Once again the Los Angeles Lakers found themselves in a game that they desperately needed to win, clutching victory with one hand hoping that the opposing team would fall off of the cliff first. That is certainly a path to a 108-102 overtime victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves who were missing both Rudy Gobert and Jaden McDaniels, and whose Anthony Edwards was playing through a shoulder injury that he suffered during the game.
The Lakers better shape up quickly as next round they’ll face a young Memphis Grizzlies’ team, whose defense is better, whose best player is healthy, and has home-court advantage.
For the first three quarters, the Lakers ran into a buzzsaw. Minnesota scored 86 points in three quarters shooting at a blistering rate from three. By the end of the game, of the Timberwolves’ 16 made 3-point baskets only the final three came in the fourth quarter — none in overtime.
With Edwards injured and Karl Anthony-Towns refusing to punish smaller Lakers defenders on a night in which he went 8-of-12 from the field, the Timberwolves went into a dry spell midway through the fourth quarter. That cold stretch is what allowed the Lakers to regain the lead for the first time since the first half.
It wasn’t simply a collapse by the Timberwolves that resulted in their shooting going as cold as the temperature outside of their home arena in February. Anthony Davis was ferocious on defense, especially in the final two periods of play. He got his hands on the basketball in the paint and contested every shot that was feasibly within his reach. That aggression did almost cost the Lakers when Davis was called for a defensive foul on a Mike Conley 3-pointer with less than 0.5 seconds remaining in the game. However, without him locking down on defense the Lakers are likely hosting another play-in game on Friday night.
Certainly the Lakers should be proud that they gutted out this victory. Combine that with having the second-best record in the NBA since the All-Star break — all of those wins coming after the trades — and maybe it’s reasonable to consider the Lakers a contender.
That sample size, though, is only 23 games. During that time the Chicago Bulls, Utah Jazz, and Timberwolves had significant success against them from the 3-point line. With their loss to the Bulls on March 26, an overtime battle against the Jazz last week, and a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers the next day, this hot Lakers team still had to participate in the play-in tournament. The 3-point line in those games has hurt this team that has played great defense since the deadline. They also have struggled to create offense in important moments. An example would be the fourth quarter, and most of Tuesday night’s play-in game. While the Timberwolves managed to score only 12 points in the fourth quarter, the Lakers weren’t exactly singeing the nets with their 19 points.
What has carried the Lakers lately is an improved defense that is ranked fourth in the NBA since the break. The Grizzlies have the second-best defensive rating in the league for the entire season. Also their Defensive Player of the Year candidate — Jaren Jackson Jr. — is having the best offensive season of his career averaging 18.6 points per game on 50.6/35.5/78.8 shooting splits. He is the third option behind star Ja Morant, and Desmond Bane who is also having a career year on offense.
Reworking their roster has made the Lakers a much more formidable team than they were in early February. The problem though, those early struggles have resulted in them being matched up against a young team with fresher legs and some important playoff games under their belt. The new and improved Lakers not only haven’t played in any playoff series as a group, but have looked vulnerable down the stretch.
The rest between Tuesday’s win and their game on Sunday should do wonders for the Lakers. That being said, when the ball tips off in Memphis the Lakers had better play like they did in most of March, and not how they have crawled to the finish line in recent weeks.