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Improved defense has been the key to Lakers’ three-game winning streak

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Lakers forward Josh Hart (5) reacts after missing two free throws in the final second against the Boston Celtics at Staples Center on Jan. 23.
(Harry How / Getty Images)

Luke Walton didn’t wait to be asked a question Thursday during his usual post-practice news conference.

Instead, the Lakers coach said that players made all of their free throws before practice ended.

“We missed zero,” Walton said.

Improved free-throw shooting and maintaining inspired defense will be key for the Lakers (18-29) as they depart on a 10-day trip that has games in Chicago, Toronto, Orlando, Brooklyn and Oklahoma City.

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While free throws are a continued issue — the Lakers shot only 58.3% (21 of 36) from the line in a win over the Boston Celtics — defense is not.

After consistently dwelling near or at the bottom of the NBA’s defensive ratings, the Lakers surged to the eighth position for their last three games, all victories at Staples Center.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made a game-saving stop against the Boston Celtics on Tuesday as the Lakers forced 11 turnovers and had six steals. They forced 17 turnovers and had 10 steals in a victory over the New York Knicks and held the Indiana Pacers to 38% shooting.

The challenge will be continuing the trend on the road.

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“We’ve got to even be more locked in,” Walton said. “More focused.”

Said Kyle Kuzma: “That’s all about effort. It’s not a skill.”

As for improving from the free-throw line, Walton said the issue was more mental than physical.

Kuzma agreed.

“We just got to … step to the line with confidence and knock them down,” Kuzma said.

Ball sidelined

Lonzo Ball will not play Friday against the Bulls and no timetable is set for his return.

The rookie point guard has missed five games because of a sprained left knee.

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“He’s doing some things on the court,” Walton said, adding, “Getting better.”

Ball has progressed in the weight room and training room, Walton said, but has not advanced to agility or contact drills.

“Obviously we want him back but we’re not going to rush him back,” Walton said. “Whenever the day comes that the medical staff clears him to play, he’ll play.”

Walton was uncertain if Ball would be cleared during the trip. He is averaging 10 points, seven assists and seven rebounds a game.

But injuries have become a recurring issue.

Ball was sidelined six games this month because of shoulder sprain and played only five games before sustaining his knee injury.

He also was slowed during the preseason because of an ankle issue.

Deadline talks

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Walton said Thursday that he has spoken with players about the Feb. 8 trade deadline as rumors swirl about the status of several players, including Jordan Clarkson.

“I’m honest with them,” Walton said. “I say, ‘Look, could you get traded? Yeah. Anyone could get traded.’ ”

Kuzma said players realize whether they win or lose, the deadline remains.

“Just got to be professionals,” Kuzma said, adding, “It’s all about what we can control as a team because we can’t control coaching staff decisions and front office decisions.”

Walton made light of the situation and highlighted its uncertainty by jabbing at himself.

“If Pops comes out,” Walton said, referring to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, “and says, ‘Hey, I want to coach the Lakers,’ guess what?

“I’m out of here.”

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Update: The Lakers are on a three-game winning streak, including a victory over the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Celtics. Rookie Kyle Kuzma leads the Lakers in scoring average at 16.7 points. The Bulls (18-30) went 1-2 on their recent trip. Nikola Mitotic is averaging 17 points and rookie Lauri Markkanen is averaging 15.4 and a team-best 7.6 rebounds. The Lakers defeated the Bulls 103-94 on Nov. 21.

lindsey.thiry@latimes.com

Follow Lindsey Thiry on Twitter @LindseyThiry


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