Early in the season, a balance between observing early-season trends while also keeping them in the context of a small sample size is required. For the Lakers, the concerning trend of third quarter futility exploded into a full-blown concern on Friday.
Matched up against a Timberwolves team that came in as losers of six straight, the Lakers turned in a perfectly suitable first-half performance...then followed it up with the worst third quarter of the season. The Timberwolves opened the second half by outscoring the hosts 40-12, including a 30-4 run and a span of over seven minutes between field goals from the Lakers.
Minnesota used that period as the catalyst to an absolute beatdown in the second half that included a 33-point lead and a fourth quarter comprised almost entirely of garbage time to snap their losing streak.
After the game, the Lakers were left looking not just at how things went so wrong on Friday despite a strong start and why it continues to be a trend this season.
“Yeah, it was everything,” head coach Frank Vogel said. “Obviously, our effort hasn’t been good enough in the third quarter consistently throughout this season. We’re talking about it, We’re challenging our guys to be better. I don’t know what it was. We get in control early in the game, we play well and start executing the plan.
“And we’re playing against a team that shoots the most threes in the league and they have that ability to go through stretches where they get really hot. That happened around the same time where we were getting beat to lose balls, weren’t keeping our man in front of us, weren’t taking pride in protecting the rim and I think we lost four or five loose balls consecutively. We have to be better with that. Then, obviously, on the other end we start pressing.”
Defensively, the Timberwolves shot 15-of-24 from the field and 7-of-13 from the 3-point line in that third period. Minnesota outrebounded the Lakers 16-8 including a trio of offensive rebounds, an area where the guests dominated on the night by outscoring the purple and gold 19-10 in second-chance points.
Offensively, it wasn’t any prettier as the Lakers shot 4-of-21 from the field, missed 12 of its 13 3-point attempts turned the ball over six times and went without a field goal from 11:17 mark until the 3:44 mark, a span of 7:33.
“We sucked,” Anthony Davis said. “We scored 12 points in the third quarter. They scored 40. That’s the game right there. We got to a better job coming out in the third.”
“Just not coming out ready,” Russell added. “We didn’t do a good job of being prepared, especially in the third quarter. Ain’t too much to say. Obviously, we didn’t make shots either.”
As noted, the Lakers third-quarter struggles aren’t new. After Friday, they sit at 29th in third-quarter net rating, 26th in offensive rating and 29th in defensive rating. Put more simply, in third quarters this season, the Lakers have been outscored by 83 points in 13 games, the worst mark in the league.
The difficulty in pinpointing the problem is that there are few consistencies when it comes to lineups. Vogel has played 59 different lineups in third quarters and only three of them have played more than 10 minutes. None of those lineups have a positive net rating, a trend when looking at all lineup variations.
The six most-common two-man lineups have negative net ratings, lineups lots of Russell Westbrook and Davis. The 10 most-common three-man lineups all have negative net ratings. The seven most-common four-man lineups all have negative net ratings.
After Friday, only player on the Lakers has a positive net rating in third quarters, that being Austin Reaves who is out for the foreseeable future with a hamstring strain. His net rating of +14.0 dwarfs that of the next-closest Laker in Carmelo Anthony with a net rating of -10.8.
It all adds up to the Lakers understanding they have an issue, but not being certain how to fix it.
“It’s not always consistent,” Vogel said of the third-quarter issues. “It’s different things. We had a different lineup out there tonight and some of the lineups have plagued us in some of the other third quarters. I just think turnovers, poor defense and just not executing well enough offensively. Our screening was terrible tonight. Our screening was terrible and it just leads to bad possessions. So, it’s just part of building those relationships and getting these guys playing at a higher level.”
Wayne Ellington, who made his debut in the starting lineup on Friday, has had a different viewpoint for much of the season on the bench, giving him a unique perspective on what plagues the Lakers in third quarters.
“No sense of urgency,” Ellington said. “We come out slow trying to get into the game instead of coming out full speed. It’s been a struggle for us and something we have to be better at.”
Perhaps Friday will serve as a wake-up call for the Lakers when it comes to their third-quarter woes. But for a team that has more embarrassing losses than notable wins this young season, it’s now past time to address that early season trend turned full-blown issue.