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Too early to panic about Lakers, but this is a flawed team

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LOS ANGELES — The Lakers are going to be a quality NBA team. Sooner rather than later.

Don’t take my word for it, take Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich’s.

“They’re just going to get better and better,” Popovich said after his team became the latest to execute better in the clutch and knock off the Lakers this season. “Luke (Walton) has done a great job with this group, still a very young group… and LeBron’s a great teacher, a great role model, and they’ll just get better and better and better. By that I mean mentally, as much as physically…

“The leadership of LeBron, he’ll demand a lot and he’ll help them all raise to another level for sure.”

Nobody around the Lakers doubts that.

Nobody expected a 0-3 start with the sixth-worst defense in the NBA, either. Los Angeles is allowing 131.7 points per game through three games (their top three pace is part of the reason for that eye-popping number, the Lakers play fast so the opposing team gets more chances against a porous defense).

The Lakers’ shooting was a concern going into the season and those worries have proven justified — Los Angeles is taking 31.4 percent of their shots from three (close to the league average) but are hitting just 29.3 percent of those shots, third worst in the NBA. While their shooting has had hot streaks — L.A. hit 6-of-7 at one point against the Spurs Monday, after starting 4-of-20 —the lack of consistency is not keeping opposing defenses honest. Opposing defenders are packing the paint and making it difficult to execute in the halfcourt, cutting off post passes, jumping in lanes and closing off angles used by the brilliant passers the Lakers have on their roster.

It’s been frustrating. For the team and the fans (who came in with wild expectations with LeBron James in purple and gold).

Yet, nobody around the Lakers is reaching for a panic button, or even looking to see where it is located yet.

“We’re going to continue to get better. I like the direction we’re going in,” LeBron James said after the latest loss. “Obviously, we don’t have too many wins right now but it’s such a long process….

“We want to defend, we know that’s going to be our staple. We know we’re going to have to defend. When we defend and rebound, we’re very good, just trying to figure out how to defend without fouling.”

“We still have to get used to each other defensively,” Josh Hart added. “We have to know individually when [we] have guys contained and work on not overhelping, not giving up open threes like that. We’re good. We have a young team and it’s a learning experience.”

“We’ve gotten better. It’s only been a month together,” said coach Luke Walton (whose name came up on the top of a gambling site’s list of odds for the first coach to be fired). “We’re rebounding the ball better, we might even have had more rebounds than they did tonight (the Lakers did have more rebounds and more offensive rebounds total than the Spurs). Our assist numbers are up where we want them and we haven’t even started hitting shots yet….

“The way we want to play, I think the pace has been great. All these things as far as who we are as a team are happening. And now we’ve got to close out games and get stops down the stretch and not foul down the stretch. I feel very good about where we’re headed.”

This Laker team is going to find its footing and win games (next up is the Suns, in Phoenix, on Friday).

However, this is also a flawed roster, and how far LeBron and the offense can lift this team is a question back in the spotlight after this start.

Continuity is one problem for Los Angeles.

In each of Lakers’ three losses — Portland opening night, Houston, San Antonio — have come to playoff teams from last season, and teams that have a strong identity. Continuity matters early in the NBA season and the Lakers don’t have any after a lot of roster turnover last summer. That lack of familiarity has come to a head in crunch time in each game — especially the first two. However, against the Spurs, it was the Lakers making plays when down 8 with 1:10 left in regulation, and a LeBron three sent it to overtime. An overtime the Lakers dominated, they were up 6 with :55 left… and then the continuity issues returned, the Spurs executed better, LeBron missed two free throws, and San Antonio went on a 7-0 run to get the win.

“I don’t like to use moral victories, but kind of bodes well,” Kyle Kuzma said. “The three teams we have played all played together for quite sometime. We are a new team and to be in every single game, it sort of means something.”

The Laker offense will be fine, mostly because of the commitment to run (23.7 percent of the Lakers’ possessions this season started in transition, the highest in the league, stat via Cleaning The Glass). The concern is the Lakers lack the shooting needed in the modern game — something Magic Johnson said the Lakers did consciously, they wanted to put more playmakers around LeBron, not just shooters as had been done in Miami and Cleveland — but LeBron is right that when the Lakers get stops and run they are a good team.

Whether they can get enough stops is another question.

