The Los Angeles Lakers are still working on some basic concepts of basketball this season.
Thursday served as the latest example of the purple and gold surging out to a big lead only to watch it dwindle away without much resistance, as the Thunder shocked the Lakers for the second time in just over a week by winning 107-104 in the Staples Center, getting just their second win of the season in the process.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, a mercy rule does not exist in the NBA, either in the form of a running clock or in a game ending early. As a result, the Lakers’ big leads early in games have only served as fuel for the frustration of fans as they’ve watched their side cough up every lead they build, seemingly determined to keep every contest a close battle in the fourth quarter.
Against the Thunder, the Lakers opened up a 19-point lead midway through the second quarter. But in a nearly identical pattern to last week’s loss in Oklahoma City, the Thunder began their run heading into halftime, continued it into the second half and won late.
“The NBA game is a long game,” said head coach Frank Vogel after Thursday’s loss. “Early leads don’t really mean anything in the modern NBA. You have to keep playing.”
It’s a bold strategy, but one that might be worth trying for the Lakers, especially considering they didn’t seem to learn their lesson from the first embarrassing loss to the Thunder, and it took the second to bring about this epiphany.
“It’s a 48-minute game, and you have to play four quarters,” Vogel said.
But therein lies the problem with the Lakers through the opening nine games this season: Their inability to play a full 48 minutes. In the last seven games, the Lakers have led by double digits in five of them. In two of those five games — both contests against Oklahoma City — the Lakers have lost. In two other games — against Memphis and Cleveland — the Lakers trailed in the fourth quarter only to barely scrape by for a victory. The fifth game was their Halloween win over the Rockets, where their 28-point lead was trimmed to 10 points by the final buzzer.
Further to that point, the Lakers this season, including Thursday’s game, have a net rating of +6.4 through in the first half of games. In the second half? A rating of -6.9, exceedingly not nice.
Davis spoke on that issue of Thursday’s loss, one that he says hasn’t been specific to just this year’s Lakers, but each team he’s played on during his tenure in Los Angeles.
“That’s kind of been our M.O. since I’ve been here,” Davis said. “We are fine building leads, 10, 20, 30-point leads, but it’s how you play with them, and we’ve struggled to do that. A lot last year, and even this year, especially with this team (the Thunder). I think we were up 19 and then they came back and win the game. The same thing happened up there.
“But even against Cleveland and Houston we did the same thing. We won those games, but we’ve got to do a better job of being able to score the basketball (and) to get stops. Teams are going to make runs, it’s a game of runs, but we’ve got to do a better job of playing with a lead, and continuing to play the right way.”
In the modern NBA, as Vogel referred to it, the increased volume of 3-pointers makes large leads less safe than ever. It’s easier than it’s ever been to go on big scoring runs, and to do so quickly. To that point, the two best shooting performances from range for the Thunder this season have come in their wins over the Lakers, the only two games Oklahoma City has hit at least 15 3-pointers.
But flukey shooting aside, the bottom line is that this team shouldn’t need reminders to hold on to leads. They should know better than to keep letting their foot off the gas. And sarcastic headline aside, the Lakers have a very real problem with holding onto big leads, an aspect of the game that isn’t always easy. But for a veteran team that could use those fourth quarters of blowouts for much-needed rest — and especially for a team with title aspirations — it’s a problem that will quickly need addressing early in this young season.