Within a classroom full of eighth graders furiously cramming in the last bits of dates and definitions needed for a pending History exam, one student sits passively in the back.
As someone who is employed by the school district, this is not uncommon to run across. But when I ask him why he is not studying like the rest of his classmates, he confidently says: “I didn't study for the last test and still got an A. So why study now?” I retort — like most adults probably would — with a question about if that same approach would work when the material becomes more difficult.
He mumbles something before scoring a more than respectable “B” on the aforementioned test. But his face when receiving the test back revealed a slight fracture in what was once impenetrable self-assuredness.
Similarly, the Lakers have not needed to drastically change much in their game-plan as their results — winning 17 of their first 20 games (tied for the best record in the league) — have not dictated as much.
However, like the student who will soon be moving from selecting vocabulary from the word-bank to writing critical essays, the team’s own work is about to get more intense.
In November, only three of Los Angeles’ 15 games came against teams who currently have a record over .500. A low number that has been to the team’s benefit.
On the season, and including their recent matchup with Dallas, the Lakers have only had six such contests against teams with winning records to date, which is the lowest amount in the league. December, however, will not be as kind, something the team learned firsthand on Sunday with a loss at the hands of wunderkind extraordinaire Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.
Although it was just one game, and only the team’s third loss on the year, it served as a fitting introduction to what awaits this month. The defeat was also a cautionary tale that the bad habits that previously were glossed over due to the globs of wins the Lakers were accruing need to be addressed.
The formerly ironclad defense that was once the best in the league has shown cracks as it has dropped to eighth over the past few weeks. On the flip side, the Lakers have climbed to the fourth-best offense overall after starting slow out of the gates, but continue to play dangerously, with a wonky shot profile.
As of this article, the Lakers have the ninth-highest frequency of long twos in the league, and are also taking the second-fewest above-the-break threes in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass. It’s a formula that more often than not results in the team not just playing against their opponent, but playing against math itself.
When asked if Sunday’s 114-100 defeat was ultimately something the the team was due for following their aforementioned slippage and tendency to play lackadaisically at times, Frank Vogel did not seem too concerned.
“Maybe. I don’t really feel like we weren’t learning along the way,” Vogel told reporters. “Our guys have (previously) stayed the course and figured out what they need to do to ultimately prevail, but tonight that just wasn’t there for us.”
It goes without saying that playing against lesser competition allows more wiggle room to sneak out wins, but this is a luxury the Lakers will soon be without, as nine of their next 13 games will come against teams currently above .500. To make matters worse, nine of their contests this month will also come on the road.
During the upcoming hectic Holiday stretch, the Lakers will travel approximately 9,748 miles, the sixth-most of any team in the NBA during December, according to Positive Residual. The club will also have a pair of back-to-backs to go along with the aforementioned stiffer competition they are set to square off with.
While definitely more daunting than what they have been accustomed to so far, the team’s approach seems to be an age-old sports cliche — to take it one game at a time.
“We don’t want to lose two in a row, ever. So there’s definitely gonna be a bounce back game,” Anthony Davis shared on Sunday.
Davis’ confidence about the team’s ability to bounce back is not a mindset he’s alone in.
”Every month is its own challenge, and we played great in the month of November. We want to play great next month as well,” LeBron James told reporters on Friday. “We have championship aspirations, but at the end of the day that’s not what’s here right now.
James is right. The team's ultimate prize at hand will not be won today, tomorrow or over the next month. But getting better and correcting poor habits along the way is an obtainable goal that the locker room should be circling in red marker as a reminder of what is needed to eventually get to their desired destination.
December presents the Lakers their first chance to get punched in the face and see how quickly they can bounce back up and throw a counter jab. Through 20 games, their overwhelming size and sheer talent have bullied teams at the bottom of the standings like they should have. But that’s about to change, as the opponents who ultimately will have a say in whether or not the Lakers do make it to May and June are waiting right around the corner. And they are looking for a fight, which means the Lakers can’t take anyone lightly.
“We don’t look past anybody. We focus on the opponent at hand,” Danny Green said following the team’s loss to Dallas, adding that the Lakers only pay attention to their schedule on a game-by-game basis. Once one game is done they look at their next opponent, but not before.
“Today was the most important game of the season, and now the next one in Denver is going to be the most important game of the season,” Green said to emphasize the Lakers’ approach.
One game at a time is a tired and probably overused expression, but it suits a Lakers team that has knocked down every obstacle before them up to this point. How they learn to navigate and swim against troubled water over the month ahead — and beyond — will tell us a lot about whether they have what it takes to reach their ultimate goal.
All stats and video per NBA.com unless otherwise noted. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts.