It’s not how you start, but how you finish.
That age-old adage rings true in a lot of cases. Both in sports, and in life. But for the Lakers this season, it’s the first 12 minutes of each game that continues to haunt them like a lingering specter composed entirely out of their mistakes, flaws and everything else that has led them to this point.
In their most recent contest, the team allowed the Timberwolves to build a 13 point lead after just the first quarter. In the previous game, the Raptors needed just three minutes to sprint to a 13-2 cushion on the Lakers’ home floor, ultimately winning the quarter 33-12. And against Phoenix — in yet another nationally televised game — the deficit heading into the second frame was an embarrassing 26 points. All three were just more low points in a year filled with them.
Since the all-star break, the Lakers have won just two of their first 11 games. It’s crushed any hope for a strong second half, and in the process, cemented their place in — or potentially completely out of — the league’s play-in tournament. And within each of those recent losses, the results have almost always been traced back to these types of slow starts.
“Just too many times where we just get into big deficits,” Frank Vogel told reporters on Wednesday.
“It takes its toll on your individual psyche and the psyche of your group. You’re constantly trying to push your guys to be better and coaching them hard, but also trying to keep them lifted because it definitely takes its toll on your psyche, just the amount of times we’ve been down 20-plus points this season. It’s been very difficult.”
The Lakers have been outscored by 61 points in the 1st quarter in their last 3 games. It is the 2nd-worst 1st-quarter points differential over a 3-game span in the shot-clock era (Since 1954-55)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 17, 2022
The Spurs were outscored by 62 points in the 1st quarter over a 3-game span in 1989. pic.twitter.com/2Jxmoi8kJ2
The deflating effect Vogel referenced hasn’t been a sudden blip or a bad case of deja vu, but rather a season-long trend that has routinely ailed the club, and it has only gotten worse as of late.
So the natural question is — why does this keep happening?
Although there are ultimately a myriad of answers, each as valid as the next, this recent span has arguably highlighted the most prominent issues the Lakers have as currently constructed.
As of this article, the Lakers are ranked dead last in the following first-quarter categories since the All-Star break: offensive rating (91.8), turnover % (16.8%), true-shooting percentage (49.1%) and net rating (-24.3). They are also 29th when it comes to rebound percentage and 18th in defensive rating. Essentially, the team has been a smorgasbord of bleh, and it’s all been a recipe for disaster when it comes to putting their best foot forward to start each game.
The offense, as the numbers above suggest, has been woefully disorganized and punchless from the tip regardless of lineup configuration, opponent or arena. Although an aspect like their high turnover rate has been a factor, perhaps the biggest culprit to their poor scoring outputs early is simply due to their inability to convert on their open chances.
According to the league’s tracking data, the Lakers have actually attempted the third-most wide-open (defender 6+ feet away from the shooter) 3-point attempts (57) in the first quarter since the all-star break. This is typically a good sign for an offense! However, on those opportunities, the team has only been able to convert at an almost unfathomable 22.8% clip.
That is not a typo, and also absolutely not a good sign for an offense.
Beyond the negatives that come with leaving points on the table early on, there is also the cascading impact it has on the rest of the game.
The perspiration on the ball begins to feel a bit more noticeable and harder to line up. The anticipation that sizzles from the home crowd on that next attempt becomes more audible, hostile. The defense begins to smugly concede these open shots, loading up instead within the paint. A vicious cycle that all begins with that first miss.
“Just keep shooting. It’s as simple as that,” said Russell Westbrook of how the team could circumvent those early shooting slumps after the team’s loss to the Wolves. “We came in with the right mindset, we just missed some shots.”
The law of averages does indeed suggest that the Lakers will eventually snap the frigid spell they’re currently experiencing offensively, but there are other areas that may not be as easy to kick. That is, until Anthony Davis comes back at least.
While Davis has been sidelined, the team has reverted back to their small-ball approach with LeBron James at center, and although that strategy has proven to have its offensive benefits, it also puts the team at a noticeable size disadvantage at the start of each game.
This has been most felt on the glass and in terms of rim protection, where between the combination of the aforementioned height difference (e.g Malik Monk being forced to be the defensive low man or boxing-out a big) and the team’s own continued lethargy, opposing squads have stomped all over the welcome mat the Lakers have laid out in front of them.
There is ultimately no one thing the Lakers can do that will solve their first-quarter woes, but a good start would be to take proactive steps toward addressing it. The team has spoken a lot about their reoccurring issues, the slow starts being among them, but when it has come to the actual change necessary to fix them, there has been little to no actual and consistent steps forward.
Until that happens, the team will likely continue to find themselves in a hole after the first 12 minutes of every game. Perhaps it will only be when their season ends far earlier than they originally expected that they will be able to look down at their hands and realize they alone were the ones who dug it.