There were plenty of doubters when head coach Luke Walton proclaimed recently that his young squad could beat anyone when the players are “locked in.” Maybe that was the case in November, but after a December to forget, which saw the team surge into a tie for most losses in the league this season, it would be understandable if the players were suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
The Lakers have lost games this season to the worst of the worst, including two defeats at home to the Dallas Mavericks along with losses to the lowly Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic, Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns, Minnesota Timberwolves, and New Orleans Pelicans.
Yet, while it makes little sense, they have also beaten many of the best teams in the league including the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Chicago Bulls, and Memphis Grizzles. Thus, a majority of their wins this year have been against playoff teams.
A case in point is the Lakers unexpected victory over a strong Grizzles team Tuesday night. Memphis entered the contest with a record of 22-14. They surprised a lot of people by thriving despite a series of injuries, including one to Mike Conley, the NBA’s highest paid player, which caused him to be out for an extended period. They feature one of the best defenses in the league, and center Marc Gasol is playing again at an All-Star level.
There was nothing to suggest that the Lakers could win the game, but out of nowhere, they put together one of their best all-around performances of the season winning 116-102 in a game that they controlled from start to finish. One of the keys to the victory was an excellent 34 assists, which is double what they achieve on a normal night. Another was the strong outside shooting of Nick Young, D’Angelo Russell, and Jordan Clarkson. The team made 17 three-point shots, well above their season average. Finally, there was Julius Randle, who earned the third triple-double of his young career with 19 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists.
To score 116 points against a tough Grizzles’ defense is a major feat. The Lakers out-rebounded the Grizzles and had only nine turnovers. This all-around effort for four quarters underscored what Walton said recently, that when the focus is there, the Lakers can beat anyone.
But can it be sustained? The Lakers have not won two consecutive games since early November. The next opponent, the Portland Trail Blazers, have been struggling and at the moment are not a playoff-bound team. No one in the league dominates the Lakers more than Damian Lillard, but Lillard recently suffered an ankle injury and may not play. Even if Lillard is out, Portland has never been a kind venue for the purple and gold, so a victory is far from assured. It all depends on which team shows up: The energized, focused Lakers who shared the ball so brilliantly against the Grizzles? Or the dazed, lethargic team that has twice fallen at the Staples Center to an injury-riddled Dallas Mavericks?
As everyone knows, even if a player has an off night scoring-wise he can still contribute in other ways simply by playing hard. How hard a person plays is the one thing he can control.
Thus, there is no obvious explanation for why the Lakers play with energy and focus only some of the time. It was a mystery that befuddled Byron Scott last year which he could not solve. The jury is still out on whether Luke Walton will crack the code. One would think the young Lakers players, who know have a lot to prove, would be excited just to live their dream of playing in the NBA. They should be energized just at the thought of competing against the stars they grew up idolizing.
That is how they played in November, but in December it was a completely different story. They started games as though they were hung over, and if they were close at halftime they would start the third quarter with no energy and get shredded. It didn’t happen against the Grizzles, but two games before they suffered perhaps their most embarrassing loss of the season to the Mavericks. So which Lakers team will we see against Portland Thursday night?
The truth is, no one knows. But this is a new month and a new year, and the future starts now. The Lakers are back to full strength except for the absence of Larry Nance Jr. The players who missed time like Russell and Young have been back for a few games, enough to shake whatever rust they felt from being out. Now is the time for the Lakers to “lock in” as Walton refers to it and pull off a few wins in a row.
The Lakers were showing marked improvement earlier in the season but were derailed by a series of injuries which they were not deep enough to overcome. Thus, the true ceiling of the current Lakers roster and stable of young players is still unknown. It is time to find out if any or all of the young core can finally become consistent. In the last two games, we saw Clarkson score 16 points one night and only two the game before; and we saw Randle grab double-digit rebounds in one contest but only four in the previous game. It is also important that Russell not have a single turnover one night but five turnovers in the next game.
In short, the young Lakers players must show they can string together a series of games in which they bring maximum energy and efficiency each time out. And if the coaching staff could teach Brandon Ingram how to make wide open outside shots with even a modicum of consistency, that would be very helpful too.