For the vast majority of their showdown with the Dallas Mavericks, the starters for the Los Angeles Lakers dominated. The bench struggled mightily, but anytime the starting lineup was in at the same time, the Lakers were very clearly the superior team — until the last four minutes of the game.
At this point, we all know how things went. The Lakers turned the ball over repeatedly, missed free-throws, didn’t get stops and Dallas very nearly stole what would’ve been a disastrous game away.
During that collapse, the Lakers had a lot of the same issues that have led to the team’s 3-5 start. The difference, here, was the response to said failures.
After the game, LeBron James and Lonzo Ball were asked about what went wrong. Both said they need to get better, starting with James, who looked directly in the mirror.
“I have to watch the film,” James said. “I can’t really just say what happened. I know they made shots. I made a dumb mistake. The cardinal sin rule is to give up a corner three up four [points], so I can’t stand myself for that. I gave up a wide open three to Harrison Barnes up four late in the game, and that just can’t happen.
“You can put that one on me.”
James’ quote here is something we’ve been waiting for. To this point, it’s been a lot of general, “well they ...” type of statements after losses, culminating of course with his now infamous thinly-veiled (maybe) threat about patience. As great a soundbite as that was, this feels like a more effective way to lead.
If the rest of the Lakers see their unquestioned leader taking accountability, in theory at least, they’ll follow suit. Ball did exactly that.
“We were relaxed. You could tell. The energy that we came out with and what we finished with were completely different,” Ball told reporters after the game. “I think we got a little complacent up double-digits with five minutes to go. We’ve just got to last.”
The Lakers’ energy level was very obviously different, and while people will point to effort, their problem seems to be with finding the balance of relying on James and sticking with the offense that got them the lead in the first place.
Look, it’s hard to rely on transition opportunities late in a game, but thus far this season, the Lakers have shown quite clearly that their half-court offense can’t consistently produce. So, when the game slows down in clutch moments and they try to rely on their system, stuff like the stagnancy in Wednesday night’s closing moments happens.
Part of this will improve organically as the Lakers play more together and become comfortable with the system in general. James and the guys who close around him will also learn how to work off of each other in these situations, too.
But none of this will correct itself, and as they learn to play together, so to will the teams they play against. The Lakers absolutely have to focus on finding and fixing the foundations of their struggles in the clutch.
The first step in fixing a problem is admitting there is one. It isn’t like the Lakers were living in denial of their late-game failures, but it felt like lip service when they spoke about it. Now that guys are learning what they specifically need to focus on — and taking responsibility when they don’t — it feels more likely they’ll figure all these issues out.