When JaVale McGee is on the court this season, the Lakers are a good defensive team (allowing 103 points per 100 possessions, which would be fifth best as a team in the league). However, the team is a dismal 18.1 per 100 worse when he sits. JaVale’s rim protection and rebounding matter that much in the paint. Luke Walton has rolled McGee out there for 23.3 minutes per game, the most he has played since the 2011-12 season, and he was on the court more than 28 minutes vs. San Antonio. McGee only has so many minutes in him a night, and the Lakers may be bumping up against that.

For the Lakers, much of their issues are about communication and recognition on defense — things that come with time and familiarity. Or, continuity. The Lakers look like a team assembled this summer that is still figuring everything out.

Which is exactly what they are. What they should have been expected to be, rather than the pressure some put on them of a three-seed and 50+ win team. This was always going to take time. The only challenge is, in the deep West, time can run out much more quickly.

“It’s early in the season, it’s three losses,” Hart said. “Like you said, it’s always tight in the West. Sometimes getting into the playoffs can be one game, or half a game. It’s tough. But I feel like once we get that first win, the team will be rolling. We just have to get that first one.”

The optimism remains. And there’s not a panic button in sight in Los Angeles.

Damian Lillard drops 40, leads Blazers past Wizards

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WASHINGTON (AP) Damian Lillard scored 40 points, C.J. McCullom added 25 and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Washington Wizards 119-109 on Sunday.

Jusuf Nurkic had 13 points, 14 rebounds and matched his career high with eight assists for Portland.

The Trail Blazers, coming off a 112-96 loss at Minnesota on Friday, snapped a two-game losing streak and improved to 11-5.

John Wall scored 24 points and Kelly Oubre, Jr. added 19 for the Wizards, who slipped to 5-11.

The Trail Blazers started quickly, hitting 7 for 9 shots from 3-point range and taking a 32-12 lead with 3:54 remaining in the first quarter. Washington scored 15 straight and closed to 32-27, but Portland outscored the Wizards 30-14 and led 62-41 at the half.

Lillard scored 13 points in the second quarter and added 18 in the third.

Washington, which trailed by 29 points in the third, cut the deficit to 115-107 with 51 seconds to play.

Dwight Howard, who missed the first seven games of the season with gluteal soreness, aggravated the injury in the second quarter and was ruled out at halftime after scoring two points and picking up three fouls in seven minutes.

TIP INS:

Trail Blazers: G Seth Curry (right knee) missed his second straight game. … F Maurice Harkless (left knee) sat out his 11th in a row. . C Zach Collins picked up four fouls in eight first-half minutes and fouled out in the fourth quarter after playing just 13 minutes. … F Al-Farouq Aminu also fouled out late in the fourth.

Wizards: Coach Scott Brooks was assessed a technical foul in the third quarter. . Oubre picked up a fourth quarter technical foul. . G Jordan McRae was recalled from the G League Capital City Go-Go, but didn’t dress. McRae is averaging 36.7 points in three games in the G League.

UP NEXT:

Trail Blazers: Visit the Knicks in the fourth of a five-game road trip on Tuesday

Wizards: Host the Clippers in the final game of a five-game homestand on Tuesday

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Josh Jackson yells at teammate ‘You want to f—king play or what?’ (VIDEO)

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The Phoenix Suns are a bad team. They aren’t the worst team in the NBA — the Cleveland Cavaliers have them edged out there — but it’s clear there’s some serious work to do with this young squad moving forward.

It’s early in the season, but even with many young players in a development year, most would like to put a few more wins up on the board. As such, when poor or low effort play is involved, it’s possible for tensions to boil over.

That’s what happened on Saturday night as the Suns took on the Oklahoma City Thunder. During an inbounds play with a few seconds left to go in the third quarter, sloppy play by his Phoenix teammates led Josh Jackson to yell at TJ Warren.

Via Twitter:

I mean, someone has to come to the ball there, right? That’s some 5th grade basketball nonsense right there.

Perhaps Warren and the rest of the Suns thought that Jackson would try to launch the ball into their own half of the court to get a closer shot? In any case more communication was necessary.

The Suns lost to the Thunder, 110-100, and dropped to 3-12 on the season.

LeBron James scores 51 points, Lakers torch Heat 113-97

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MIAMI (AP) LeBron James scored 51 points against his former club and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Miami Heat 113-97 on Sunday night.

James had 19 points in the first quarter to set the tone, the Lakers led by as many as 21 and never trailed.

