It’s hard to determine just how far the Lakers can fall this season, but Saturday’s loss to the Nuggets definitely had a feeling of rock bottom.
The Nuggets comprehensively destroyed the Lakers in Denver despite the Lakers having two days to prepare for the game. It’s the second straight outing the purple and gold had two days rest heading into the game and the second straight game they’ve been thoroughly outplayed.
But Saturday was different. The Nuggets are one of the few teams that can go toe-to-toe with the Lakers when it comes to man-games lost due to injury. Six players did not suit up for Denver, including Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.
And yet, they controlled the contest from start to finish, embarrassing the Lakers by building a 40-point lead in the second half behind a Nikola Jokic triple-double and 53 combined points from Jeff Green and Bones Hyland.
The aftermath was a Lakers team seemingly more openly aware of its faults and shortcomings than at any point this season.
“We have to make a decision on if we’re going to play hard,” Russell Westbrook said. “Sometimes, the schemes and how you play doesn’t really matter, you just have to play hard. Sometimes, teams are just playing harder than us, simple as that. Even when we’re winning, we’re giving up a lot of points but now, it’s showing, especially when we’re losing games and teams are just putting their head down and going. We have to do a better job of defending.”
Westbrook, who took a step away from his shooting slump with 19 points on 7/15 shooting from the field, was not alone in his feelings on the night, either. Dwight Howard, who started the contest to match up with the reigning MVP Jokic, shared Westbrook’s feelings after the game. And if it feels like a sentiment that has been shared more than once this year, it’s because it has.
“(Russ) was right. We just got to continue to do a better job with that,” Howard said. “There’s not too much I can really say about it. We’ve been saying it all year so I don’t want to - I shouldn’t have to keep saying it. But he’s right.”
On Friday, the Lakers spoke about a spirited film session in which the Lakers called out their mistakes. On Saturday, the only spirit shown was during Westbrook’s third-quarter brouhaha with Aaron Gordon that resulted in double technicals for the pair.
All of the same areas of concern were present on Saturday for the Lakers defensively. The Nuggets shot a blistering 23/40 from the 3-point line and paired that with 44 points n the paint and 23 fastbreak points. In effect, the Lakers barely stopped anything the Nuggets did.
The offense was hardly better. Outside of Howard’s 6/8 showing, the rest of the Lakers shot 30/74 (40.5%) from the field and had just 21 assists on 36 field goals.
“We have to get back to the drawing board and get our defense right,” head coach Frank Vogel said. “We haven’t performed well enough in the past few games on that side of the ball. Offensively, we’re not moving the way we did for a stretch where we were playing the five out and playing through the next man as much. We’re not attacking the paint as much as we had been and the ball’s stopping too much. There’s some things we can definitely correct and will correct. But we also have to definitely improve on the defensive side as well.”
The Lakers looked to have turned a corner defensively in recent weeks. But a string of bad performances against Memphis, Sacramento and Denver has completely reset the team to zero.
“It’s not good enough,” Vogel said of the defense. “We have a new group that we’re trying to get these guys to learn our system and learn our double teams and learn each other on the fly and we haven’t had much practice time to get this group as connected as we needed to be. We’re working on it. We’re doing everything we can. But definitely not where we want to be.”
The Lakers are past the midway point of the season, the schedule is only getting more difficult and full health may be on the horizon but isn’t here. If all that feels like a gut-check moment for the Lakers this season, again, it’s because it is.
“The conversation about playing better defense, we shouldn’t have to have that conversation,” Howard said. “We should all be tired of hearing it and make a difference.
“It shouldn’t keep coming up. The Hall of Fame status and all that stuff shouldn’t matter. It’s how bad do we want to win every night and how consistent are we going to be. We haven’t been really consistent all year with that. We have to figure out a way to change that, somehow some way. It has to change or we’re going to keep having these two games where we play pretty good then four games where our defense is subpar.”
Monday won’t offer any simpler a test for the Lakers as they host the Jazz. That precedes the team’s Grammy road trip with stops in Miami, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Charlotte. If change is going to come for the Lakers, it’ll have to be internal and it’ll have to be immediate or Saturday might be simply foreshadowing for the coming weeks.
“Teams are coming at our necks and we have to change that mentality,” Howard said. “We have to start hitting first.”