As the NBA prepared for All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, the Los Angeles Lakers completed a disastrous week in which their only win was on a last second buzzer-beater against the Boston Celtics.
The aura around the team right now is very negative, and the mood is so dark that it threatens to derail the rest of the season if they do not get back on track during the break.
It was the kind of week that makes you wonder how much longer Luke Walton will remain head coach of the Lakers. Indications continue to point to at least through this season.
Here is a summary of what went right and what went wrong as the Lakers are headed in the wrong direction with a mere 25 games left on their schedule.
What Went Right
Two positives were team’s overall offensive display against the Celtics which led to a thrilling 129-128 victory, and Kyle Kuzma’s performance in the next game against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Whenever the Lakers play the Celtics it is a big game, and if they are able to prevail it is always exciting. They fell behind by 18 points in the first half, but the Celtics, who were early-season favorites to make the Eastern Conference Finals, have been struggling themselves lately, which allowed the Lakers to cut into the deficit by halftime.
The Lakers had seven players finish in double-figures, including all five starters. LeBron James totaled 28 points and Kuzma finished with 25 points. Kuzma was 5-for-8 from behind the arc as the Lakers set a franchise record with 22 made three-point shots.
Like last season when he scored 16 points in the fourth quarter of a dramatic win, Kuzma again won his personal battle with Celtics’ celebrated second-year player Jayson Tatum.
Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope each had 17 points in the win. The Lakers finished with an excellent 35 assists as the ball was really moving for the first time in a long time.
Brandon Ingram shot poorly, making only 4-of-14 attempts and finishing with 11 points. He did have seven assists, however, and he played tough defense. After the game, Celtics star Kyrie Irving praised Ingram’s defense, which was a good sign.
In the end, however, it was up to Rondo to win the game as the clock expired. Ingram went into a reckless, ill-advised drive to the rim where his shot was blocked, only to find its way into Rondo’s hands. He had the presence of mind to know the clock was expiring, so he put up a shot without missing a beat and it went in.
For a beleaguered team like the Lakers, it was a huge moment as elated players rushed onto the court to hug Rondo. At the time, it looked like this game might propel the Lakers for the rest of their road trip and could be a turning point in the season, but it was not to be.
The next game was a 143-120 loss to a stellar Philadelphia 76ers team that may be the favorite in the Eastern Conference after making astute moves at the trade deadline. The Lakers jumped out on top behind Kuzma’s 23 first-quarter points, but they could not hold on.
Perhaps it was relief that he was not traded at the deadline as had been heavily rumored, but Kuzma started the 76ers game with more aggressiveness than he had shown in quite some time.
As opposed to standing in the corner waiting for the ball, or slowing drifting around the perimeter watching his teammates over-dribble, Kuzma was fighting hard to get open every play in the first quarter against the 76ers and he was knocking down shots from all over the court.
Kuzma also had a strong third quarter, scoring 10 consecutive points during one stretch to help keep the Lakers in the game. But when he and James checked out late in the third quarter, the team fell apart and by the time he returned midway through the fourth quarter, the game was over.
What Went Wrong
The Lakers were blown out in Indiana, dropping the game by a whopping score of 136-94. They played with no focus or effort and were never in the game. Two days before, there was a reported heated exchange in the locker room between Walton and Michael Beasley, JaVale McGee, and of all people, Josh Hart.
The incident was splashed all over the national news while at the same time LaVar Ball was making the circuit blasting Walton and Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson. Ball also insinuated that Kuzma and Ingram are nothing without Lonzo Ball making them look good. This, too, created an enormous distraction during the week.
Of course, Lakers players were also dealing with non-stop trade rumors which involved the entire team and especially the entire young core who were reportedly offered to the New Orleans Pelicans for Anthony Davis.
While other teams made deals involving high profile players that were done in private, it seemed as though every move the Lakers were making was reported publicly and dissected by every member of the media.
The loss to the 76ers was understandable, as they are a very good team. What was not understandable, however, was the truly awful defense the Lakers played. After a strong start to the season, the Lakers’ defense has been the NBA’s worst in recent weeks.
With so much at stake going into the All Star break, the Lakers played another listless game with no sense of urgency against the Atlanta Hawks, and they lost 117-113. This was the lowest point in the season for the team, as it was a game they needed to win against a struggling opponent.
The body language of the team looked very bad against the Hawks. Certain veterans looked agitated, perhaps frustrated with Walton’s rotations. After Rondo’s stellar performance against the Celtics, Walton shocked everyone by sending him the bench for the next two games in favor of starting new acquisition Reggie Bullock.
McGee has looked upset for a while now, presumably because he was no longer starting. But with the shocking trade of Ivica Zubac, the position is McGee’s once again. For whatever reason, his solid play from earlier this season, that was such a pleasant surprise, has completely disappeared.
He looks slow and disinterested, especially on defense, which is a big part of the team’s defensive woes at the moment.
When describing the Lakers at the moment, the famous quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet comes to mind: “Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark.” Something is indeed rotten with the Lakers, and the team needs to figure out over the All-Star break what is going on and why.
Finally, the worst thing about the loss to the Hawks was how bad James looked in the contest. He finished with a triple-double of 28 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds, but the truth is, he looked old and slow.
He had no explosiveness and was only 8-for-20 from the field. He had shot after shot blocked at the rim and did nothing in the fourth quarter when the team needed him most with the game on the line.
Where it was really embarrassing, however, was how little effort James put into playing defense. In key moments, Hawks’ players dribbled around him with ease to finish at the rim. It was a bad game for the Lakers and for James despite his triple-double.
To put it mildly, no team needed the All-Star break to finally arrive more than the Lakers. They have a big job ahead trying to turn the ship around as they have an almost impossible task ahead to make the playoffs.
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