Lakers

Lakers Found Defensive Acumen on Lengthy Road Trip

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The Los Angeles Lakers embarked on a daunting seven-game east coast road trip last month, posting a 5-2 record over that span. The team traveled to seven different cities in 11 days, with two sets of games being back-to-backs. Despite the lack of rest on this east swing, the team still managed to go 2-1 against the Bucks, 76ers and Celtics.

The Lakers did suffer their first two-game losing streak of the season on this trip, but the team provided great insight of what their identity may look like going forward.

Battle of Former MVPs

The Lakers made their first stop in Milwaukee to take on an under-achieving Bucks team. Just a year ago, both teams sat atop their respective conferences and were on a crash course to meet in the NBA Finals.

Entering this game, the Bucks sat at 9-6, while the Lakers were 12-4 and undefeated on the road. Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo had beaten out LeBron James in MVP voting last year along with earning Defensive Player of the Year honors over Anthony Davis, too.

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Needless to say, this game had revenge written all over it.

LeBron and Giannis traded blows all night on both ends. James finished with a then season-high 34 points, while Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 25. Lakers shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope poured in seven three-point makes in his 23-point effort– another great performance in his resurgent season.

The Lakeshow led by as much as 11 in the fourth quarter before the Bucks went on a 9-0 run with a little over three minutes to play. This had to seem like deja-vu for the team, as they had blown a 17-point fourth-quarter lead just the game before.

This game would prove to be different, however, as Caldwell-Pope, James and Alex Caruso would each knock down a three-point shot in the next three possessions, extending the lead to 111-103. The purple and gold held on for the 113-106 victory, but the team still had some kinks to work out as they nearly blew another fourth-quarter lead.

Hometown Heroes

Against the Bucks, AD posted 18 points and collected nine rebounds. This had been the fifth-straight game Davis was held below 20 points. During the postgame press conference, Davis said “I think I suck right now.” With the team in AD’s hometown of Chicago getting ready to play the Bulls, this was the perfect game for head coach Frank Vogel to get his superstar big man back on track.

The Lakers cruised to a 101-90 victory over the Bulls, but this night was all about AD. Davis finished with a season-high 37 points on an efficient 14-of-21 shooting from the field. Despite the team shooting a season-worst 21 percent from behind the arc, this game was never really in doubt.

Just as AD got to return home on this trip, LeBron was able to do the same as the team headed to Cleveland to battle the Cavaliers.

This was a homecoming for the ages for LeBron. He posted a season-high 46 points while leading the Lakers to a 115-107 victory. LBJ became the second-oldest player in franchise history to score 40 or more points in a game, behind the late Kobe Bryant who scored 60 in his final game.

Comeback Falls Short in Philly

Next on the Lakers’ road trip was a date with Joel Embiid and the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers, setting up to be another potential NBA Finals preview.

Philadelphia jumped out to a 34-18 lead in the first. LA was able to weather the storm and cut the lead to 55-51 by halftime. The Lakers went on constant scoring runs in the second half, trying to stay in the game. Embiid proved to be a force down low all night, as he dropped 28 points and was a constant matchup problem.

With 3:07 left in the game, Embiid had just converted a three-point play, putting the 76ers ahead 105-93. The Lakeshow then proceeded to go on a 13-0 run fueled by forcing turnovers and capitalizing on broken plays. This run put the Lakers up 106-105 after Davis hit the go-ahead layup with 11.2 seconds left to play.

Sixers’ head coach Doc Rivers then drew up a play for Tobias Harris, who hit a mid-range jumper from left of the elbow to give the 76ers the 107-106 victory. This marked the Lakers’ first road loss of the season, ending the streak at 10 games. The team would be looking to get back on track as they made their way to Detroit to take on the tanking Pistons.

Road Woes Continue in Detroit

After the one-point loss in Philadelphia, LBJ was looking to right the ship for his team as he came out scorching hot in the first quarter. James hit his first five shots of the game and finished the quarter with 14 points. The second quarter was more of the same for The King as he started to become more of the facilitator, getting his teammates more involved. Despite his 20 first-half points, the Lakers found themselves up only 58-56 at halftime.

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The second half was one the Lakers would soon want to forget. The team’s offense seemed to stall, as they were held to just 34 points in the half, including just 14 in the final frame. The Lakers ultimately lost this game 107-92, allowing five Pistons to score double figures. Blake Griffin finished the game with 23 on 5-for-10 from three-point range. Team defense is something the Lakers desperately needed to improve on as they headed out to Boston.

Rivalry Renewed

Following their disappointing defensive effort in Detroit, coach Vogel needed to instill adjustments fast to end the Lakers’ losing streak.

This is exactly what happened.

This Lakers-Celtics iteration was an instant classic. AD put on an absolute clinic, finishing the game with 27 points and 14 rebounds.

The Celtics’ stars also came to play, however. Jayson Tatum finished with a game-high 30 points, and Jaylen Brown added 28. Fast forward to the start of the fourth frame, the Lakers found themselves trailing 71-78 and needed to string together stops if they didn’t want to make it three-straight losses.

The team responded with a quick 8-0 run to move ahead 79-78, marking their first lead since early on in the third quarter. After Lakers guard Dennis Schroder converted a three-point play to put the team up 96-89 with 1:40 left in the game, the Celtics made a run of their own to cut the lead to 96-95.

Coming out of a timeout, Celtics guard Kemba Walker stripped Davis clean with 10 seconds left and proceeded to push the ball forward. Walker made a pass to Brown in the right corner, but Caruso deflected the pass in mid-air, slowing down Brown as he had to readjust to catch the pass. This forced Brown to swing the ball back to Walker who ended up missing the potential game-winning jumper.

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Defense Looms Large in the ATL

Having just come off a thrilling one-point victory over the Celtics, this had all signs of being a trap game for the Lakers. The team needed to maintain focus and motivation to slow down this high-scoring Hawks team, and they made it happen for the second game in a row.

The Lakers forced 19 turnovers and held the Hawks to 37-percent shooting from behind the arc. Davis and James carried the load offensively with 25 and 21 points, respectively. Lakers center Montrezl Harrell contributed 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting from the field. With just a little under a minute left in the game, the Lakers forced two consecutive turnovers that led to points on the break. These two defensive plays effectively sealed the Lakers’ 107-99 win and made for a happy flight home to Los Angeles.

Looking Ahead

Having arrived back home on the west coast after nearly two weeks on the road, the Lakers can say they found their defensive identity. They have now held their opponent under 100 points for two consecutive games. This is the momentum the team needs to build on. Lakers must perform similarly against the elite teams if they’re going to want to compete for back-to-back titles.

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About Gabriel Mungaray

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