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Lakers vs. Jazz Preview: L.A.’s problematic defense desperately needs to improve

The Lakers are midway through the season, and yet their defensive approach is still (rightfully) being questioned.

Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The Lakers’ defense in their 133-96 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Saturday was downright atrocious and embarrassing. Unfortunately, this has been the norm. Saturday may have magnified them, but these are the problems the purple and gold have been dealing with all season: Flawed point-of-attack defenders and rim protectors, repeated missed rotations, and most notably their lack of effort and commitment on defense.

The worst part? This was the type of performance L.A. put up after a “spirited” film session with Frank Vogel on Friday. Following Saturday’s ugly performance that sent L.A. “back to the drawing board” defensively, it’s fair to question what the hell was actually said in that film session. Because the team’s effort and energy on Saturday was lower than the temperature in Denver.

The Lakers’ strategy entering Saturday’s game was to protect the paint against Nikola Jokic by starting Dwight Howard and double teaming the reigning MVP. To Jokic’s credit, he countered by forcing the defense to switch, and by passing the rock to his open teammates.

So what did the Lakers’ perimeter defense do? Allow the Nuggets to shoot 57.5 percent (23-40) from 3-point range. The Lakers’ defense was so bad from the get-go that they gave up 73 points (!!) in the first half and eventually lost to the Nuggets by 37, their largest deficit against Denver in franchise history.

Oh, and if that wasn’t bad enough, the Lakers also stuck to their season-long script of letting a random role player or two from the other team (this time it was rookie Bones Hyland and Jeff Green) have their career night against them. Hyland and Green had season-highs of 27 and 26 points respectively, but what was unacceptable was the amount of wide open shots they and their teammates capitalized on. Denver had seven players in double figures by the end of the game.

The damage wasn’t just done on the perimeter, either. The Nuggets feasted in the paint by converting 51.6 percent of their shots. They also outhustled the Lakers by winning the battles for transition points (23-9), rebounds (51-41) and second chance opportunities (15-7).

But look, I can talk about the struggles of the Lakers’ defense with all the numbers in the world, but at the end of the day, it really boiled down to their lack of interest and effort. What’s more concerning is that the Lakers are midway through the season, and yet there are still plenty of reasons to question not just their abilities on defense, but their commitment to that side of the floor.

Just listen to the normally perpetually peppy Dwight Howard, who sounded nowhere close to cheerful after Saturday’s loss.

Or Russell Westbrook, who once again said that the team needs to play harder. But how many times have we heard that this season?

Another problem the Lakers have is that they depend too much on a 37 year-old LeBron James to set the tone and anchor their defense. He may not be perfect on that end, but there’s also only so much he can do, especially with the workload he is in charge of on offense.

Still, it doesn’t help that he and Westbrook have the habit of complaining to the referees for fouls when they attack the rim, which disrupts them from running back on defense. Little things like this have a way of affecting the whole team, especially if the captains themselves do it.

It’s unfortunate that the purple and gold will have to rely on the defensive superpowers of Anthony Davis (coming off an MCL sprain injury) to help make them an average defensive team again. And what’s even more brutal is that the team will need him to be in top form because 24 of their final 39 games will be against opponents that are above .500.

Because if you didn’t already know, the Lakers have struggled against teams above .500 this season. They haven’t won against a competitive team since Dec. 15 (the Dallas Mavericks). The purple and gold will have the chance to fix this record and all their other reoccurring issues against the Utah Jazz, who they open as four-point underdogs against for Monday’s MLK Day matchup, according to the latest odds from Draft Kings.

So whether it’s because of personnel, roster construction, lack of continuity or players in and out of the lineup, this Lakers defense has been terrible since Davis hurt his knee. And even if the Lakers can’t replicate what AD provides, they can at least compete and care on that end. Because if there’s one thing we know midway through the season with this Lakers team, it’s that their defense desperately needs to improve. We didn’t need the Nuggets game to see that, but it was a good illustration of just how far they have to go.

Notes and updates

  • Anthony Davis (MCL sprain) and Kendrick Nunn (bone bruise) are out tomorrow. Both are reportedly expected to be back in the lineup by the end of January. Keep up with the latest updates on them at our tracker.
  • Carmelo Anthony (lower back tightness) is also questionable for tomorrow. He has missed the past two games with this injury.
  • Dwight Howard (left knee soreness) and LeBron James (rectus abdominis strain) are probable. Lakers’ two-way players Sekou Doumbouya and Mason Jones will be with the South Bay Lakers.
  • And as if they needed a tougher task after Saturday’s loss, the Lakers will face a brilliant attack on Monday, hosting a Jazz team who have the league’s No. 1 offensive rating. Their pick-and-roll defense and rim protection will have to be much better than whatever Saturday’s performance was.
  • One way the Lakers can take advantage vs. the Jazz is to attack their perimeter defense because just like L.A., the Jazz haven’t performed well on that side of the floor as of late.
  • In other news around the league, it’s unfortunate to know that Brooklyn Nets’ superstar Kevin Durant will likely miss at least 4-6 weeks with a sprained MCL (the same injury Davis has been out with). Durant won’t be available when the Nets host the Lakers on Jan. 28.

Hopefully the Lakers’ can start the new week with a W. They will tip off against the Jazz at 7:30 p.m. PT. The game will be televised nationally on NBA TV, and locally on Spectrum SportsNet.

Check out DraftKings Sportsbook, the official sportsbook partner of SB Nation. And for more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicoleganglani.

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