Defense has not been a hallmark of the Lakers lately, and for the past four seasons it has been virtually nonexistent.
Friday night against the Toronto Raptors, the Lakers worked hard on their defense, built a big lead and almost held their opponent under 100 points for the second straight game.
But the difference was DeMar DeRozan, as the Compton native and former USC star showed his ability to close a game, a skill honed with years of experience. The all-star guard scored 17 of his game-high 24 points in the second half to rally the Raptors to a 101-92 win.
Despite failing to follow up Wednesday’s overtime win over the Wizards with another victory at home, the Lakers (2-3) left coach Luke Walton with some positives.
“I’m thrilled with the way we played tonight honestly,” Walton said. “We competed our tails off. We had a 17-point lead. ... The way that they competed and the way they fought on defense was really impressive. That’s another good game they put together on the defensive end, which has been our priority all through camp.”
The bench players, once again, provided the energy and spark the Lakers needed: Julius Randle led the way with 18 points in 24 minutes and Kyle Kuzma notched his first career double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Fellow rookie Lonzo Ball, who turned 20 on Friday, finished with five points, seven rebounds and six assists, making two of seven shots and one of four three-point attempts. His Raptors counterpart, all-star Kyle Lowry, notched a triple double with 11 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists.
Walton trusted his bench to close the game, pulling all of his starters at once with 3:46 left in the game and the Lakers trailing 91-83.
“We just weren’t playing hard enough,” Ball said. “We have a good second unit that can come in and pick us up when we were down. That can’t happen. We gave up a lot of fast break points. People not getting back. That was a unit thing, so that’s why he pulled everybody.”
On the strength of their defense, the Lakers looked dominant early in Friday night’s game. They built a lead of as many as 17 points in the second quarter, led by Brook Lopez, who scored 11 of his 13 points in the first half. Lopez blocked three shots in the half, emphatically, and Ball added two steals.
But the Lakers knew going into the game that they faced another Eastern Conference playoff team, and this one was tired of losing. The Raptors were smarting from two losses to open their road trip, even though they came to playoff teams in the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs.
That 17-point lead turned into a six-point lead at halftime, and the Raptors cut into the Lakers’ lead even more to start the second half. Toronto didn’t allow a Lakers field goal for more than three minutes to start in the third quarter, then with 5:59 left in the period, the Raptors took their first lead of the game.
As the momentum began shifting to the Raptors, Walton waited to see how his players responded to Toronto’s counterpunch. Finally, he went back to his second unit, trusting them at the end of the game. But there were no late heroics this time.
“We were gonna let the starters see what they could do with that game, but when they didn’t get back on the transition, they kind of are telling me or telling each other they don’t really want to finish that game,” Walton said. “We went back to the second unit that really did a good job those last couple minutes as far as getting stops and competing are concerned.”
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli