Lakers, after promising changes to their rotation, go big to secure another comeback win

LOS ANGELES — Following a dispiriting overtime loss Sunday in Sacramento, Los Angeles Lakers head coach Darvin Ham informed reporters he was “buckling down” on the team’s rotation and making notable adjustments.

Ham revealed his strategic shift during the Lakers’ 106-103 comeback win over the Orlando Magic at Arena on the second night of a back-to-back on Monday: playing bigger lineups.

With Rui Hachimura (left eye contusion) a late scratch, the Lakers (2-2) played Christian Wood (27 minutes) and Jaxson Hayes (10) season highs in minutes. Wood played all but three seconds in the fourth quarter alongside either Hayes or Anthony Davis, as Ham went with two-big lineups. Los Angeles also slightly reduced the minutes of Taurean Prince (to play LeBron James more at small forward) and Gabe Vincent (to play Austin Reaves and D’Angelo Russell more).

The Lakers correspondingly finished with Prince at shooting guard over Reaves, who hasn’t closed in consecutive games amid his shooting struggles following a breakout summer in which he was largely seen as the team’s third-best player. Ham referenced Prince’s size and defense as factors that led to the coaching staff going back to him over the second half of the final quarter.

Ham’s vision materialized on the Lakers’ penultimate defensive possession.

Orlando, trailing by one, had the ball with 20.6 seconds left and no shot clock. Vincent and James did not communicate who was picking up Markelle Fultz, forcing Vincent to scramble to an open Jalen Suggs behind the 3-point line. Vincent couldn’t stop his momentum, and Suggs blew by him, leaving a rotating Davis as the last line of defense. But Davis blocked the shot, which ricocheted off the backboard. Wood collected the rebound in traffic, wrestling it away from multiple Orlando players and drawing a foul on Fultz.

That stop set up Russell’s two free throws to ice the game.

“Whenever (Wood is) in there with A, Bron, especially A specifically, they’re just two huge presences on the defensive glass,” Ham said. “Christian gets some of the toughest defensive rebounds I’ve ever seen anyone get. So, he and A being combined for, I think it was 25 defensive rebounds, we needed every one of them.”

The nail-biting win over Orlando was eerily similar to Los Angeles’ comeback win over the shorthanded Phoenix Suns last week. After trading baskets for much of the first half — the Lakers were at least closer against the Magic than they were against the Suns — the Magic took control of the game for most of the second half, leading for nearly 20 of the 24 second-half minutes.

But for the second time in three games, the Lakers out-executed their opponent in crunch time and gutted out a close win. It required James to go over his minutes limit — he played 33 minutes Monday — for the third consecutive game and on the second night of a back-to-back.

Orlando missed its final five shots, two of which the Lakers blocked (one by Davis in the clip above, and one by James). The Lakers outrebounded the Magic, 11-8, and held them to 36.4 percent shooting in the fourth quarter.

“It gives us a lot of length in our frontcourt,” James said of the closing lineup. “One of our biggest kryptonites over the last few years has been being able to close out possessions. We do a great job of getting stops, but when we give up offensive rebounds, a lot of teams scoring second-chance points has been killing us.”

With the obvious small sample size caveats, the Lakers have outscored opponents by 40 points in the 28 minutes James, Davis and Wood have played together, per The group’s net rating is even crazier: The Lakers have outscored opponents by 77.3 points per 100 possessions when the three bigs share the floor. That latter number isn’t sustainable, but it’s indicative of how dominant the group was during the crunch-time portions of wins over the Suns and Magic.

“We’re still figuring it out on the fly,” Davis said. “Me and Bron are trying to help (Wood), see what he likes. The good thing about him, he’s receptive to information, so whenever we tell him something. He doesn’t get in his feelings or anything. He tries to do what we tell him to make the entire team successful and him.”

The jumbo frontcourt provides Davis — who’s playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate through the first four games — with more margin for error defensively. He’s free to roam and rotate, trusting that Wood or James can protect the rim in a pinch or corral a contested defensive rebound. Most of the defensive responsibility still falls on Davis’ shoulders, but the Lakers’ collective size shrinks the floor defensively in a way that can be intimidating for opposing offenses.

On the offensive end, Davis has emerged as the Lakers’ focal point, averaging the most points (25.8) and shots (18.5) on the team. If those marks stand all season, it would be the first time Davis has led the Lakers in points or shots.

