Los Angeles Lakers head coach Byron Scott openly criticized Julius Randle's late-game defense to media following their 20-point win over the Phoenix Suns, saying he pulled Julius from the game with 4:43 left in the fourth quarter in part because of defensive mistakes he made down the stretch. "First of all you've got to guard your man," Scott told reporters during his postgame press conference when asked what his message to Julius was following his benching.
Byron also emphasized he didn't call out only Randle, but it's clear he was the main target of the statement. The Lakers, after being up by as many as 38 points, let the Suns open the door enough to strike fear in the hearts of fans who were otherwise enjoying a blowout. Julius' last play of the game was a possession where he grabbed two offensive rebounds before finding Brandon Bass under the basket for an and-one play, only to find he was being subbed out for Larry Nance, Jr.
He did not look thrilled with this development on his way to the bench:
What was Randle doing leading up to the benching that warranted such a reaction from Scott? The answer, after reviewing the tape, is getting beat by Mirza Teletovic while ball-watching time and time again.
The first points of the fourth quarter came from Teletovic draining a three-pointer in Randle's face after he broke loose from him in on an out of bounds play. (Forgive the quality on this one as the Lakers broadcast cut this play out while showing a fan hit a halfcourt shot):
Randle had to maneuver through a few off-ball screens while Mirza scurried away in the play above, but the game played on and this was hardly the worst thing he did while the Suns made their final push. Ball-watching the biggest defensive sin Randle committed, and the Suns used Teletovic's versatility on the perimeter to take advantage of this bad habit. Randle has a foot in the paint in the next play, focusing his attention on a drive from Alex Len. Teletovic is camping out in the corner, getting set without a defender anywhere near him:
This is a clear defensive breakdown. Bass does a good job of cutting the drive off in the paint, but Len spots his wide-open teammate in the corner and kicks out. Julius hustles out to challenge the shot, but the damage is already done:
Randle over-helping created space on the floor for Phoenix repeatedly, giving their stretch forward room to operate. Here's the play from above in motion:
The ball moves faster than a player can, and no matter how good a job Randle does covering ground, that window of opportunity is often enough to turn into points. In the next example, Julius is playing Teletovic tight to start the possession, but once he resets the offense at the top to Brandon Knight his eyes shift to the ball again:
Randle begins floating toward the paint to "help" on the drive but Mirza quietly slides further away from him for a kick out. Knight sees this and dishes back out to Teletovic, who now has Randle charging at him and space to work with. He recognizes this and puts the ball on the floor instead, trying to catch Julius off balance:
The result? A shooting foul while Mirza initiates contact on the drive:
The play above is a subtle example of how that sliver of breathing room and space can hurt a defense. Randle is not able to stay in front of Mirza without fouling him in the process because of the big gap created by Teletovic's shift along the perimeter.
The straw that broke the camel's back, though, was the following play that resulted in an easy layup for Teletovic. Knight drives were the kryptonite of Randle's attention and once again get the better of him. Bass does a good job stopping the drive to protect the paint, but the Lakers' defense is compromised by Julius. Mirza picks up that Randle almost has his back completely turned to him and drives into the paint:
Randle is nowhere near being able to challenge this shot and Mirza glides in for an easy two points:
It looks much worse in motion:
That's a total of nine points (Mirza missed one free-throw) from Teletovic that can be directly tied to Randle getting beat. The Suns were making a run, Julius was caught ball-watching several times, and Scott decided it was time to stop the bleeding. Julius clearly made defensive mistakes during what was becoming a critical stretch, and Scott wasn't wrong in his observations. The film shows a young player falling into bad habits you'd expect him to this early in his career.
As long Randle is given coaching and direction on what he did wrong so he can improve, holding him accountable for on-court mistakes isn't a bad thing at all. Calling Randle out in front of the team, and media, is another issue entirely. There are going to be growing pains for every young player on this roster and we saw them aching as a huge lead disippated. Managing that is the challenge for Scott and the basketball operations team.