Sixty-two games into season, Lakers still blindly searching for identity

Lakers Clippers at
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LOS ANGELES — The contrast could not have been more stark.

On one side of the court, decked in black, were the Clippers, a team of role players — not one former All-Star among their active roster, not to mention no All-NBA nods, no MVP trophies or other impressive hardware. What they are is young, hungry, gritty, buying into the team identity and each other.

“I’ve been on, now, a couple of teams, and this is the only team where, from top to bottom, everyone wants everyone to succeed,” said Isaiah Hartenstein, who had a dozen points off the bench for the Clippers Thursday. “I think that’s special with this team.”

On the other side of the court, in their legendary gold, were the Lakers. A roster with four future Hall of Famers and more individual accolades than any team in the league — playing like individuals.

“My role and what I’m doing has changed every single night,” Russell Westbrook said after the latest Laker loss, in what came off as a thinly-veiled shot at coach Frank Vogel. “So I’m just trying to figure that out as I’m playing and to be able to benefit and help my team.”

Westbrook’s best role for these Lakers might be coming off the bench in a “turn him loose with the second unit” style, ala Lou Williams or Jordan Clarkson. The Lakers have discussed it.

“We’ve talked about everything,” Vogel said when asked about bringing Westbrook off the bench. When pressed if we could actually see it, Vogel echoed himself, “We’ve talked about everything.”

Talk is cheap. Sixty-two games into the season, the Lakers are still figuring out their roles (let alone accepting them) and seem to be playing different styles night to night. This is a team trying to find a team identity. The result is ugly basketball — the Lakers have dropped 7-of-8 overall and are 0-3 since the All-Star break, having lost those last three by a total of 53 points. They play like a team whose spirit has been broken.

Talk is cheap, but it’s all the Lakers have right now. They keep saying they will fight through this latest slump even as the evidence piles up on the court to suggest otherwise.

“I’m not a quitter. It’s not in my genes,” Westbrook said. “I don’t quit, regardless of what the hell is going on. I’m going to fight to the end, and if it don’t work, that’s cool, too. I can live with the results. But I’m never going to give up or give in because of a little struggle that’s happening this time of the year.”

“There’s no quit in us. We will continue to persist,” Vogel said. “We’re trying to adjust and shift and find ways to win with Anthony [Davis] out. We haven’t found that yet. But it’s not something that we can’t do. We just haven’t found it yet.”

What are they trying to find? What is that identity?

“With a Frank Vogel team, you obviously start with defending and it starts with the point of attack, so the point guard position,” LeBron said (Westbrook starts at the one, at that point of attack). “And then obviously this league is a huge pick and roll league, so you know [the] bigs being able to help the guards out, protect the guards, the guards getting back in front of the ball and then the bigs getting back to be big-on-big so we can also rebound the ball when the shots go up.

“Obviously, it’s been challenging for us this year defensively and we had a lot of breakdowns, we lost a lot of games because our defense has broken down but also, it’s because of our offense at times too. Your offense can help your defense and when you are taking bad shots or you’re turning the ball over, or you take a good shot but it’s a long rebound and you’re not getting floor balance and you’re not getting back that can affect your defense as well.”

The Lakers have drifted away from that defensive identity that won them a title in the bubble (they are 17th in the league in defense this season). Drifted is the wrong word, they have deliberately steered the roster away from putting younger, role-playing shooters and defenders around LeBron and Davis, and they went for a third star in Westbrook who was never a natural fit. The Lakers haven’t developed Talen Horton-Tucker and got unlucky with Kendrick Nunn‘s injury lasting this long, but the Lakers made a conscious decision to sign a lot of aging veterans to one-year minimum contracts. They got what they paid for. This is not a good defensive team, offensively not a good shooting team, and they only play with force on occasion.

The Lakers are saying all the right things because that’s what veterans do, but watch them play and — even picturing Davis back in the lineup — it’s fair to question if they get out of the play-in tournament. (There is a legitimate chance the Lakers could face these Clippers in a winner-gets-in second round of the play-in.) Even if the Lakers could pull it together and win a couple of play-in games, the reward would be a deep, balanced, talented Suns team on a mission.

A major shakeup is coming to Los Angeles this offseason. Westbrook and the Lakers are both ready to go their separate ways. Nobody around the league expects Frank Vogel to be back at the helm. The Lakers have backed themselves into a financial corner in terms of big moves. Still, changes are coming.

Whether those changes are upgrades depends in large part on something the Lakers have not done this year — buy-in and commit to a team identity.

LeBron James passes Magic Johnson for sixth all-time in assists

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Magic Johnson is one of the greatest, most creative passers the game has ever seen.

Friday night, LeBron James passed Magic for sixth all-time in assists in the NBA. For LeBron, doing that in a Lakers’ jersey like Magic wore was special.

It happened with 8:41 remaining left in the game, LeBron found Anthony Davis for a 3-pointer on the right wing.

LeBron finished the night with 11 assists and 28 points, which along with a monster 44-point night from Anthony Davis led the Lakers to an impressive win over the Bucks in Milwaukee.




Jimmy Butler returns, hits clutch shots to lift Heat past Celtics

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics
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BOSTON (AP) — Bam Adebayo scored 28 points, Tyler Herro had 26 and the Miami Heat completed a split of two games in Boston, beating the Celtics 120-116 on Friday night after Jaylen Brown banked in a long 3-pointer to force overtime.

Heat leading scorer Jimmy Butler returned to the lineup and had 25 points in 36 minutes after missing the previous seven games with a sore right knee. He added 15 rebounds.

“Obviously having JB back is big time for us,” Herro said. “He helps us in so many different ways.”

Kyle Lowry chipped in with 20 points before fouling out in OT for the Heat, who sent Boston to just its second loss in 16 games.

“My team welcomed me back and let me do what I do,” Butler said. “It was a big `W’ for the team.”

Brown sent the game to overtime by banking in his long 3 with 1.7 seconds to play in regulation. He finished with 37 points.

“It felt good coming off my hand,” Brown said. “I know we wanted to get a shot up off the rim as fast as possible, just in case we missed we could get a rebound, a tip out.”

The Celtics had won 10 straight at TD Garden.

Boston star Jayson Tatum scored just 14 points on a cold shooting night, going 5 of 18 from the floor, including 0 of 7 on 3-point attempts. He had 49 points in the Celtics’ 134-121 victory on Wednesday night.

“That’s the biggest thing about the league; you’re not going to stop anybody from just scoring,” Adebayo said. “I feel like (we’re) making him take tough shots every time we play him and living with the result.”

Butler hit a clutch jumper over Al Horford, making it 110-107 with 5.1 seconds left in regulation before Brown took a pass near midcourt, dribbled to his right and nailed his shot.

In OT, the teams were tied twice before Butler nailed a foul-line jumper over Horford with 1:45 left, but Brown hit two free throws to tie it.

Adebayo nailed two free throws and, after Tatum misfired on a 3, Butler hit a jumper to seal it.

“Jimmy made two tough, tough baskets,” Brown said. “That’s just a credit to his work and his skill and his development. He gets going in games like this; on the road in a hostile environment. … Tonight, two shots that in our defensive scheme we could live with, but Jimmy a big-time player made both of them.”

Unlike Wednesday, when shots were open more and both teams were making them effectively (each shot over 50%), defense was tighter and it resembled more of the postseason matchup last season between the pair that went seven games before Boston captured the Eastern Conference title.

Anthony Davis scores 44, outduels Antetokounmpo (40) leading Lakers past Bucks


MILWAUKEE (AP) — Anthony Davis and LeBron James tore apart the NBA’s top-rated defense and gave Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham a triumphant return to Milwaukee.

Davis scored a season-high 44 points and James passed Magic Johnson on the NBA’s career assists list Friday night in the Lakers’ thrilling 133-129 victory over the Bucks.

It marked Ham’s first game in Milwaukee since taking over as Lakers coach after working as an assistant on Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer’s staff from 2018-22.

Ham and Budenholzer shared a big hug before the game.

“It was a beautiful night,” said Ham, who also played for the Bucks from 1999-2002.

It also was quite a night for Davis, a Green Bay Packers fan who delivered his big performance with Aaron Rodgers in the stands. Davis spoke with the Packers’ four-time MVP quarterback before and after the game.

“I saw him before the game and he said, `I need 30 tonight,”‘ Davis said. “I just saw him and he said, `I only said 30, not 40.’ It’s always good for him to come out and watch the Lakers play.”

James made a tiebreaking 3-pointer with 3:22 left and finished with 28 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. He upped his career assist total to 10,144 and moved into sixth place, ahead of Johnson’s 10,133.

“It means a lot, obviously,” James said. “The way Magic approached the game, it was very infectious. His teammates loved playing with him because of the joy he played with and the ability to pass the ball and get other guys involved. He was always excited about seeing his teammates be great. I always admired that in him. What’s even more humbling and super duper cool is the fact that I’m doing it in a Laker uniform and knowing how much Magic means to the Laker franchise.”

The Lakers had the highest point total and field-goal percentage (.536) the Bucks had allowed all season. Milwaukee entered Friday with the NBA’s top defensive rating.

“It was too easy, too easy, too easy,” Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “They were living in the paint. That’s not who we are.”

Los Angeles withstood a 40-point performance from Antetokounmpo, who also had seven rebounds and five assists.

The Lakers also spoiled the 2022-23 debut of Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, who had 17 points and seven assists in his return from offseason wrist surgery.

Milwaukee missed two potential tying 3-pointers in the final 20 seconds.

After Davis missed a fadeaway jumper, the Bucks called a timeout with 21.4 seconds left and then found an open Grayson Allen, whose 3-point attempt went off the side of the rim.

The Lakers’ Russell Westbrook missed two free throws with 13.3 seconds remaining, but Jrue Holiday couldn’t connect on a 3-pointer with just over five seconds left. Davis made a clinching free throw with 4.5 seconds left.

“Grayson got a good look,” Budenholzer said. “Good execution. Good screening. We’ll live with that shot all the time. And Jrue, similar. We got the kick ahead, playing against a defense that’s not set. Jrue, kind of a good rhythm shot for him. It was contested, but Jrue was 6 of 12 tonight (from 3-point range). He was feeling it.”

Holiday had 28 points for the Bucks, and Bobby Portis added 15 points and 10 rebounds. Westbrook had 15 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds for the Lakers.

Hawks’ Collins out weeks with sprained ankle, Hunter also at least a week

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Hawks will be without both of their starting forwards for at least the next three games.

John Collins will miss at least the next two weeks with a sprained left ankle and De'Andre Hunter will be sidelined for at least one week with a right hip flexor strain, the Hawks said Thursday.

Both departed with injuries during Wednesday night’s win over Orlando. Hunter played only seven minutes and Collins was hurt after a dunk that didn’t count at the halftime buzzer.

Hunter is third on the Hawks in scoring at 14.9 points per game, and Collins is fourth at 12.3 points.

Hunter, a fourth-year player out of Virginia, has yet to play a full season because of various injuries.