The Los Angeles Lakers ended their eight game losing streak Thursday night with a 122-110 road win over the Phoenix Suns. The broad smiles on the faces of the players and coaches as they left the court made it clear they felt a huge sense of relief, as the team had been playing so poorly many questioned whether they would win another game all season.
It is hard to tell if the Lakers played well or the Suns were just that bad, but a win is a win especially on the road and the Lakers will take it. Of course, there was a dark side to the victory as well.
Laker fans are well aware that the team must land in the top-3 of the draft lottery to retain its top draft pick this summer, and they are battling the Suns for last place in the Western Conference. A loss to Phoenix would have all but assured the Lakers of the second worst record in the league at season’s end, but now the they trail the Suns by only one game in the standings.
Here are the three biggest takeaways from the game:
1. D’Angelo Russell Is Finally Elevating His Game
Despite early foul trouble, D’Angelo Russell played a very good game and led the team in scoring with 28 points, including a key three point shot late in the game when the Lakers had gone cold and the Suns had slashed a 21-point deficit to seven in the blink of an eye. He shot 50 percent from the field, was 6-9 from three point range, and also had four rebounds, three assists, and three steals.
At the All-Star break, Russell was struggling, and it was expected that he would be under a microscope the rest of the season. Russell has responded, and it is a welcome development. In the seven games since the All-Star break, he is averaging 21.9 points and 5.1 assists per game while shooting 46.9 percent from the field.
Russell was calm and under control but aggressive at the same time. He was clearly the floor leader, and he got others involved. This is the Russell the Lakers need on a consistent basis.
2. Several Players Contributed to the Win
While Russell was the star, the team received big contributions from nearly everyone who played. Brandon Ingram was aggressive and contributed 14 points, six rebounds, three assists and two blocks. Jordan Clarkson led the second unit and finished with 19 points. Since Lou Williams was traded, Clarkson is the second leading scorer among all bench players in the league.
Larry Nance, Jr. has been quiet lately but responded well against the Suns. In 27 minutes, he chipped in 13 points on 6-10 shooting including a three pointer which he rarely attempts. He also had eight rebounds and two assists, and he played his usual tough defense. It was good to see Nance score on a couple of his trademark dunks, which have been missing most of the season.
The team’s other power forward, Julius Randle, coming off a triple-double in his last game, finished with 13 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Randle hit two three point shots, which is a rarity for him, but he fought hard for rebounds and for the most part remained engaged throughout the game.
David Nwaba also continued his solid play. He is a tough defender, and he was on the court in the second quarter when the bench unit overcame an eight point deficit to take the lead. He played 14 minutes and finished with four points, three rebounds, two blocks, and an assist.
3. Ivica Zubac’s Strong Performance
Zubac returned to the court after missing the last two games with an quad injury. Before that, he had struggled in his last few games and was in need of a fresh start. Thursday night he played extremely well, entering the game in the second quarter and scoring ten quick points while simultaneously becoming Kevin Harlan’s favorite new Laker.
On the night, Zubac finished with 14 points on 7-13 shooting. He also had three rebounds and two blocks in 17 minutes. It was good to see Zubac knock down a couple of mid-range shots, but he continues to struggle from the free throw line for some reason, which is odd because earlier in the season he was uncanny from the line. As usual, his big body took up space and altered shots.
The Lakers should make it a priority to give Zubac as many minutes as possible. It is time for him to be a starter and play at least 25 minutes per game. His development is a key to the Lakers’ future, and if Timofey Mozgov is going to remain on the bench, there is no reason not to play Zubac more than the 17 minutes he got against the Suns.