LOS ANGELES — The fourth-quarter heists came in quick succession, three in a span of less than two minutes.
First, Larry Nance Jr. swatted an entry pass intended for LaMarcus Aldridge out of the air as the Los Angeles Lakers clinged to a two-point lead. Three possessions later, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope leapt into the passing lane like a cornerback and snatched a dish from Patty Mills then raced the sideline for a breakaway dunk. The next trip down, Nance did much the same at nearly the identical spot on the floor, igniting a give-and-go break that he punctuated with a lethal alley-oop throwdown. A six-point Lakers lead would never narrow in a 93-81 win over a short-handed San Antonio Spurs squad.
“When five guys are in sync moving defensively, it just seems to happen,” Nance said. “We had high hands on the ball. We had KCP cutting through passing lanes. We were just making catches tough, be it at the elbow or the post.”
Larry Nance Jr. brings the house down with an enormous alley-oop from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Back in the fall, the Lakers christened their sparkling new training facility with grueling days of defensive drills. “We went into training camp, Day 1, and didn’t do a single thing on offense,” coach Luke Walton said prior to tipoff on Thursday.
The way Walton saw it, defensive proficiency would be a bankable asset for the Lakers if the goal was to stay competitive on a nightly basis against a league far more experienced than them. He reiterated that the three stated goals for the Lakers this season irrespective of win total were: play harder than the competition each night, focus on defense, and play fast. Achieve these objectives and an identity would emerge.
The fact that the Lakers have largely met these goals represents an odd and sometimes cruel irony for Walton and the team, which stands at 14-27 at the season’s midway point. The Lakers rank 11th in defensive efficiency, a minor miracle for a team this green. At 103.8 possessions per game, they play faster than any NBA team. And though their youth, lack of refinement and inability to shoot the ball consistently has produced some awful losses, the Lakers have rarely failed this season for a lack of effort.
Despite hitting these benchmarks and three straight victories, the Lakers remain an organization in search of structure — the sort the Spurs can fall back on despite “a pathetic performance,” in the words of coach Gregg Popovich. It’s a comfort that comes with continuity, the knowledge that however disastrous a game, a streak or even a half season, there’s an abiding trust that there’s a process that can address every problem and guide any difficult decision.
For the better part of two decades, the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers gripped a stranglehold of the NBA’s Western Conference. From 1998 to 2014, the two teams won 13 of 16 conference titles, and combined for 10 NBA championships. The Lakers and Spurs shared few commonalities stylistically or culturally, yet collectively they defined an era.
Today, neither are conference favorites, but the Spurs, even in the post-Duncan era, maintain an organization guided by a generation of best practices, be it scouting, player development, sports science and organizational chemistry. For the Lakers, a storied franchise that still often mistakes mystique for culture, there’s still work to do in each of these events.
Walton represents the Lakers’ sweet spot — a knighted member of the Lakers family steeped both in the franchise’s Jacksonian era and the trends that propelled the Warriors as the league’s modern standard-bearer on all that newfangled stuff. As advertised, Walton has pursued that course of coupling these two legacies into a unified vision of a new Lakers golden era.
Yet the Lakers have never truly birthed a team through infancy. Try as he might to apply the gospel of champions to this young project, Walton will continue to be tested. Following the win on Thursday night, he spoke of his commitment to an emotional equilibrium in which there were few highs and few lows.
“I learned it from Phil Jackson when I got drafted here as a player,” Walton said. “I was a very emotional player and every loss was the end of the world, and every win was the greatest night of all time. And, he would always talk about staying in the middle. That’s when you’re at your most dangerous. But over the years, I’ve understood what he was talking about. Now that’s my job to keep the same pulse with our young team.”
Walton values the right things, and he’d be unfaithful to himself to preach otherwise to his team. Yet that equanimity he remembers from his rookie season was a message being delivered by a man with eight championships to a roster featuring Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone. Will it penetrate a locker room in which only one player in a nine-man rotation is older than 25, a front office that’s still hanging drywall without a ton of managerial experience, and an ownership suite with heightened expectations based on past results rather than current realities?
But for a night, the Lakers left Staples Center in a relative state of calm. The recent nine-game losing streak had been snapped this week with a trio of impressive wins that had also been helpful at disinfecting the residue from LaVar Ball’s latest tantrum from his annex in the Baltics. For a moment, a Lakers team that had been consumed for weeks with the management of personalities, team meetings, and public conversations about competing interests on the roster and the distribution of minutes can look to the second half of the season with measured optimism.
Exactly how measured will continue to be a source of debate, as is tradition in these parts.