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Lonzo Ball’s absence has compounded Lakers’ defensive woes

Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball, center, is carried off the court by Michael Beasley, left, and
Lakers guard Lonzo Ball, center, is carried off the court by Michael Beasley, left, and Lance Stephenson after suffering a sprained ankle against the Houston Rockets on Jan. 19.
(Eric Christian Smith / Associated Press)

A year and a half ago, the idea that the Lakers defense was struggling because Lonzo Ball was out might have been a hard sell.

Ball came into the NBA with many doubts about his defense. But in his second season, Ball made his presence felt on the defensive end, and the Lakers have missed him dearly since he suffered a Grade 3 ankle sprain last month.

They began the season with the goal of being a top-10 defensive team and made progress toward that goal. In November, the Lakers’ defensive rating was third best in the NBA, at 103.4. In December it was ninth best, at 106.7.

In the past nine games with Ball sidelined, their defensive rating has been 119.6, third worst in the NBA.

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“He allows us to switch a lot,” coach Luke Walton said. “If they want to run any pick and roll minus the center, the 1-5 pick and roll, we can just switch it. And we feel confident Lonzo can guard most of the other players there. We have Lonzo picking up full-court the other team’s point guard. He’s great at instincts, getting deflections. A lot of the schemes don’t change, but our aggression and a few of the switching schemes change without him out there.”

Ball’s rehabilitation has been going well. He’s begun running on an underwater treadmill and is progressing toward running on an Alter-G anti-gravity treadmill.

Ball initially thought he’d broken his ankle in the Lakers’ Jan. 19 game in Houston, but the X-ray revealed no fractures. He was on crutches for less than a week and was able to remove his walking boot shortly thereafter. An MRI the next day confirmed a ligament tear, which was expected to keep him out four to six weeks.

Ball hasn’t traveled with the team or been on the bench during home games, instead focusing on rehabbing. His presence has been missed.

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“Getting Zo back into the mix is going to be one thing,” Kyle Kuzma said after Sunday’s loss. “He’s had a hell of a season defensively and we kind of feed off of him. He’s picking up 94 feet, getting stops all over the floor, making great defensive instincts.”

Hurting Hart shut down

Josh Hart had a platelet-rich plasma injection in his right knee Monday and will be sidelined until the Lakers re-evaluate his condition after the All-Star break this weekend.

The second-year guard has been dealing with tendinitis in his knee for weeks. It’s a condition that bothered him in college, too.

“I think it was just everything this summer,” Hart said two weeks ago. “Didn’t really take too much time off this summer — did summer league and I took like a week off and I was right back in the gym — so I didn’t really let my body rest too much during the summer when you’re supposed to let your body rest.”

Morris cleared to play

Free-agent forward Markieff Morris has been cleared to play, according to his agent, Rich Paul.

Morris has been sidelined since Dec. 26 with a neck injury he sustained when the Washington Wizards played the Lakersafter a collision with LeBron James.

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The Lakers have interest in signing Morris, according to two people familiar with their plans. Morris, 29, has played 34 games this season and averaged 11.5 points and 5.1 rebounds in 26 minutes.

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Update: The Hawks have lost three games in a row and rank 12th in the Eastern Conference, with an 18-38 record. In the last nine games have the NBA’s worst defensive rating (121.7).

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tania.ganguli@latimes.com

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Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli


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