The Los Angeles Lakers managed to go 2-1 in their three scrimmage games over the past week and finally got to get back on the court in Orlando, FL now.
While there was some obvious rust, they seemed to yet again click instantly and the team chemistry they spent all season building was very evident. Of course, playing with LeBron James and Anthony Davis tends to cover up a ton of mistakes but then again, that is why the Lakers went all out to acquire the All-Star duo.
In their games against the Dallas Mavericks, Orlando Magic, and Washington Wizards, many aspects of the team stood out but there were three major ones.
JR Smith and Dion Waiters have not missed a beat
Both Smith and Waiters managed to stand out with the former managing to dominate the third game and the latter consistently playing well all throughout.
Smith’s shot struggled throughout the first two games, shooting just 3-of-10 from the field and knocking down just 25 percent of them. However, he finally got things going against the Wizards and managed to put up a game-high 20 points to go along with five rebounds and one steal on 6-of-7 shooting from the three-point line.
While the Wizards are not one of the NBA’s premier defensive teams, the strong finish from Smith was very encouraging and the first two games should be chalked up to rust due to the fact that he had not played organized, professional basketball in almost two years. Smith will likely serve as a key piece in the team’s offense off the bench as he can easily create his own shot and get a bucket when necessary.
As for Waiters, he shined in all three games and served as the biggest beneficiary of Rajon Rondo’s absence. He played at least 20 minutes in two of the three games and managed to effectively be their primary ball-handler off the bench. While he does not have the playmaking ability that Rondo possesses, his prowess for putting the ball in the basket provides the Lakers with something they needed.
In the final game against the Wizards, Waiters put up 18 points, three rebounds, and six assists on 8-of-17 shooting from the field in a team-high 27 minutes. Perhaps the most encouraging part of his stat line was the lack of turnovers, notching zero of them in his final game after recording six in the previous two.
Both players needed these games and now that they have hopefully got their legs under them, they can continue to provide the Lakers with meaningful minutes.
Anthony Davis still needs to be handled with care
While Davis is undoubtedly one of the league’s premier two-way players, he is still one that needs to be handled very carefully due to his previous injury history.
It seems as though he hits the ground hard every game and Lakers fans just begin to pray that he will come back to them. Unfortunately, the injury bug has struck again with Davis as he is currently dealing with a sore left eye and is potentially in danger of missing the seeding game opener against the Los Angeles Clippers.
During the scrimmage against the Magic, his eye was poked in the first quarter and he did not return to the game. Head coach Frank Vogel played things safe as he realized that a scrimmage game is not worth losing him for a potentially long time.
Odds are Davis will not at all be rushed back due to the fact the Lakers are locks for the playoffs and well within reach of clinching the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Even without Davis, the Lakers are still armed with James and will only need to win three of their eight seeding games to lock up the top position.
The good news is in the 25 combined minutes that Davis was on the court in the first two games, he managed to put up 21 points and 11 rebounds while going 7-of-10 from the field. Davis showed that he is still going to be a problem for opposing defenses and that is all that matters heading into the upcoming seeding games.
Kyle Kuzma really is the X-factor
Kuzma has long been considered the team’s best shot at developing a third All-Star player alongside Davis and James, but just has not been consistent enough.
However, in the second scrimmage game against the Magic in which Davis only played nine minutes, Kuzma stepped up. In 30 minutes, he dropped a game-high 25 points to go along with seven rebounds and five three-pointers on 10-of-13 shooting from the field. He was on fire and was getting to his spots with ease.
When Kuzma is rolling like that, the Lakers are almost unstoppable. Teams already exert so much energy dealing with Davis and James that they just do not have the manpower available to shut Kuzma down when he is hot. He also provides James with another very capable shooter to kick the basketball out to once he draws all defenders to the paint, only increasing the team’s offensive potency now.
Keep in mind, Kuzma played with Team USA this past summer and happened to injure his left ankle, severely holding him back at the beginning of the season and placing a damper on his play. Now, with him fully healthy and a birthday fresh in his rearview mirror, he seems more lethal than ever now for the seeding games.
Head coach Frank Vogel has also made it a point to include Kuzma more in the offense, allowing him to bring the basketball up the court and initiate the offense. If the 25 year old can embrace this ‘point forward’ role and thrive in it, he will create easier shots for his teammates but also free up more opportunities for himself. He is able to move much quicker than most other power forwards and coming off screens will allow him to easily get by his defenders, causing the defense to compensate and eventually leading to an open shot for the Lakers now.
If Kuzma can find a consistent rhythm and continue to flourish heading into the seeding games, the Lakers could unlock an even more dominant version.