The Lakers haven’t quite looked like themselves in the bubble, not since a victory over the Clippers in the first seeding game. Their offense has been atrocious, and the effort level that defined the Lakers during the first part of the season has only come in fits and starts.
As fans gird themselves for the possibility of the Lakers falling flat on their faces once the postseason begins, the team has been much more measured about its performance during the restart. Frank Vogel even said Sunday that the Lakers are not far from where they were back in March, when they punctuated the first part of the season with back-to-back wins over the Bucks and the Clippers.
“I’m very confident that we’re very close to where we before the hiatus came,” Vogel said after practice Sunday. “I know we’ve lost a couple in a row, but I’m really not concerned about that. Our two big guns have had really big nights, just not at the same time yet. The other parts are rounding into form and the new guys are getting more comfortable to, so I’m encouraged with where we’re at.”
Like Vogel alluded to, LeBron James and Anthony Davis have both looked spectacular at points in the seeding games. Davis was unstoppable in the opener, particularly in terms of drawing fouls, and had another dominant performance against Utah that wrapped up the no. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, James got going defensively against the Clippers, worked mostly as a playmaker in the first few seeding games, and then took over as an individual scorer against the Pacers.
Setting aside Davis for a second, the upward trajectory James has taken over the first six games at least inspires some confidence that the Lakers’ best player is finding his pace in the bubble.
“My rhythm is getting better and better,” James said after the Indiana game on Saturday. “I feel my legs are getting back from underneath me, my shot is starting to feel better, my touch around rim, even though tonight I still had a couple that I’m so accustomed to making — a couple of layups. But just finishing through contact, getting into the paint, making passes on time, on target. My ball-handling, I’ve done a great job of not turning the ball over for as much as I’ve been initiating the offense. So those are all good positive things, not only for myself but for our team. We’ve just go to continue to work at it.”
Alex Caruso felt similarly about James’ performance, and he echoed the fact that the Lakers won’t miss as many easy shots as they ramp up.
“I think [LeBron]’s just sort of gearing himself up,” Caruso said postgame on Saturday. “He’s starting to get a little more aggressive. Even with you saying he played a good game, he still missed routine shots that he usually makes, I missed a couple of routine layups and some open shots, JaVale missed a couple of dunks. We’re missing shots that we normally make, so I don’t put too much weight into it. As a player, we have such a big resume to work off of from this year that it’s not a panic, or a time to hit a button and find some new excuse or new formula. It’s just kind of getting back to what we were doing.”
There is some reason for the Lakers have confidence despite their struggles at the basket are more anecdotal. The team shot 67.3% within five feet of the rim before the hiatus and has made 64.6% of its shots in that region during the six seeding games. That’s a difference of about five lay-ups, and even one more make could have turned the game against the Pacers.
Vogel might also believe that the team is close to its previous form based on the defensive end of the floor. Their defensive rating before the hiatus was 105.5 points allowed per 100 possessions and is 105.0 in the seeding games. The Lakers pride themselves on their defensive identity, and that has at least remained intact while the offense struggles.
There are still plenty of reasons to be concerned about the Lakers, be it their predictability on offense, their over-reliance on James, or Davis’ inability to handle a hard double team, but it’s also fair to say that they haven’t exactly shown their hand in the bubble. Vogel has used a variety of lineups that never saw the light of day before, and the team hasn’t approached these games with the seriousness that other teams have, mostly because the stakes don’t exist for the Lakers.
Vogel has seen much more from the team than outside observers have, and if he wants project confidence, there’s a good chance he can back it up. Let’s hope he’s right, because it sure would be nice to see the Lakers as they were sooner than later.