One constant from Luke Walton this season, whether the Los Angeles Lakers win or lose, are in a close game or blowout, has been an emphasis on defense. It’s what he said allowed for the team to overcome the worst free-throw shooting percentage in NBA history to beat the Indiana Pacers on Friday night.
And defense was what Walton pointed to was the difference maker in what was shaping to be a shootout with the New York Knicks. “Defense. That was the only message at halftime. During our home winning streak, we’ve been really, really good defensively,” Walton said.
“Last game, we were playing with effort, flying around the court. Tonight, in the first half, offense was great but it was just kind of free-flowing. And when games are like that, either team can win down the stretch.”
The Knicks went into halftime trailing by four points. Their first five baskets in the third quarter were all behind the 3-point line, and one amounted to a four-point play. Walton removed each of his starters just over two minutes into the quarter.
“I was searching out a group that was willing to play [aggressive] defense,” he explained after the Lakers’ 127-107 blowout win. “I think [the Knicks] had like 21 points in the first five minutes of the third quarter, which is awful for us.”
A group spearheaded by Alex Caruso, Jordan Clarkson, Corey Brewer and Larry Nance Jr. sparked the turnaround. Kyle Kuzma spent a few minutes on the court with his fellow reserves but was then replaced by Julius Randle.
“We stuck with them because they were playing hard and playing the right way,” Walton said of the unit. “We started trying to fight through screens, we started pushing their offense out a little bit further. Obviously, it helps Porzingis and Beasley were in foul trouble. From that point on, the effort on our part with that group that we found, really changed.”
“And it felt like our mindset was back to where it’s been, where we hang our hat on defense and we win on defense. And if offense happens, that’s fine, but we’re going to win this game by playing on this end.”
Caruso said the Lakers reverted back to giving the necessary effort and “playing together” on defense. While he was more of a spectator than participant, Kuzma echoed those remarks.
Said Brandon Ingram: “The second group came in a did a really good job. Corey Brewer locked in on his guy, Jordan Clarkson, Alex Caruso, and when we put Julius back in, he was a beast. And Larry Nance. Everyone contributed on the offensive and defensive end.
“I think as professionals, they looked at the first group, and I don’t think we were doing our job. The second group came in and did theirs. All of them had a winning mentality tonight, and they were going to do anything for us.”
After injuries and a brutal December schedule led to the Lakers slipping defensively, they currently rank 10th in defensive efficiency. For all the criticism Walton has faced, getting the team to buy in on that end of the floor and improve from last year’s results has been nothing short of astounding.
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