The Los Angeles Lakers’ winning streak reached four games when they defeated a quality Portland Trail Blazers team for the second time this season. The good vibrations dissipated when they were blown out in their next game by the mediocre Orlando Magic.
The Lakers then turned it around again and finished the week with a road win over the Miami Heat. This past week was all about LeBron James, who scored 44 and 51 points, respectively, in the two wins.
He was a one-man gang offensively, as no one else consistently contributed all that much. This was another week in which defense was the key, as the Lakers won when they locked in on defense and lost when they did not.
A significant development was the injury to Rajon Rondo, who broke his hand against the Trail Blazers and is expected to be out four to five weeks. The coaching staff is trying to cover his absence with a combination of different players, and at times the team played without a point guard at all, which was possible because much of the time the offense consisted of giving the ball to James and getting out of his way.
Here is a summary of what went right and what went wrong this past week.
What Went Right
The Lakers finished the week tied for seventh place in the Western Conference standings, the first time in a long time that the team is legitimately in the playoff hunt.
The 124-117 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center to start the week was one of the season’s highlights. Any victory against the Trail Blazers, the second seed in the Western Conference right now, is rare in recent years. Two wins against Portland in one season was practically unthinkable until now.
It was a memorable night for James on two levels. First, he finished with an astounding stat line of 44 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists, just missing a rare 40-point triple double when Brandon Ingram took a pass from James but air-balled a three-point shot to end the game.
James also passed Wilt Chamberlain to become the fifth leading scorer in NBA history, finishing the night with 31,425 total points.
James’ woes at the free throw line have been well documented this year, but on this game he made 15-of-17 from the charity stripe. He has also been criticized for his defense, or lack thereof, but against Portland he had three blocks and turned in his best overall defensive performance of the year.
James may have been unstoppable, but he received support in the form of 20 points from JaVale McGee, 17 points from Ingram, and 13 points from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
After the awful loss in Orlando, the team bounced back to win the next game in Miami. It was all about James, who was looking to score rather than facilitate and thus had only three assists. He had 51 points on 19-of-31 shooting, making 6-of-8 shots from three-point range. It was the 12th time in his career that James has scored 50 or more points.
The Lakers held the Heat to only 97 points, the second time this season when an opponent scored fewer than 100 points against them.
Pope was the second-highest scorer against the Heat with 19 points, although most of it came from the free throw line as he was only 4-for-11 from the field. After a very rough start to the season, Caldwell-Pope has adjusted to coming off the bench and is starting to resemble the player he was last year: He throws up a lot of shots and sometimes he is hot and they fall in.
Aside from James, no one else on the team shot efficiently again Miami except Kyle Kuzma, who played only 21 minutes (and not at all in the fourth quarter) but finished with 15 points on 7-for-12 shooting from the field.
Another solid contributor was Tyson Chandler, who had 12 rebounds. The Lakers are 5-1 since Chandler was signed earlier this month.
What Went Wrong
The low point the past week came in the form of a 130-117 loss to the Magic, a game which was far worse than the final score suggests. The Lakers seemingly have not won a game in Orlando since defeating the Dwight Howard-led Magic in the NBA finals nearly a decade ago.
That is only a slight exaggeration, as victories in Orlando have been as rare as victories in Portland. Orlando has indeed been the site of some of the ugliest Lakers losses in recent years.
The Lakers had three days to prepare for the game but it did no good. They were playing for the first time without Rondo, but that does not account for the almost non-existent energy after the first quarter and total breakdown of the defense.
The Lakers had improved recently on the defensive end, holding opponents to 104 points per game during their four-game winning streak. All the horrors of the early-season losses came rushing back against the Magic, as the Lakers perimeter defense was shredded and McGee and Chandler played perhaps their poorest games of the year.
Reflective of how ineffective the Lakers’ centers were this night, the leading scorer in the game was Nikola Vucevic, who doubled his season average with 36 points on 15-for-23 shooting from the floor. He also grabbed 13 rebounds, and was unstoppable the entire game.
Josh Hart, who is considered one of the team’s best defenders, was by his own admission destroyed by the Magic’s backcourt combination of D.J. Augustin and Evan Fournier, who scored 22 and 15 points, respectfully, finishing at the rim over and over again on easy layups.
Fellow guards Lonzo Ball, Caldwell-Pope and Lance Stephenson, were equally ineffective trying to stop any of the Magic guards, both their starters and their reserves.
Speaking of Ball, he was expected to step up in Rondo’s absence but played one of his worst games of the season against the Magic, finishing with zero points on 0-for-5 shooting and 0-of-3 from three point range in 28 minutes.
He scored only two points the next night on 1-for-6 shooting from the floor in the win over the Heat. Ball did not play much at all in the fourth quarters during the week.
Speaking of poor performances, Kuzma just finished what was arguably the worst week of his career. He scored a mere 7 points in the win over Portland on 3-of-8 shooting; 8 points on 3-for-10 shooting in the loss to the Magic.
He also had five turnovers against the Magic. Although he did better against the Heat, for one of the few times in recent memory he did not play at all in the fourth quarter and is really struggling.
Kuzma played solid defense on the high-flying Aaron Gordon of the Magic, holding him to a mere 13 points, and he finished with two blocks. But the sophisticated offensive game which enabled him to set Lakers rookie records last season and become one of the league’s biggest surprises has all but abandoned him so far this season.
Opponents may be catching onto the fact that he has lost confidence in his outside shot, and they are no longer reacting to his fakes and are waiting for him to drive to the rim where they are cutting him off
The Lakers should be worried about Ingram, who thus far has shown no signs of becoming the kind of “second option” the team was expecting from him this year. At least he is remaining aggressive and putting up decent if unspectacular numbers, but it is not enough.
After decent games against Portland and Orlando, he finished with only 13 points on 6-for-15 from the floor against the Heat, although he made a key three-point shot in the fourth quarter as Miami was making a run.
James is incredible, but aside from his contributions, it appears the Lakers will have to win by committee this year as they do not have a clear, consistent Nos. 2 or 3 options.
What they do have is a group of pretty good players, and on any given night one of them will have to step up and do enough to support James that the Lakers are able to win. Whether this model is sustainable for an entire season remains to be seen.