LOS ANGELES — Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks going that make the NBA great.
1) Lakers racking up wins but have they answered any big questions?
The Lakers’ schedule to open the season is exactly what an older team trying to figure itself out needed: It is soft and home heavy. We’re obviously talking small sample size, but Los Angeles has the second easiest schedule in the league so far.
That cake schedule has allowed the Lakers to rack up wins and not feel much pressure — or face difficult questions — while it tries to blend in a lot of new faces and find an identity.
Tuesday night’s Lakers 119-117 win over the Rockets is a perfect example. It improves the Lakers to 5-3 and looks good if you only read the headlines: The Lakers have won three in a row, 5-of-6, and their big four future Hall of Famers — LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony — combined for 99 points on the night.
Look past the headlines, and there are a lot of unanswered questions about these Lakers.
It took those 99 points — and a flip-the-switch dominant fourth quarter from LeBron — to knock off a 1-6 Rockets team that starts two teenagers. Houston has athleticism and their kids play yard, but this is the kind of squad an elite team should handle easily (granted, it was the second game of a two-game set against the Rockets, and those tend to be closer).
Concerns about the Lakers start with the defense, which was atrocious much of Tuesday night — particularly in the first half when the Rockets had a lay-up line on their way to 70 points at the break. The Lakers defense is middle of the pack for the season (ranked 15th) and has struggled in the halfcourt in particular. The Lakers have key rotation players — Westbrook and Anthony — who opposing teams will target in the halfcourt, an issue now but a bigger one in the postseason.
Frank Vogel started Anthony Davis at center for the second straight game (with Dwight Howard out), making LeBron James the four. Those have been the Lakers’ most successful lineups this season, and on Tuesday night Davis scored eight of Lakers’ first 14 points, shooting 4-of-5 from the floor, plus had a block and a few boards.
The Lakers’ bigger and more used starting lineup — Westbrook, Kent Bazemore, LeBron, Davis, and DeAndre Jordan — is -11.3 per 100 (according to Cleaning the Glass). However, Vogel said pregame that eventually — likely once Howard is healthy again — the Lakers would go back to starting big. It is what Davis prefers, although Vogel said the Lakers would continue to play more AD at the five this season.
The bottom line is that while Westbrook will push the pace and rack up numbers (Vogel is staggering LeBron and Westbrook more each game), and Anthony provides a scoring spark off the bench, the Lakers are still all about LeBron and Davis. As they go, the team goes.
Los Angeles made its third quarter push against Houston when they went to a heavy dose of LeBron/Davis pick-and-roll (plus some buckets in transition, Houston helped there with seven third-quarter turnovers). Then in the fourth, LeBron took over with 10 straight points, eight of them on drives to the rim the Rockets could not stop. He simply took over the game, and that was enough (barely).
It’s a process, and the Lakers are finding their identity — they are a downhill, attacking team that wants to play fast and get to the rim, all things that look better when Davis is at the five providing spacing. Los Angeles will improve once they get healthy and have Trevor Ariza and Talen Horton-Tucker back in the lineup. This is a process with the Lakers, one that will take all season.
There is still most of a season left, but the Lakers have work to do — they have yet to truly answer the big questions about defense and matchups, the ones they will be forced to answer come the playoffs.
2) Players still adjusting to the new Wilson ball
You’ve heard all the explanations for why scoring is down: It’s two straight short offseasons taking a physical toll, or it’s the new rule interpretations against non-basketball moves keeping players off the free throw line. The latest one may have some merit, too:
It’s the new Wilson ball.
A lot of people are talking about the rule changes resulting in less free throws, but not much has been said about the ball change which has clearly made a HUGE impact.
Out of last years All-Stars that have attempted a 3 this season, 17/22 are shooting under 36% from 3.
— Drew Hanlen (@DrewHanlen) October 28, 2021
Paul George was pretty blunt about it after the latest Clippers latest win.
“Not to make an excuse or anything, but I said that about the ball, it’s just a different basketball,” George said. “It doesn’t have the same touch or softness that the Spaulding ball had. You’ll see this year, it’s going to be a lot of bad misses, I think you’ve seen a lot of airballs so far this season.
“So again, not to put an excuse or blame the basketball, but it is different. It’s no secret, it’s a different basketball.”
When they introduced the ball, Wilson said it was essentially the same as the outgoing Spaulding ball, down to the fact Wilson sourced the same leather. Trae Young and Jamal Murray were among players testing the ball and providing feedback last season.
Still, players don’t think it feels the same, and now the NBA players union wants feedback on the new ball ‚ just don’t tell NBPA president CJ McCollum it’s an excuse.
It is not the balls fault I missed shots lol. That’s the shooters fault. For the record https://t.co/pEQbYt3bVk
— CJ McCollum (@CJMcCollum) November 2, 2021
Players are creatures of habit, they don’t like change, and as much as Wilson tried to make it seamless, it is a change. Shooters have not adjusted. Yet.
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Which player will score the most points tonight (Wednesday): Jayson Tatum vs. Orlando, Zach LaVine vs. Philadelphia, or Nikola Jokic vs. Memphis? Personally, I’d got with Tatum against that 30th-ranked Magic “defense.”
How many assists will the Bulls have against the 76ers? Less than 22? Maybe 23-24? More than 32?
Who will win the Celtics vs. Magic game, and by how much?
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Highlights of the night:
Back to Los Angeles, where rookie Jalen Green put on a show scoring 24 points in the loss. The Lakers led by seven with :45 seconds left, but the Rockets came back because of two Green threes to make it a game. The second of those threes — a stepback high-archer over Anthony Davis — is as pure as it gets.