Three critical issues for the Lakers after their win over the Knicks – Daily Breeze

LOS ANGELES – Some wins just mean more. For the turbulent Lakers, it’s hard to understate how much they needed Saturday’s victory over the Knicks.

Embedded in that game were a lot of big decisions and critical sequences that are hugely consequential for the season going forward, as the Lakers (26-28) try to pull out of ninth place and back to a level where they are considered meaningful Western Conference contenders. There was something bitterly ironic that a game that saw the “Big Three” reunite for just the 17th game also undermined the idea of the vision of that trio.

Here are a few big issues raised in the game:

1. The Russell Westbrook conundrum: For the second time in three weeks, Russell Westbrook finished a close game on the bench. He did not play a minute of overtime, finishing with an unsightly 1 for 10 shooting night with 5 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds. From his check-in with 5:30 remaining, the Lakers had a six-point lead. Westbrook’s statistical contribution in that final shift was a missed 3-pointer (before which the home crowd shouted “NO” in near unison and two missed free throws, either of which could have won the game.

Against Indiana, Coach Frank Vogel said simply that he was playing the players who he thought would win the game. After this instance, he was more straightforward in the decision, which might have actually been a more brutal assessment of Westbrook’s night, especially because he went with Talen Horton-Tucker who was not having a particularly scintillating evening (1 for 6, 2 points, 2 steals).

“That (fourth-quarter) stretch was part of it – I think obviously Russ was having a tough night on both sides of the ball and Bron was really going,” he said. “I knew the ball was gonna be in Bron’s hands and I felt like we were going to get more from a defensive perspective and off-ball action with Talen.”

The disconnect between Westbrook and his coaches has been brewing for much of the season, of course. This time, Westbrook spoke about the decision, which he said had not been communicated to him before it happened. But he also tried to shift off the talking point of being benched in crunch time.

“We won the game and that’s the most important part,” he said. “As far as basketball, there’s going to be off-nights. Everybody has off-nights. I have some. Other people may have some. And that’s a part of the game. That’s basketball. But I don’t care about anything as long as we won. Winning is the most important part of this game.”

Westbrook’s teammates continue to be publicly supportive. LeBron James said he thought Westbrook played too hesitant, second-guessing his moves on possessions rather than playing with the instinct that has defined his career. Malik Monk said the team has to do a better job of letting teammates, particularly Westbrook, feel in their comfort zones.

But it’s hard to move past the booing that Westbrook got in his own arena. The fan base is restless at his subpar performances. He’s had 14 games in which he’s shot 33.3% or less, and seven of them have come since the calendar turned to 2022. After trumpeting championship aspirations, the Lakers are two games under .500 – and whatever piece of that accountability falls on Westbrook, his presence on the roster is (so far) inexorably linked to how underwhelming the team has been. It’s exacerbated by how well James and Davis played together on Saturday.

It’s disconcerting that Westbrook hasn’t found a rhythm, and the envisioned superstar trio looks like the same old duo, plus an erratic Westbrook. But Davis said he still thinks Westbrook can find his way back.

“A lot of the shots he takes are shots that he can make, but he’s got to stay out of his own head,” Davis said. “When I was going through the whole little thing where I wasn’t playing well, I tried to always do the little things for our team — the intangibles. And it kind of gets you going, gets you in a rhythm. That’s what he has to do.”

2. LeBron and his knee: Watching James roughly an hour before tip-off on Saturday night didn’t inspire confidence. He started out moving slowly on his shooting, then as assistant coach Phil Handy instructed him to perform certain dribbling combinations, James looked shaky and off-balance. He lost his handle. On a few of his jump shots, he was way off target. James later admitted that he hadn’t done any on-court work since the Lakers were in Charlotte back on Jan. 28.

“That was the last time I actually did anything on the court,” he said. “I didn’t feel worse than that day. So, just gave it a shot and see what happens. And we saw what happened.”

What happened was sensational: James went off for 29 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in his return, seemingly picking up where he left off. The Lakers didn’t intend for him to play nearly 40 minutes, but he was composed in the final stretch with a bucket and two assists in overtime. James said his knee “loosened up” after a lethargic first quarter, and indeed some of his best physical feats – two dunks that didn’t count, as well as a towering swat of Julius Randle that was ruled a foul – occurred late in the game.

That being said, James acknowledged that his warm-ups didn’t feel very good, and the Lakers have to be at least a little concerned at how far they had to push him to win the game. The Lakers have a back-to-back against Milwaukee at home followed by Portland on the road. It might make some sense for James to miss one of those games (the Lakers had a similar approach for Anthony Davis when he came back) to avoid pushing him too hard until his knee condition is in better shape.

3. Malik Monk locked as a starter: Vogel made a very subtle reference when asked a question about taking Avery Bradley out of the starting lineup. He said Bradley may well start in games against top guards such as Steph Curry or Damian Lillard, but because the Knicks are bigger “we went with Stanley (Johnson).”

Just that slyly, Malik Monk is a locked-in starter. Vogel doesn’t seem to consider him as a candidate to be toggled in and out anymore. And there’s good reason why: Monk’s splits as a starter are 18.3 ppg, 44.5% on threes, and a nearly 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He’s most importantly a killer spacer for the Lakers’ top play-makers, but the team has also used him as a secondary playmaker – especially in the pick-and-roll with Anthony Davis.

He had 29 points on 20 shots on Saturday against the Knicks, including 18 in the pivotal third quarter. The guy just fits.

“He brings a knockout punch that – to be completely honest with you – we haven’t had on our roster since I got here,” said James, which struck as an extremely high compliment. “Someone that can literally, if he makes one, it can be two, three, four, five in a row. And it comes in bunches. And he’s a big-time scorer. I think what’s very underrated about his game is he’s also a great playmaker as well, with the ball in his hands. He doesn’t make many mistakes and is always in control.”

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