The Los Angeles Lakers aren’t a first quarter team. That much was true before the season restarted, but it’s been especially true since they arrived to Orlando last month and it proved costly for them on Tuesday.
In Game 1 of their playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Lakers conceded 36 points in the first quarter and only scored 25 points. From that point on, the Lakers had to play catch-up, and it wasn’t until the 8:46 mark of the fourth quarter that they took their first two-point lead.
There were a lot of reasons the Lakers disappointed on Tuesday, but their first quarter was a big one.
“Tonight we spotted them a quarter,” Danny Green said after the game. “We can’t do that. Maybe it’s we haven’t played in a while, (but) we came out flat. Too much adrenaline, I don’t know what it is.”
It’s possible that the Lakers just needed time to warmup after having four days off, but accepting that as the cause of the problem is ignoring the bigger issue, which is the starting lineup — specifically, this iteration of the starting lineup.
When Avery Bradley missed 13 consecutive games at the start of the season, Caldwell-Pope replaced him in the starting lineup and they had very few hiccups. In fact, during that 13-game stretch, they went 12-1.
But the reason that starting lineup was so successful was because Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was making his 3-pointers at an efficient clip and it supercharged the Lakers’ offense. Without that 3-point shooting, the five-man unit of Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee posted a net rating of -30.1 in the seeding games, and a net rating of -39.4 on Tuesday.
One could look at that and come to conclusion that their 3-point shooting is the problem and they wouldn’t be wrong: most of the Lakers’ problems would be solved if they started making their 3-point shots. The problem is that the Lakers can’t afford to wait on their shooting to come around anymore. If it shows up eventually, then great! But it’s not here right now, and Frank Vogel has a responsibility to make the necessary changes for them to win games without it. So far, he hasn’t.
One change Vogel should seriously consider is moving Anthony Davis to center full-time. It’s an idea that’s been floated around all season long, but it makes more sense to do it now than it ever has before.
The Trail Blazers aren’t a good defensive team. To be more specific, the Trail Blazers are the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA. During the regular season, Portland posted a defensive rating of 114.3, which is so bad that their 113.2 offensive rating — the third-best offensive rating in the NBA — didn’t offset their defensive rating.
Portland’s most obvious defensive struggles are out on the perimeter, which they’ve been able to live with against the Lakers, but they can also be exposed in the paint when they’re forced to.
Hassan Whiteside and Jusuf Nurkic can’t defend in space — at least not for long stretches — and the Lakers have one of the best ball-handling big men in the NBA on their roster in Davis. They also have a crafty shot-maker at the 4 in Kyle Kuzma. If the paint is where the Lakers are going to generate the bulk of their offense, which should be the case in light of their shooting struggles, Kuzma and Davis should be starting at the 4 and 5, respectively.
An added benefit of starting Kuzma alongside Davis is that it gives Kuzma time to warmup offensively, which, theoretically, would make the non-LeBron lineups more efficient on offense. The Lakers played two non-LeBron lineups last night. The best net rating between the two of them was -13.3. The worst was -30.9.
The only other player that has made a case for a starting job is Alex Caruso. In spite of Caruso’s own struggles in Orlando, he’s consistently been a net positive for the Lakers. Even on Tuesday, when he went 1-6 from the field, he was a +12 in the box score, which was tied with Markieff Morris for the team-high. It’s been said all season, but the Lakers are at their best with Caruso on the floor.
The rotation as a whole could use some work, but the Lakers’ slow starts to the first and third quarters are an issue that can be fixed by changing the starting lineup. At this point of the season, adjustments are key, and that’s one Vogel needs to make.