The Los Angeles Lakers returned to the court Friday night after a very eventful All-Star break, dropping a game on the road to the Oklahoma City Thunder 110-93.
It marked the team’s first appearance without leading scorer Lou Williams, who was traded to the Houston Rockets over the break to create more playing time for the young core. The Lakers shot poorly from the field and from the free throw line, sealing their fate in a game they were never really in.
Here are the three biggest takeaways from the loss to the Thunder.
1. The Tank Is On
By now, with the Lakers out of the playoff hunt and tied for the most losses in the Western Conference, virtually everyone from the fans to the coaches to the players to the media realize that the team must keep losing to increase their odds of keeping their top-3 protected draft choice this summer.
With Lou Williams gone, it shouldn’t be too much trouble for the team to keep that up. Aside for their usual bad defense, most nights they simply do not have the firepower to keep up with most teams in the NBA. Against the Thunder, they shot less than 40 percent from the floor overall and were a woeful 7-35 from three point range.
Incredibly, they missed more free throws than they made, finishing only 6-14 from the line. With Williams gone, there was some thought that Nick Young might pick up the slack, but he finished with an embarrassing three points on 1-9 from the field.
The Lakers were out-rebounded in the contest 59-51 and the Thunder finished with 28 assists to the Lakers 23. One positive is that the Lakers did play hard most of the night and kept battling in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, they just don’t have the talent at the moment for it to make a difference.
2. D’Angelo Russell was the Star on Offense
D’Angelo Russell filled up the stat sheet against the Thunder, finishing with 29 points – his highest tally since he scored 28 on New Years Day – to go along with four rebounds, six assists, four steals, and four turnovers.
He wasn’t overly efficient, finishing 12-26 from the field and only 3-9 from three point range. What was
most impressive about Russell however, was not the points, but how hard he played in 36 minutes on the court, how aggressive he was overall, and how he seemed to remain engaged throughout.
It has been quite a while since Russell came out swinging like this. No doubt he was motivated by knowing that Magic Johnson would be hanging around evaluating everyone from now through the remaining 23 games of the season. It was great to see Russell look motivated and animated, and hopefully he can play this way (minus the turnovers) for the rest of the year.
Although no one else had a memorable night on offense, Julius Randle could be awarded an honorable mention. He finished with 13 points on 50% shooting (6-12 from the field). He also grabbed eleven rebounds, to finish with a double-double for the first time in a while.
3. Larry Nance Jr. and Ivica Zubac Were Co- Players of the Game on Defense
While no one will win any awards on the Lakers for their defense, two players stood out on that end of the court against the Thunder: Larry Nance, Jr. and Ivica Zubac.
They played 25 and 27 minutes, respectively, with the 27 minutes played by Zubac a career high. Although the rotations remained the same as before the break, the increased minutes for Zubac was a change and may signal that he will be playing a lot more the rest of the season. Starting center Tarik Black was on the court for only 13 minutes.
Nance finished with three blocks, a team-high 12 rebounds, two steals, and two assists. He was the top defender on the team this night, as he is most nights, although he also had what was for him, a typical game on offense as well, which means he was hesitant to shoot.
Zubac also finished with three blocks, and it seemed like more as he also altered a number of shots at the rim. He has shown a knack for controlling the ball after blocking a shot, which is also a positive.
Zubac finished with 11 points on 5-9 shooting to go along with six rebounds, a steal and an assist. Zubac’s offensive game is more advanced than his defense, but the latter will come along with more playing time. What he lacks in quickness he seems to make up for in size and positioning. He and Nance play especially well together, which is likely to continue.
Honorable mention on defense could go to Jordan Clarkson. While he struggled to score, he did come away with four steals and has the speed to convert those steals into points. At times he played good lock-down defense, although, like most in the NBA, he could not stop Russell Westbrook from registering yet another triple-double.