LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers started out their game [on fire/unable to hit a shot], but were truly unable to [pull away from/keep up with] their opponent, [team x], in the first half. In the second half, stronger play from Los Angeles allowed the team to [close out a win/narrowly fall].
No, we didn’t accidentally publish an unfinished draft. The preceding recap template just describes nearly every Lakers game this year, and things were no different against the Phoenix Suns on Friday night. The Lakers started stronger offensively than they had in a few games, but lackadaisical defensive effort left the Suns leading for most of the first half.
"We weren't short of effort, it was just a little bit too late,” said Lakers forward Julius Randle, which could describe the Lakers’ loss to the Suns and several other defeats this season.
Los Angeles has posted the worst net rating in the NBA in first halves, being outscored by 12.3 points per 100 possessions over the first 24 minutes of games. The team isn’t exactly gangbusters in the second half of games, but they are only being outscored by 1.1 points per 100 possessions, which is good for 17th in the league.
"I feel like our team, we kind of find our rhythm as the game goes along. I don't know what the reasoning is behind it, besides that the group we have is competitive,” said Lakers head coach Luke Walton. “We get down, and once we're down we start playing a lot harder and fighting back, and we're kind of in that mode the rest of the night.”
“I don't think we bring the same intensity that we bring at the end of the game. I think we just come out a little sluggish,” added Lakers rookie Brandon Ingram. “If we don't knock shots down it kind of shows on the defensive end and I think we do kind of wait until the second half when we get down and just try to bring the defensive intensity.”
The Lakers have just the 16th oldest rotation age in the NBA at an average of 26.4-years old, and some would assume their relatively young legs would give them an edge out of the gate, but that’s not necessarily the case.
“I think it happens a lot with a young team where you're kind of overthinking the game and make mistakes. Then you realize you've already made enough mistakes so you just want to play hard,” said Lakers forward Luol Deng. “Playing hard from the start will eliminate a lot of those mistakes.”
However, not all of their mistakes can simply be chalked up to their relative inexperience.
“It can happen with anybody. I've been on good teams that were not young and still lost the first quarter, didn't get off to the best start,” Lakers center Timofey Mozgov told Silver Screen and Roll. “It's not about young, it's more about mindset.”
The Lakers’ current mindset has led to the 11th-worst offensive efficiency and second-worst defensive efficiency in the first half of games. Those marks improve to the 13th-ranked offense and 10th-worst defense in second halves.
“Other teams dictate the pace, they come out and throw the first punch, and at that point we're just backpedaling trying to catch up,” said Lakers reserve Larry Nance, Jr. “It obviously hasn't gone well for us so we have to go back to the drawing board now.”
The Lakers have, at least to some degree, gone back to the drawing board at halftime if they’re improving so much from frame to frame. So what has the team changed coming out of the breaks, and can they translate any of it mitigate their league-worst starts?
The main adjustment Walton has made is minutes distribution. The Lakers have been outscored by 17.2 points per 100 possessions during Mozgov’s minutes, and by 11 with Deng. So in second halves, Walton sits them down. Mozgov has played in 208 minutes in the second halves of games as compared to 296 in first halves, while Deng has seen his minutes cut from a team-high 349 first half minutes to 274 in second halves.
The main beneficiaries of that redistributed floor time have been Lou Williams and Brandon Ingram. The Lakers have outscored teams by a rotation player-high 4.3 points per 100 possessions when Williams plays, and while Ingram’s -4.8 net rating isn’t quite that good, it’s better than Deng’s.
Walton has played Williams 325 minutes in the second halves of games as compared to 303 in the first, while Ingram sees a similar jump to 354 minutes from 318. The team scores an absurd 111.5 points per 100 possessions with Williams on the floor in the second half, second only to D’Angelo Russell’s 112.5, while Ingram’s defensive length has offered more utility than Deng thus far.
The Lakers also turn the ball over at lower percentage in the second half (15.6) than they do in the first (16.4), while slightly increasing their pace.
According to Mozgov, the fix is even simpler.
“The most important adjustment you make is just play harder and more aggressive,” Mozgov said. “It's not about schemes or all this stuff.”
Whether the fix is schemes, aggressiveness, or minutes, the Lakers obviously have to improve from being the worst first half team in the league if they hope to keep their postseason dreams alive, or even continue to remain as competitive as they’ve been.
“Things need to go perfect when you dig yourself that big of a hole,” Walton said.
They’re working on throwing away their shovels.
“We talk about starting games in that mode, but for whatever reason we haven't consistently been able to do that,” Walton said of how well his team has played in second halves. “It's something we'll keep on the guys about, and hopefully we can get better at it."