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Lakers vs. Nets Preview: Time to let the young guys play more

It’s time to let the young Lakers play more, because they’ve proven all season that they can contribute to winning basketball. 

Utah Jazz v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

One of the biggest reasons why the Lakers’ furious comeback fell short against the Miami Heat on Sunday was because they dug themselves into a massive hole in the first half. L.A. trailed by 15 as early as the first quarter, and 26 in the second because their starting five just couldn’t handle the Heat early. This has happened countless times throughout the season.

Just to give a quick update, the “LeBron James is the best shooter on the floor” starting five Frank Vogel has rolled with over the past fives games now has an offensive rating of 96.6 in 43 minutes. The same lineup tallied a 59.1 offensive rating vs. the league’s eighth-best defense yesterday.

In short, this is not ideal, at all. And it’s not like the bigger group is paying defensive dividends, either:

Miami did a fantastic job scheming against the Lakers’ defense early, but what was glaring was that the Lakers’ drop coverage could barely keep up. It was a big reason why the Heat shot 60% from the 3-point line and found their rhythm. Aside from the 3-pointers, Trevor Ariza and Avery Bradley were blown by multiple times while Dwight Howard couldn’t contest mid-range jumpers, as shown in video clip above.

This game plan the Lakers constructed at the start of Sunday’s game didn’t work, as proven by their early deficit. But the purple and gold managed to get themselves back in the game by improving their coverages at the half. As Bradley mentioned postgame, the Lakers’ switching 1-5 made the game easier for them. It also helped that L.A. started the second half with more effort and urgency.

And you know what else proved to work? Letting Stanley Johnson, Austin Reaves and Malik Monk play more minutes. Just look at the lineup that sparked the massive comeback in the fourth quarter. It was led by James, Reaves (who played the lowest minutes among active players), Bradley, Talen Horton-Tucker and Johnson. The lineup that also had the best net and offensive rating in Sunday’s game included Reaves and Johnson as well.

Maybe the Lakers’ comeback happened due to the Heat taking their foot off the gas, but it’s hard to deny the fact that the Lakers’ young guys need to surround the team’s best players more often. Playing Reaves (8 minutes) and Johnson (22 minutes) way less compared to Carmelo Anthony (25 minutes), Ariza (14 minutes) and Bradley (30 minutes) all of whom were repeatedly exploited on defensewas head-scratching.

Sure, Reaves, Johnson and Monk aren’t veterans, and surely aren’t mistake-free, but usually the argument against playing young players is that they can’t contribute to winning. But the younger Lakers — Reaves, Johnson and Monk especiallyhave done that more often than many of their more senior teammates. It’s time for them to get more chances to do so.

Even the advanced statistics will back this up. According to the good people over at BBall-index, Reaves’ on-ball defense percentile (93.13) is the highest among anyone on the Lakers, including Bradley (77.88). Johnson is still in the process of getting comfortable within the system and has his flaws, but he’s clearly more agile than a 36-year-old Ariza.

Hopefully the Lakers’ realized a thing or two from the Heat game about playing their young players. For an example of how beneficial empowering young legs can be, all they had to do was look at how productive Caleb Martin (23 minutes), Gabe Vincent (31 minutes) and Max Strus (29 minutes) were for Miami on Sunday.

If the Lakers want to turn this horrible season around, it’s not just about getting healthy, but also about giving chances to those that have earned more minutes. Maybe they’ll even add more life to the team in next upcoming games, just like what they did in the fourth quarter vs. the Heat yesterday. Against a small-ish Nets team that also likes to run would seem like as good a time as any to start.

Notes and Updates

  • The Lakers will face the Nets on Tuesday in what was expected to be another blockbuster game. Unfortunately, injuries (and Kyrie Irving’s disdain for the COVID-19 vaccine) will once again not allow this to happen, as the Nets will be fairly shorthanded.
  • It’s also looking more likely that Anthony Davis returns back to the lineup after being sidelined for more than a month due to an MCL sprain. Davis, who’s averaging 23.3 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists, has been significantly missed by the team for the 17 games he’s been out so far.
  • Stanley Johnson’s first breakout game happened during the Christmas game vs. the Brooklyn Nets. Although James Harden still put up 36 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, Johnson proved he was able to keep up on defense especially during crunch time. It will be interesting to see if the 10-day contract signee can keep up his good work on the Nets star.
  • Also, the Lakers might want to learn from their mistakes during Christmas Day and improve their defense on Patty Mills. Mills, tallied 34 points and 7 assists on that day, will probably be heavily relied on once again with Kevin Durant out due to an MCL sprain.
  • Sekou Doumbouya (health and safety protocols) and Kendrick Nunn (right knee bone bruise) will be out tomorrow. Mason Jones (two-way contract) will be with the South Bay Lakers.
  • For the Nets, meanwhile, Durant (MCL sprain), Joe Harris (ankle) and Nic Claxton (hamstring) are out tomorrow.
  • Here’s a fun (or maybe not so) fact: Since Kevin Durant and LeBron James last faced each other in 2018, both players have yet to meet each other again in the past three years due to injuries or health and safety protocols. Yes, it’s been a while indeed.

The Lakers and Nets will tip-off at 4:30 p.m. PT. The game will be televised locally on Spectrum SportsNet, and nationally on TNT.

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.