The 51 points were a season high for James, and the most he’s scored against Miami; he had 47 against the Heat twice. His last shot was a 32-footer with 16 seconds left, capping the 13th 50-point game of his career – including playoffs – and he threw the ball skyward at midcourt when time expired.

It was James’ first time winning against Miami since he left the Heat after the 2014 NBA Finals. He was 0-4 when facing the Heat since; his teams were 0-7, when including the three Cleveland-Miami games that he sat out for various reasons.

Wayne Ellington scored 19 points for Miami (6-10), which has dropped four straight home games and is off to its second-worst start in the last 12 years. The Heat were 5-11 at this point of the 2016-17 season, the only other time they’ve been worse after 16 games in that span.

Josh Richardson scored 17 points before getting ejected in the fourth quarter after throwing one of his sneakers about 15 rows deep into the crowd, while he was arguing about what he thought should have been a foul call that didn’t come his way. Tyler Johnson also had 17 points for the Heat, while Rodney McGruder added 14.

Goran Dragic missed the game for Miami because of a right knee problem, one that will be further evaluated Monday. Dwyane Wade missed his seventh consecutive game for the Heat because of the birth of his and wife Gabrielle Union-Wade’s daughter; it’s possible that Wade returns to the Heat this week.

Miami hasn’t forgotten James, obviously – he still gets loud cheers when introduced in his former home arena – but just in case anyone in attendance needed a reminder of what’s in his skillset, he put on a show. He made eight of his first nine shots and had the whole arsenal working; dunks in transition, stepback 3-pointers, turnarounds from the baseline.

But the biggest shot for the Lakers might have come from Brandon Ingram with 3:46 left. Miami had clawed within eight and the shot clock was about to expire on the Lakers, but Ingram connected on a long jumper from the left wing to make it 104-94.

From there, the only drama was whether James would get 50. And he did.

TIP-INS

Lakers: This game is part of a long weekend of sorts in Miami for the Lakers, who arrived Saturday night after playing in Orlando and aren’t scheduled to fly to Cleveland until Tuesday. … Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 19 points, Kyle Luzma scored 15 and Ingram finished with 13.

Heat: The last time Miami lost four straight at home was early in the 2014-15 season, which was actually a five-game slide. … Miami had the rare five-shot possession in the third quarter, with three missed layups and a missed jumper, all of them rebounded by the Heat, before Ellington made a 3-pointer. … The Heat fouled 3-point shooters twice in the first half, after doing so only twice – total – in the season’s first 15 games.

CONSISTENT LEBRON

Whenever James changes teams – Cleveland to Miami in 2010, Miami to Cleveland in 2014, Cleveland to the Lakers this past summer – the same thing always happens: His new team starts 9-7. The Lakers surely hope the other thing that happens when James changes teams holds true, since the 2010-11 Heat and 2014-15 Cavs both went to the NBA Finals.

HEAT HELP

James Johnson played for the first time this season after finally being declared good to go following offseason sports hernia surgery. He had four fouls in the first half and finished with eight points.

UP NEXT

Lakers: Visit Cleveland on Wednesday. The Lakers are 2-11 in their last 13 trips to Cleveland.

Heat: Host Brooklyn on Tuesday. The Heat defeated the Nets 120-107 in Brooklyn last week.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Watch Josh Richardson get ejected for throwing a shoe into the stands

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It can be annoying when you can’t complete a simple task sometimes. For example, like when you are trying to put your shoe on and it just won’t work, for whatever reason. Did you suddenly forget how? Why aren’t your fingers working? Did your foot get fatter? A million dumb questions run through your mind at times like these.

That’s apparently what happened to Miami Heat wing Josh Richardson on Sunday as he took on the Los Angeles Lakers.

Halfway through the fourth quarter, Richardson felt that he was fouled on an attempt at the rim. He didn’t get the call, and needed to adjust his shoe in the meantime. When Los Angeles took possession of the ball — and with Richardson still without his shoe — the University of Tennessee product took an aggressive foul on LeBron James.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra then subbed Richardson out as he continued to try to put on his shoe. Frustrated that he couldn’t get it on, Richardson then hucked the shoe into the stands.

Via Twitter:

That move got Richardson a ejected from the game, and rightly so.

Who throws a shoe, honestly?

LA beat Miami, 113-97.