Here's what surprised Lakers coach Luke Walton most at midpoint of season

Before Thursday night’s game at Staples Center, Lakers coach Luke Walton stood outside his locker room and was asked if there had been any surprises in the first 40 games of the season.

He didn’t mention the most recent LaVar Ball controversy. He didn’t mention Lonzo Ball’s shooting woes, Kyle Kuzma’s hot start or that he had to play a month without one player available for road games because of a jail sentence.

Without hesitation, Walton brought up the Lakers’ defense.

If Walton had been asked the same question following his team’s win over San Antonio, he almost certainly would’ve given the same answer.

The Lakers were at their defensive best in a 93-81 victory over the Spurs. Even more encouraging, for the second game in a row, they established a new season low for points allowed.

“Communication has continued to get better,” Walton said after the win. “I think the understanding of the different schemes that we can switch to throughout a game, guys are starting to pick that up a little better. So, we’re executing game plans more efficiently. I thought our players’ effort defensively, was huge tonight, and ultimately, that’s why we won the game. We scrapped on the defensive end all night long.”

While the Lakers are still among the worst in the NBA when it comes to allowing scoring — only three teams allow more points per game than the Lakers at 110.4 — that’s a tired metric that teams and NBA insiders no longer rely on to determine defensive prowess.

A truer measure is points per 100 possessions, a statistic that accounts for teams that play at a breakneck pace like the Lakers do. Using that as a benchmark, the Lakers are just outside of the top 10 in the league in defense — a major accomplishment considering no team was less efficient defensively a season ago.

Walton said the Lakers emphasized defense immediately in training camp, neglecting to even mention offense on the team’s first day together. The work has paid off. Over the past week, only the Boston Celtics have been better on the defensive end.

As the Lakers pulled away, they held San Antonio to six points over the final 6:23, a peek at the kind of defensive mentality Walton hopes to instill.

“We were all tied together,” forward Brandon Ingram said. “When a guy got beat, the next guy stepped up.”

Saturday, they begin a three-game road trip where they’ll face Dallas’ 13th-ranked offense and Oklahoma City’s 12th-ranked group with Memphis’ 25th-ranked offense in between.

“It’s just us out there on the road,” said guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who will travel with the team for the first time in a month. “We’ve got to continue to keep pulling for each other.”

The hope, Walton said, is the Lakers can look like they did late Thursday. And then they can do it again. And again. And again.

“That’s where we want to get to,” he said. “…I would love for us to play like that every time we step on the court. That’s just not the reality of the game. The way we were able to get stops and run and put pressure on them, get into passing lanes … was the team we need to be.

“And that’s the team we’re trying to be. We were selfless. The building had energy from the way we were competing. That’s what we’re building to.”

Lakers waive Blue

The Lakers released guard Vander Blue, who was on a two-way contract and scored just three points in five games. He averaged 19.0 points for the Lakers' G-League affiliate.

The Lakers have an empty roster spot in addition to an empty slot for another two-way contract.

UP NEXT

AT DALLAS

When: Saturday, 11 a.m.

On the air: TV: Spectrum Sportsnet, Spectrum Deportes; Radio: 710, 1330.

Update: The Lakers begin a three-game road trip on a three-game winning streak with a Saturday matinee against the 15-28 Mavericks, who have won their past two games but haven't played since Wednesday.

dan.woike@latimes.com

Twitter: @DanWoikeSports

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