player to do it last year when Bryant was out, and while Williams was put in that position several times, not once was he able to deliver. This season, he was great against the Hawks in the fourth quarter of the most recent game, but he has not shown he can do it on a regular basis.
Julius Randle and Larry Nance, Jr. played well at the end of the last game with the Hawks, but neither qualifies as the “go to” guy at the end of close games because they don’t have a reliable outside shot. Randle’s overall game has improved this year except for his outside shooting. Nance is still reluctant to shoot, which is unfortunate because in Summer League and preseason his mid-range shooting looked much better.
Ingram is too young and too easily pushed around, so he has not been entrusted to close out games. Nick Young was hot in preseason but, at least until last night, he was cold once the games started to count and one can easily envision him forcing terrible shots at the end of a game. Jose Calderon played well against the Pacers, and it is possible that he could hit a last second, game-winning shot like he did against the Lakers when they played the New York Knicks last year. But that was one shot, and it is highly unlikely that at age 35, after missing already games this season with a calf injury, that he could put the team on his back the last three minutes of a game.
Luol Deng is a possibility, though he is more of a complimentary player than one who could carry an entire team on the offensive end in the last few minutes of a close game. He is a player that the coaching staff may want on the floor at the end of games, but his scoring has been inconsistent so far as a Laker. He is not known for creating his own shot, and it is unlikely that he could be the consistent, reliable, go-to guy with the game hanging in the balance.
That leaves Clarkson and Russell. Both have had opportunities the past two seasons to be the “it” guy at the end of games, and both players have usually come up short. Clarkson, notwithstanding the Houston Rockets game to start the season where he single-handedly brought the team back late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, is prone to forcing things and losing the ball in key moments at the end of games. Most of the time he looks like the guy you would want to take over with the game on the line, but so far, in his third season, he has not proven that he can deliver.
Russell is the most likely player who, this year, will be entrusted to try to close out games for the team. That is an iffy proposition, however, based on how he tends to play in critical situations. Like Clarkson, he is prone to turnovers. He does not have the speed or agility to take the ball to the rim with the opponent’s best players waiting in the paint, and his outside shooting has thus far in his career been inconsistent. He can get hot and make three or four long-range shots in a row, but more often he misses more than he makes. Until last night’s game, he was shooting a subpar 33 percent on the season.
Still, against Atlanta, Russell had a good game and along with Williams was instrumental in securing the victory in the fourth quarter. The Lakers are hoping he will learn to thrive in close games, and maybe it will happen, but at the moment he does not remind anyone of Paul George, Jimmy Butler, or Steph Curry.
Finding that one player who can consistently take over in the last three minutes, when a victory is within reach, will not be easy. This issue has plagued the Lakers for several years now. For example, the 2013-14 team that often shot the lights out with Jordan Farmar, Jodie Meeks, Kendall Marshall, Kent Bazemore, Nick Young, and Xavier Henry, often came close but could not finish in the end. That role is best filled by a legitimate star; in fact, thriving in that situation is largely how one becomes a star in the NBA. At the moment, the Lakers have no stars, and it is unclear if anyone on the roster will achieve that stature in the foreseeable future.
As an aside, this is the best argument for the Lakers resuming their efforts next summer to acquire a proven all-star through trade or free agency, even if they have to sacrifice one or more of their young core in the process. In the NBA, a single all-star caliber player can take a team a long way. Put a Westbrook, George, Leonard, or Lillard on the Lakers, even with their current roster, and they become a totally different team.
For the moment, the Lakers will continue to search within to see if anyone has the fortitude and skill to do what fans have already seen from Paul George, George Hill, and Russell Westbrook in the three Lakers losses this year. If the team doesn’t find someone on the current roster to excel at the end of games, they will still show improvement this year, but their record is not likely to reflect their true overall growth.