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Russell Westbrook’s defense underscores Lakers optimism

Despite starting the season with back-to-back losses on miserable shooting performances, the Lakers look like a team that is starting to believe in itself.

Los Angeles Clippers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Through six preseason games and a pair of regular season contests, the 2022-23 Lakers have won just once (against the Warriors on October 9). And after an opening night roasting by the defending champs, the Lakers and their fans seemed pressed to avoid a repeat performance of the debacle that was last season.

However, those within the Lakers’ organization are starting to act as if they can finally see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

As Lonnie Walker IV noted in his postgame presser, there was a feeling of optimism in the team’s locker room following last night’s six-point loss to the Clippers; Walker praised his new ballclub for competing closely with a group that had played together for years longer than the mere weeks the new Lakers had spent with each other.

And still, from the outside looking in, it was hard to feel great about yet another loss coming off of a season with 49 of them, especially when the Lakers continue to shoot the ball at a historically awful clip.

After two games, the Lakers have made less than a quarter of their threes (19-84), the worst rate of any team with at least 35 attempts from beyond the arc this season. No one on the roster can buy one right now, as second-round rookie Max Christie (1-1) and 15th-man Matt Ryan (2-5) are the only two Lakers who have made better than 30% of their long-range attempts.

The Lakers’ point guards, Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Nunn, missed all 10 of their threes on Thursday along with a combined 0-8 performance from inside the arc.

A pair of the Lakers’ most prominently featured newcomers — Lonnie Walker IV and Patrick Beverley — are second and third on the team in 3-point attempts, respectively, but have made only 4-23 of their attempts from deep (17.4%).

Neither is a veritable “laser,” to borrow LeBron’s parlance from his comments after the Lakers’ loss at Golden State, but Walker IV and Beverley have played a combined 14 NBA seasons, each making more than a third of their threes on literally thousands of attempts. Walker is a career 34.0% 3-point shooter and Pat Bev is 37.7% from the outside.

They probably aren’t the kinds of threats that make defenses bend by dint of their shooting gravity, but they should each be sharp enough to make opponents pay when they leave them wide open, something neither has been able to do as a Laker so far.

And to provide some cover for the Lakers players and head coach claiming that these are the shots they want, of their 85 3-pointers through two games, per the NBA’s shot tracking data, they’ve shot 10% on the 20 open ones, and 28.9% on the 38 wide open attempts.

After two games against some of the league’s best defenses, the Lakers are averaging the fifth-most wide open threes per game. If that holds, they could be in for some serious positive regression which would undoubtedly buoy their offensive rating.

Los Angeles Lakers v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Last season no team shot worse than the Thunder on open (29.7%) or wide open threes (34.3%). If they’d just shot like the worst shooting team on lightly or uncontested looks in last year’s NBA on an average night in each of the first two games, the Lakers would have competed more closely with the Warriors, especially during that lopsided third quarter, and likely toppled the Clippers Thursday. And that’s especially true when considering the fact that scoring makes it easier to set your defense and get stops as opposed to long rebounds that lead to transition opportunities for the opposition.

So how did the Lakers keep things competitive while shooting so poorly?

For the first time since 2020-21, the Lakers look like they might be a good defensive team. Through two games against the West’s presumptive favorites, the Lakers have the 10th-best defensive rating in the NBA. While a two game sample size is far too small to make any kind of conclusory judgment about the team’s defense, it’s at the very least a trend worth keeping an eye on.

For what it’s worth, LeBron seems to have bought into the idea of the Lakers as a defense-first winner. After the Clippers game, LeBron said, “We defended at a high level... we made another step forward in our development as a team...”

His praise of the team’s defense on a second-straight off-shooting night was an undercurrent of James’ presser.

When the LA Times’ Brad Turner asked Bron about the Lakers’ lack of “lasers,” he returned fire, stating, “I’m definitely not gonna sit here and harp on what we can’t do every single game. That’s not a leader. What I know we can do? We can defend our ass off. We did that tonight, which gave us an opportunity to win.”

Across the board, the Lakers competed hard on defense even when shots didn’t fall, something that seemed to take the wind out of their sails in Game 1 against the Dubs.

The biggest surprise of the night had to be Westbrook’s sheer effort on defense. Despite going 0-11 from the floor and blowing a handful of coverages in the first half, Westbrook really locked in defensively in a way he’s scarcely shown as a Laker, stealing post entries to Kawhi Leonard on back-to-back possessions and baiting Leonard into a travel on a later one.

He might not be quite a “pit bull,” as Darvin Ham challenged him to be before the season, but this is a version of Westbrook on defense that simply hasn’t existed in Los Angeles before.

And although his on-court issues extend beyond his lack of defensive engagement, it’s probably the biggest obstacle he needs to overcome to become a winning basketball player again, even more than the scoring inefficiency that has plagued his whole career. If last night is a harbinger of the kind of intensity Westbrook will bring so long as he’s a Laker, there’s at least something to work with.

And if the Lakers can carry last night’s defensive intensity with them when the shots inevitably do start to fall at least a little bit more, there really might be a good team in here.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can hear him on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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