Lakers look for defensive improvement in home opener, but Rockets will make that difficult

LeBron James prepares to challenge a shot by Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum in the season opener Thursday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Luke Walton gathered his team after practice in the middle of the court to deliver a message the players needed after Thursday’s season-opening loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.

He spoke about attention to detail and about making the most of their time — this after a long Friday session that focused heavily on defense.

What might have helped drive his message home was one Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper’s voice. On Friday morning, Kendrick Lamar spoke to the Lakers as part of their “genius series,” through which the Lakers’ front office aims to expose their players to high achievers in different fields. He spoke about his preparation for shows and for recording albums, and how he shields himself from negativity before performing.


“He talked about accountability, guys that hold him accountable in his own profession, whether he’s doing a show, whether he’s in the booth working on a song or working on an album,” Lakers guard Josh Hart said. “When he’s working on a album before it comes out, six months before he starts working on it, he starts getting into that mind-set of how he wants the dialogue to go, how he wants the listener to react. Stuff like that.

“Obviously we’re not getting in the booth and laying down some bars. I think some of us can. But it’s the mind-set that we have to get into. It’s the mind-set of doing our roles, to sacrifice for the greater quality of the team.”

As the Lakers play their first home game of the season Saturday against the Houston Rockets, and LeBron James makes his Staples Center debut in a game that counts, the Lakers hope to take another step toward cohesion, chemistry and proper defense.

“You think it’s supposed to happen right away for some of the guys but it’s not like that,” James said. “You got to put in the time, you got to put in the commitment and trust the process and if you do that, you do it every single day, you will know when it happens. And no one won’t even have to say anything.”

Defensive chemistry is especially important, given one key is communication. Thursday night the Lakers struggled defensively, giving up 128 points and grabbing only 69% of their potential defensive rebounds.

Walton wasn’t overly concerned about that result, as the Lakers are one game into their season. He cares strongly about the Lakers’ defensive success, and has since he took over one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA two years ago.

Last season they ranked 13th in the NBA with a defensive rating of 107.2.

In Walton’s first season they ranked last in the league with a rating of 112. That was a quality he inherited in the Lakers. In the three seasons before his arrival, the Lakers ranked last, 29th and 28th in defensive rating, which calculates how many points a team surrenders per 100 possessions.

This year Walton set a goal for his team to crack the top 10 in defensive rating.

“[Rajon] Rondo wants top 3,” Walton said. “I said I’ll take that, but the goal is at 10 for now and see how we’re doing.”

The Western Conference, though, is full of stiff challenges for a team trying to succeed on defense. One visits Staples Center on Saturday night. Last season, the Rockets had the best offensive rating of any team in the regular season.

That’s part of why Walton made sure to take some time at the end of practice to drive the point home to his team.

“We gotta be sharp,” Walton said. “We have to be sharper. To do that, to pay attention to detail, it sounds easy but that is mentally, that is coming in and being locked in to the details of the game. I just wanted to make sure the point that got across is I am very serious about us continuing to get better at the little things.”

Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli