The shots endlessly hit off the mark. Players appeared more intent to go one-on-one than pass the ball. They moved nearly in slow motion.
Later on, the points piled up nearly by the basket. Players made crisp passes and hit the open man. They ran at a swift pace as if someone hit the fast forward button.
Think the Lakers’ have split identities? They do. But it hardly resembles a Jekyll-and-Hyde persona. Instead, the Lakers showed in their 93-90 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Friday at Staples Center how their starting and reserve units have completely opposite personalities.
“Lack of trust with each other to me is evident,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said of his starting unit. “They don’t cover for each other.”
And the reserves?
“Maximum effort from those guys and they will play the right way,” Scott said. “They’ll try to get the ball to each other and play together. They’ll communicate with each other.”
All of which set up an awkward dynamic within the game.
D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson may represent the Lakers’ long-term future. But they also represented the Lakers’ awful play against Phoenix.
It took the Lakers the first seven minutes to score five points. They oversaw the Lakers score a season-low 10 points in the second quarter. Sure, Roy Hibbert (six points) and Metta World Peace (six points on 2-of-6 clip) had quiet nights while Kobe Bryant stayed sidelined with soreness in his right shoulder. But Russell (nine points on 2-of-10 clip), Clarkson (eight points on 2-of-13 clip) and Randle (two points on 1-of-9 clip) took the plurality of the starters’ shots.
“We faced a little adversity and we go our separate ways instead of sticking together,” Randle said. “We have to trust each other and get the ball moving again. We have to make plays for each other, run the floor and not let the offensive end get in the way of the defensive end.”
The Lakers’ bench may represent a mix of youth and veterans, many of whom may not even stay on the roster next season. But they fulfilled all the qualities Randle lamented the starters lacked.
They chipped away at a 19-point lead. Lakers reserve shooting guard Lou Williams posted a team-high 30 points on 10-of-17 shooting, including a 3-pointer that cut the Suns’ lead to 89-88 with 1:39 left. Lakers reserve point guard Marcelo Huertas posted a team-high 10 assists. The Lakers could have won if not for Ryan Kelly’s missed foul shots and an interference call on a subsequent tip-in.
“Basketball is a team sport. We all have to feel important out there,” Huertas said. “That doesn’t mean you have to score or put numbers up. It means you have to be able to affect the game in a positive way.”
And the reserves did so by playing the fourth quarter, while the Lakers’ starters sat on the bench. With Scott not planning to make lineup changes beyond adjusting for Bryant’s pending return, this marked the alternative way to make them accountable.
“My leash is pretty long and so is my patience,” Scott said. “They’ll continue to get shots at, but this is still an issue. You want them to sit there sometimes and watch that second unit.”
That has not just happened sometimes.
Earlier in the season, Russell did not close out games amid Scott’s want to for him to play consistently and develop better work habits. But after securing an upset win last week in Golden State, the Lakers have offered sluggish starts this week against sub-par opponents against New York, Sacramento and now Phoenix. During that stretch, Russell has shot a 7-of-26 clip while Clarkson has gone 13-of-35 from the field. Afterwards, Clarkson sounded more upset about the shooting struggles, poor screen setting and lack of easy shots than he did about Scott’s rotations.
“We’re not playing well so that’s what’s supposed to happen,” Clarkson said. “Coach is going to put guys on the floor that can win the game.”
The Lakers (14-55) still did not win the game. But the tactic surprised no one.
“If you have a group out there that’s rolling,” said rookie forward Larry Nance Jr., “Why take the momentum away?”
Instead, the Suns took the momentum away when guard Brandon Knight made a 14-foot jumper for a 91-88 lead with 30 seconds left. But before that, the Lakers went on a 9-0 run by converting on plays stemmed from fluid ball movement and spacing.
Huertas hit a 17-foot pull-up jumper. Nance finished on a hook shot. Brandon Bass found an open dunk off of Huertas’ pass. Huertas set up Williams for a 3-pointer that cut the Suns’ lead to 84-83 with 3:51 left.
“He has a hard job,” Williams said of Scott. “In a season like this, it’s expected to give the younger guys as many opportunities as he can. But as a coach, his job is to try to win basketball games. Tonight the second unit was playing a little better than the first group and was in a position to get the game.”
But that apparently has not just applied to this week.
Scott revealed that the reserves have consistently beaten the starters during scrimmages in practice. It has happened with so much frequency that Scott no longer feels surprised. He held out hope the starters becoming “pretty teed off about it” could translate into games that actually matter.
“We don’t keep track of that. But we try to play as hard as we can against the first team,” Huertas said. “That’s a good thing for them if we give them a hard time in practice. Then in a game, they’re more prepared.”
But the Lakers’ starters hardly looked prepared against Phoenix. Instead, the outcome became the same as some of those scrimmages.
“A lot of is they understand they do need each other out there,” Scott said of the reserves. “They’re going to rely on each other and make all the correct plays if possible. They’re going to play the game the right way. When you’ve been in the league that long, you have a pretty good feel on what to do.”
If only Scott could say the same thing about his starters.
“I don’t think they trust each other period. They don’t understand how to play together yet. Simple as that,” Scott said. “They’re going to have to figure it out. They got to figure it out. They have to get to the point where they understand they have to rely on one another.”