The Portland Trail Blazers, led by fourth-quarter assassin Damian Lillard, pulled off a thrilling 108-103 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday night. It took late-game heroics — Lillard dropped 19 of his game-high 39 points in the fourth — and some mind-boggling decision making from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but the Blazers were able to hang on and build a slight lead over the fourth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans.
That wasn’t the story.
Not only was Blazers-Lakers close for a majority of the contest, the Lakers probably should’ve won that game. That becomes more plausible when you consider that the Lakers were missing Brandon Ingram. Beyond that, had they been able to pull off the victory, it wouldn’t have been seen as an upset or surprise. That’s a testament to how well the Lakers have played of late.
Including Monday’s loss, the Lakers are 17-8 since January 6. Only six teams — the Rockets, Jazz, Blazers, Pacers, Warriors, and Raptors — have more wins during that span. The Lakers are also one of three teams (Rockets, Raptors) to rank in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency over that stretch. Their recent success is due to their talented young core making legitimate strides.
Lonzo Ball is turning the corner
For better or worse, fair or unfair, everything begins and ends with Lonzo Ball. The polarizing guard has been the most scrutinized player from his draft class. He has been compared to Magic Johnson by the man himself; he has been compared to Michael Carter-Williams and Elfrid Payton on Twitter.
Let’s just say there’s quite the spectrum concerning the young man.
Some of the question marks were valid. Up until this recent stretch, Ball couldn’t hit much of anything. In his first 32 games, Ball averaged 10.1 points while shooting 45.5 percent in the restricted area, 25 percent from mid-range, and 30.3 percent from 3 on 5.2 attempts. Since January 6 (only nine games for Ball due to injury), Ball has bumped his scoring average to 11.4. He has made significant strides from deep, drilling 44.1 percent of his triples on 6.6 attempts. He has only marginally improved at the rim (47.2 percent), and he has missed all… [checks notes] … two of his mid-range attempts since returning.
Ball will need to get stronger in order to absorb contact at the rim and finish, or at least get to the free throw line. The fact that his 3-point shot has come around is important on two accounts. If he isn’t going to get to the rim or to the line, he has to be able to knock down open shots. He’s doing that now. Once teams start respecting his jumper, specifically in pick-and-roll situations, opponents won’t be able to slide under screens. That’ll lead to more driving opportunities, which will further open up the offense for himself, or force the defense to collapse and create kickouts.
What hasn’t been questioned is his playmaking ability. Ball has displayed his sage-like vision in transition and the half-court. His understanding of where his guys are and what the defense is doing is one thing; his ability to process that information in the blink of an eye is absurd. His most impressive pass of the season didn’t even result in an assist:
Miami altered its pick-and-roll defense from the usual two-on-two to more of its Big Three-era blitzing scheme. As Justise Winslow and Hassan Whiteside trap the Ingram-Brook Lopez pick-and-roll, Goran Dragic rotates up to take away the kickout to Lopez, as well as give Whiteside time to retreat to the big. Ingram finds Ball, but then Ball pings the ball back to Lopez while he’s still in the air. You can’t teach that kind of anticipation.
Brandon Ingram growing as a creator
Ingram looks like a completely different player than he was last season. He has gotten stronger, though he remains rail-thin. The biggest change has come in his play style. He is more aggressive and is starting to realize how much of a mismatch he is.
Last season, Ingram averaged 4.8 drives per contest. He shot an abysmal 39.8 percent on drives, placing him 99th among 112 players to appear in 50 games and average at least four drives. He assisted on only 6.6 percent of his drives, also putting him near the bottom of the league.
This season, Ingram has more than doubled his drive attempts to 10.6, placing him 24th in the league. He’s shooting 47.7 percent and assisting on 7.9 percent of his drives. The change has been night and day.
Not many defenders can deal with his combination of length, ballhandling, speed, and his natural long strides. He can get to the rim in a couple of dribbles and finish around, over, or through enemy arms. The encouraging part — or scary part if you’re the opposition — is that he’s starting to leverage the threat of the drive to free up looks for his teammates.
In the clips below, you’ll see him beating talented defenders Paul George, Wes Matthews, and Justise Winslow off the dribble, then capping his drives with tough finishes or slick passes once the defense collapses:
Ingram has been filling the stat sheet over his last 21 games, slapping down 16.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 4.9 assists with a 51/47/72 shooting split. The only other player to match or exceed his numbers in this time frame is Kevin Durant, a player he has been (lazily) compared to since he entered the league. Still, he’s in great company. Ingram — by becoming the long do-it-all wing teams are dying to acquire — is a welcome development for L.A.
Julius Randle: More than a professional bully
This is an example of what Julius Randle can do — and has always been able to do — since he entered the league:
That is Randle, a 6-9 bundle of bad intentions, taking the ball coast to coast, putting his shoulder into the chest of Kelly Olynyk, dislodging him, and finishing with relative ease. He is shooting nearly 64 percent and generating over 112 points per 100 transition possessions. Both marks put him in the upper half of the league.
Randle is the NBA’s Marshawn Lynch, a bowling ball who punishes defenders that dare to stop his forays to the basket. Even on nights when he doesn’t score efficiently, he makes his presence felt in the literal sense.
Luckily for the Lakers, he has been a beast in the paint all year. He is boasting career highs in points (15.2) and field goal percentage (56.1) thanks to his elite finishing ability. He has converted 70.2 percent of his looks inside the restricted area, the 12th-best mark among 86 players who have taken at 200 shots at the rim. He has thrived on the low block (58th percentile on post-ups via Synergy) and wreaks havoc when he rolls to the basket in pick-and-roll (80th percentile).
We know what Randle can and can’t do offensively. His rugged play style bodes well when paired with a spacer in the frontcourt (like Brook Lopez, in theory), or when he is the lone big on the floor. The questions for Randle have mostly been on defense. He doesn’t have the size or length to operate as a five, and he has mostly struggled to defend in space. The latter point has been changing of late.
Randle has always been mobile. Now, he is doing a better job of holding his own when switching out on the perimeter. He has shown legitimate flashes of being able to switch across three or sometimes four positions within a possession without getting toasted:
Arguably no young player has improved his stock more than Randle over the last couple of months. Once seen as a throw-in to get off the Luol Deng contract, his play should place him back in the discussion as one of the Lakers’ core pieces.
The only young piece who has struggled is Kyle Kuzma, a versatile scorer and one of the biggest steals from last year’s draft. After a hot start, he is finally starting to hit the rookie wall:
- First 20 games: 16.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 50/38/77 shooting split
- Next 21 games: 16.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 43/36/70 shooting split
- Last 21 games: 12.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 40/35/54 shooting split
Still, performances such as his efficient 18-point showing against the Miami Heat last Thursday fall in line with what we’ve seen for the majority of the year.
The Lakers won’t make the playoffs this year, but the play of their young pieces should excite the organization and fan base alike. They’re running teams off the floor while also managing to play with great effort defensively. Even if their recent run isn’t enough to land a LeBron or Paul George in the summer, continued development from the pups will make it easier to sign a star — or package pieces and trade for one — in the near future.