The (little bit of) good news from Friday’s game against the Celtics for the Lakers is that the team is as close to full health as they have been all season long. The returns of Talen Horton-Tucker and LeBron James over the last week from their respective injuries gives the Lakers more healthy bodies than they’ve much of the season and certainly some talented bodies at that.
However, while the Lakers are healthier than they have been, the challenge now is quickly building chemistry and familiarity with one another, something the team has been unable to do due to injuries. Particularly, injuries to James and Horton-Tucker meant that Friday was the first time the pair had shared the court together this season.
It’ll be an adjustment on both ends of the floor for Horton-Tucker and the rest of the Lakers, especially on the defensive end where Horton-Tucker will be tasked with some tough assignments as part of the Lakers starting lineup and given his skills on that end of the court.
“We’re grooming Talen to guard the other team’s best player,” head coach Frank Vogel said, “and sometimes that’s going to look really good, and sometimes he’s going to struggle. (Jayson) Tatum had a heck of a night, got him in foul trouble, so there’s going to be some growing pains there.”
Horton-Tucker was tasked as the primary defender on Tatum on Friday to mixed degrees of success. Boston’s future Laker finished 2-of-5 from the field when defended by Horton-Tucker with both makes coming from behind the arc. But while Horton-Tucker did not commit any shooting fouls on Tatum, he did get himself into foul trouble which allowed Tatum to have far more successful venture against the likes of Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Avery Bradley and Carmelo Anthony, of which he finished the night making two of his three attempts against each.
His struggles to stay out of foul trouble defensively certainly did not aid his case on the offensive end of the court as he finished with his worst outing since his return from injury. Horton-Tucker went 0/6 from the field, finishing with just two points coming at the free-throw line.
“Talo is 0-6 tonight,” Anthony Davis said. “That’s not going to happen again... When LB is back the game is a lot different... because he’s handling, so it kind of takes Talo off the ball... We’ve got to find a way to incorporate him and get him more shots and get him in a rhythm as well.”
After having a usage rate north of at least 24.5% in each of his first three games, that figure dropped to 13.8% for Horton-Tucker with James’ return on Friday. Generally a player that excels most with the ball in his hands, the adjustment of playing next to ball-dominant James is one that Horton-Tucker, among others, will have to make.
“When you’re out eight games and we’re playing a certain way and then he comes back, it’s always an adjustment,” Davis said. “No practice time. Like I said, I think the adjustment is figuring out what to do with Talo... Just trying to get back in a rhythm with him now playing, figuring out the starting lineup and all of that. We’ll be fine, we’ve just got to continue to push through.”
On paper, the Lakers have talent in their starting five and on the bench, even more so now that they’re getting closer to full strength. But now the juggling of fit and learning how to play off one another will take place, a process that has largely been paused due to injuries. It could lead to some more frustrating games like Friday’s in Boston, but if they can coalesce quickly, the Lakers could get back on track and back to their winning ways.