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How changes for Lakers in Suns win can be stepping stone toward lasting success

Injuries have impacted the Lakers season but not making adjustments could have been an even bigger problem. In their win in Phoenix, they began to rectify that.

Los Angeles Lakers v Miami Heat

For the second time this season, the Lakers used a huge second-half rally to come back against, and ultimately beat, the Phoenix Suns on Friday night. The victory was the Lakers first on the road this season and was another example of their high-level play in clutch games this season, mostly on the back of LeBron James’ ability to not just make shots himself but also set up his teammates for good looks.

In many ways, this win was the Lakers' best and most important of the season. First, after losing three consecutive games — with two of those losses being blowouts — the Lakers desperately needed to get back on the right track and win a game in any way they could.

Second, the team had yet to win on the road at all and, as the Warriors showed last season, it is all too easy for consistently finding ways to drop road games to become a part of a team’s DNA — including teams that are “good”.

Third, and maybe most importantly, the win offered more evidence that the team is more in control of their own destiny than what had been implied after their loss to the Rockets just a game earlier. After that game, both Darvin Ham and LeBron James highlighted the team’s injury woes as a meaningful component of the team’s struggles but did so in a way that hinted at a resolved feeling that the team would not be able to really get back on track until they were more whole.

Now, to be fair, neither Anthony Davis nor Jaxson Hayes played in the Rockets game. Not having AD is already a major blow, but not having Hayes as well left the Lakers with only one of their three centers available, reaching the type of critical mass where their lack of size would be difficult to overcome under most circumstances.

Getting Rui Hachimura back helped bring some component of physicality and force to the team without AD and Hayes, but Rui’s not a center and isn’t really capable of playing that spot defensively without credible size and rim protection helping behind him.

Similarly, the team not having either Jarred Vanderbilt or Gabe Vincent left them without two of their primary point-of-attack defenders. As a result, the Lakers have been particularly vulnerable to attacking guards and wings who could not only get to the paint easier but, once there, would be able to score without much resistance due to the lack of size and shot blocking on the back line.

Again, missing both of these players dropped them below a level of collective ability to perform this specific task for too many minutes and it showed up over and over again.

That said, the Suns game also showed that multiple things can be true at the same time — injuries and their impacts on the team’s success are real, but also leaning too hard into the idea that injuries and injuries alone are keeping this team from being competitive and/or winning games is not entirely accurate either.

Again, it would be silly to think that the Lakers are going to win games at a high rate when their injury woes were as dire as they were when this road trip began. Being down as many forwards, bigs, and point-of-attack defenders as they were through the trip’s first four games would make it very difficult for the team to defend at the level needed, particularly over the course of full games.

But, it would also be disingenuous to act as though the team was bereft of talent entirely and that, particularly on offense, they didn’t have enough players at their disposal to be more competitive than they were through the first three games of the road trip.

Against the Rockets, for example, the Lakers started a lineup of D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves, Taurean Prince, LeBron, and Christian Wood. Those five players do not combine to be the most physically strong or imposing group and they will, as a collective, be outmuscled when defending and on the backboards. But that group is balanced offensively and has shooting, passing, playmaking, and shot creation across multiple players and positions.

In other words, they should be able to score reasonably well enough to at least make their opponent’s lives hard on that end of the floor. And, well, they didn’t. Not even close, actually.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Houston Rockets Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

And this isn’t just a one-game sample vs. Houston. Heading into the Rockets game, the Lakers were 28th in offensive rating, last in 3-point field goal percentage, 26th in 3-point shots taken, 29th in wide-open 3-point field goal attempts, 29th field goal percentage on catch-and-shoot jumpers and 24th in open 2-point field goal percentage.

None of these are good. And while some of this could be related to injuries, most of it is about players missing shots they should make and the Lakers not creating and/or taking more of the types of shots that could offer them a bit more variance and the potential to progress back to a mean level of shooting you would expect from the talent on their roster.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of this is bad luck. And some of it, again, is about personnel and who/who is not available. But more of it, I believe, is due to factors that tie back to things the Lakers can control.

This team has not been playing with enough tempo or verve in the half court. They walk or jog into and out of screens and generally play in a more methodical manner. They also lack intentionality in their sets, often playing more through improvisation than with directed sets meant to get the defense moving.

They’ve also played lineups that do not always fit well together and are unbalanced, either because they have too much of one thing and deal with diminishing returns or not enough of a thing, which can then be exploited by the opposition.

The starting lineup is a great example of this in which they have usually played four players who all require a certain amount of usage to be at their best (Austin, D’Lo, LeBron, and AD) while also playing three players who do not offer a lot of strength or physicality at their positions (Austin, D’Lo, and Prince).

The bench groups that followed were also similarly deficient in key ways, some without enough shot creation or ball handling — groups without both LeBron and D-Lo, for example — or not enough size, defense and motor supporting the LeBron groups.

The results have been a historically bad run of first quarters through the team’s first eight games, where both the starting group and the bench groups who followed continuously dug holes the team had to try to climb out of the rest of the game.

In some games before the Suns contest, smaller tweaks have been enacted with mixed results. But in Phoenix, the coaching staff made one of their most glaring changes to date by removing Austin Reaves from the starting group and replacing him with Cam Reddish. This created a more balanced lineup where Reddish’s defense and more off-ball efforts aligned well with a starting group that still had enough usage without Reaves.

The results early on were not game-altering by any means — the Lakers again fell behind by double-digits in the 1st quarter for the seventh time in nine games. But the idea was rooted in remixing the chemistry and skillsets of the first five, which is an idea that was needed considering the results so far.

As the game wore on, the bench units were also more balanced and seemed to dive into ideas that could have more staying power — playing bigger frontcourt groups, using Prince as more of a guard offensive rather than at forward, using both Austin and D-Lo in non-LeBron groups to try to generate enough offense from the wing to support AD.

Of course, one win does not solve all the Lakers' ills in the face of their ongoing injury woes. There is more work to do and it remains to be seen if ideas like playing bigger, better accounting for the physical strength of the perimeter defense, and supporting LeBron with better athletes at forward and center are lasting shifts or one-game anomalies.

But, taking a step towards change and not resting on the team’s health to be fully resolved before beginning these sorts of shifts were important. The Lakers have needed to seize the reins of their own season rather than sit back and wait for things just to work themselves out.

And, if lasting, changes towards playing bigger and with more force can set this team up for a nice run when, knock on wood, their health is better resolved.

You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.

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