Hi this is Tania Ganguli, Lakers beat writer for the L.A. Times here with your weekly newsletter.
A week ago it seemed like the Lakers were about to head into a stretch of games that would bloody them facing the Cavaliers, Warriors (twice!) and Rockets. Instead, they’re going to come out of this pretty well. They’ve been competitive in every game and ended the Rockets’ 14-game winning streak on Wednesday.
They haven’t experienced the kind of dramatic blowout losses that became typical of last year, and they are developing their identity.
What have they learned?
“That we can compete with people,” Kyle Kuzma said. “If we play the way we do and pay attention to details we could’ve won every single game we played in this far. Could have beat the Warriors twice this year. Could have beat the Cavs. Beat the Rockets. We can definitely compete at a high level.”
It’s been a very entertaining week on many levels, so let’s get right to it.
Kuzma is to Kobe as Lonzo is to LeBron
Kuzma wasn’t super impressed with his own scoring outburst in the Lakers’ win over the Rockets (38 points for a career high). He figured it was no big deal because he had 30-plus point games during Summer League. But others were.
Kobe Bryant retweeted a tweet that showed Kuzma’s nonchalance to his success in his postgame interview with an emoji of an arm flexing. Sparks star Candace Parker tweeted about the Kuzma bus and Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, long a fan of Kuzma’s, checked in, too.
I asked Kuzma Wednesday night if the shine of facing some of these great players has worn off yet. He said it has, noting that after you face LeBron James nothing can jar you. But the love he got postgame from people he admires is still something he appreciates.
An interesting byproduct of the week was seeing the Lakers two top rookies interact with players they idolized growing up. Kuzma identifies more with Bryant, a shooter with sky high confidence, while Lonzo Ball identifies more with LeBron James, a facilitator who would rather make the winning pass than take the winning shot.
Watching Bryant’s jersey retirement ceremony on Monday night meant a lot to Kuzma, just as playing against James meant a lot to Ball last Thursday.
Ball’s adoration didn’t go unnoticed by James. He knew he was Ball’s favorite player growing up, having heard Ball say that in an interview before the draft. James told me that kind of thing still means a lot for him to hear. It’s why he wished Ball a happy birthday on Twitter, he said. It’s also why he pulled Ball aside after the game and told him to ignore the noise coming from the outside and stay locked into his goals.
He also told Ball not to tell the media what he said – and Ball complied. (We found out anyway).
Since last we spoke
--Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is serving a 25-day jail sentence at the Seal Beach detention center, with permission to leave for Laker games and practices in California. When Caldwell-Pope did not attend the Lakers game in Cleveland, the team said that was for personal reasons. His attorney released a statement to ESPN that said he was being “released” from probation early and the court was allowing Caldwell-Pope to enter an “intensive” program for 25 days. But court records I examined and officials I spoke with say during a Dec. 13 court date in Michigan, Caldwell-Pope pleaded guilty to a probation violation for missing a drug and alcohol test and was dismissed from probation as a violator. The judge sentenced him to 25 days in the Oakland County Jail, and later granted permission for the sentence to be served in Seal Beach. This puts Caldwell-Pope in a precarious position. The court is clearly adhering to strict standards for his case and if he violates any of the terms, he will have to serve 93 days in the Oakland County Jail. The facility in Seal Beach is a much more palatable option. It’s a private jail that markets itself to those who can afford it.
--Bryant got his jerseys retired in a star-studded affair. Jack Nicholson made what’s becoming a rare appearance at Laker games these days. Bill Russell, Allen Iverson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and several other teammates from his championship teams attended. Luke Walton had his players watch the ceremony from the court at halftime. Bryant hoped his legacy would impact them just as jerseys retired in the past impacted him.
--The day before the ceremony, I checked in on the relationship between Bryant and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, two very close friends. Pelinka likes to tell this story about the time Bryant talked him into going down into the ocean in a cage to swim with great white sharks. So I asked him for a couple of other examples of times Bryant talked him into something nuts. That’s where this story starts.
--When the Lakers signed Andrew Bogut and traded for Brook Lopez, that meant Ivica Zubac got squeezed out of the rotation. To keep Zubac playing basketball, the Lakers have sent him down to their development league team, the South Bay Lakers. And while, actually playing in NBA games would be valuable for Zubac’s development, the Lakers went in a different direction for their big man rotation. “Bogut’s probably our best defensive big man, traditional big man,” Walton said. “Probably our best rebounder. He’s an NBA champion. We play a ton of young players already. It’s nice to have his veteran leadership, the way he talks with the players, the way he explains what’s going on to the players.” They only intended to play him a few minutes, but he impacted the game so positively on defense, that changed.
The Lakers face the Warriors tonight and then finally get a break from the NBA’s most elite teams. They’ll play the Trail Blazers tomorrow at home and the Minnesota Timberwolves in an unusual Christmas Day matchup.
All times Pacific
Tonight at Golden State, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
Saturday vs. Portland, 6:30 p.m.
Monday vs. Minnesota, 7:30 p.m., TNT
Wednesday vs. Memphis, 7:30 p.m.
Until next time
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli