The ball rattled around the rim, hitting much of the iron while missing the net. Over and over again, when the Lakers rose to shoot a jumper in the first quarter of their 113-100 victory over Detroit on Wednesday, it wouldn’t go in.
Missing shots is the easiest way to lose games in the NBA because of the way it can create a vacuum and suck the energy out of every other aspect of the game. It’s easier to dig in on defense when the ball is falling. It’s easier to hustle after loose balls when the ball won’t stop going down.
But against the Pistons, the Lakers discovered the antidote to their shooting woes, allowing them to stay in the game early and loosen up the nets. Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball looked right at the Detroit frontcourt and decided to attack.
While the Lakers couldn’t get a perimeter shot to fall, they never trailed by more than four points because of their aggressiveness to the rim.
The Lakers’ first 11 baskets came in the paint before Kentavious Caldwell-Pope finally made a jump shot three minutes into the second quarter.
The Lakers never trailed again.
“Our energy, our aggressiveness kept us in the game,” coach Luke Walton said. “We were getting shots. We were getting open looks. We weren’t making them. Part of that is recognizing that and start getting to the hole more.”
Without LeBron James, who will sit out at least the Lakers’ next game, the team has struggled to find consistent ways to win, and a two-game winning streak at Staples Center against Dallas and Detroit, teams closer to the middle than to contention, shouldn’t suggest that the secret has been unlocked.
But they’re getting close.
Despite DeAndre Jordan’s presence in Dallas, 30 of the Lakers’ 41 baskets came in the paint, with only three coming from midrange.
It was more of the same attack mind-set Wednesday, even if it was partly out of necessity. No one was more aggressive than Kuzma, who scored a career-high 41 points. Although he made five of 10 three-point shots, he never would’ve gotten that hot if he hadn’t have gotten into the flow of the game by driving.
“The ball going in always helps,” Walton said. “[Assistant Brian] Shaw told him as he was walking off the court at the end of the first that he could’ve had 20 in the first if he made a wide-open three. That’s one thing you learn as a player as you go, that if the three isn’t falling, get to the basket, get to the foul line. And, then those shots will start going. It’s important.”
Matching up against Blake Griffin, Kuzma, who is quicker and springier than most power forwards who try to guard him, sliced through the Detroit defense to score 12 first-quarter points, all in the paint, most off of drives.
It’s an aspect of his game that he could certainly utilize more.
Heading into Wednesday’s game, Kuzma was averaging only 5.7 drives per game, fewer than James (11.9), Ingram (9.2) and Rajon Rondo (9.1). Ball is fifth on the Lakers with 4.3 drives per game.
As a team, the Lakers are ninth-worst in the league in drives per game, according NBA tracking data.
But Wednesday, if the Lakers were afraid of Griffin and center Andre Drummond turning shots away at the rim, it sure didn’t show.
And as the shots started to fall — when you’re as aggressive to the basket as the Lakers were early, they usually do — the Lakers started to roll, the baskets igniting their defensive energy. Suddenly, Ball was challenging shots from in front and behind. Screens weren’t catching defenders the same way.
And the rims, magically, got bigger.
Kuzma caught fire, making five of his last six three-point shots before going to the bench for the fourth quarter. Michael Beasley came off the bench and provided a needed scoring punch. And Caldwell-Pope, probably the best pure perimeter shooter, even got a jumper to fall after it hit the top of the backboard.
“A lot of scorers, they always say just seeing the ball go in a couple of times, easy ones getting to the rim is definitely going to open a lot of things. For me, I’m just always confident shooting the shots,” Kuzma said.