Lakers show flashes of defensive effort needed to win, which is a good and bad sign

Pistons forward Jerami Grant is fouled by Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker and center DeAndre Jordan.
Pistons forward Jerami Grant (9) is fouled by Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker (5) as Lakers center DeAndre Jordan (10) struggles to assist Sunday at Staples Center.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

One big thought and a few notes from the Lakers’ 110-106 victory Sunday against the Detroit Pistons.


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Effort. Lakers coach Frank Vogel used the word as he dissected a so-so Lakers win on a night when they could’ve been dominant.

“I challenged these guys to really compete to be a great defensive team. That’s why our lives are hard right now,” Vogel said. “We’re not fully committed and bought into all the details and effort pieces on that side of the ball.”


The Lakers have slowly crept out of the league’s basement when it comes to defensive rating — they’re currently 18th in points allowed per 100 possessions. And it’s obvious that is where the team has to make the biggest leap because its offensive limitation when it comes to spacing is essentially an “it is what it is” kind of thing.

The star-filled Lakers shouldn’t be struggling to beat teams like the Detroit Pistons, and their recent performances hint big changes could be coming.

Nov. 28, 2021

But hearing Vogel discuss the way the Lakers guarded Sunday — terrifically in building a 19-point lead and so haphazardly in nearly squandering all of it — was jarring.

“Well, I know, for sure, that we can be better than we’ve been on the defensive side of the ball. When we commit and put our minds to it and we build the habits of Laker basketball,” Vogel said. “... Like the rim collisions haven’t been there consistently for us. They were great tonight. We took charges, we had [vertical challenges] at the rim. There was a mindset to put a body in front of anything that comes to the basket. And that’s been a foundation point for us the last couple of years.

“With a new group, you hope it takes shape right away. It hasn’t. Some things take a little bit of time.”

Lakers forward LeBron James grimaces in pain after making a shot while Russell Westbrook flexes his muscles.
Lakers forward LeBron James (6) grimaces in pain after making a shot against the Pistons at Staples Center on Sunday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)


Part of this can be explained away by the Lakers’ roster overhaul. Defensively gifted players went out, more offense-oriented players came in. And the roster turnover, as a whole, has slowed the team’s ability to get stops, with players sometimes wasting a split-second thinking instead of trusting and reacting on defense.

But more problematic is that some of this is simply effort — the Lakers deciding to put more energy into defending with pride and passion. That has been absent for long stretches; it wasn’t there in the fourth quarter Sunday when the Pistons went on a run that could’ve meant all sorts of things for the Lakers had they not held on.

“When we get a lead, we have to take the three ball out. There’s way too many breakdowns or short closeouts or playing sort of ‘first-quarter defense’ when they’re looking to bomb threes,” Vogel said. “You have to adjust. We didn’t do it well enough tonight.”

What if the way the Lakers stumbled through a triple-overtime loss Friday to perennially downtrodden Sacramento turns out to be who they really are?

Nov. 27, 2021

Russell Westbrook acknowledged the lack of effort was disappointing but, he hopes, merely a growing pain. Vogel, too, believes it’s a step the Lakers need to take.

It’s an adage in the NBA that teams should count on defense because it’s the one thing you can control — some nights, the ball doesn’t bounce in. Westbrook and the Lakers have said they think that’s who they can be, and the doses they saw of it in on Sunday helps prove it even if the other moments were pretty rocky.


“I never panic regardless of what’s going on. Something I live by. Stay the course,” Westbrook said. “Adversity is something that I think is great in life in general. It builds character. It kind of shows who you really are when things are not going your way. And if you can kind of stick through the ups and the downs, which I think right now guys are trying to figure out, ultimately you’ll be happy with the result.”

Lakers center DeAndre Jordan blocks Pistons forward Jerami Grant's shot
Lakers center DeAndre Jordan (10) blocks Pistons forward Jerami Grant’s (9) shot Sunday at Staples Center.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The other stuff

Dwight Howard was a healthy scratch Sunday, the Lakers focusing on a smaller second unit with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony as the bigs. Vogel said Howard could end up starting in some lineups, but for now, the team would like to avoid playing both him and DeAndre Jordan. … Speaking of Jordan, the Lakers seemed to recognize the value he could add as a lob threat. After missing him multiple times in the first half, Jordan caught multiple alley-oops in the third when the Lakers went on their biggest run of the game.