by Robert Reeves
Stop the presses, and stop laughing.
The Lakers may have lost Tuesday night to the Memphis Grizzlies, but their performance was a worthy follow-up to a convincing win two nights ago against the Charlotte Hornets. They parlayed that 107-92 victory, keyed by a huge third-quarter rally, into a valiant assault on the league’s best home team. And they nearly won.
The game was tight until, with 6:50 remaining in the fourth, the Grizzlies opened up a 17-point lead.
You’re forgiven for suffering pangs of deja vu. This Lakers team has displayed an early-season predilection for folding late.
But instead of calling it a night and bending to the will of the Grizzlies, the Lakers took it right to their chest and brought the game back within three. Had a few calls gone differently, the Lakers could have easily taken this one.
The Grizzlies haven’t lost at home since February 5, 2014, but this victory was anything but convincing. They were left to cling ever-so-tenuously to a five-point win that was even closer than the score indicates.
Here’s your takeaway, and your headline: Lakers punchlines premature.
Keep in mind that the Lakers remain shorthanded. Tonight, they were without their three best options from behind the arc: Nick Young, Ryan Kelly, and Wayne Ellington. Young has a sixth-man role waiting for him once he recovers from a torn ligament in his thumb. After a seven-minute foray back into the lineup, Kelly is again rehabbing his problematic hamstring.
Ellington’s absence was of the tragic variety. He’s been granted indefinite leave to be with family in the wake of his father’s unexplained murder.
The absolute seriousness of the tragedy renders the basketball side irrelevant. But it should be said that the Lakers will welcome back Ellington’s veteran presence and outside stroke. They shot just 7-22 from three tonight.
Forget the missing trio and the Lakers still aren’t playing up to their potential. They’re lapsing too often at the end of possessions on defense. They’re giving up too much on the offensive glass - eight offensive rebounds to the Grizzlies in the first quarter alone. They’re letting guys sneak inside. They’re sleeping on perimeter shooters. They’re fouling too much. And for all his brilliance, Kobe hasn’t found a consistent shooting rhythm.
Which is all to say, this Lakers team will improve. All those issues can be addressed.
With those caveats admitted, we can return to the things this Lakers team is doing right.
Their offensive fluidity is now somehow enviable. Kobe is playing within the offense rather than ball-stopping. The result is a team that can hang 102 points on the Grizzlies, who were holding teams to a league-best 86.7 points per game, without once catching fire.
Their defensive activity is increasingly good, despite their lapses. They’re playing together on that end.
Meanwhile, the early panic over three-point shooting is over. Byron Scott’s declaration that threes don’t win championships - and his prescription of 10-15 attempts per game - is giving way to simple facts. The Lakers attempted 17 threes Sunday against the Hornets and 22 against the Grizzlies, and are much better for it.
Jeremy Lin is playing with mounting confidence. So is Carlos Boozer, who remains of use as long as he’s crashing the boards and can produce one-on-one out of the post. Jordan Hill has emerged as a surprising threat from 15-18 feet, completely altering the face of the Lakers offense. Even Wesley Johnson seems to be emerging out of his self-inflicted malaise.
The bench desperately needs Young, but the groundwork is laid for him. Ronnie Price is inexplicably a demon on defense, sopping up 1.7 steals per game in just 21.8 minutes through the first six games, and is quietly among the league’s best in assist-to-turnover ratio. Ed Davis is a revelation as the team’s best shot-blocker and interior finisher. Ellington, when he returns, will reassume his role as the dependable sharpshooter.
Bizarrely enough, in complete contradiction of their record, the Lakers are practically rolling.
Which is to say, this is probably the best team with a 1-6 record in NBA history.
But how will their improving play manifest in terms of Ws and Ls as the Lakers continue to march through their trial by fire?
Their game tomorrow night against the Pelicans may be the most winnable until November 18 against the Hawks. Between those two contests, they face the Spurs and Warriors. After the Hawks, it’s the Rockets, Mavericks, Nuggets, and again the Grizzlies. No respite there for a team already battered by the vagaries of NBA scheduling and the realities of the Western Conference.
The only strategy available is to march on with the same grit they displayed at FedEx Forum. Wins will come. And so, they hope, will reinforcements.