Lakers take ‘huge step back’: Why defense and effort halted LA’s momentum against Jazz

LOS ANGELES — Lakers head coach Darvin Ham failed to acknowledge his team’s defensive effort and execution in their 130-116 loss to the Utah Jazz at Arena.

“We took a huge step back tonight,” Ham said. “It was the first game where I felt like we weren’t there defensively.”

Going into the competition, the Lakers had the league’s third-best defense behind the Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers, the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. Much of the Lakers’ problems were on the other end of the floor – 3-point shooting, turnovers, free throws, etc.

With impressive back-to-back wins over the Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Pelicans, the Lakers looked to generate new momentum with their first three-game winning streak since Jan. 7.

The game against the Jazz was one of the few games amid the Lakers’ brutal opening schedule that they were favored to win. Despite the gap between the records — the Lakers were 2-5 and the Jazz were 6-3 — this game was supposed to be a W for Los Angeles, at least according to bettors.

Instead, the starless Jazz shredded the Lakers, scoring 130 points while shooting 50.5 percent overall and making 17 of 40 3-pointers (42.5 percent). All of those numbers — runs allowed, field goal percentage allowed, 3-pointers allowed, 3-point percentage allowed — are season highs for a Lakers opponent.

There were consistent breakdowns, with the Lakers allowing more than 30 points in three quarters, including 40 points in the first quarter and 75 points in the first half. At halftime, Ham wrote three numbers on the whiteboard: “40”, “35” and “75”, indicating the Jazz’s quarter and half point totals.

“We can’t play like this,” Ham said. “We’ve been good for different little periods, but the overall picture we’ve painted defensively sucks.”

As Ham talked about before the game, the Jazz are difficult to plan due to the number of equally dangerous offensive weapons at their disposal. Five Jazz players scored more than 15 points and nine players scored at least six points. It was an all-around effort, with the Jazz whipping the ball, clipping the Lakers defense on the dribble, then splitting them for open layups and 3-pointers.

Lauri Markkanen, who has gone wild at Utah this season, led the way with 27 points and 13 rebounds. Jordan Clarkson added 20 points, Kelly Olynyk had 18 points and Mike Conley finished with 15 points and 10 assists. The Jazz had 31 assists on their 52 field goals and scored 64 points in the paint. The Lakers’ defensive execution was sloppy and their efforts were embarrassing.

“Our game plan discipline was terrible,” Anthony Davis said. “Our effort was terrible. These guys got everything they wanted. … We were doing things we would never do. Leave the guys on an island. Our behind didn’t speak, didn’t protect, didn’t keep the ball. With each counter-attack, the defense didn’t work in transition, which is difficult because we played very well on the other side.

James, who his teammates said remained balanced during the team’s lackluster start, had a more measured outlook while expressing his disappointment with the team’s defence.

“We never want that to happen, but there are games in an 82-game season where you just don’t have it defensively,” James said. “And we haven’t had it – not for 48 minutes. We’ve had it in spurts. But we know that to win we have to defend. And tonight I think we have a 50- 40-90 and we still lost.

For James, the Lakers put on one of their best offensive performances of the season. They lost a nearly 50-40-90 performance by the group, going a season-high 48.2% overall, 42.3% on their 3 and a season-high 89.3% on free throws.

Westbrook scored a season-high 26 points — the most he’s scored off the bench in his career — and provided six assists, helping the Lakers cut a 16-point deficit to just five going into fourth.

Anthony Davis, who still struggles with a strained back, had 22 points and eight rebounds, despite only attempting four shots in the second half and accepting blame for not being aggressive enough. And LeBron James, still struggling with illness and pain in his left foot, had 17 points and 10 rebounds while continuing to look nothing like himself.

“There are 60,000 points in our locker room, so I’m not worried about our offense,” Ham said. “Our defensive effort has to be there. Our defense was inept at best.

Defensive rebounding has been an early concern for the Lakers, who often use three-guard lineups that can be exploited by big men and bigger wings. They are fifth in defensive rebounds per 100 possessions and 10th in defensive rebound percentage, which is a more accurate representation of a team’s rebounding ability.

But the undersized group allowed more than nine offensive rebounds each game and more than 13 offensive rebounds in four of their eight games. The Lakers are 1-3 in those four games. They allow the opponent 10th most offensive rebounds per 100 possessions.

“Well, we just have to bounce back as a gang and commit to putting bodies on bodies,” Ham said. “We defended at a very high level and gave up offensive rebounds, which brought out his ugly head a few times.”

The Lakers will fix their mistakes — “a huge laundry list,” according to Ham — with a movie and walkthroughs at practice on Saturday. Ham was unhappy as he’s been at his post-match press conference all season.

The Lakers took advantage of opponent’s luck at the start of the season and inevitably had to suffer an avalanche of opponents. Even the best defensive teams have slip-ups.

Ham wants his team to reset and remember that defense is the only end of the floor they can control – and their primary path to exceeding expectations.

“Our defense can’t change,” Ham said. “You can have open eyes, the jump shot can look like a textbook, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the ball is going to go into the basket. Defense is something you can approach every night and that’s what we need to focus on. It cannot waver. It cannot waver at all. It doesn’t matter who’s in the game, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we have to give up, we have to compete, we have to be together and we have to be responsible for that particular end of the field.

It’s the type of loss that could come back to haunt the Lakers late in the season.

It’s a continuation of their problem from last season of playing too often at the level of their competition. Last season’s Lakers were marred by early season losses to lowly Thunder, and later losses to teams like the Spurs, Rockets and Wizards.

The Jazz are playing much better than those teams last season, currently ranking third in the West with a 7-3 record. But they’re basically tanking after trading Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert and aren’t anywhere near the Lakers’ level on paper.

It was a game the Lakers should have won. They don’t have the talent or the cushion to take nights off. They need every player locked in and engaged defensively for as close to 48 minutes as possible. Their defense is their third star (and fourth with the way Westbrook has played recently).

And if they ever want to climb out of their deep hole in the Western standings, they’ll have to do so by learning to win games as favorites and not just underdogs.

“I don’t think it’s concerning because we’re a good defensive team,” Davis said. “There is therefore no cause for alarm. We can get back to where we need to be.

(Top photo: Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

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