Injuries Are Derailing the Los Angeles Lakers' Hot Start

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterNovember 26, 2016

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 22: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs dribbles to the basket against D'Angelo Russell #1 and Julius Randle #30 of the Los Angeles Lakers in the second half during the NBA game at Staples Center on January 22, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. The Spurs defeated the Lakers 108 - 95. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers stunned the Golden State Warriors in early November with a 117-97 victory.

The Warriors exacted revenge during a pair of games sandwiching the Thanksgiving holiday, demolishing the Lakers 149-106 on Wednesday in Oakland before a 109-85 win on Friday at Staples Center.

"It looked like a Thanksgiving food hangover," head coach Luke Walton said. "I thought our guys played hard; we just didn't play hard and smart tonight."

The Lakers had opened the season in impressive fashion, winning seven of their first 12 before facing a new foe: injuries. Second-year guard D'Angelo Russell sat out last week's loss to the San Antonio Spurs with a sore knee. He returned for one game, another defeat at home to the Chicago Bulls, but the injury continued to linger.

On Wednesday, Russell underwent a platelet-rich plasma injection, which intentionally creates inflammation, inspiring Russell's own immune system to heal the joint. Recovery will sideline L.A.'s starting point guard for at least two weeks, per the Lakers.

Meanwhile, power forward Julius Randle, who has arguably been the Lakers' most valuable player through the first month of the season, suffered a hip pointer. Like Russell, he missed both games against the Warriors.

"I was hoping [Randle] was going to play tonight. I'm not really familiar with the timetable on a hip pointer. I think it's different for everybody," Walton said before the Lakers' loss Friday.

"This morning, he said he was going to try to shoot around," Walton continued. "He started getting up and down, and he was in pain, so it didn't make sense to try and force it."

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 18:  Julius Randle #30 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during the second half of a game against the San Antonio Spurs at Staples Center on November 18, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledge
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Rewind to earlier in the week when the short-handed Lakers survived the Oklahoma City Thunder via Nick Young three-pointer with five seconds left on the clock: Young has provided an unexpected scoring punch for the Lakers this season, but he didn't leave the game unscathed either. 

"He sprained [his toe] in the Oklahoma City game, and I don't think he even realized he sprained it, obviously with the adrenaline and everything," Walton said. "He didn't say anything until the next day. He woke up; he complained about it hurting, and obviously, he wasn't the same in Golden State. He said every time he cut and changed direction, he was in a lot of pain."

Young scored just eight points during the blowout Wednesday, so the Lakers sat him during Friday's rematch, leaving the team without 60 percent of its regular starting lineup.

"Nick and Julius bring probably more energy to the team than anyone else that we have, just by the way they play," Walton said. "Obviously, D'Angelo having the season that he is [having], it was just too tough for us tonight."

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 22:  Nick Young #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates a 111-109 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder with Larry Nance Jr. #7, Brandon Ingram #14 and Tarik Black #28 at Staples Center on November 22, 2016 in Los Angeles, Californ
Harry How/Getty Images

It's not surprising the Lakers have lost four of their last five games.

"It's hard. It's hard losing big pieces of our team," Jordan Clarkson said, who made his first start of the season Friday. "We need a team to beat anybody in this league. With everybody back, we're a complete team."

Jose Calderon and rookie Brandon Ingram joined Clarkson in the starting lineup, in turn weakening the Lakers' bench, which has arguably been the best reserve unit in the league.

While L.A. has struggled in recent games, morale remains high.

"We feel good," Tarik Black said. "[It's] awesome having a coach like Coach Luke, who just uplifts us and makes us feel like we can conquer the world. With guys missing, we still feel like we need to come out and perform."

Walton said he hopes to have both Randle and Young in the lineup Sunday when the Lakers host the Atlanta Hawks—although neither is certain to play.

"There's always something good you can take from situations. But overall, it's pretty frustrating being in this process and not having some of the young core," Walton said.

After Atlanta, the Lakers will embark on a four-game road trip in just five days, with visits to the New Orleans Pelicans, Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors and Memphis Grizzlies. Russell will miss the trip.

Now 8-9, the Lakers need him to return to health before the team's seven-game road trip in mid-December. Otherwise, they may not reach .500 again this season.

 

Lakers Insider Notebook

The Upside of the Lakers' Porous Defense

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 25: Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors drives to the basket against the Los Angeles Lakers on November 25, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
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The Lakers have one of the league's worst defensive ratings: 29th overall at 109.1 points a game, per NBA.com. Somehow that may be a good thing?

"In my eyes, that can be exciting because statistically, we're really bad defensively, and we're 8-8 and playing a pretty hard schedule so far," Walton said before the loss to Golden State.

"We have a lot of room for growth, and obviously, that would mean more wins...and better offensive numbers because we're getting the stops," he continued.

Walton is confident the Lakers will improve defensively—eventually.

"It's funnyI think we've gotten better at some things. We're just not doing it consistently enough," he said. "Sometimes our defense looks great; others times we've really struggled. There is growth that I see, but at the same time, there's also slippage."

