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The Biggest Lesson from the Lakers’ Best Win of the Season

The Lakers have all the pieces to the puzzle. Can Darvin Ham assemble them before it’s too late?

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Minnesota Timberwolves Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Friday’s matchup at Minnesota was the Lakers’ most important game of the season. A win would vault them into into seventh and just a game-and-a-half out of the teams tied for the fifth and sixth seeds, while a loss would have dropped then into ninth with only a half-game separating them from 10, and just a game ahead of 11. Therefore, the game’s result effectively meant the difference between a puncher’s chance at a top-six seed and the automatic playoff birth that comes with it, or a virtual guarantee that the Lakers would need to win a pair of play-in games to make it in.

By way of their resounding second-half comeback led by a hobbled Anthony Davis, the Lakers have manifested that former scenario, lifting the Lakers over .500 for the first time in almost 15 months as well as the overall vibe around the team. It wasn’t just the mere fact that they won that was the most encouraging development of the evening, but it was the way they did it.

In three games now with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and D’Angelo Russell in the starting lineup, the Lakers are 3-0 against the Wolves, Bulls, and Pelicans with a combined scoring differential of plus-38. Lineups with all three headliners and Austin Reaves are outscoring opponents by 21.7 points per 100 possessions in 81 possessions. Remove Austin, and the Lakers are winning those minutes by 12.8 points per 100 in 137 possessions. In 142 possessions of lineups with LeBron and D’Lo, the Lakers are plus-17.4, while maintaining a plus-11.3 mark in 676 possessions with both AD and D’Lo. Although the size of the samples including LeBron remain small, they are congruent with the success the team has had during his absence, and should only improve as he regains his rhythm after returning from injury.

With lineups built around these groups, the Lakers have one of the statistically stronger foundations in the NBA. However, no 48-minute rotation can lean on just four players, so the structure of their supporting cast, other than health, could be the biggest factor determining how long their season ultimately lasts. Against Minnesota, it was Darvin Ham’s management of the latter part of the rotation that saw the team fall behind early, and a change that helped them surge ahead late.

For the first two quarters, Ham went to a 10-man rotation, deploying Malik Beasley and Troy Brown Jr. on the Wolves’ wings. Although Beasley hit a trio of triples and Brown was fine in his minutes, their presence forced the Lakers’ forwards onto the Wolves’ frontcourt duo, exacerbating the awkwardness of existing mismatches.

Far too often, both by choice and necessity, Jarred Vanderbilt ended up guarding one of the Wolves’ twin towers. Even with AD on the floor, the Lakers frontcourt struggled to hang in against Gobert and KAT early on with Vando giving up at least four inches and 30-plus pounds to whomever he was guarding. With AD and Vanderbilt on the floor, the Wolves opened and closed the half with plus-seven and plus-11 runs, respectively, leading to a double-digit halftime lead — a mark which matched Vando’s halftime plus-minus.

After the half, the Lakers matched up the same way, and it worked as well as it had in the first half. On the Wolves’ first three offensive possessions of the second half, they ended up with the ball in the hands of one of their bigs inside the restricted area due to Vando’s size disadvantage. A couple of minutes later, Vanderbilt came out, and the Lakers were still down by 10.

In for Vando came Wenyen Gabriel, who was then replaced by Rui Hachimura — who are each taller or heavier than Vanderbilt — giving the Lakers a bit more interior girth to deal with KAT and Gobert. Though Vando came back later — with Wenyen and Rui gobbling up Troy Brown Jr. and Malik Beasley’s second-half minutes, cutting the rotation to eight — Vanderbilt returned to guard the Wolves’ wings instead of their bigs. Now able to utilize his preternaturally switchy hips without being overpowered, Vando was a plus-18 in the remainder of his minutes, despite finishing at -3 overall.

Meanwhile, Rui Hachimura fared much better against KAT, using his superior wingspan and strength to keep Towns uncomfortable in the paint or out of it entirely.

Rui even had success off the ball on the perimeter, highlighted by this perfectly executed X-out with Austin Reaves, stopping the Wolves’ break in its tracks despite a five-on-four advantage.

In total, the Lakers won Rui’s 21 minutes by a game-high plus-20, all of which came from his second-half performance. Although neither Vanderbilt nor Hachimura were the Lakers’ most important players in the win, as that honor undeniably belongs to Anthony Davis, their first and second-half splits demonstrate how big of a role lineup construction plays in performance.

Ham deserves some credit for making the adjustment, but because it didn’t happen until after the start of the second half, it’s unclear exactly how much of it was part of the game plan versus simply riding with whatever was working.

Still, the extreme second-half swing highlights the gap between the best and worst versions of the Lakers, and the way seemingly minor adjustments can pay major dividends. Despite having now carved out a rock-solid four-man core, the Lakers have just five more must-win games to find the rest of the best version of themselves. After that is the playoffs, bringing stiffer competition, a slimmer margin for error, and the need for quicker adjustments.

Last night, the Lakers proved they have the puzzle pieces to get the job done, but we’ll have to wait and see if Darvin Ham and his staff can assemble them in what little time they have.

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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