The Los Angeles Lakers struggled this past week in the absence of their two leading scorers and best players, LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma. The team knew it would be without James, who suffered a strained groin on Christmas Day, but the unexpected, additional loss of Kuzma sealed their fate as they lost all three games.
Rajon Rondo, another key player, was also out following surgery to repair a the ligament in a sprained finger. On a positive note, Michael Beasley, who has appeared in only 12 games this season, returned to action and made a decent contribution.
An optimist would point out that the Lakers were in a position to win two of the three games, and in both appeared to be in control at the end of the third quarter. But they stopped moving the ball, took ill-advised shots, and made untimely turnovers. In the end, no one stepped in key moments when the games could have gone either way.
Against the Minnesota Timberwolves to end the week, the Lakers were hapless. They were not ready to play, fell behind right away by 19 points, and the game was over midway through the first quarter.
Here is a summary of what went right and what went wrong as the Lakers finished the week hanging on by a thread to the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
What Went Right
It is a struggle to find anything that went right for the Lakers this week, but the undermanned team did play hard and put themselves in a position to win the first two games even though it didn’t happen.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s struggles this season have been well-documented, but he has played well the past month. With Kuzma injured, Caldwell-Pope was in the starting lineup against the Oklahoma City Thunder and New York Knicks and was largely responsible for keeping the Lakers in the games.
Caldwell-Pope has never needed an excuse to shoot, but with James and Kuzma sidelined, it was bombs-away for him this week. He took 11 three-point shots against the Thunder and 12 against the Knicks.
He was not especially efficient but got the job done, which was crucial in a week in which the Lakers were missing the combined 45 points per game normally contributed by James and Kuzma.
Strangely enough, in the final contest against Minnesota, Caldwell-Pope was inexplicably relegated to the bench and played only 22 meaningless minutes, as the game was essentially over by the time he entered the game.
This was a game in which Josh Hart really struggled on offense and Lonzo Ball did not score at all.
This should have been the week that Brandon Ingram asserted himself and took over the team in the absence of James and Kuzma. He tried, but It did not happen.
Ingram played well for the first three quarters in each of the first two games of the week. For the first time this season, he concentrated on rebounding and getting others involved, and although his assists were modest, he did finish with 11 rebounds against the Thunder and nine rebounds against the Knicks.
Against the Timberwolves, Ingram was awful, but so too was the entire team.
JaVale McGee returned this week after a lengthy absence due to illness, and it was a positive development as he played well in the first two games. He finished with 15 points, 8 rebounds and 4 blocks against Oklahoma City and followed that performance with 18 points, 9 rebounds and a block against the Knicks.
Ivica Zubac continued to contribute last week week after languishing on the bench most of the season. Zubac had been starting and doing well in McGee’s absence. Backup center Tyson Chandler has been suffering from back stiffness, and although he has continued to play, this week he split minutes with Zubac.
In a mere 10 minutes of playing time against the Thunder, Zubac scored 8 points on a perfect 4-for-4 shooting. In the next game against the Knicks, he played 11 minutes and scored 10 points, grabbed 6 rebounds, had 2 assists and a block.
Zubac finished with 9 points and 8 rebounds against Minnesota.
What Went Wrong
The biggest thing that went wrong this week was that the Lakers lost all three games and are close to falling out of the playoff picture, at least temporarily, as James’ return does not appear imminent.
By the end of the week, the team looked dejected and defeated and was blown out by the Timberwolves.
Too many turnovers, poor free throw shooting and fouling too much were problems all week as they have been most of the season.
The coaching staff made an odd move against Minnesota, benching Caldwell-Pope, who had been the team’s best player in recent games, in favor of starting McGee and Zubac. The results were predictable.
It was the Lakers’ version of the towering inferno – a disaster from the start as the Timberwolves immediately took a 19 point lead just a few minutes into the game.
Another thing that went wrong this week was the injury to Kuzma, who has rarely missed any time the past two seasons and emerged as the team’s second-best player. On the season he is averaging 18.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.
These statistics were on the rise, as Kuzma had an excellent December in which he averaged 22 points and was regularly finishing with eight or more rebounds and around five assists.
Ball’s stock took a major hit last week when the team needed a big performance from him. He had a mere three points against the Thunder, 17 points against the Knicks, and did not score at all against the Timberwolves, which was shocking. The only thing consistent about Ball was his inability to make free throws.
As noted above, Ingram played pretty well in the first two games, but only through three quarters. In the fourth quarter of close games, when the Lakers needed him most, the results were ugly. He resorted to over-dribbling which led to turnovers, and forcing awkward shots which did not fall.
Against Minnesota to end the week, Ingram was missing in action except in the second quarter, when he scored 13 points, his only points of the game.
Hart struggled all week. Against the Thunder, he was only 5-for-16 from the field (he did have a season-high 15 rebounds). Against the Knicks, he was 2-for-11 and he was only 3-for-12 against the Timberwolves.
Hart has had numerous chances this season to prove he deserves to be a starter, but again this past week, he did not make the most of the opportunity. Like Ball and Ingram, he is pretty good and will get better, but he is not as good as projected. His defense was solid for the most part but Hart is mired in a deep shooting slump.
The game against the Knicks was especially disappointing, as the Lakers were desperate for any win in James’ absence and could not afford to lose a very winnable game at home. The Knicks are awful, and the fact that they were able to beat the Lakers at Staples Center was a low point of the season.
As the week ended, the Lakers looked like a team in a free fall. It is, of course, a sign of how valuable James is to the team. But it could also mean that Kuzma is more valuable than most fans imagined, both in terms of his production and his confidence that may have a positive, calming effect on his teammates.
For Ball, Ingram, and Hart, with each passing week in which they underperform, the whispers grow louder that they are not as talented as the Lakers thought and that the team may have miscalculated in choosing them over Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell, who at ages 24 and 22, are excelling this year for their new teams.
The Lakers need a shot of positivity right now, something that only the soonest possible return of James, Kuzma and Rondo can provide.
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