For much of the beginning of the season, the third quarter was a sort of Groundhog Day for the Lakers, where all the success in the first half of games would be undone by a putrid third period, leaving the team fighting from behind for the final period.
The situation reached its breaking point this season in a blowout loss to the Timberwolves in which the team was outscored 40-12 in likely its worst quarter of the season. But the silver lining of low points is that the only way to go from there is up, and the Lakers have, largely speaking, trended upwards since that moment.
Sunday marked a different kind of milestone for the Lakers in third quarters this season as the team not only played its best third quarter of the season, but one of its best quarters period. Highlighted by a season-high run of 16 unanswered points, the Lakers outscored the Pistons 32-22 to fuel their 110-106 victory.
And as much has been made about the Lakers offensive struggles, it was their work defensively on Thursday that set the tone.
“It just starts on the defensive end,” said LeBron James. “In the third quarter, we got defensive stops, we rebounded and we were able to get out in transition. We shared the ball, we got the ball moving from side to side and we just played with great pace. Those are pretty good ingredients to us having a good third quarter. Coming into tonight, we won five of our last eight third quarters, this makes it six of nine and hopefully we’re going to continue that trend.”
James also went out of his way in his walk-off interview to point out that the team head now won six of its last nine third periods.
Over the first 15 games of the season, the Lakers ranked 29th in net rating and defensive rating in 3rd quarters, while ranking 26th in offensive rating. Across the board they struggled, but perhaps no number was more glaring than their 120.6 defensive rating, a remarkable figure with players like James and Anthony Davis on the roster.
However, as they’ve turned a corner in third quarters, it’s been their defense that has largely led the way. Over the last seven games, the team sports an offensive rating of 113.5 (12th in the league), a defensive rating of 101.2 (5th) and a net rating of 12.4 (8th) in third frames.
It’s the defensive improvement in that time span that makes Vogel believe his side can still be elite defensively.
“I know for sure that we can be better than we’ve been on the defensive side of the ball,” Vogel said. “When we commit and put our minds to it and we build the habits of Laker basketball, like the rim collisions, (those) haven’t been there consistently for us. They were great tonight. We took charges, we had (vertical challenges) at the rim, there was a mindset to put a body in front of anything that comes to the basket and that’s been a foundation point for us the last couple years.
“With a new group, you hope it takes shape right way, some things take a little bit of time. But we’re coaching our fundamentals and we’re challenging our guys on a regular basis, and I believe we can be great on the defensive side of the ball. And if we do that with the offensive talent that we have, we can beat anybody. So there is a strong belief that we can reel off a bunch of wins in a row, and there is a strong belief that we’re going to have a great season with this group.”
Despite the improvements in the last seven games, the Lakers are just 3-4 largely because the fourth quarter has become the problem their third quarter were as of late. But it doesn't take away from their improvements in that third period and should offer Laker fans plenty of optimism for the team moving forward.