The Los Angeles Lakers have won seven of their last nine games after beating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday night, and head coach Luke Walton has the team humming despite injuries to key cogs like Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart.
Walton said losing them has made it “necessary” for the rest of the team to take their games up a notch. “Guys are definitely stepping up. KCP has been tremendous for us, but he was even playing great before the injuries. Kuz, I’m very impressed and proud of the way he’s handling playing out of position,” Walton said.
“He’s taking less shots, playing more minutes, and really doing a nice job of just helping us win games with the right type of spirit behind the way that he’s playing. Different nights, different guys are stepping up.”
Such a hot streak didn’t look likely as the Lakers lost three-straight games heading into the NBA All-Star break, but Walton believes that players improving like that should have been expected because his team is playing together.
“You can have that happen when you have guys that are playing for each other and playing for the right reasons. Where it goes bad is when guys get hurt, and everyone thinks, ‘Alright, this is my chance to shoot more, score more, to make up for it,'” he explained. “We’ve got a team that’s not playing that way, so that’s nice.”
Those that are stepping up since Ingram got hurt aren’t the only ones Walton wanted to praise, either. He saw the same type of flexibility and sacrifice from Ingram earlier in the season.
“Brandon is a huge part of who we are and what we do, but he was also carrying a big load when Zo was hurt and we asked him to play point for us,” Walton said.
“There was a lot that he was doing within the team concept that we miss but other guys have definitely done a nice job of stepping up and filling in the best that they can.”
The Lakers playing better also isn’t just about this season, or about recruiting free agents like LeBron James. It’s about building good habits for the future. “It’s necessary for the path that we’re on, for our guys to go through this,” Walton said.
“That’s why even at the end of the game, I’m yelling at Kuzma. We want to win, but it’s not just about winning and losing for us. We’re on a journey that we have to be disciplined and good at certain things. When Kuzma leaves Kyle Korver in the corner, that’s not OK.
“For him to make that mistake, to get yelled at, accept it and go back out and make a play on the defensive end, it’s a necessary part of the process for our team to get to where we want to go.”
And Walton seems to think the Lakers will get there, at least in part to how his players are getting a chance to deal with the current injury-related adversity they’re experiencing.
“The fact that so many of our young guys are getting that opportunity, it’s exciting for our future,” he said.