The Los Angeles Lakers received a boost last week with the return of Rajon Rondo, who has missed most of the season due a suspension and subsequent injuries to his hand and finger. Rondo’s return was especially welcome since Lonzo Ball is out for an extended period after badly spraining his ankle, which had deprived the team of its two point guards.
Unfortunately, by week’s end, the injury list had grown as the Lakers were forced to play without Ball, LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart. Kuzma had been trying to play through a hip strain hip suffered in a recent game against the Houston Rockets, and Hart is dealing with knee tendinitis.
Speaking of James, he has been absent for over a month during which the Lakers have fallen from the fourth spot in the Western Conference to ninth, a full two games behind the Clippers for the eighth spot.
The team is entering a very tough part of their schedule with upcoming games against the Philadelphia 76ers (twice), Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, Rockets and Clippers.
The Lakers finished the week with a 1-2 record. The defeats included forgettable performances against the Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves, both at home. The win came at the expense of the hapless Phoenix Suns, which became a must-win game after the Lakers lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks earlier in the month.
What Went Right
The bright spot this past week, as it was the week before, was the continued strong play of Ivica Zubac. Languishing on the bench earlier this season with his career all but stalled, Zubac finally got a chance to play and his reversal of fortune has been swift and stunning.
In the 130-111 blowout loss at the hands of the Warriors, Zubac was one of the few bright spots. He came off the bench, and in 20 minutes, finished with 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting from the floor.
After that game, with the team struggling, Lakers head coach Luke Walton shuffled the starting lineup again which included giving Zubac the nod.
After playing the Timberwolves even for three quarters, the Lakers fell behind and suffered a 120-105 loss. No one played well, but Zubac managed to hold his own against Karl-Anthony Towns for most of the game. In 20 minutes of playing time, Zubac had with 10 points and eight rebounds.
Zubac finished the week with a very strong 24-point, 16-rebound, four-block performance against the Suns. Not only did he start, but after playing only 20 minutes a game in the previous two contests, he was rewarded with 35 minutes of playing time against the Suns.
After starting all season, JaVale McGee is now coming off the bench to spell Zubac. He was consistent last week with 10 points and nine rebounds against the Warriors, 10 points and six rebounds against the Timberwolves, and five points and three rebounds in only 11 minutes against the Suns.
The Lakers featured a balanced attack against the Suns. In addition to Zubac’s contributions, their scoring included 24 points from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, 22 points from Brandon Ingram, and 17 points from Lance Stephenson.
Stephenson was especially instrumental in the victory. After the lead was cut to six points in the second half, and the Lakers were struggling to score, Stephenson came in and hit three quick 3-pointers. Stephenson played with great energy and was instrumental in helping the team end their three-game losing streak.
Finally, after an extended absence, Rondo returned against the Timberwolves and played well in the final two games of the week. He was one of the few bright spots in the Minnesota game as he finished with 15 points, 13 assists and six rebounds. Never known for his long-range shooting, he connected on three 3-pointers.
Rondo finished with eight points and 11 assists against the Suns. His 24 assists in two games brought welcome relief to a team that has been struggling on offense, but it also underscored that he is a very different point guard than Ball.
The latter excels in pushing the pace in transition while Rondo does better in a half-court set. It should be noted that the Lakers are not scoring much in transition anymore after excelling in that category earlier this season.
Finally, it is noteworthy that the Lakers had a very effective game play to defend Devin Booker of the Suns, who has scored more points against them in his career than he has against any other team. The Lakers double-teamed Booker repeatedly, mostly with Caldwell-Pope and Zubac, and the relentless pressure caused Booker trouble.
He finished with a quiet 21 points, well below his season average.
What Went Wrong
Aside from the injuries, a trouble spot was too many turnovers, too many fouls, and continued poor shooting both from deep and at the free throw line.
The Lakers enjoyed their best win of the season in defeating the Warriors on Christmas Day, but when the two teams played again a month later, the outcome was very different. L.A. had no answer for Klay Thompson, who started the game 10-for-10 from three-point range, an NBA record.
The Lakers didn’t have much energy or enthusiasm throughout the night. Three of their starters, Caldwell-Pope, Hart and Tyson Chandler, combined for a total of 11 points. The other two starters, Ingram and Kuzma, finished with 17 and 16 points, respectively, but neither shot efficiently.
Zubac, McGee and Michael Beasley made solid contributions off the bench but it was too little, too late as the Warriors took a commanding lead and the Lakers were never in the game.
To start the Timberwolves game, it appeared the Lakers had a legitimate chance since the game was at home and Minnesota has struggled this season. They faced the distraction caused by Jimmy Butler before he was traded and recently had to endure the firing of head coach Tom Thibodeau.
Indeed, the Timberwolves did not play well at Staples Center, and the game was tight after three quarters. However, the Lakers were out-rebounded 55-39, committed 19 turnovers, and shot a woeful 64 percent from the free throw line.
Towns and Taj Gibson dominated the boards in the fourth quarter and the Timberwolves pulled away.
Although the Lakers defeated the Suns, which was a huge relief, it was not a true, feel-good performance. The Suns were playing without starting center Deandre Ayton, yet the Lakers only out-rebounded them by one.
Most troubling was that the Suns got to the free throw line an astounding 32 times and made 27 of their attempts. The Lakers struggled all game to defend without fouling, which was a big problem earlier in the season.
In contrast, the Lakers were only 12-for-18 at the line, with Ingram in particular struggling from the charity stripe as he has all year.
Speaking of Ingram, he had a strong first half against the Suns during which he scored 17 points, but he had only five points after intermission. He was in foul trouble, however, and eventually fouled out of the game.
The big question now is when James will return to the court. He is working out with the team and his return seems imminent. Whenever it occurs, it will not be a minute too soon.
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