His players are with him, believing in their potential.

"Imagine how ugly it's going to get [for other teams], for real, when we put everything together," Black said.

Meanwhile, the Lakers have a lot of work to turn the corner defensively. Walton doesn't blame effort. 

"When they are communicating, we're making runs and we're engaged and we have the crowd behind us," Walton said. "When things get tough, which is when it's more important to communicate, we're getting silent on the defensive end."

 

Kerr Not Surprised by Lakers' Success

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 15: Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors and Luke Walton of the Los Angeles Lakers during a preseason game on October 15, 2016 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that
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Warriors coach Steve Kerr is impressed by the Lakers' performance this season under Walton but not surprised.

"I don't think I am surprised, to be honest with you. I like their young talent," Kerr said before the game Friday. "I know Luke really well. I knew the atmosphere there would be fantastic. He's an incredible human being and somebody that players are always going to want to play for. The talent is starting to show through."

Golden State (14-2) hasn't lost a game since it fell to the Lakers earlier in the month.

Walton served as an assistant under Kerr the last two years with the Warriors, and the two remain close.

"Luke [and I] are like talking trash to each other, for fun, like every day," Kerr said. "It might be about basketball, it might be about something else."

 

Lou Williams Leading in More Ways Than One

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 18: Louis Williams #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers handles the ball against the San Antonio Spurs on November 18, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by dow
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Williams has not only carved out a vital role off the Lakers' benchas the team's top scorer at 16.4 points per gamebut also as a veteran leader in the locker room. After a recent loss at home to the San Antonio Spurs, he took it upon himself to address the team.

"He was talking about the tough road ahead we have and that we need to make sure that we don't let this tough part of the schedule start being a slippery-slope type of thing," Walton said. "As a coach, you love hearing that stuff, because they're taking accountability for it."

He continued: "Those guys in the locker room, when they're talking to each other like that, I think that's why we're having growth as a team faster than people thought we would, because of the way they're interacting with each other."

The Lakers' younger players look to Williams, who is in his 12th NBA season, for direction.

"Lou is one of our leaders. He's been a vocal leader all year, and he's just giving us guidance," Clarkson said.

What was the thrust of Williams' message?

"We've got a tough run ahead of us," he said. "We've tasted some success; we don't want to have slippage. We've been a .500 team as long as the season has been going, and we'd like to keep it like that. Before you know it, you have yourself in a fight to get back on the winning track, and that's tough to do in this league."

Williams' heart may have been in the right place, and the young players may embrace his message, but the Lakers have a serious challenge ahead with players on the mend.

 

Arguing Calls

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 20: D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers warms up before the game against the Chicago Bulls on November 20, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, b
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Players arguing with officials is an NBA staple. What's rare is a referee listening and actually overturning a call.

Why then do players even bother?

"It's funny: When I was younger, I used to watch NBA games and I used to see people complain to the refs after they made a call, and then you look at it, and it's like they're not going to change the call. There's nothing you can do about it," Russell said. "Nothing you can say is going to make them do anything different."

The Lakers' second-year guard had no intention of arguing calls prior to joining the league, but now that he's in the situation, he's finding restraint is a lot harder than anticipated.

"I told myself I'd keep my mouth closed if I got to this point, but it's so hard when you feel like they're wrong and you're right," Russell said. "At the end of the day, there's nothing you can do about it once they've made the call."

But does it help to ask officials to explain both their calls and the thinking behind their decisions?

"It doesn't work. It doesn't really work," he said. "I mean, I haven't gotten anything out of it, so I try to keep my mouth closed."

 

Zubac Getting Time with D-Fenders

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 15:  Ivica Zubac #40 of the Los Angeles Lakers is guarded by JaVale McGee #1 of the Golden State Warriors during their preseason game at T-Mobile Arena on October 15, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Golden State won 112-107. NOTE TO USE
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Rookie Ivica Zubac hasn't gotten much of an opportunity yet for the Lakers; he's logged just 28 total minutes through three appearances.

To help keep Zubac active, the Lakers sent him to the NBA Development League on Wednesday for what proved to be an epic double-overtime battle with the Northern Arizona Suns.

Zubac finished with an impressive line, scoring 21 points with 12 rebounds in 36 minutes. The 7'1" center even hit a three-pointer and eight of his 14 shots attempts, helping the D-Fenders to a 142-135 victory. With the win, the D-Fenders improved to 4-1 on the season, and this was Zubac's second appearance with the Lakers' D-League affiliate.

The D-Fenders, who were a win away from winning a championship last season, needed a game to learn how to play with the newcomer. The team's only defeat of the season was in Zubac's D-League debut, a 133-120 loss to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. He fouled out in 23 minutes after hitting six of nine shots for 13 points.

Both Zubac and the D-Fenders looked more comfortable together in their win over the Suns.

With Timofey Mozgov and Black playing well for the Lakers, and Walton giving minutes to a smaller lineup with Larry Nance Jr. and Randle, Zubac may get most of his minutes in the D-League, at least for the time being.

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats are accurate as of November 25. Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.