To say the Lakers have struggled in the opening quarter of games this season would be an understatement. They’ve been outscored 129-95 in the first four games and the only time they won the first quarter was in their most recent matchup against the Orlando Magic, which resulted in a 106-103 win.
First quarter: Lakers 29, Magic 24— Jovan Buha (@jovanbuha) October 31, 2023
This is the first time LA hasn't trailed by double digits at the end of the first quarter. AD has 8 points -- LA has found creative ways to get him the ball. The lineup of Hayes/Wood/Reddish/Vincent/DLo edged ORL's bench 13-8 to end the qtr.
The old saying goes ‘it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” but for the purple and gold, these early deficits put the team in a huge hole. It’s less than ideal for a struggling jump-shooting team to be asked to score in bunches to get back into games.
These self-inflicted wounds, according to head coach Darvin Ham, can be fixed by cleaning up their early game defense.
“The trend is us giving up a lot of points in these first quarters. But, the trend has also been our defense is tightening up over the course of the game,” Ham said after Sunday’s loss to the Kings. “So, that trend needs to continue. But if we could just, again, come out in the first quarter with a defensive focus and really be highly competitive on that side of the ball, that has to be our identity. Just setting the tone early and often with our defense.”
With a defensive rating of 109, good for 13th in the league, the Lakers are performing in a similar position as last year’s team despite the poor starts. This backs up Ham’s hypothesis that the team does, in fact, “tighten up over the course of the game.”
Even so, trailing every night after 12 minutes of play can’t be a winning formula long-term. The Lakers, in four games, have played three top Western Conference teams so perhaps the bad starts are happening due to the quality of the competition.
Through four games this season, the Lakers in 1st quarters have an offensive rating of 89.6 (28th in league), a defensive rating of 122.9 (25th) and a net rating of -33.2 (29th).— Jacob Rude (@JacobRude) October 31, 2023
Still, similar to the champion Denver Nuggets and the historically good Golden State Warriors, the Lakers have to realize opponents will go at them with a bit more energy because of the name on the front of the jersey, particularly at the start of games.
“We’re going to get everybody’s best punch. We’re the Lakers,” Ham said. “We have certain individuals on our team so everybody wants to have a night against us. Hell, that’s the way it is. I’m not complaining about that. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
One thing I’m sure Ham would like to have another way is Jarred Vanderbilt’s availability. He was an integral defensive piece of the Lakers roster last season but has not played this year due to a left heel bursitis injury and since he won’t be re-evaluated for another two weeks, the Lakers will have to manage without their defensive wing a while longer.
There’s still plenty of time to fix this early trend. As D’Angelo Russell has said, the team is “figuring it out,” so first-quarter defensive lapses are not yet an identifying trait of the 2023-24 Lakers.
Let’s hope it doesn’t become one.
You can follow Edwin on Twitter at @ECreates88.