The Lakers have improved dramatically on defense this season.
But what happened through the first half Tuesday night was indefensible.
Then, as they have on several impressive occasions this season, the youthful Lakers sprung to life. They clawed their way back, found their rhythm and range, and rallied for a 103-94 victory.
“There’s positives and negatives in having to play so many young kids so many minutes,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “One of the positives is, everything is a learning experience.”
What they learned Tuesday is even after two lousy quarters, all is not lost. In the third quarter, the Lakers outscored the visitors 30-19, then virtually replicated that in the fourth 31-19. The Lakers had 13 turnovers in the first half and one in the second.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 11 of his 21 points in the final period, making a pair of three-point shots. Brandon Ingram added six points in the fourth, including a three-point play that tied the score with 3 minutes 35 seconds left. The Lakers, who had trailed since midway through the opening quarter, never looked back after that.
“It was good for us, good for our team,” Ingram said. “Keep building, trying to find our identity. We can’t keep having halves like that, but we can learn from that. Our guys put it all out there.”
Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma led all scorers with 22 points, including four three-pointers. Lonzo Ball, coming off his second career triple-double, had a modest eight points and four assists but pulled down 13 rebounds for 29 in his last two games. Four of those boards came in the final quarter.
Denzel Valentine led Chicago with 17 points, and the Bulls got 15 from little-known reserve Antonio Blakeney, with all of those coming in his scorching first half.
“I was shocked we were only down 14 at the half, to be honest,” said Walton, whose team was behind 56-42. “I said, ‘We’re lucky we’re down 14 right now with the way we’ve played. The good news is we’ll have plenty of time to come back. It’s an NBA game; we’ll have our chances.’ But nothing matters without effort.
“It took Julius [Randle] and Josh Hart getting put in the game, two of our tougher players, to really spark the energy level, the effort level. Once we got it, we didn’t turn it off again.”
Said Randle, who finished with 10 points to match his 10 rebounds: “I just wanted to come in and bring a tremendous amount of energy. Play hard. This is a game we should win.”
It’s becoming a hallmark of these young Lakers, who seldom play their way completely out of a game. They’re getting accustomed to comebacks, and to hanging around in hard-fought defeats.
Losing to the Bulls would have been embarrassing, even for a Lakers team with its own limitations. Chicago came into the game with the NBA’s worst field-goal percentage and having won just once in the previous seven games.
The Lakers need to build momentum heading into a wood chipper of a December and early January stretch that starts at Cleveland and includes two games each against Golden State, Minnesota and Houston.
Last season, the Lakers were 10-10 at the end of November and looked like a promising, exciting team. They were then demolished in December. Walton has made the argument that last year’s balloon was bound to pop because the team was shooting the ball so well in November. The Lakers’ record of 8-10 is worse this season but feels more sustainable because the team is playing much better defense.
“I think we’re ahead of where we were last year,” said Walton, whose 2016 team was 9-9 at this point.
The Lakers had the NBA’s worst defense the last two years, and second- and third-worst the two years before that. Through their first 17 games this season, they ranked fourth.
“We did it with defense, on the defensive end, with our defensive pressure,” Randle said. “They took a lot of pressure shots. It gives us momentum in stopping those shots. ... It gives us an extreme amount of confidence.”
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