Davis had 26 points, 19 rebounds, three blocks and one steal against the Magic. Since his scoreless second half against Denver, which yielded days of ridicule from national talking heads, Davis has dominated on both ends. Over the past three games, he’s averaging 28.7 points, 15.7 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 2.0 steals. These silly numbers underrate the impact he’s had on both ends.

“It’s just him being himself,” Ham said. “People reference that Denver game like (Nikola) Jokić doesn’t exist, and him having to deal with this guy on both sides of the ball … that’s a load. … He’s the captain of our defense. He’s back there holding down the back line, talking, active, changing shots, blocking shots and coming up with rebounds. Setting screens, rolling hard. Not forcing anything, just taking his opportunities.

“Guys are looking for him. He’s starting to get into a really, really nice rhythm. An efficient rhythm, at that. I just expect him to continue to grow.”

Russell, who had his best game of the season in leading the Lakers in scoring (28 points) and assists (eight), wants the narrative about Davis’ supposed inconsistency to change.

“It’s not a wavering thing like everyone says,” Russell said. “He still finds a way to dominate the game, (even) if it’s not on the stat sheet or it’s not loud. Team’s fear him, you know? … I know what he’s capable of. There’s no surprise from that guy.”

The viability of a Davis-Wood-James grouping against the league’s best teams remains unclear. Wood struggled defensively in his matchups with Denver and Sacramento, and Ham played him only three minutes in the second half of Sunday’s loss to Sacramento. James has often coasted on defense to start the season, which is somewhat understandable given he’s about to turn 39 and in his 21st NBA season. The Lakers can’t expect his optimal effort on both ends for 30-plus minutes. When James and Wood play together against an active frontcourt — like Denver and Sacramento, for example — Los Angeles is typically vulnerable to back-cuts, offensive rebounds and open 3s.

Wood is a better option only in certain matchups until proven otherwise. But that’s OK. He’s a minimum-contract player, and he’s already providing greater-than-minimum value. He had nine points, nine rebounds and three blocks against the Magic and has helped the Lakers in both of their wins. Plus, once Hachimura and Jarred Vanderbilt (left heel bursitis) return, the Lakers will have three closing options for a bigger frontcourt. Each player has vastly different strengths and weaknesses, providing versatility for various matchups. In the meantime, Wood should remain in the 20-plus-minute range and close when the game script dictates it.

Of course, the Lakers’ problems are far from solved by a close home win against an opponent that did not even make the East Play-In last season. Los Angeles continues to struggle on the defensive glass and with its transition defense. Orlando grabbed 11 offensive rebounds and outscored Los Angeles 20-4 in second-chance points. The Magic only had 11 fast-break points, but that doesn’t include early offensive possessions that led to points in the paint or 3s.

“There’s no magic pill that’s gonna make it go away,” Ham said of the team’s defensive woes. “The transition defense and the defensive rebounding is something that we want to prioritize. Everything in the middle, we can figure out. Our pick-and-roll coverages, our shifts in activity off the ball, off-ball defense, we’ll figure that out.”

There is value for the Lakers in winning close games as they continue to establish their continuity and find their rhythm. The already-vicious Western Conference got that much more difficult late Monday night when the LA Clippers traded for James Harden and PJ Tucker in a blockbuster deal with the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Clippers  coincidentally are the Lakers’ next opponent on Wednesday. It’s unknown if Harden and Tucker will be available for that matchup, which will be the second night of a back-to-back for the Clippers, who play the Magic on Tuesday. Either way, the Clippers have won 11 straight games against the Lakers, making Wednesday’s tilt important regardless of who’s available.

Monday’s victory was a sign of progress for the Lakers, as they were able to replicate their prior success with a bigger lineup in crunch time. It’s too early to state that that is their identity, as the group is only beginning to take shape, but it’s a familiar formula for a James-Davis team. The 2019-20 title team often relied on a frontcourt rotation of Kyle Kuzma, Markieff Morris, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee at various points of its championship run. It’s easy to envision Hachimura, Vanderbilt, Prince and Wood filling similar roles at various points this postseason.

“To be able to have that ability to have that length, to be able to rebound those missed shots, it’s definitely key for us,” James said. “And it’s big time.”

(Photo of Christian Wood and Anthony Davis: Adam Pantozzi / NBAE via Getty Images)

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