The Los Angeles Lakers may have lost in their preseason debut at STAPLES Center, but they did establish something important for the first time as a group. The Lakers ended the first quarter with a 31-26 lead over the Denver Nuggets, and that was in thanks to a fast start.
The Lakers had a 14-5 lead within the first five minutes of the game, attacking Denver’s transition defense after getting consecutive stops. Seven of the Lakers’ 12 made field goals in the first quarter came immediately following a defensive rebound or steal. Turning defense into offense has been the entire focus of training camp, and they finally were able to show us what that looks like for at least one small stretch. Baby steps.
The starting lineup had it going from the opening tip-off with a solid defensive possession that turned into easy transition points for Julius Randle on the other end. Watching the team rotating and moving — aside from a fairly big mistake from Julius — you could see how each player contributed to a stop and hoop:
Coach Luke was happy with what the starting unit showed in the opening minutes, even if there were some turnover issues as a whole.
“I thought the beginning of the game our guys were great. That's how we want to play. Obviously we had 16 turnovers in the first half, which is near impossible to win.
“I've kinda given the guys leeway on that because we're trying to play fast. I've told them I'm willing to live with turnovers... it's easier said than done while they're happening. But that tempo of getting stops, and getting out and running, and multiple people getting scoring opportunities, is how we want to get it done,” Walton said after the game.
The Lakers have been implementing principles, more than specific plays and sets, throughout training camp. One of those key principles is pushing the ball ahead, so turnovers like this after a defensive rebound...:
... are forgivable as the team finds itself. Those types of bumps are going to happen. These types of flights are going to happen, too:
The more stops the Lakers get, the more chances they get to iron out the details and become more comfortable running the floor together. That means positive defensive plays, like this from Zubac...:
... are key. All of the gears have to turn together, and molding a very young team into a disciplined machine is challenging to say the least. Latching onto the small things for every player is paramount.
Walton wants his bigs finding a guard to drive transition once they grab a board. Lamar Odom groomed us to love watching power forwards handling the ball in transition, but at this point the Lakers and the bigs just aren’t good enough to consistently survive that.
Instead, giving that role to Lonzo (and all guards, for that matter), should help unlock the potential of the rest of the team. If Randle doesn’t give the ball up to Lonzo in the play below, it’s unlikely he’d have hit Ingram with a head of steam on the wing.
Please note the distance Ingram is able to cover once he gathers.
That kind of potential is one of several assets in the Lakers’ transition attack. There’s still work to be done, too. Players are going to have to figure out how they can be effective when they’re ahead of the pack while pushing the pace. Randle, for example, probably shouldn’t be trying to get his back to the basket if he has an advantage down the court:
It’s deep position, but it also brings a transition opportunity to a stop. The best thing Randle can do from the block is go to a drop step immediately, especially if matched against a smaller defender. Since Julius isn’t a three-point shooter, getting out to the corner is essentially out of the question.
Finding those comfortable go-to moves is going to take repetition, and the Lakers aren’t running if they aren’t getting stops. It’s going to take a cohesive effort and learning process, but the Lakers showed they can succeed in that as they established an early lead against the Nuggets.
Sustaining that level of execution over 48 minutes, with varying lineups and against varying lineups, will be no small task. It has to start somewhere, though, and we’re starting to see glimpses of the identity the Lakers want to be known for.