5 Things Lakers Review: What we learned against Phoenix, what to look for tonight

October 22, 2014

Here are five lessons learned from the Lakers loss against the Phoenix Suns last night, and five more things to watch for in tonight's game against the Portland Trailblazers.

What we learned against Phoenix

#1. The Lakers have made significant progress on defense.

The Suns shot just 41.3% from the floor last night, and a lot of that had to do with the attacking Lakers defense. They gave full effort and were active for most of the game, with the noted exception that they failed to close out on some critical corner 3-pointers, especially in the 4th quarter and overtime.

From the aggressive perimeter play of the guards, to the inside presence of Ed Davis and Jordan Hill, the Lakers have clearly heeded their coach’s emphasis on that side of the floor.

#2. Ed Davis continues to play well and earn more playing time.

Ed Davis played another solid game last night, scoring 11 points on 4/5 shooting, grabbing 6 rebounds, and blocking 3 shots.

Davis also just seemed to be in the right place at the right time so often, whether on the back-end of a Lin lob pass or contesting a shot helping out on defense. Thus far, he has brought more toughness and energy on the defense end than any other Lakers player this preseason. On top of that, Davis is shooting a ridiculous 79% from the field over six games!

Obviously, the field goal percentage can’t stay that high, but Davis' performance demands recognition from the coaching staff. Let the man in the game and get him the ball more often!

#3. If last night is any indication, the Lakers may not be quite as horrible as most of their preseason has suggested they might be.

Last night’s 114-108 overtime loss by the Lakers to the Phoenix Suns was the best the team has looked in all six preseason games. Yes, they even looked better in this loss than they did in the two preseason games that they won.

The 98-95 win against Denver was the Lakers’ first preseason game this season and was just not a very high quality basketball game, for either team. The Lakers’ second victory, a 98-91 come-from-behind victory over the Jazz, didn’t exactly mean too much either. The Lakers fell behind by 22 points in the first quarter when Utah bothered to play Gordon Hayward and Darrick Favors (Trey Burke was out entirely), and then came back in the second half entirely against an unheralded Jazz 2nd team.

Unlike the Jazz game, the Suns available starters played portions of both halves and they actually played some of their better rotation players down the stretch. Still, the Lakers basically had this game won except for some poor officiating (the 6th foul on Lin), bad free throw shooting (Wesley Johnson’s two misses late), and a random buzzer beater to tie the game at the end of regulation. When head coach Byron Scott sat Kobe for good in the middle of overtime, it was an appropriate concession that the final outcome of this preseason game hardly mattered.

#4. Maybe Jeremy Lin can be what he was in New York.

Jeremy Lin looked great after missing the last three preseason games.

Returning from two injured ankles, Lin was the best player on the floor for most of the fourth quarter last night. Throwing no-look passes, hitting the 3, and consistently attacking the rim, Lin was everything the Lakers could have hoped he would be in the limited minutes he played. He finished with 15 points, 5 assists, and 0 turnovers in 24 minutes.

Furthermore the one negative, his six fouls, was more a product of Isaiah Thomas’ constant whining to the refs and, as Lin himself suggested after the game, the officials’ inability to see Lin as the good, aggressive defender he seems to have become. (The last call against Lin, when somehow he was called for a foul for receiving a blatant forearm shove in the chest from Thomas, was particularly egregious.) Lin was spot on when he indicated that the refs would likely adjust to his increased defensive aggressiveness over time.

The more Lin has the ball in his hands running the offense, the better the Lakers look.

#5. Kobe looked far better on offense than he has at any other time this preseason.

While premature assertions of Kobe Bryant’s resurrection could be heard from some ignorant fans and media after his last two preseason games, the second half yesterday was the first time Kobe truly looked like the Mamba of old. In the prior two games against the Jazz, Kobe was not nearly as efficient as he was yesterday.

Last Thursday, Kobe scored 27 points on 10/23 shooting in a blowout loss to the Jazz in which he re-entered the game to play meaningless minutes in the 4th quarter and pad his stats. Three days later Kobe scored 26 points, shooting an ugly 7/22 from the field as he led a comeback against the Jazz second string.

Playing against better competition last night, Kobe was deadly efficient in the 3rd and 4th quarter, and ultra-clutch down the stretch. His 27 points in 34 minutes on 10/20 shooting overall was plenty solid, but it was the second half when he really got it going, making 9/13 shots.

More impressively, with the game on the line in the last few minutes, Bryant hit three straight fadeaway jumpers and got fouled on the fourth attempt, after which he sank both free throws. After some Lakers bumbling let the game get into overtime, Kobe continued to look good, sinking a couple more mid-range jumpers before Scott wisely took him out of the game.

