Column: Unfamiliar-looking Lakers yearning for a return to whatever’s normal
Meet your Los Angeles Lakers, as they appeared Sunday night against the Bulls.
Even for the Lakers, who are in the middle of a season full of adjustments and changes, the team they assembled for their 115-110 loss at United Center was more than a little bizarre. A sprained left knee took Anthony Davis out of the lineup. COVID protocols have done a number on their starters, their bench depth, and their coaching staff. Thirty-six-year-old Trevor Ariza, out for the first 30 games because of an ankle injury, made his season debut. Isaiah Thomas, in his second game after being signed to a 10-day hardship exception contract, played more than 32 minutes.
Can’t tell who’s left without a scorecard.
“You had a backup coach, we had a G League guy out there — a couple G League guys,” said David Fizdale, the assistant coach who stepped in after Frank Vogel entered the NBA’s COVID protocols on Sunday.
While the Lakers received somewhat positive news about Anthony Davis’ injury, the depleted roster couldn’t stop the Bulls from grabbing a 115-110 win.
“But you know, the thing about this team’s character is it’s just a next-man-up mentality, and they really brought the effort and a collective team energy.”
Effort and energy are fine, and those assets did put the Lakers ahead for some good chunks of the fourth quarter. But DeMar DeRozan showed why he ranks second in the NBA in fourth-quarter points, scoring 19 to send the Lakers — what’s left of them, anyway — back home with a 1-2 record on this trip.
And it doesn’t get any easier: The Lakers come home to face Phoenix on Tuesday and San Antonio on Thursday before being featured in a Christmas Day showcase against the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday. With both the Lakers and the Nets missing key players to the COVID protocols — the Nets’ list includes the Big Three of James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant — that might not turn out to be the marquee matchup the TV networks envisioned.
“Obviously we’re doing things on the fly, trying to figure out how to play with the lineups we have and the people we have available,” said Russell Westbrook, who scored 20 points but committed a team-high six of the Lakers’ 20 collective turnovers on Sunday. “New guys stepping in that haven’t been here, so we have to do what we can. That’s it. Just go out and play hard and let the rest take care of itself.”
The players who were unavailable on Sunday because they were in protocol — Kent Bazemore, Avery Bradley, Talen Horton-Tucker, Dwight Howard, Malik Monk and Austin Reaves — might not be out long term. Davis’ absence is another story.
When he was in the lineup there were plenty of reasons to wonder whether the Lakers had the right parts to become a championship team, if they’d ever mesh well enough, ever consistently regain the defensive chops that served them so well in their 2019-20 title.
Without Davis, who is due to be reevaluated four weeks after the injury he suffered on Friday at Minnesota, there are more reasons to wonder whether the Lakers can pull it off.
Much of the leadership and scoring burdens will fall on Westbrook and LeBron James, and they can’t afford to let up.
“That’s what you tell yourself,” Westbrook said, “but also you’ve got to read the game because the game will tell you always what to do, whether that’s scoring more, passing more, rebounding more, whatever that may be.
“But AD obviously is a huge part of our team and we’ve got to figure out how to play without him for some time. It’s something that we’ve got to adjust to. It’s something we can figure out.”
They really have no choice but to figure something out, and fast.
Westbrook acknowledged it was strange to see Fizdale running things on Sunday, but that was in keeping with a strange season. “This year there’s been a lot of different things, especially for our team,” Westbrook said.
“But Fiz was a head coach in this league before. He understands. He did a great job tonight. Unfortunately we just couldn’t get the win.”
Carmelo Anthony correctly pointed out that the Lakers are hardly alone in struggling to find consistent lineups and performances.
The Bulls’ previous two games had been canceled after 10 of their players went into protocol, and although they got some bodies back on Sunday, Zach LaVine was a notable absence.
“It’s going around the league. It’s going around other leagues,” Anthony said.
“This is reality. This is life. This is stuff that we have to deal with, not just as basketball players, but as people, society. These are things that we’re dealing with right now.”
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Fizdale said he was in contact with Vogel via text at halftime and again after the game, and that Vogel gave him some bullet points. “And he sent me some great ideas that really helped us and then postgame, he was tremendously supportive and proud of his staff,” Fizdale said.
“That’s a tough spot for a coach. It’s weird to be honest with you. I don’t ever want to coach a team under tough circumstances, obviously. We want Frank on that sideline. I’m just happy that he trusted me to do the job — and hurry back, coach.”
Hurry back to whatever the Lakers might look like on Tuesday, and beyond.
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