LOS ANGELES — For one furious three-minute stretch on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Lakers displayed the kind of basketball Luke Walton envisioned: smothering and inspired defense that led to high-speed fast breaks with the ball zipping through the air.
After falling behind by as many as 24 points to the Philadelphia 76ers and looking like a group that already had their Louis Vuitton bags packed for New Orleans, the Lakers exploded for a frenzied 16-0 second-quarter run, culminating with a Brandon Ingram highlight slam over Corey Brewer on the secondary break.
LeBron James leapt out of his seat and spread his arms out like wings as Ingram punctuated his best night as a pro with a career-high 36 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists. But injuries have exposed the Lakers’ inexperience and inconsistency, and the 76ers exited Staples Center with a 121-105 win.
As has been too often the case since James and Rajon Rondo went down on Christmas, the Lakers have either committed careless turnovers, fouled, missed shots or had defensive breakdowns to lose in frustrating ways. Or as was also the case on Tuesday, L.A. couldn’t match the Sixers’ star firepower.
“We play really hard, we are right there and then we will have a s—ty quarter or stretch. Or the other team will go up seven and then it’s like, ‘Holy Lord, what is happening?’ Which is totally natural when you are a young and somewhat of a new group,” Walton said of the Lakers without James and Rondo. “With LeBron and Rondo — and LeBron being the best in the world — [it’s like], ‘Oh, the other team is on a 5-0 run? Hold on. Let me go get this bucket.’ And now we are up one and we just took all the momentum back.”
“[The injuries to James and Rondo] doesn’t completely change what we can do and how we can play. But [there’s] just a huge influence and impact on the difference between winning a lot of these games and dropping some that we feel like we shouldn’t have dropped.”
With 51 games gone, the Lakers are capable of shocking the Warriors in Oakland but also dropping embarrassing home losses to the Knicks and Cavs. So as James inches his way back from a groin injury and the Lakers pursue a potential blockbuster trade for Anthony Davis, Magic Johnson is still waiting to see what his team can look like at full strength.
Once as high as fourth in the Western Conference (18-11 on Dec. 16), the Lakers had visions of making noise in the postseason. But every time it appears the Lakers stabilize, another player goes down or there is another incident to deal with.
So what do we know with 31 games remaining?
“It’s tough to say. I missed 60 games,” Rondo deadpanned on Sunday, his second game back from a right-hand injury. “LeBron missed 48. So, it’s tough to assess it, but I think I love our mental toughness, having been able to kind of get through it. We’ve had some tough stretches, but it’s a long season.
“If we can continue to try to go into the break with a little momentum, we’ll be fine.”
The Lakers are at their best when they defend, which feeds the running game and drives the pace. Walton started training camp preaching defense — the one constant they can control.
After a five-season stretch in which they ranked 28th, 29th, 30th, 30th and 12th defensively, the 2018-2019 Lakers entered Tuesday ranked seventh, ahead of the Raptors, Sixers and Warriors. It’s one of the few bright spots during what has so far been a frustrating season marred by injuries.
The coaching staff did not know before the season which defensive scheme would fit best with so many new parts. But they were willing to try everything, from switching one-through-five to dropping JaVale McGee back in the paint like Utah’s Rudy Gobert. The way Walton saw it, the Lakers would find one base defense and work on others with the knowledge that adaptation would be needed in the playoffs.
Following the arrival of Tyson Chandler, who signed on Nov. 6, L.A.’s defensive efficiency ranked fourth over a 23-game stretch (104.1 points allowed per 100 possessions), a sweeping difference after starting the first 11 games ranked 23rd.
“We got there, we were starting to do [what was needed defensively],” Walton said. “And that is when all these damn injuries happened.”
“You’re asking people to play out of position, play more minutes than usually they play,” Ball said while standing in a walking boot on Saturday. “We’ve never really had a full team for the whole year. So hopefully after All-Star [break] we can all come together and go on a nice little run.”
Shortly after Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka put together the roster, Walton and the coaching staff looked at ways to push the pace and get the ball into the hands of their multiple playmakers.
“We wanted to play fast,” Walton said. “… [And] the vision was offensively be a team that ran a lot of pistols and dribble drags and delays so we can get the ball moving side to side, built around the idea that we have these guys that are used to having the ball in their hands.
“So we either take turns iso-ing every time or we get to where we move the ball and they naturally get the ball moving and going through them occasionally in the flow of the offense. That was the original plan.”
With Ball and James on the sideline and Rondo just returning, Walton barely has enough bodies to run a full practice on most days — and that was before Kuzma injured his hip and Josh Hart‘s knee began throbbing with tendinitis.
Walton is running a diet version of his playbook and relying on some guys who, when the roster is full, fill the end of his bench.
“With who we have due to our injuries, it’s very specific and it’s very, ‘Hey, with this group we are running these three plays,'” Walton said Saturday before outlasting Phoenix on Sunday. “They are basic NBA sets, but we need that structure. Rondo [just returned and] hasn’t been out there with one of the groups, and these guys haven’t played together all season.
“When LeBron comes back, we are not just going to run ‘floppy side’ with LeBron. So it will start to change again.”
As James nears his return, the Lakers feel the increasing pressure of trying to keep pace in the Western Conference.
“At times I think we can get frustrated,” Ingram said Monday of some of the Lakers’ tough losses this season. “We can beat on ourselves a little bit. But I think lately we’ve just been playing loose.”
“… I think we just put too much pressure on ourselves sometimes,” Ingram added. “When we make shots, we’re playing the right way, and we play defense, we give ourselves a little relief in just knowing we belong and that we can do something with ourselves. … Maybe I used the wrong word, ‘pressure.’ I think we just were a little too pressed.”
Whatever the reason, that pressure will only rise, with the Lakers quickly approaching the Feb. 7 trade deadline and trying to make their first postseason since 2013.
“It’s a living organism,” Walton said with a hint of exasperation of the Lakers’ season. “It’s constantly moving and you’re adapting to what’s going on.”
- ^ Los Angeles Lakers (www.espn.com)
- ^ Philadelphia 76ers (www.espn.com)
- ^ Brandon Ingram (www.espn.com)
- ^ Corey Brewer (www.espn.com)
- ^ LeBron James (www.espn.com)
- ^ Rajon Rondo (www.espn.com)
- ^ Anthony Davis (www.espn.com)
- ^ Kyle Kuzma (www.espn.com)
- ^ Minnesota (www.espn.com)
- ^ JaVale McGee (www.espn.com)
- ^ Rudy Gobert (www.espn.com)
- ^ Tyson Chandler (www.espn.com)
- ^ Lonzo Ball (www.espn.com)
- ^ Josh Hart (www.espn.com)