The Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Houston Rockets on Sunday night, and Tarik Black played 4 minutes and 44 seconds, all in garbage time. That was Black's lowest amount of burn since returning to the Lakers' rotation last Thursday in the team's loss to the Golden State Warriors. Black played 16 minutes in the contest and received mostly positive reviews for his 6 points on 3-5 shooting and 6 rebounds.
The undersized (6'9) bench center was given another chance in the Lakers' next game, a Saturday road loss to the Utah Jazz in which almost no one on the team played well, but Black was still somewhat productive in his 22 minutes, scoring an efficient 6 points on 3-4 shooting and again pulling down 6 rebounds. Even if the production didn't jump off the page, he was certainly not even close to the worst player on the floor.
All of this made Lakers head coach Byron Scott's comments before and after playing the Rockets more confusing, and from the sound of it Black probably would not have played at all on Sunday had the Lakers not been getting blown out.
BScott said Tarik Black has been "OK." Questioned whether he got the msg on what he needs to do to stick in NBA. Hard to do at 12.4 min/game— janis carr (@janiscarr) January 18, 2016
Seems Tarik Black might not be here after the trade deadline.— janis carr (@janiscarr) January 18, 2016
And then Carr relayed what Black said Byron Scott had told him he needed to do:
@cmjunior03 @LakersSBN Be a "Beast" be aggressive, Black said— janis carr (@janiscarr) January 18, 2016
Which Scott confirmed after the game:
Byron Scott on offseason message to Tarik Black: "You should play like Kenneth Faried, Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace. They play balls out."— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) January 18, 2016
Byron argued that Tarik Black needs to play w/ more energy— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) January 18, 2016
As anyone who has ever watched Black for any length of time can attest, it is hard to describe the under-sized big man's play as anything but "balls out," sometimes even to his detriment when it gets him into the foul trouble he became legendary for during his year at Kansas.
Black seemed to show plenty of energy right from the start against the Warriors, when D'Angelo Russell, who must have felt like a kid on Christmas morning upon finally getting to play with a pick-and-roll big, immediately called for a ball screen from Black that led to the rarest of all sights this season: a Lakers big man rolling to the rim and scoring.
After wandering through a desert of pick-and-pops all season and finally finding a rolling, energetic oasis, Russell got a little over ambitious on the next play, but Black still gamely gave it a shot at finishing this lob:
Black also stayed active on the boards against the Warriors, helping Julius Randle pick up a couple of "Kobe assists" with his activity:
Black did more of the same against Utah, grabbing Randle's missed jumpers and turning them into second chance baskets for his teammates, such as on this Russell three-pointer:
Or this easy dunk for Randle, who had to run all the way back into the play after thinking the possession was over before Black retained control of his miss:
Offensive rebounds are generally a pretty good indicator of "activity" or "energy" as they often involve intense grappling and/or shoving for position. Black had four against the Jazz, and while the two above were good, Black's most impressive one of the night came on the following pick-and-roll with Marcelo "the Catalyst" Huertas:
Rudy Gobert is listed at 7'1, 245 pounds, meaning he has a full four inch advantage on Black vertically. However, Black outweighs him by five pounds (250), and was able to use his lower center of gravity and positioning here to steal a board from one of the league's best centers who rebounds 25% of opposing misses. Black then just barely was able to quickly flip up his shot over a jumping Gobert, whose standing reach is about 10 feet. Not bad for an undersized big who supposedly isn't playing with enough energy.
When playing this season, Black has rebounded 29% of opposing misses and 12.3% of his own team's, both above average marks. He is not lacking in energy, or effort, or not playing "balls out" or whatever cliche Scott wants to use. He's an undersized backup center who is not a perfect player by any means, but he is a hard worker and is still probably the team's best option at backup center because of his activity on the boards and willingness to roll hard to the basket. That is how he is going to make it in this league, which he clearly understands.
All of this criticism goes to a larger issue with Scott this season: his constant use of intangibles to criticize his team or explain why they are struggling. Here he seems to be playing the results more so than what went on on the floor. Yes, the Lakers lost both of the games Black played significant minutes in, but both of those losses came against superior teams (almost laughably superior in the case of Golden State).
I don't know what Scott says behind closed doors, but the majority of his public comments seem to come back to blaming his team's lack of effort or energy, rather than any fundamental, technical, or schematic changes they could make. There are a lot of things that go into winning basketball games besides superior intangibles.
This Lakers team is just bad, and it's not a matter of how hard they are playing. Whether or not Scott realizes that and makes adjustments to how he handles it before the end of the season will come down to whether or not he knows what he has to do to stick in the NBA.
All stats per NBA.com. You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen