Lakers must clean up defense to get back on track – Press Enterprise

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It can be easy to forget – the nature of the NBA’s 82-game regular season makes it this way – but it wasn’t even a month ago that the “vibe” around the Lakers was much different than it is now.

It was just on Dec. 9 in Las Vegas when LeBron James was popping champagne bottles and spraying the remnants on his teammates inside the Lakers’ celebration area after pummeling the Indiana Pacers to win the inaugural In-Season Tournament.

Everyone involved with the Lakers might have spoken about there being a bigger picture – competing for the Larry O’Brien Trophy later this spring – for their season than winning the NBA Cup, but the atmosphere around the team was different.

The victory over the Pacers, although it doesn’t count in the regular-season standings, was the Lakers’ 12th win in a 16-game stretch. They came out of tournament play at 14-9, tied for the fourth-best record in the Western Conference. They were getting healthier. Momentum was on their side.

How much of a difference a few weeks makes.

After Wednesday’s sloppy 110-96 loss to the Miami Heat, which kicked off a five-game homestand and 11 of 12 games in Los Angeles after a road-heavy stretch, the Lakers are 17-18 – their first time being below .500 since just 10 games into the season in mid-November.

All of the momentum they appeared to have on their side just a month ago has seemingly vanished.

The “vibe” around the team has declined, which was highlighted by The Athletic, which reported Thursday morning that there’s a “deepening disconnect” between Coach Darvin Ham and the locker room.

Austin Reaves, speaking Wednesday night before the report came out, addressed how the environment has changed within the locker room.

“Anytime you lose, the vibe should be off,” Reaves said. “If I went in there and the vibe wasn’t off after the rough stretch that we’ve had, then I’d be concerned. That’s really it. I don’t expect for us to be happy with how we’ve played. So until we figure that out, the vibe should be off. We got to win games.”

Reaves clarified: “When I say the vibe is off, it’s not like we don’t like each other. We’re losing. We should be pissed off. We shouldn’t be happy after games with how we’re playing. But I don’t want to get that twisted on us not liking each other.”

Regardless of the “vibe”, the Lakers of the past 3½ weeks have not looked like the version from the previous month.

Some of that can be attributed to player availability issues, and the lineups and rotations that stem from that, though they were still dropping games even when healthier as a collective.

Reaves pointed to better shooting from behind the arc as an area that can help the Lakers get back on track. They shot 13.3% from 3-point range (4 for 30) against the Heat and a combined 24.4% from deep in their three most recent losses.

But it’s also important to point out that they’re shooting 36.6% from 3-point range during his 3-9 stretch, which is marginally worse than the 36.8% they shot from behind the arc when they went 11-4 from Nov. 10-Dec. 7. It’s not a sustainable formula, but the Lakers have won their fair share of games on their worst shooting nights – for instance, the win over the Pacers, when they shot 15.4% (2 for 13) from long range.

A team’s shooting matters, especially in the modern NBA that prioritizes it and offensive efficiency, but it isn’t everything.

The Lakers’ bigger issue is that they haven’t gotten the job done on the other end of the court.

Their defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) during the aforementioned 11-4 stretch: 108.4, which was the league’s second-best mark. The Lakers’ defensive rating over their last 12 games: 118.2, which ranks 19th.

Teams have been shooting significantly better inside the paint and behind the arc against the Lakers while also getting to the free-throw line more in the last 3½ weeks than they were in the previous month – all recipes for worse defensive performances, especially when they’re happening at the same time.

Opponents are shooting 67.3% inside the restricted area and 45.5% on non-restricted area paint shots against the Lakers during this 3-9 skid compared to 64.5% and 38.4%, respectively, in the previous month. They’re also shooting 40.8% from 3-point range compared to 35.5%, respectively, and taking (and making) 3-4 more free throws per game.

The Lakers haven’t been nearly as disruptive defensively in the halfcourt over the last few weeks and it has shown. Ham has made multiple starting lineup changes with the hopes of better defensive performances, but the results haven’t come.

The Lakers’ opponent 3-point shooting should naturally cool off: they were the unluckiest team in the NBA regarding opponent 3-point shooting in December. But some of that “luck” stemmed from how they chose to defend opponents behind the arc. The fouling and interior defense are bigger areas of concern.

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