Behind winning two of three games this past week, the Los Angeles Lakers are now 16-10 on the season and sitting in fifth place in the Western Conference. The team knew it would be without Rajon Rondo, but also lost Brandon Ingram to a sprained ankle in the first game of the week.
Fortunately, other players were ready to step up in his absence. It was an unusual week in which the Lakers played the San Antonio Spurs in back-to-back games, winning the first contest 121-113 at Staples Center but losing the rematch in San Antonio, 133-120.
They finished the three-game stretch with an impressive 111-88 road victory over a good Memphis Grizzles team.
It is unclear how long Ingram will be out, but if last season is any indication, when he also injured his ankle, it is likely to be a while before he returns.
Here is a summary of what went right and what went wrong as the Lakers finished another successful week despite the injuries.
What Went Right
Except for the fourth quarter in San Antonio, when their defense utterly collapsed, the Lakers played consistently well this past week. One of the biggest reasons was the resurgent play of Kyle Kuzma.
Kuzma has scored 20 or more points in all four games in December so far, emerging as a consistent second option behind LeBron James. Whether it is a coincidence or not, with Ingram out, Kuzma looked very confident and comfortable with his role and continued to show good chemistry with James.
Kuzma’s 3-point shot, which was his calling card last year, has been off target for most of this season, but it took a big step forward this past week. He made at least three 3-pointers in each game and had four against the Grizzles.
What was especially impressive about Kuzma last week was his all-around game. He twice had 9 rebounds twice and another game with 8 rebounds. That came on top of a 12-rebound effort the week before.
He is also looking for his teammates more, finishing with 5 assists against the Spurs at Staples Center and 6 assists against the Grizzles. Kuzma also had 2 blocks against Memphis, showcasing his improved defense.
In the win over the Spurs, James demonstrated again why he is the game’s best player as he finished with 42 points, including 20 in the fourth quarter when an otherwise close game was decided. Josh Hart, who is starting in Ingram’s place, and Lonzo Ball, who played big minutes with no other point guard available, hit key three-point shots late in the game to seal the win.
Ball had one of his best games of the year with 14 points and 9 assists in the first matchup with the Spurs. He had another strong effort in San Antonio with 13 points and 11 assists. Despite his all-around contributions, it is important for the Lakers’ starting point guard to score points, and in two of three games this week, Ball did just that.
Kentvavious Caldwell-Pope had a strong week in Ingram’s absence. He had 12 points off the bench in both games with the Spurs. He finished the week with a big effort against the Grizzles, scoring 16 points including four three-point shots. Caldwell-Pope also was a presence on defense.
Both Lakers centers continued to impress. JaVale McGee had 12 points and 12 rebounds in San Antonio, and Tyson Chandler had 9 rebounds against the Spurs in Los Angeles. They both had big games in Memphis, as McGee finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds and Chandler had an excellent 14 rebounds off the bench, including 11 in the first half alone.
In fact, the Memphis game was arguably the team’s best effort of the season. Their lead was 23 points at halftime and they did not let down in the second half. Josh Hart had 16 first-half points, including 14 in the second quarter, when he made four three-point shots.
The team out-rebounded the Grizzles, 57-36, and had more assists, 27-17. The Lakers also made a season-high 16 three pointers, including four each for Kuzma, Hart and Caldwell-Pope.
When the season started, many fans were worried that the Lakers would not have enough three- point shooting. Svi Mykhailiuk received playing time last week and finally showed signs of breaking out of his season-long shooting slump.
Mykhailiuk strongest game was against Memphis when he finished with 11 points on 4-8 shooting from the floor and 3-6 from three-point range. He also knocked down 2-of-3 from deep in San Antonio the game before.
If Mykhailiuk is starting to figure things out and ready to contribute, it will give the Lakers a big boost moving forward.
What Went Wrong
The Lakers have been decimated by injuries the past few seasons, so now, when any important player is unavailable, fans are sure to grimace. This is especially true when the person missing is Ingram, who is supposed to be the team’s second-best player and a budding star.
Whether one agrees with that assessment of Ingram or not, he is clearly important to the team’s fortunes. Last season he played in only 59 of 82 games. Unfortunately, this season, he has continued to struggle to stay on the court which is a bad sign.
So far, due to injury and suspension, he has missed nearly a third of the games played, and that percentage will rise this week as he continues to recover from a sprained ankle.
Rondo has played in only 11 games this season due to injury and suspension, which is disappointing as it has impeded the team’s progress. In his absence, Ingram tried his hand at playing the point which worked pretty well last year but not so much this season.
Although Ball played well against San Antonio, he disappeared entirely in Memphis which is a pattern he exhibits too often. He finished with only 4 points on 2-for-9 from the field and 0-of-5 from three-point range. Ball also had a shocking 0 rebounds and 2 assists. This is on a night when the Lakers had no other options at point guard.
The good news is that the team still found a way to win in Memphis because so many other players stepped up. With Rondo out for well over half the season so far, Ball has had a big opportunity to secure the starting point guard role for good. The results have, unfortunately, been inconclusive as he plays well at times but struggles to maintain any sort of consistency.
Finally, last week was an example of the Lakers playing in three different kinds of games. In the first contest against San Antonio, it was close throughout but the Lakers won in the end because James had a fourth quarters befitting one of the all-time greats, finishing with 20 points and carrying the team on his back.
Two days later in San Antonio, it was another even game for three quarters, only this time James could not provide the spark and no one else stepped up. James scored only four points in the fourth quarter, the Spurs did not miss, and they won going away.
Finally, the Memphis game was a rare balanced affair which made the victory in some ways more impressive. James and Kuzma both led the team with 20 points, while Hart and Caldwell-Pope chipped in. It is one of the team’s few wins this season in which James did not dominate throughout as the team received strong contributions from different players.
Let’s hope the Lakers continue to win with the balanced approach they showed against the Grizzles. It’s fine watching James dominate and win games on his own, but for the Lakers’ long term success this season and in the future, it is far better that they win with strong contributions from multiple players.