The reason Lakers coach Luke Walton made a change to his starting lineup was simple in his eyes.
“Got to change things up,” he said.
And with that proclamation, Walton started Tyson Chandler at center and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at shooting guard Tuesday, hoping they could provide the Lakers with more of a first-quarter jolt than they were seeing amid sluggish starts.
The Lakers began the game playing stellar defense, but ended it out of sorts, escaping despite that maddening play in the final minutes of a 107-100 victory over the woeful Chicago Bulls at Staples Center.
Still, it was the sigh of relief they needed as the Lakers ended a two-game skid and avoided the dubious trifecta of losing to the teams with the three worst records in the NBA.
The Lakers lost Sunday to a Cleveland team that had lost 12 straight and has the worst record, and earlier this month to a New York team that had lost eight straight. The Bulls had lost seven straight and entered the game tied with the Knicks for the second-worst record at 10-33.
“It was a good thing that we made a commitment to each other to be a top-10 defensive team, because we heavily relied on our defense again tonight,” Walton said. “We had to find a way to scrape out a win.”
The Lakers made this win more difficult than it had to be by playing sloppy and uninspired basketball after they built an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter. Walton saw the lead sliced to 10, forcing him to call a timeout with 1:14 left. He looked exasperated and gave his players a stern look, his hands extended over their lax effort.
The Lakers hung on to improve to 4-7 without LeBron James (strained left groin) and Rajon Rondo (finger surgery).
“That we don’t let up,” Walton said when asked what he told his team. “We keep playing until either the game is over or I sub you out. And we weren’t. ... We checked out almost.”
The Lakers got contributions from the young core of Lonzo Ball (19 points, eight rebounds, six assists), Kyle Kumza (16 points, 12 rebounds) and Brandon Ingram (16 points, nine rebounds, seven assists). They even got a big effort from rookie Svi Mykhailiuk, who made two three-pointers in the fourth and took a charge.
“It was pretty much a must-win for us,” Ball said. “We needed to get one today. We got it together. It started not today, but yesterday in the film, like he said, and then we had a good practice.”
Caldwell-Pope, who started in place of Josh Hart, had 17 points and played solid defense.
“KCP did a great job on [Zach] LaVine,” Walton said.
Chandler, who started in place of JaVale McGee, had eight points and three rebounds.
“Tyson really helped set the tone with it,” Walton said.
The Lakers led 19-18 after the first quarter, but that was better than being down by 15 like they were after the first 12 minutes against the Cavaliers.
“No I wouldn’t necessarily say so,” Kuzma said, when asked if Walton’s job security had weighed on the team. “I think Luke has done a great job this year handling all the adversity that we’ve been through, especially coming through all these injuries, suspensions, trying to figure out and balance a whole new team. It’s a tough job. I’m glad I’m not a coach coaching this team because it’d be a lot of different issues I would have to handle too. He’s done a great job. As long as we just do our part, they do their part, everybody should be fine.”
The shakeup worked for one night. Better opponents are coming up, starting at Oklahoma City on Thursday, at Houston on Saturday and at home against Golden State on Monday.
“It’s just one game for now,” Walton said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
Walton said he assured McGee, who had nine points, that his new role off the bench was not a reflection of his play.