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Behind their defense, the Lakers are starting to look the part of a contender

From one 40-point blowout to another, the Lakers have turned a corner, particularly defensively, to start to take the shape of a contender.

New Orleans Pelicans v Los Angeles Lakers: Semifinals - 2023 NBA In-Season Tournament Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

When the Lakers lost to the Sixers in Philadelphia last Monday by 44 points, the final score appeared potentially reflective of a sizable gap between the two hopeful contenders’ chances of hanging a banner by season’s end.

Even LeBron James lent credence to the idea that a loss that big meant something. When asked about what needed to change in order to avoid another lopsided loss — one that was actually the largest in James’ 21-year career — the King said, “Um, a lot.”

While the fatalistic utterance from the throne might have felt like a harbinger of dark days, the Lakers have lost just once since that night in Philly — on the second night of a back-to-back against the Thunder — and now find themselves with a chance to win the league’s very first In-Season Tournament in a winner-take-all championship game against the Pacers.

To win a single game against the league’s best offense after losing to the second-best by almost 50, they’ll have to lean into the positive trends they’ve displayed in recent days.

The biggest difference between the Lakers team that sleepwalked through Philadelphia and the one that manhandled the Pelicans on Thursday has to be the availability of the team’s wings.

In each of the Lakers’ last two losses, both on the second night of back-to-backs and culminating in a combined 67-point deficit, the Lakers lacked not just one but all of their top perimeter defenders in Cam Reddish, Jarred Vanderbilt and Gabe Vincent. Although Anthony Davis might still be the best defensive player in the world, his ability to help deter drives toward the rim is limited by the Lakers’ perimeter defenders’ capacity to slow opponents’ rack attacks.

Look at how much more impactful AD can be when he has less ground to cover:

With Reddish eating up space around C.J. McCollum and Brandon Ingram, AD can basically block out the sun for the attacking player, closing down driving and passing lanes. When AD has to sprint to recover for a teammate who’s been beaten at the point of attack, he’s more apt to give up a basket, foul, or yield an offensive rebound to his now-open man.

Kind of like a Jenga tower, remove one too many pieces and the Lakers’ whole defense comes tumbling down. Drilling down into some of the lineup data highlights the gap between the team’s staunchness when Davis is paired with a good perimeter defender and when Davis is on an island by himself.

The Lakers’ defensive rating with Davis on the floor and Reddish, Vanderbilt, and Vincent off is only just above average, ranking in the league’s 64th percentile at 112.7 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.

However, the Lakers’ defense with AD and Reddish on jumps to the 81st percentile at 111.1 points per 100 (673 possessions). With AD and Vanderbilt on, the number falls all the way to 101.4 points per 100, good enough to place their pairing in the 99th percentile (70). With both AD and Vincent on, the Lakers have a 100th percentile defense, allowing just 95.5 points per 100 possessions (150 possessions).

This trend isn’t new either. Last year, the Lakers had a 76th-percentile defense at 112.5 points per 100 with AD on and Dennis Schroder off and a 96th-percentile defense when both played, giving up just 108.6 points per 100.

Now that nearly all of the Lakers’ best perimeter defenders are healthy at the same time, the team can avoid stretches of playing as many imbalanced defensive groupings, and their overall defensive rating has started to rise accordingly. On the season, the Lakers now have the seventh-best defense and have posted the fourth-best defensive rating over the past couple of weeks.

After beginning the season with a merely middle-of-the-pack defense, the Lakers are starting to look like the group that had the league’s best defense after the trade deadline last season.

LeBron spoke directly to this increased cohesion after the Lakers’ win over the Pelicans, saying, “We’re starting to get healthy. We’re starting to see what our team looks like. We know who we’re going to be playing with on the floor.” He continued with an optimism that was absent last week in Philly, “Guys are feeling in a really good rhythm offensively and defensively.”

Now that the Lakers are getting to show off what their full-strength squad looks like in the higher-intensity context of the In-Season Tournament, they have an opportunity to learn what works at the highest levels and begin the process of building a foundation for an eventual playoff run.

Darvin Ham waxed about the way the Lakers’ have risen to the occasion for their IST games, “When we lock in and everybody’s pulling the rope in the same direction . . . we’re damn near unstoppable. It’s a beautiful thing to see this early [in the season].”

On Saturday, we’ll get to see the Lakers’ biggest test of the season to date. Although a win won’t bring them Banner No. 18 just yet, it would go a long way toward fueling the franchise’s belief that they’re on their way there.

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 find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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