With seven losses in a row, the Lakers are now one shy of their longest losing streak of last season.
We've said over and over again that these losses feel different and this team feels different. They're more competitive, especially with some of the league's best teams.
1. Julius Randle is making a case to remain the Lakers' starting center. Randle made his first two starts during this trip and had his best game of the season against the Rockets before fouling out of the game in the first overtime. Randle notched a double-double against the Timberwolves, too. Lakers coach Luke Walton waited a while to start Randle, skipping a couple of opportunities to do so. It wasn't until the Lakers' injury situation required some creative thinking that Walton gave Randle a shot. When he got that chance, Randle showed his ability to play at the same high level he was playing as a bench player even when he started.
2. The Lakers were very thin at guard on this trip having left behind Lonzo Ball, with a shoulder injury, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who is in the final week of having to serve a 25-day jail sentence with work release that restricts him from leaving California. They brought both of their two-way guards on the trip and started Josh Hart and Tyler Ennis in both games. It gave them a chance to see what those players would do with the increased opportunity. Hart and Ennis both notched career highs in Houston, with 20 points for Ennis and 26 for Hart.
3. Hart is exceeding the organization's expectations so far. Walton said Monday that the Lakers expected Hart to be a three-and-D player and when they drafted him they knew the part of his game that would need more work would be on offense. Hart became part of the Lakers' rotation toward the end of November and he's scored in double figures six times since then. Walton says he always knew Hart's defense would translate to the NBA, but he has been pleasantly surprised by how quickly Hart has been able to contribute on offense.
4. The Lakers really miss Lonzo Ball. His absence might offer a good lesson for the hand wringers who worried that his scoring struggles made him a liability for the Lakers. While it's true that Ball will need to improve that part of his game to become an elite point guard, he is still impacting games. Without Ball, the Lakers have struggled to replicate the pace with which they were able to play with him.
5. Free-throw shooting is still a problem, and it's a perplexing one. The Lakers are forced to shoot hundreds of free throws in practice, and they make a much better percentage of those. On Monday, they made 20 of 29 free-throw attempts against the Timberwolves. In that game in particular, the free-throw shooting was the least of the Lakers' worries. Had they made all nine free throws they missed, they still would have lost the game. Still, several times this season the Lakers have lost games because of their poor free-throw shooting, so this is worth tracking.