First injuries made it impossible for Luke Walton to keep his second unit together, and now they are threatening to break up what has been the Lakers’ most dynamic pair.
All season, the Lakers (10-13) have relied on Lou Williams and Jordan Clarkson to come off the bench and provide instant offense. But Walton may split up the two guards after his banged-up team dropped its third game in a row, 107-101, to the Jazz (13-9) on Monday night. Williams is averaging a team-high 18.4 points and has a combined 78 in the Lakers’ last two contests. Clarkson is averaging 14.9 in a team-high 28.7 minutes a night.
Neither guard started against the Jazz, as Walton rolled out a head-scratching lineup with Brandon Ingram at point guard alongside Luol Deng, Metta World Peace, Julius Randle and Timofey Mozgov. That was, in large part, to keep Williams and Clarkson together on the bench unit. That soon may change.
“We’re getting pretty close to that,” Walton said of separating the two guards. “Obviously that’s been the most consistent, successful group we’ve had all season, so we would hate to break it up. But with the amount of people going down, it might be time to roll in that direction and see how we do.”
The Lakers’ current injury list resembles a hospital wing. It includes starting point guard D’Angelo Russell (knee, being reevaluated Tuesday), backup point guard Jose Calderon (hamstring, out two to four weeks), Nick Young (calf, out at least three more weeks), Larry Nance Jr. (knee, day to day) and now Tarik Black (ankle sprain), who went down against the Jazz but said he shouldn’t be counted out for Wednesday’s game in Houston.
Either way, the Lakers most certainly will be without Russell, Calderon and Young. Russell is averaging 16.1 points in the 13 games he’s played, while Young is averaging 13.3 in 18 games. Calderon isn’t as productive offensively, but he provides an outside touch and organized the first team before injuring his hamstring on Saturday.
“Hopefully it will [help],” Clarkson said. “Me and Lou been rolling with each other all year, kind of a duo that comes off the bench and being aggressive and scoring. But we need it from anywhere right now.”
The obvious problem with dividing the pair is that their joint offensive production is the best thing the shorthanded Lakers have going. Williams has fueled the offense the last two games by deftly creating open shots and drawing fouls at his leisure. Clarkson is most effective when flying at the rim and also is burning defenses with his pull-up jumper.
They were the Lakers’ top two scorers against the Jazz, as Williams finished with 38 and Clarkson with 17. No other Laker netted more than 11 points, and the pair’s chemistry once again allowed them to run circles around the opposing defense. They frequently retreat to opposite sides of the floor, which creates space for whichever one of them is handling the ball.
Williams said teams need to choose between doubling the ball-handler in pick-and-roll sets or leaving one defender on him. The former often will result in an open jumper for whoever is off the ball, while the latter gives either Williams or Clarkson an attackable one-on-one matchup.
“We just take turns,” Williams said. “I think we’re both guys that need to play in the open floor and create opportunities for ourselves and our teammates. We just bounce off of each other’s energy.”
And if Walton decides that that energy is needed in more than one place, Williams and Clarkson will figure out how to stay effective.
“We’re pros, man,” Williams said. “We got to just … whatever works for the team and whatever position Luke has to put guys in that he thinks that’s going to make us successful, we got to learn from it and keep moving.”