The team that scores the most points always wins, and the Los Angeles Lakers opened their first Kobe-less season in 20 years by out-pointing the Houston Rockets by a final tally of 120-114.
It was a game almost totally devoid of defense, as evidenced by both teams making more shots than they missed — Lakers 50.6 percent and Rockets 51.2 percent.
Under Luke Walton’s direction, LA’s offense wasn’t quite a So-Cal version of Golden State’s game plan. For sure, there was plenty of off-ball movement and screens galore — including two sequences where D’Angelo Russell was presented with triple screens (resulting in a missed trey and a harmless pass).
For the most part, though, the Lakers’ half-court sets depended on isolations — for Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Luol Deng, Lou Williams, Timofey Mozgov and even one for their prize rookie, Brandon Ingram. But the most efficient one-on-one scorer was Julius Randle, who scored seven of his nine buckets on isos.
All told, the Lakers ran 34 isos that produced 31 points. Plus, five players launched 10 shots or more — a nice distribution.
Let’s take a closer look at some of LA’s individual performances.
Randle was a beast — 9-11 for 18 points — and never ceased being aggressive. His driving flipper against Nene in the closing minutes was a critical play.
Jordan Clarkson’s isos resulted in several scores — 8-12, 25 points — but also four turnovers. However, Clarkson totally redeemed himself with his clutch play, hitting a big trey, then coming up with a put-back to ice the victory.
Russell’s numbers looked good — 7-16 including 4-10 from downtown for 20 points. Even so, he remains a shoot-first performer who’s incapable of running a disciplined offense. Indeed, in the endgame, Clarkson mostly played the point and Russell the shooting guard.
As the team is currently structured, the only true PG is Marcelo Huertas. In his five minutes on the court, Huertas’ three assists equaled Russell’s total and tripled Clarkson’s.
Timofey Mozgov showed why he’s almost worth his gigantic contract. He set crushing screens, made efficient cuts/rolls and even ran himself into two baskets. His stat sheet included eight rebounds, two assists, 6-10 shooting and 12 points in 22 minutes. The Lakers even gave him three chances to score on isos in the low post, but Mozgov came up empty.
Ingram had a plus outing — 4-6, nine points — but we’ll give him more time to get adjusted before zeroing in on his game.
If LA’s offense was potent, their defense was mostly impotent. Their major failings at the uphill end of the court included poor screen-and-roll and transition defense, and several foolish fouls (especially by Metta World Peace, who bullied his way to three fouls in his two minutes of play). Twice, the Lakers fouled three-point shooters.
Worse was their interior defense. Mozgov played good position defense but was slow reacting. Larry Nance Jr. was more of a spectator than an active helper.
Even though Houston’s Harden-centric offense was usually slow to develop, the Rockets were able to make 30 layups. However, the Rockets failed to score enough points to win the game mainly because they were only 7-29 from beyond the arc, as compared to LA’s 12-35 from out there.
Still, the Lakers’ defense did show some improvement in the second half.
So, Walton’s reign begins with a satisfying win. It’s clear that the team has enough offense to score points-a-plenty, but it’s their defense that will determine their ultimate fate.