The conclusion of every lackluster Los Angeles Lakers loss — try saying that fast five times — almost inevitably has led to the same postgame scene this season: Luke Walton, sitting alone at a press conference table explaining to reporters why he found some positives and is still proud of his team despite their latest defeat.
And in some senses, Walton’s opening statement after the Lakers’ 120-105 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves was no different, with Walton saying the team “did some things well tonight.”
In other ways though, it was a change, as Walton compared the team’s 19 turnovers and the 22 offensive rebounds they gave up to a self-inflicted wound.
”No matter what you do, you’re not going to give yourself a very good chance of winning a game when you shoot yourself like that,” Walton said.
Walton has critiqued the Lakers before, to be sure, but this just felt different, as instead of citing the progress he felt his team made despite the result, he revealed that he told the team postgame that injuries or no injuries, they have to be better.
“We need to become stronger, more mentally disciplined as this season goes,” Walton said.
Maybe Walton is feeling the heat in regards to his seemingly tenuous job security, or maybe he’s just had it with the Lakers coming out flat, but whatever the reason, the team agreed with Walton, putting the onus squarely on themselves while speaking to reporters in the locker room.
The freshly-returned Rajon Rondo even said explicitly that “the coaches did a great job of telling us what was going to happen” in the game plan but that he and his Lakers teammates just “didn’t play with a sense of urgency” against the Timberwolves.
”We’ve got to go back to the drawing board and figure out what we can continue to do better as a team, continue to believe in each other, continue to believe in the [coaching] staff and go forward from there,” Rondo said.
It’s been hard for the Lakers to find solutions during the current injury apocalypse they’re dealing with. Rondo just returned from a broken hand to play his 15th game of the season — the Lakers have played 49. LeBron James is in the midst of the longest absence of his career — 15 games and counting. Starting point guard Lonzo Ball is now set to miss at least the next four to six weeks with a grade 3 ankle sprain.
The best game plan in the world can’t prepare a team to be completely overmatched every night. Walton can’t draw a healthy James, Ball and Kuzma back into existence on any whiteboard. Still, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said the Lakers can’t use injuries or little-used lineups as an excuse for losses like the one against Minnesota.
“We shouldn’t have no excuses. We practice with different lineups every day. We all know each other, our tendencies… What each other can do,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We’ve just got to play ball, be free, not worry about minutes and mistakes. Just go out there and play.”
With the team’s playoff hopes in the balance, Caldwell-Pope isn’t wrong that the team needs to get out there and play. Injuries are a real factor in why the Lakers (25-24) have been mostly bad in recent weeks, but the NBA isn’t going to give them a hardship waiver that guarantees them a playoff spot just because James has been hurt.
The Timberwolves (24-24) are just half a game back, nipping at the Lakers’ heels. The Sacramento Kings have the same record as the Wolves. The New Orleans Pelicans are trying to fight their way back during a regular-season stretch in which no less than Anthony Davis’ future — and with it, the very existence of the Pelicans franchise — might hang in the balance.
No one reasonable thinks those teams are a threat to the Lakers when James returns, but no one actually knows when James will be back. With or without him and the rest of their (barely) walking wounded, the Lakers have to figure out some ways to win, or they’re going to risk falling a lot further than the ninth seed.
“We’ve got to be ready to play,” lamented a despondent looking Ivica Zubac after his re-entry to the starting lineup in the Lakers’ loss to the Wolves failed as the team’s latest attempt to stop the bleeding.
And whether it’s the playoffs, Walton’s job, both, or something else the Lakers are fighting for, the team does think they can figure this out.
“I have all the faith in the world our guys will bounce back from this and continue to go down that path that we’re on as far as getting better and getting to what we want to be at the end of the season,” Walton said, and Brandon Ingram added that he still thinks there is hope for this season, no matter how dire things might look currently.
”I still feel good about it. With the guys that we have we can do really, really good things, it’s just about us being consistent in the things that we’re doing. It only takes effort to play defense,” Ingram said. “I think we have the tools in this locker room, it’s just a matter of us putting it together.
”I think that the good thing that you get out of all this is that we’re still coming close to winning basketball games without Lonzo, without LeBron, without the other guys. I think we’re still doing a really good job of just competing and just having the effort in every single game. When guys get back it’s going to be even better.”
That’s the latest promise of improvement in a season full of them. But a change to the postgame mood, tone and tenor isn’t enough. If the Lakers can’t deliver on these latest proclamations that they’ll change and get better on the court, it seems all but certain that some things will be changed for them, whether now or at the end of the season.
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