With all due respect to the other 28 teams in the league, including pretenders such as the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Toronto Raptors, Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks, the NBA title will be won again this year by either the Golden State Warriors or the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Los Angeles Lakers have already played the Warriors three times and just got their first look at the Cavaliers. While the outcome was predictable, the way the Lakers played was not.
As everyone knows, after a very promising start to the season which saw them with a record of 10-10 after twenty games, the Lakers have now lost nine of their last 10 contests. While they were in every game earlier this year, the past month has been a different story. Part of it was injuries which forced five players to miss time, but somewhere along the way the team lost its confidence and its passion which contributed mightily to their predicament.
The Lakers managed a win against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night, which was a relief. But truth be told, it was more a case of the 76ers being terrible than that Lakers playing well. The Lakers choked late in the third quarter and much of the fourth quarter, but the anemic 76ers couldn’t take advantage. Thus, the Lakers’ play against the Cavaliers was a surprise.
There was bad news before the game started. D’Angelo Russell, who missed a dozen games recently before returning, would sit out again. It was unclear if this was just a precaution or whether Russell’s knee was hurting again. If it is the latter, it is a matter of great concern. For better or worse, the Lakers have made Russell the key player on the team around whom everything else revolves, and if he is unable to resume playing in every game, it will seriously undermine the team’s goal for the season.
Despite the absence of their point guard, the team finished with a season-high 30 assists, approximately double what they have been averaging the past six weeks. They had five players score in double figures, and except for Lou Williams who had a rare off night in which struggled from the field, the other four all connected on 50 percent or better of their attempts.
Any discussion of individual accomplishments has to start with Nick Young. The veteran has been solid since recently returning from an injury, but he had a breakout scoring performance against the Cavaliers finishing with a game-high 32 points. He was very efficient, knocking down 12-of-19 shots overall and 8-of-14 from three-point range. He even managed to dish out three assists. One could not help but notice that Young was having a lot of fun, clowning at times in a good natured way with Kyrie Irving. This was yet another excellent performance from Young in a comeback year for the ages.
Brandon Ingram’s outside shot was still not falling, as he finished with only nine points and was 1-of-5 from three-point range. However, overall he had an eye-opening performance as he played an astonishing 41 minutes at the point guard position with only two turnovers and one personal foul. He finished with 10 rebounds and nine assists, after averaging approximately three rebounds and one assist per game on the year. It was interesting to see Ingram play the point fluidly and with confidence.
Another shout-out should go to Jordan Clarkson. His struggles the past six weeks have been well documented, but on this night, he played one of his strongest games in a long time reminiscent to how he performed earlier in the year. He finished with 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting, grabbed five rebounds, and had only two turnovers. Clarkson has been pressing lately, playing out of control much of the time on the offensive side. On this night, he slowed down and made far fewer mistakes.
Julius Randle followed up his 25-point performance against the 76ers by scoring an efficient 16 points on 8-of-15 shooting and handing out seven assists. The only negative is that Randle did most of this damage in the first half and contributed nothing in the second half while the Lakers were struggling to keep pace. Consistency is the key for Randle, and it would have been great had he followed up his 76ers performance with four more quarters of solid play. Still, he did not disappear altogether and was instrumental in helping the Lakers keep pace in the first half.
Another player who deserves special mention is Luol Deng, who has been criticized much of the season due to his lackluster play. He emerged recently from a season-long slumber, and his string of good games continued against the Cavaliers. He finished with 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting while grabbing eight rebounds and three assists. He also played solid defense most of the night on LeBron James.
The Lakers were in this game until deep in the fourth quarter when James decided enough was enough and he scored 16 points to help his team pull away. The Cavs have so much firepower in their starting lineup and on their bench that it leaves you shaking your head. Irving is clearly one of the best players in the league at this point of his career and Kevin Love is fitting in much better and is having a very strong season. Irving finished with 21 points and 12 assists while Love had 27 points and 17 rebounds.
Even though the Lakers lost, this was not the kind of depressing defeat the team has so often endured the past month where many fans wanted to cover their eyes or turn off their television. The game was fun and entertaining, and the Lakers showed the sort of resiliency they were exhibiting regularly early in the season even when they lost.
The road trip continues with a stop in Charlotte Tuesday night. Hopefully, Russell will be back and the Lakers can follow up with another comfortable, free flowing game where the ball is moving, and the shots are falling. A little more defense would help, too.