If anything like THAT Kobe stays healthy for most of this season, the Lakers may actually compete for a playoff spot.

What to watch for tonight against Portland

#1. Can the team play back-to-back games without a huge drop-off defensively?

The primary focus of this Lakers preseason has apparently been about their ability to learn their new offensive system, improve on their defense and fitness, and not get injured.

Tonight’s game will mark the first time they are playing the second night in a row. So will the extra emphasis on fitness and the tough practices show up in an improved team performance, especially on the defensive end? Tonight will be a good test to see if the improved defense is something that we can expect to see on a regular basis.

#2. Will Julius Randle make a better case for why he deserves to play?

Earlier in the preseason Scott mentioned that he just wants to have 7-8 guys he can roll with on a nightly basis who he can trust to give full effort and perform. That’s not surprising as Scott is a product of the Pat Riley school of thinking, and during the days he played with the Showtime Lakers, they rarely bothered to give significant minutes to more than eight guys when fully healthy. Scott has made it clear he does not believe in diving deep into the bench unless absolutely necessary.

So who would make the actual playing rotation right now based upon what we’ve seen? So far, not counting the injured Steve Nash, Nick Young, or Xavier Henry, the top eight would be as follows: Kobe Bryant, Jeremy Lin, Jordan Hill, Carlos Boozer, and Wesley Johnson as the five starters. Off the bench would be Ed Davis, Ronnie Price, and Julius Randle.

If Nash ever gets back to playing, that would leave Ronnie Price out of the regular rotation as the third point guard.

But when either Young or Henry returns, based upon what we've seen thus far in the preseason, Randle would likely be the one out as he hasn't exactly earned the right to stay in the rotation.

Certainly Randle shows the flashes of his considerable talents in spots, such as when he grabs a rebound and goes coast-to-coast. But for the most part, as Scott has said, “he looks lost.”

This is undoubtedly a disappointment to Lakers fans. Many had high hopes that Randle would contribute almost immediately this season. But every preseason game is a chance for the talented rookie to improve and turn things around, and tonight could be the night.

#3. How much playing time will Jeremy Lin get tonight?

If there is a real concern that Lin might re-injure one of his ankles, then of course head coach Byron Scott should rest him. Otherwise however, there is no good reason Lin doesn’t play substantially more minutes tonight.

With the expected reality of Nash’s inability to stay healthy apparently finally sinking in to Lakers brass, Lin should be playing around 35 minutes per game if the Lakers want to be the best team they can be.

However, Scott has been unusually coy when discussing Lin’s role going forward, even suggesting at times that he might start journeyman Ronnie Price over Lin if the season were to start.

It is true that Price has looked good for stretches in the preseason, and even last night he had 10 assists in under 30 minutes of action. But there is no debate about who looks better on the court and who should get the bulk of playing time. No non-health excuse, not even the “Lin is better with the 2nd team”-type reasoning, should be given for not having Lin on the court as much as possible.

#4. How does Kobe Bryant’s body handle playing the second game of a back-to-back?

Is Bryant simply going to be unavailable or a shadow of his former self on back-to-back nights this season? Or is the Mamba capable of playing substantial minutes at the same level two nights in a row without breaking down?

The Lakers intelligently will monitor Kobe’s minutes this season, but unlike the San Antonio Spurs – who strictly monitor Tim Duncan’s regular season playing time – the Lakers will likely struggle just to make the playoffs. To make the playoffs, they can ill afford to basically concede the second game of back-to-backs by not having a full and ready Kobe.

#5. Can the Lakers avoid getting blown out?

Though both the Lakers and the Blazers are coming off games last night, expect both to still take this preseason game more serious than a lot of other NBA teams have.

The evidence shows that, unlike some teams who use the preseason to really focus on roster cuts, both of these teams have no hesitation playing their best available players in order to win preseason games. Kobe for example, has played big fourth quarter minutes the past three games, and last night LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard respectively played 37 and 36 minutes each for the Blazers.

Thus, the Lakers will likely face a Blazers team that will not be that different from the one they would face in the regular season. Considering how the Blazers are simply a better team than even a healthy Lakers squad, it will be an interesting test tonight to see if the Lakers keep up the momentum from yesterday’s solid performance, or revert back to the disgraceful D-League imitators they have played like at times during the preseason.

Winning tonight would be great for the Lakers, but at least competing would be a hopeful sign to fans that this team won’t get consistently steamrolled by opponents during the regular season.

By Manish Pandya
Staff Editor for TheDailySportsHerald.com

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