Most teams at this point in the season are playing for something, whether it’s playoff position or draft lottery odds. The Lakers don’t have either concern, with their own first-round pick gone as the final remnant of the trade that brought them Steve Nash six years ago.
The season still marches on. Five games remain for the Lakers, including Wednesday night’s game against the San Antonio Spurs.
Here are five takeaways from Tuesday’s 117-110 loss to the Utah Jazz.
1. Lakers coach Luke Walton has often asked power forward Julius Randle to take on facilitating duties. That’s become more important in the last two games as the Lakers have been without two point guards, Lonzo Ball and Isaiah Thomas, as well as Brandon Ingram, who fills in at the position when necessary. “I think I was more in that role a little bit last year, as far as playmaking all that type of stuff,” Randle said. “This year has been a little bit different. … I’m comfortable handling the ball and making plays for others.”
2. While Randle said he can find a balance between his aggressive style of play and making plays for his teammates, Walton thought what he asked of Randle on Tuesday got in the way a little bit. “We tried running Julius at some point tonight,” Walton said. “He actually looked pretty good at it. He made some plays for us. But I think that kind of got him out of his beast-mode rhythm that he’s been in, later on in the game.”
3. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had been one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA since the All-Star break. He made 18 threes in the Lakers’ most recent four-game road trip, including eight in one game. When the Lakers returned from that trip, however, something odd happened. Caldwell-Pope didn’t make a single three-pointer during their three-game homestand. Sure enough, going back on the road changed things. On Tuesday night in Utah, Caldwell-Pope made five threes and led the team in scoring with 28 points.
4. While Walton thought the Lakers’ physical effort was good, he again lamented that they didn’t have a “road mentality.” That means staying mentally locked in, not turning over the ball too much and doing what Walton refers to as “the little things.” This is something he’s mentioned after each of the Lakers’ last few road losses. Staying mentally locked in will be difficult for this team as the season winds down, but they won’t have to worry about a road mentality anymore. Their road slate is over.
5. What’s happening to end this season feels a little bit like an inverse of last season. Last year the Lakers needed to bolster their lottery position, desperate to keep their draft pick, which would have gone to the Philadelphia 76ers had it dropped out of the top three. As such, the Lakers partook in some transactional gymnastics that made it obvious that they were tanking, until the coaches and players tired of losing. They went on a defiant five-game winning streak that it turned out did not cost them their pick. This season has mostly been much better. The Lakers don’t have a draft pick to worry about and they played much better than last year’s team. They notched their 26th win in February, matching the previous year’s total with a month and a half left in the season. Having made so many gains, though, the Lakers are limping to the finish, quite literally. Injuries have decimated their roster in the last few weeks, amplified by the fact that the Lakers are being extra cautious with players, unwilling to risk further injury with nothing on the line.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli