Although they haven’t been consistent, there have been keyhole-sized moments where the Lakers have shown glimpses of what the final product could look like. An offensive and defensive dynamo that turns game into track meets, and whose speed drains the life out of their opposition on both ends.
These instances naturally occur when the team plays at a breakneck pace, with their driver Russell Westbrook pushing them faster and faster, the basketball incarnation of a Mad Max bandit. In direct balance, Anthony Davis centers the team both figuratively and literally, holding down the fort on the defensive-end and being the anchor of the half-court offense. And along the way the supporting cast fills in the gaps, converting on their open looks, stepping up when their number is called and pumping the oil through their stars’ cogs to keep the engine roaring.
These things haven’t happened every game. But on Wednesday, in what was arguably the team’s best win of the season over a dynamite Heat squad, the shorthanded Lakers gave us more than just a tiny glimpse of what they could be for one night. They showed us an hours-long demonstration of something akin to this team’s final form.
What follows are some of the most noteworthy ways they did so.
As their current record, uneven play, and injury report in flux can attest, the Lakers are still very much in the experimenting stage. Beyond the obstacles that come with incorporating an entirely new roster, the team is also trying to incorporate one of the league’s most unique players in Westbrook into their system on both ends.
So far the results have been mixed.
But the team may have found a new wrinkle to better involve their point guard ing the half-court against the Heat that is worth building upon. At the 6:36 minute mark of the first quarter, the Lakers would run four consecutive “horns” set plays for Westbrook. The play design is most easily identified when two players, often bigs, set ball-screens on both sides of the ball-handler where one then rolls, and the other “pops” behind the 3-point line.
As seen in the clips below, there are advantageous outcomes/shots that could arise out of this deployment given this team’s personnel, specifically their bigs. The likes of DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard and Davis have enough vertical gravity to serve as the screener who attacks. And Carmelo Anthony (and Davis, again), could be the big who spaces.
This allows Westbrook several pass, drive and shoot options to pick from, and also puts the defense in difficult scramble situations as they attempt to match-up with multiple movements at once.
According to friend of the site Cranjis McBasketball, the Lakers ran a horns play five times against the Heat, and yielded an absurd 2 points per possession.
Obviously the team’s success rate will not always be as potent as it was on Wednesday, but the tinkering and introduction of more diverse play-calling and design needs to be a staple of the club going forward if they want to find aspects that work.
It’s a level of creativity and flexibility from the coaching staff and players that needs to be embraced, instead of remaining stagnant.
Breaking Down the Lakers Horns Attack— Cranjis McBasketball (@Tim_NBA) November 11, 2021
Here's a short <10 minute video on the set that caught our eye yesterday against Miami.https://t.co/ZepU5bHR2k
Russell Westbrook’s turnover saga
In many ways, one’s level of enjoyment or disappointment in Westbrook’s play as a Laker thus far depends on how familiar one is with his career previously. Westbrook has notoriously never been a good perimeter shooter, for example, as he has never been able to leap over the 40th percentile at his position for 3-point shooting. So the hoopla about the spacing limitations feels more like a “duh” than a new piece of information.
He is also quite turnover prone. It’s an aspect of his game that has arguably infuriated the fanbase more than any other quality he brings to the table. Even while acknowledging his foibles with ball-security in the past, Westbrook is struggling more than ever in that regard, as he’s currently turning it over at a career-high rate (and his 18.3% turnover rate is good for the mere 16th percentile among point guards this season, per Cleaning the Glass).
Perhaps even more frustrating with the volume of turnovers has been the timing of which they have come, namely in crunch time. In fact, among the 17 players who have played in at least 100 fourth quarter minutes thus far, Westbrook has the highest turnover % in the final frame in the league.
“We had a conversation about what he wants to see from us so we can help him cut down the turnovers,” Davis said of Westbrook on Wednesday night. “We talked about it, and it showed tonight.”
Davis then looked at the box score, and realized that maybe it didn’t paint the same picture as his word.
“I say that, and he had eight,” Davis said, laughing. “But at least it wasn’t... what did he have, a triple-double? It wasn’t a quadruple-double (laughs). We just want to make sure that we help him as much as possible and be in the right positions for him when he’s attacking the paint knowing that he’s going to get there.”
Westbrook did indeed end the night with eight turnovers after Davis and Co.’s chat with him, but this time it did not feel like an overtly poor performance from the point guard — as Davis’ jovial comments could also attest. Outside of his usual stellar playmaking, Westbrook also came up huge with his scoring down the stretch of the fourth, and also competed on defense in key moments.
One other big reason his mistakes did not feel as severe is because six of Westbrook’s eight errors came in first three quarters of the contest, and only two occurred in the final 22 minutes of the game including overtime. As low of a bar as there was to clear, that is improvement. This minimization of mishaps, especially when they count the most, will be critical in making the Westbrook experience work. Wednesday night was a good first start in that regard.
There is an eeriness prior to every Lakers game this season, a sense of dead that specifically manifests right before the injury report being released — and for good reason. To say the team has been short-handed, bit by injury bug or any other sports cliche one can throw out there is simply an understatement.
Against Miami, the Lakers were essentially down to only one traditional point guard on the roster (Westbrook) and extremely thin everywhere again with the likes of LeBron James, Talen Horton-Tucker, Kendrick Nunn, Trevor Ariza, Rajon Rondo and Austin Reaves all unavailable. The team announced on Thursday they don’t expect to have the latter for at least two weeks.
Fortunately for the team, the players they did have, namely those not often relied upon, proved to be bright spots when the group needed their contributions the most.
“Next man up mentality,” Davis proclaimed following the game. It’s a mindset that the team will need to have moving forward, with no returns or timetables a certainty for anyone at this point.
One of the players who stepped up the most against the Heat — and proved to be key in the team’s victory as a result — was 23-year-old Malik Monk. The combo guard was electric off the bench, scoring in a variety of ways, including off the catch, in transition and as the primary ball-handler out of the team’s pick and roll game.
With the Lakers down to one point guard, Malik Monk's ability to attack off the dribble came in at the perfect time. pic.twitter.com/zV67N2DmJ3— Joey Ramirez (@JoeyARamirez) November 11, 2021
“They always give me confidence, man, “ Monk said of his teammates after scoring 27 against the Heat. “Whether I’m playing five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, they always give me confidence. I’m always confident when I go in the game. I always kind of have the same mindset... I just stay locked in and try to be prepared for every situation.”
And whether it’s the distance from which he fires his long ball, or by creating his own bucket off the dribble in a tight game, the boldness in which Monk plays is something that may prove to be to the Lakers’ benefit as they will continue to depend on other players to fill the large shoes that others have left behind.
Wednesday night was a good example of the type production that the “others” will have to provide while the team treads water, as the unlikely trio of Monk, Wayne Ellington and Avery Bradley (who are all on minimum contracts) finished the night with a combined 56 points and 13/21 from behind the arc. As shorthanded as they are, the Lakers will need nights like that to get by.
The Lakers are still very much not the team they want to be, but collective performances and tiny victories can become building blocks to help them reach that goal. Tiny, subtle improvements that make the difference. Whether it comes via working on a new play, cutting down mistakes or an unlikely hero appearing on the scene, these are the day-to-day wins that matter as they look to prepare themselves up for a potential title run.