There is something to be said for moral victories in a rebuilding year. In that vein, the Los Angeles Lakers late comeback effort against the Denver Nuggets shouldn’t be ignored. However, neither should the pitiful defense that left them in such a hole in the first place.
The Lakers allowed 40 points in the first frame, a 14-point disparity that left the team unable to claw all the way back despite outscoring the Nuggets by 11 points in the fourth quarter as they tried to come back with a rag tag bench unit.
“It was lazy defense. It was not fighting over screens. The end of quarters letting guys literally back cut us with four seconds to go. Keep your man in front of you and the basket,” said Lakers head coach Luke Walton on Spectrum Sportsnet of the Lakers’ defense. “It’s basic concepts that we were too lazy to commit to, and we made subs until we found a group of guys that were willing to commit and fight and gave ourselves a chance.”
While the Lakers made mistakes, it’s also fair to acknowledge that the Nuggets shot unsustainably well. Denver shot 66.7 percent overall in the first quarter and an eye-melting 75 percent from three. Most NBA teams wouldn’t shoot that well for 48 minutes even if left wide-open.
That caveat aside, the Lakers’ defense in the quarter was poor, even by their usually low standards. Emmanuel Mudiay is a poor three-point shooter, but leaving him THIS wide-open isn’t necessary:
On the Nuggets’ next bucket, Russell was again a culprit, first by ending up behind Mudiay as he cut towards the basket and then for failing to help the helper when Timofey Mozgov rotated over, allowing Kenneth Faried to get an easy layup:
On the plus side, the Lakers all got back in transition on the next basket!
The bad news was no one communicated and they all went to the paint, leaving literally the largest player on the floor (Mozgov) to lumber out towards the three-point line. Oops:
Did the Lakers learn their lesson the first time and help the helper at their next opportunity? As anyone who have watched them play this season could have guessed, the answer was NOPE:
Faried is not exactly a point forward, but the Lakers’ starters don’t believe in labels or stopping the ball, and want every player to be able to realize their dreams of stretching the limits of position-less basketball:
That was enough for Walton, who benched all five of his starters after that play. The Nuggets shot 6-7 against the starters. Here is what that looks like in shot chart form:
The Lakers’ defense was slightly better for the next quarter and a half in some way, but I’m also not going to sit here and gif every single error the worst defense in the NBA makes either.
Instead, let’s skip ahead to the third quarter, for a mistake that Walton specifically called out in his postgame presser:
“We gave up a missed free throw where a guy just walked us under and dunked the ball,” Walton said. “If one guy messes up with stuff like that, we talk about it all the time, all five are coming out.”
All five did come out, and the Lakers ended up later finding a workable combination to battle back to a “respectable” six-point loss. The team is now 15-31 after starting 10-10, and defensive efforts like they gave against the Nuggets are why.
Are the Lakers a young team? Absolutely. Do young teams make mistakes like this? All the time. Should it always be excused? No, or the players are never going to improve.
Walton took the somewhat drastic step of benching the starters tonight to see if he could convince them to start paying more attention on defense, and whether or not it works will be the biggest think to look for heading into Friday’s game against the Indiana Pacers, and the rest of the season.
All stats per NBA.com. and Basketball-Reference.com. All quotes transcribed via Spectrum Sportsnet. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.