The timeout at Vivint Arena began with just over seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, with Utah building on a 19-point lead and the Lakers‘ the starters – what was left of them – looked gassed. After being bludgeoned for 130 points by the Jazz On Friday, Los Angeles’ suddenly poor defense surrendered a season-high 139 in a 23-point rout.
“Obviously it sucks,” said Anthony Davis.
Said Darvin Ham, “We are not who we are.”
Ten games and the Lakers season slips away. They are 2 to 8 and in freefall. Blame has shifted from a lackluster shot to an erratic Russell Westbrook to (currently) a defense that has been gassed for an average of 127 points in Los Angeles’ three-game skid. On Monday, the Lakers played without james lebron, Patrick Beverly and Lonnie Walker IV. Even the most optimistic fan would probably admit that their presence wouldn’t have made a difference.
Seven Jazz players scored in double figures on Monday, with all five starters amassing at least 10 points and Collin Sexton team up with the ex-Laker Talen Horton Tucker combine for 32 off the bench. After scoring 75 points in the first half on Friday, Utah beat Los Angeles for 76 points Monday night. The Jazz beat the Lakers on the boards (41–33), doubled them in assists (30–15), and scored 58 points in the paint.
“We’ve lost all of our defensive intensity,” Davis said. “That’s what’s killing us.”
Especially in the third trimester. The Lakers haven’t been bad in third place this season. They were terrible. “Killing us all year round,” Davis said. LA ranks 29th in third-quarter point differential this season (minus-4.9), just ahead of the only team (Minnesota) that is performing poorly more than them. On Monday, the Lakers trailed the Jazz by five at halftime. At the start of the third quarter, the deficit was 17.
On Sunday, after a double-digit home loss to Cleveland, Ham took his team to task. He cited mental failures. A loss of concentration. The spirit of the Lakers, Ham said, had “left the building.” He asked players to involve Davis more (“Be organized…slow down,” Ham said), Davis to call the ball more (“He has my blessing to shout and call his own number”) and LA actors to play. “I have to step in,” Ham said, “and help our big dogs.”
On Monday, Ham was more defiant. He listed areas where the Lakers needed to improve (transition defense, clean shot challenge, winning the 50-50 ball fight) before unequivocally stating that they would.
“Write it, quote it, whatever,” Ham said. “It can happen now at the beginning of what we are trying to force to be a culture change, in terms of getting back to being highly competitive on a very consistent basis. But it’s not always going to be like that. We’ll turn the corner. I didn’t come here to lose. They didn’t bring me here to lose. But there is a process involved in which we have to go through difficult times.
“I want to bottle this. I want to kiss him. I want to have it in storage, so when things turn around and we get too comfortable and start complaining about the issues that… winning teams go through, I want to be able to reflect on those times. I don’t want anyone around me with a defeatist mentality. I don’t want anyone around me who isn’t competitive. I don’t want anyone around me who is selfish. We must be on the same page at all times. Good, bad and indifferent.
Ham regularly referred to a shift in culture, a digging, however unintentional, of what Frank Vogel left behind. But the Lakers’ troubles last season had nothing to do with Vogel, just as the early stumbles of this one have little to do with Ham. The list is imperfect. There are too few shots and there are too many bad defenders. James is two months away from turning 38, Davis has a bad back and Westbrook only recently accepted a reserve role.
LA needs change. But the question is: is there a deal out there that’s worth it? Indiana is still an option and you have to wonder if the Lakers front office was listening to Bally Sports on Monday night. Myles Turner scored 37 points, making four of his seven 3-point shots. Buddy Hield had 20 points, 15 of which came from beyond the arc. It was written here that LA should jump on a Turner/Hield deal, even at the cost of a pair of first-round picks. But there’s certainly merit in the argument that Turner and Hield won’t turn these Lakers into title contenders, and trading first-rounders this far into the future is too big a risk to take.
For now the Lakers are moving forward. “S—, 2-8 is a tough pill for me to swallow,” Davis said. They’re home for one game against the Clippers followed by (theoretically) winnable games against Sacramento, Brooklyn, Detroit and San Antonio. They will have a four-day break next week, which should allow some lingering injuries to heal. “We’re going to get through this,” Ham said. “And we’re going to be better at it.” He believes that. Frankly, he may be one of the few to do so.
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