Five minutes into the second quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder, LeBron James galloped down the court and barged into the paint. He bumped his primary defender, Luguentz Dort, but by then two more Thunder defenders — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Darius Bazley had converged. A fourth, Abdel Nader, got a hand on James’ pass to Dion Waiters in the corner. Waiters managed to corral the ball, which he then put on the floor to create a contested 12-foot fadeaway that hit the backboard before it grazed the rim:
The end result was particularly ugly, but the possession serves as a handy microcosm of the Lakers’ 105-86 loss (box score) on Wednesday. James, who finished with 19 points on 7-for-19 shooting, saw help defenders whenever he tried to create. The same went for Anthony Davis, who scored just nine points on 3-for-11 shooting, and their teammates were unable to make OKC pay.
Two days after clinching the No. 1 seed in the West, this seems like the kind of game that should be dismissed as meaningless. The Lakers shot a putrid 5-for-37 (13.5 percent) from 3-point range, and, according to Cleaning The Glass, they scored 85.1 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time, and 65.6 per 100 in the halfcourt, which are both their lowest marks of the entire season.
But isn’t it interesting that, just four days prior, they were almost exactly as bad? In a 107-92 loss on Saturday, the Toronto Raptors held them to 86.1 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time and 71.9 per 100 in the halfcourt. Here are three of many possessions that went nowhere:
What do you think, Russ?
The uncomfortable truth about the Lakers is that few teams in the bubble have looked more uncomfortable on offense. On reopening night they managed a two-point win over the Clippers, but the individual dominance of Davis, who scored 34 points and shot 16-for-17 from the free throw line, obscured that they had great difficulty finding points any other way. Los Angeles scored 102 points per 100 possessions in that victory, its 11th-worst offensive performance of the season. That number would rank dead last in the league if sustained, as would the 86.7 points per 100 possessions the Lakers scored in the halfcourt.
Even the most ardent Laker hater would admit that it is unwise to jump to catastrophic conclusions based on a four-game sample after a four-month layoff. Los Angeles hasn’t faced a defensive slouch yet, and it is attempting to integrate Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith. Presumably, Danny Green will not continue to miss so many wide-open 3s. The Lakers’ bubble struggles, though, point to a season-long issue: Their mediocre halfcourt offense.
Even before they lost Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo (the latter temporarily), they were overly reliant on James’ playmaking and were a poor 3-point-shooting team by both volume and accuracy. They feasted in transition and played stingier defense than just about anybody anticipated, but in the halfcourt, their offense ranked 15th when the hiatus started, with essentially the same efficiency as the Phoenix Suns.
Nothing we’ve seen in Orlando suggests the Lakers have fixed this, to put it generously. If they are going to do so, they will either need the likes of Kyle Kuzma, Waiters or Rondo to make plays consistently when they get deep in the playoffs — a dangerous proposition — or they will need James to dominate the ball even more (and, based on their on/off numbers, almost never rest). Nobody targets weak links like he does, but the other contenders don’t have many of those.
Unlike last season, Los Angeles hasn’t saddled James with a roster entirely devoid of shooting and stuffed with players who need the ball in their hands. Instead, he has an MVP-caliber co-star but a shaky supporting cast, and his path to his fourth championship leaves little room for error.
The most alarming thing about Wednesday’s loss was not the margin but the opponent: The Thunder are one of the shallower playoff teams in recent memory, and their lone bench threat, Dennis Schroder, had left the campus for the birth of his child. But it was Los Angeles that appeared top-heavy.
Previously on That’s Pretty Interesting: Trey Burke says he wasn’t surprised by his scoring explosion; should anyone be?