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Luke Walton explained why he didn’t play Lonzo Ball down the stretch against the Hawks

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Luke Walton outlined his decision not to play Lonzo Ball on Sunday, and before the game, he said what he wants to see from Ball if he’s going to play him in crunch time.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the last five games, Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton has played Lonzo Ball under 30 minutes per game. In two of those games, Ball played less than 20 minutes.

Walton’s rotations and personnel preferences have been the most puzzling part of his coaching since he took the job in 2016, but his handling of Ball has been especially hard to understand.

Prior to Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks, Walton insisted that Ball’s inconsistent minutes are nothing more than a product of other players and units playing well together.

”I’ve said it the whole season, it’s whoever I feel like is rolling on a certain night,” Walton said. “He’s finished games where he’s been out there and knocking down shots and flying around and rebounding. It’s not a punishment that he hasn’t finished the last few games.

“[Rajon] Rondo is a very, very good basketball player, and he’s a vet that’s won a championship and knows how to close games out. So some of it is leaning on that,” Walton continued. “Especially with trying to climb our way back to .500. It’s nothing off on Lonzo, it’s just us trying to play who I feel most confidently will finish a game for us.”

In Walton’s defense, Ball hasn’t been playing well as of late. In fact, over the last five games, Ball has the worst field goal percentage of anyone on the team and has posted the third-worst box plus-minus (-2.6). During that stretch, Rajon Rondo has been a positive in the box score for the Lakers.

However, on Sunday against the Hawks, Ball looked as good as he’s looked all season. He was setting up his teammates for easy baskets, playing good defense, knocking down open 3-pointers, and generally playing with the aggressiveness and impact Walton has said he wants to see from Ball.

So why wasn’t Ball on the floor when the game was on the line for the Lakers? Walton said he preferred Josh Hart’s defensive versatility over what Ball brought to the table.

“I thought Lonzo was really good tonight,” Walton said. “The way the game was going, I was planning on having him close it out with those starters out there. When [the Hawks] got cooking and we couldn’t get stops, I felt like, for tonight, what we needed was Josh Hart’s toughness and ability to be able to switch.

We were starting to blitz [Trae] Young’s pick and rolls, which means we were going to be in straight scramble mode. I just felt like Josh… was more equipped to handle that kind of defensive rotation,” Walton continued. “But I thought Lonzo was really good tonight in the way he came out and the way he played.”

Walton’s decision ended up paying off, but his unwillingness to play Ball in crunch time has become a problem for the team.

At 21 years old, there’s no reason a healthy Ball should be playing less than 20 minutes a night even if his shots aren’t falling. As LeBron James has noted, Ball can impact the game in other ways, and If the Lakers truly believe Ball is their point guard of the future, he needs to get as many reps as he can especially after dealing with injuries in his rookie season that carried into the summer.

There will be nights Ball struggles and watches the game from the sidelines, but that wasn’t the case on Sunday. If this trend continues with Walton, he’ll have to come up with better answers than the ones he’s giving now.

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RadRivas.