Bresnahan: Go Inside
These are the days where seasons are made, not the crowning type but the will-they-make-playoffs type.
The Lakers are currently on the outside looking in as the calendar gets ready to flip from January to February.
Ninth place in the Western Conference is no better than fourth in an Olympic event. A lot of work goes for naught either way.
It’s not entirely the Lakers’ fault if they don’t play past April 9. The medical gods have frowned upon them, tossing a sad mixture of injuries into the season syllabus.
Lonzo Ball could be out until March. LeBron James has increased his workload at practice but still has no official return date. Kyle Kuzma’s sore hip kept him out of Sunday’s game against Phoenix.
And now the Lakers play a rough-and-tumble six-game stretch that starts Tuesday at home against Philadelphia and continues with six road games before the All-Star break, five against teams with better records.
Thankfully for the Lakers, a template popped into the picture Sunday night.
It came against the Suns, an admittedly downtrodden team, particularly on the road, but one that served a purpose for the Lakers.
The game plan against the Suns was simple: Go inside.
Brandon Ingram made eight of nine attempts in the first half with a comical shot chart that showed all eight makes in the paint.
He was exceedingly patient Sunday. Instead of hard charges toward the basket again and again, he showed pump-fakes and change-of-speed plays that worked against the Suns.
It surely helped that Rajon Rondo played a whopping 42 minutes, allowing Ingram to play off the ball more than he had in recent games without Ball and James.
Not to be forgotten, Ivica Zubac continued to be a revelation down low, shaking off a quiet game against Karl-Anthony Towns two days earlier to punish the undersized Suns for 24 points.
His 16 rebounds were a career-high. His four blocked shots tied his career-best.
Brief reminder: Zubac is only 21 years old. He was little more than the 32nd pick in the 2016 draft.
“He has great touch around the rim with both hands,” Rondo said. “And he's probably one of the strongest bigs in the game.”
The Lakers didn't plan to be flashy Sunday because they went without the 56 points and 15 assists a game supplied by James, Kuzma and Ball.
It's a lot of missing firepower. Consider the Lakers the NFL equivalent of a high-scoring team that lost its stud quarterback
Now they’re forced into a grueling ground attack that churns up the clock but produces results. It might not always be pretty, but who cares as long as it wins games?
For now, they must create strengths in the paint. If Zubac and Ingram can be this effective near the basket, it's a huge boost for the undermanned Lakers.
Tuesday brings a much tougher match-up against 76ers center Joel Embiid, already a two-time All-Star starter at age 24.
“I have to prepare extra,” Zubac said, adding he would ask teammates Tyson Chandler and JaVale McGee for tips on how to defend Embiid. “I'm going to come out ready.”
The Lakers were certainly ready Sunday but the schedule gets more difficult very quickly.
Medical reports and physical progress at Laker practices will be analyzed all week. Luke Walton will again face reporters' queries about James' possible return, not to mention Kuzma.
It hasn't been said around here for a while, but it's a critical time between now and the All-Star break. The chances of playing past mid-April really begin this week.