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Lakers

Youthful Los Angeles Lakers are learning to hang onto leads

DeAndre Jordan, Timofey Mozgov, Luol Deng
Lakers center Timofey Mozgov (20) and forward Luol Deng battle Clippers center DeAndre Jordan for a rebound during during their Christmas evening game.
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images)

Monday’s practice was moving along just fine for a while.

The Lakers were focused on what the coaching staff taught. They paid attention to their coverage assignments, communicated well, protected the ball.

Then …

“And then at the end we scrimmaged and everything went to hell for six minutes,” Lakers Coach Luke Walton said. “… We start turning the ball over, we’re not boxing out, those are the things that hurt us. It’s something we’ve just got to get better at.”

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It’s been a theme for the Lakers lately, even one that emerged during their surprising Sunday night win over the Clippers. When they open leads, they stop playing the way they did to earn those leads. It’s what led to the disappearance of two 19-point leads against the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat. It’s what nearly caused them to lose an 18-point lead against the short-handed Clippers.

As the development process continues for a young team, solving that remains paramount.

“We’ve just got to grow up, to be honest with you,” Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson said. “The game starts to get easy for us, we tend to relax. … We see guys take some shots, risky shots, try to make a risky pass, again when we’re in the backcourt just try to take a lot of chances. We’ve got to get out of the habit.”

Playing with leads is a relatively new conundrum for the Lakers.

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In the season’s early going, the starting unit often struggled to find its footing. Through the end of November, the Lakers ranked 27th in first-quarter field goal percentage. It was the second unit, comprised of Clarkson, Lou Williams, Larry Nance Jr., Tarik Black and Brandon Ingram, that often kept the Lakers competitive, helping them to a 10-10 record.

In the last two weeks, though, the Lakers have improved to 16th in first-quarter field goal percentage. While they’ve only won twice in December, they’ve had leads in all but two games this month. Only the Toronto Raptors and Orlando Magic never trailed against the Lakers.

It was after the Lakers’ strong starts that things turned.

“Being aware of it as a team is the first step,” Walton said Monday. “After you’re aware of it you’ve got to do something about it. That’s all we can really do besides being more focused and playing harder and not relaxing with a lead. It happened again last night and that’s unfortunate. The good thing is we found a way to fight back and managed to get the win, but that’s still something that needs to be fixed.”

The Lakers led by 18 points in the third quarter against the Clippers and entered the fourth up by 15. But in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter, they turned over the ball three times and the Clippers closed to within four points.

The Lakers didn’t pay for it Sunday in a 111-102 victory. But the lesson remained.

“I think it’s just believing in what we do to give us the lead,” Lakers forward Luol Deng said. “I keep saying consistency. Consistency is not something that comes easy. Games like this when you actually play well in the second half and you keep the lead and you win, this is where you boost up the confidence for the guys. Next game is another challenge and it just keeps on going. We’ve been struggling with that but I believe we’ve shown that it’s there. It’s just about continuing to play that way.”

UP NEXT

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VS. UTAH

When: 7:30 p.m., Tuesday. 

Where: Staples Center.

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

Records: Lakers 12-22, Jazz 18-13.

Record vs. Jazz: 0-2.

Update: The Jazz beat the Lakers at Salt Lake City in October and again at Staples Center three weeks ago, when the Lakers were without starting guards Nick Young and D’Angelo Russell. The bottom of the Western Conference is muddled enough that the Lakers are closer to last place than to a playoff spot. It’s something that the players are monitoring but the coaching staff decidedly is not.

tania.ganguli@latimes.com

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Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli


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