The Los Angeles Lakers completed arguably their most dramatic week of the year with a 2-1 record that not many would have predicted. Faced with the task of playing back-to-back games on the road against the tough Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets, odds were against the Lakers.
Not only did they take both teams to overtime, they defeated the Thunder and had a three-point lead against the Rockets with five seconds left before losing in heartbreaking fashion.
Lonzo Ball had been playing the best basketball of his young career, so it was a terrible blow when he suffered an ankle injury in the third quarter of the Rockets’ game. There is every reason to believe the Lakers would have won had he not been hurt. The injury looked serious enough to keep Ball out for quite some time.
There were many positives this past week despite the negative finish to the stretch. In addition to Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Ivica Zubac had outstanding performances. The Lakers also got important contributions at times from Josh Hart, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Lance Stephenson.
What Went Right
Zubac’s career is trending upward, so much so that his NBA future is suddenly looking very bright. It couldn’t have happened at a better time for the Lakers, as the other centers on the roster have taken a step backward. Tyson Chandler is looking tired and slow, and JaVale McGee is yet to resemble the player he was before battling pneumonia.
Against the Chicago Bulls to begin the week, Zubac played only eight minutes but had seven points, three rebounds and an assist. He exploded against the Thunder when he played 28 minutes and had a career-high 26 points on 12-of-14 shooting while grabbing 12 rebounds.
Then, inexplicably, Zubac played only five minutes through three quarters against the Rockets. He was inserted at the start of the fourth quarter and played the rest of the way, including the overtime period. He was highly instrumental in keeping the Lakers in the game, finishing with 17 points in 21 minutes on 4-of-6 shooting from the floor.
The most impressive aspect of Zubac’s game against the Rockets was his free throw shooting. He was a perfect 9-for-9, most of which were made in high-pressure situations at the end of the fourth quarter and in overtime.
In fact, one of the best developments of the week was the Lakers free throw shooting, an area where they have struggled all year. Against the Thunder, they made 19-of-21 free throws, which was a key to the win. They were a perfect 17-for-17 in the crucial fourth quarter.
Kuzma continued excel on offense with LeBron James still sidelined. The Lakers had a balanced effort against the Bulls, and Kuzma did his part with 16 points and 12 rebounds. But it was against the Thunder and Rockets on the road that Kuzma was at his best.
He had 32 points and eight rebounds in both contests, and he shot efficiently. After struggling much of the season to connect from behind the arc, Kuzma made a career high seven three-point shots against the Thunder and four more against the Rockets. In the latter contest, Kuzma had 20 points in the first quarter alone.
Hart turned a great all-around game against the Thunder. He had 12 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, three steals and a block. More importantly, with the game undecided late in the fourth period and in overtime, there were multiple occasions when Hart came up with crucial rebounds that were highly contested, which was a testament to his extreme effort and hustle.
Against the Rockets, Stephenson came up big after Ball was injured. The assumption was that the Lakers would fold (they had a 13-point lead when Ball left), but Stephenson came in and hit four three-point shots which not only kept the Lakers in the lead, it inspired his teammates to believe they could actually win.
Finally, Caldwell-Pope played outstanding defense on James Harden. The Lakers had an excellent strategy, as Caldwell-Pope guarded Harden full court, denied him the ball, and dared other members of the Rockets to win the game.
Although Harden finished with 48 points, a large percentage came in the fourth quarter and overtime when he got every call from the referees to go his way and even banked in a crucial 3-pointer after pushing Caldwell-Pope out of the way to create space in what should have resulted in an offensive foul.
What Went Wrong
Although the week was very positive in most respects, the loss of Ball for what is likely to be an extended period casts a cloud over the team. He was playing the best basketball of his career, and his loss is a further painful reminder that the Lakers have had terrible fortune this season with injuries which have prevented the team from achieving its full potential.
The game against the Bulls to start the week was a listless, uninspired effort against a terrible team. But the Lakers still prevailed in a must-win contest after their embarrassing loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers the game before.
Ball led the way with 19 points, eight rebounds and six assists. The coaching staff shook up the starting lineup, and in his new role as a starter, Caldwell-Pope finished with 17 points, four rebounds and two steals.
The win over the Thunder was very positive, with the exception of Brandon Ingram who made only 1-of-9 shots and finished with eight points. He did have 11 assists.
It was the Rockets game that is destined to be discussed and dissected for quite some time. While there were huge positives, there were just enough negative moments to rob the team of the chance to come away with what would have been a stunning victory.
The Lakers were ahead by three points with five seconds to play. The decision – and whether it was made by Ingram or the coaching staff is unclear — to not contest the inbound pass cost the Lakers the game.
Had Ingram used his length to disrupt the inbound pass, it is very likely that Eric Gordon would not have received an easy pass that set him up perfectly for the stunning three-point shot that sent the game to overtime. It was a terrible blunder.
It also would have helped if Caldwell-Pope or Ingram would have done more to contest the shot, but perhaps they were so afraid of fouling Gordon that they let him shoot.
Lakers head coach Luke Walton has a terrible habit of picking up pointless technical fouls, but to get thrown out of this critical game, at such a crucial moment, was inexcusable. The Rockets made both free throws, which was a killer in such a close contest.
Zubac is playing the best basketball of his life and was coming off a career game against the Thunder, so the decision to keep him on the bench except for five minutes of the first three quarters was baffling.
He played the rest of the game and was outstanding, but imagine the position the Lakers might have been in had he played 15 or 20 minutes of the first three quarters instead of five. This was another curious coaching move.
Caldwell-Pope may have played stellar defense, but offensively he struggled. His shocking, unexplainable, rushed three-point shot at a crucial point near the end of the game, which he air-balled, had Lakers fans calling for him to be traded.
Hart also struggled against the Rockets after playing so well against the Thunder. He was only 3-for-10 from the field and 1-for-7 behind the arc. He lacked the focus and intensity shown the game before, which was both unexplainable and frustrating. Hart’s season continues to be one of huge inconsistency.
Ingram was non-factor until the very end, when he scored nine points in overtime to keep the Lakers in the game. That was good, but he was practically invisible the rest of the time except when he was committing one of six turnovers in the game.
The past week was one Lakers fans will remember. With James still out and the team struggling to stay in the playoff picture, every win or loss is critical.
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