Three Things to Know: Young Lakers figuring it out

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES — Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) While we were busy trying to tune LaVar Ball out, young Lakers have developed into a quality team on the rise. Heading into this season, reasonable Lakers fans (there are a few) had goals for their team of mid-30s in wins, improvement and growth as the season wore on, and building the kind of foundation that will attract free agents because they see they can win there down the line.

Since Jan. 8, the Lakers are 18-9, with the ninth best offense and 11th best defense in the NBA, and they have outscored teams by 3.1 points per 100 possessions in that stretch. Los Angeles is on pace for about 38 wins, Brandon Ingram has emerged as a reliable scorer, Kyle Kuzma surprised everyone with a strong rookie season, Julius Randle is a beast, and Lonzo Ball has found his shot (39.7 percent from three in his last 20 games) and brings the intangibles needed to push this team to new heights.

Through all the distractions and drama, the Lakers are right on schedule.

It all came together Sunday night as the Lakers ran past the Cavaliers 127-113, a game where Isaiah Thomas got a little revenge on his old team with 20 points and nine assists. A couple of things were clear sitting at this game. First, the Lakers thrive playing up-tempo, something that left the Cavaliers defense scrambling. It’s not just Lonzo Ball (although he is a catalyst), the Lakers play at the fastest pace in the league for the season and guys like Kuzma, Randle, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope thrive in it. Cleveland was cross-matching and lost in transition defense, the Lakers were moving the ball, attacking the rim and all of that led to good looks.

“We knew if we got out in transition on this team, we could have some success,” Randle said. “So that’s what we tried to do.”

The other thing evident on Sunday: Julius Randle is going to get PAID this summer. Sources say are multiple teams have set their targets the restricted free agent big man (Dallas is near the front of that list), and his play is forcing the Lakers to reconsider their plans. Los Angeles has hoarded cap space to go after two max salaries this summer, but to do so meant letting Randle walk (or he would have to resign for far less than he’s worth). That two max guys strategy has risks, starting with can the Lakers land two guys worth that money? But Randle’s play has raised the question, should Los Angeles go after one max player and then use that money to re-sign Randle?

Sunday night Randle showed exactly why other teams are getting in line to make offers in July.

Randle has limitations to his game (no jumper, for one) but Luke Walton has done an excellent job at putting him in spots to play to his strengths — playing downhill attacking the basket, being physical, and getting rebounds. With teams switching everything on picks, it creates mismatches for a physically strong player to attack one-on-one. Randle just powered through Jeff Green multiple times Sunday night, and the small-ball Cavaliers had no other answer, so Randle racked up a career-best 36 points.

“Everybody’s had a hard time with him of late,” LeBron James said of Randle.

That’s true of the entire Lakers team.

2) Kyrie Irving misses second half with knee soreness, Pacers beat Celtics, move ahead of Cavaliers to three seed. The biggest news to come out of Sunday was this: Kyrie Irving did not play the second half against Indiana due to general knee soreness, and it sounds like he is going to get some rest down the stretch. Irving has had concerns about his knee since breaking his kneecap in the 2015 NBA Finals, and now he needs to get it some rest. We’ll see if he plays Wednesday for Boston vs. Washington, but the Celtics need him at full power for the playoffs — Boston’s already pedestrian offense is 7.6 points per 100 possessions worse when Irving sits this season.

Without Irving, the Celtics shot 38.9 percent in the second half and could not hold off Victor Oladipo (27 points) and the Pacers Sunday, falling 99-97. Combine that with the Raptors rolling the Knicks, and the Celtics are now 3.5 games back of Toronto and not likely to make up that ground for the top seed in the East heading into the playoffs.

However, if getting the top seed to avoid Cleveland in the second round is the goal, the Raptors may be in trouble. With Indiana’s win and the Cavaliers getting swept in Los Angeles over the weekend, the Pacers are now the three seed in the East and Cleveland has fallen to fourth. We’ll see if that lasts, the Pacers have the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the NBA, but the idea of the Cavaliers as the four seed is not out of the question.

3) Out West, Anthony Davis returns to starting lineup, posts a triple-double with 10 blocks, and it’s not enough vs. Jazz. Also, the Timberwolves beat the Warriors. Out West, things got a little tighter on Sunday. If that’s even possible.

It was good news for the Pelicans that Anthony Davis only missed one game with a sprained ankle, and he returned with a vengeance scoring 25 points and blocking 10 shots.

But that wasn’t enough — Utah’s defense held New Orleans down and Ricky Rubio had 30 points on the way to a 116-99 win. That win kept the Jazz in a virtual three-way tie with the Clippers and Nuggets for the final playoff slot in the West. All three of those teams are just 3.5 games back of Portland in the three seed.

The other big game in the West was Minnesota getting 31 from Karl-Anthony Towns and beating the shorthanded Warriors 109-103. That moved Minnesota up to the five seed, in a virtual tie with New Orleans for fourth.