Lakers match last season's win total in 21 fewer games

ByOhm Youngmisuk ESPN logo
Tuesday, February 27, 2018

ATLANTA -- Brandon Ingram used his elastic-like arms in a variety of ways to score repeatedly and do something that only Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol have done as Los Angeles Lakers.

Julius Randle continued to flex and bully his way in the paint, Isaiah Thomas smiled after scoring on a nifty underhanded rainbow teardrop and Lonzo Ball couldn't miss -- while also receiving a high-five from one of his favorite rappers, Quavo, after drilling a 3-pointer.

Although they were sloppy, committing 23 turnovers and 23 personal fouls, the Lakers thoroughly enjoyed themselves in Atlanta on Monday and provided yet another reminder of how far they have come, as they matched last season's win total (26 wins) with a 123-104 thrashing of the sinking Hawks.

While the Hawks are locked in a competitive tanking race with seven other teams, the Lakers are trying to win as many games as they can while developing their green talent. At times the Lakers looked dominant offensively in winning their third straight game and reaching 26 wins in their 60th game of the season. Last season, they registered their 26th win in their penultimate game of the campaign and needed a five-game winning streak to do so.

The streaky Lakers have now won seven of their past 10 games and 15 of their previous 22 despite injuries and a rotation-altering trade.

"I think we can say we've gotten better," Ingram said of the Lakers from a season ago. "We've gotten better over these last months as a team, coming into every single game thinking defense first.

"I mean, the camaraderie we had this year from last year is a lot better. I think guys came in and we worked extra hard, whether it was individually, whether it was as a team, we just thought we could figure it out sooner or later. And we came in every single day and worked at our game and then we started to figure it out."

The Lakers continue to look like a bunch of young powerful mutants who are just starting to figure out their powers and limits in a Marvel movie. Start with Ingram, who is flourishing while starting at point guard. The second-year player continues to show off his versatility, joining Bryant, Gasol and O'Neal as the only Lakers to post 21 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and three blocks in a game.

Ingram looked every bit like the best player on the floor on Monday, and that was with nine Lakers scoring in double-figures -- something that hasn't happened since Jan. 7, 1987, when Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper, Kurt Rambis, Billy Thompson and Adrian Branch did so against the Denver Nuggets.

Atlanta, which dropped to 18-43, might as well have felt like it was trying to stop the '87 Lakers. Randle continued his superb season and collected his third double-double in a row with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Randle has come out of the All-Star break on fire, including registering a triple-double on Friday at home against theDallas Mavericks.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope followed up a 34-point explosion on Saturday at theSacramento Kingswith 10 points, 14 rebounds and two steals.

Thomas is still working his way back from a hip injury while adjusting to his new surroundings. He finished with 13 points and showed how he can push the pace and score with his teammates.

And Thomas is logging more minutes alongside Ball, who continues to impress in his second game back from recovering from a sprained left MCL.

After returning against Dallas on Friday but sitting out the victory in Sacramento for precautionary reasons due to it being a back-to-back, Ball buried all four of his shots, including three 3-pointers, in Atlanta. In just 24 minutes while playing under a minutes limit, Ball did a little of everything, finishing with 13 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three steals. The guard become the first Lakers rookie to make all his shots and dish five assists in a game since Luke Walton on Feb. 25, 2004, according to ESPN Stats and Information research.

One of Ball's treys came in transition, and as he ran back along the high-priced seats in the front row at Philips Arena, one of his top-five rappers, Quavo, stood up out of his half-court seat to congratulate him. Sizzling like Migos' "Stir Fry," Ball has hit 6 of 9 3-pointers and has a total of 22 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists in limited minutes over his past two games.

And in five of his past seven games (with the long absence included), Ball has hit three or more 3-pointers and is shooting as confidently as he has all season. With other Lakers includingKyle Kuzma (10 points and nine rebounds), Josh Hart (14 points) and Ivica Zubac (10 points) displaying the kind of young talent that the Hawks would love to have on their squad right now, Walton's team showed glimpses of how far it has come in a year. Since Jan. 7, when the Lakers began their current 15-7 stretch, they rank first in the NBA in fast-break points, second in points in the paint, third in second-chance points and 12th in points off of turnovers.

And yet there was plenty for Walton to be unhappy about, as the coach pointed out of how far the Lakers still have to go, what with 23 turnovers that led to 22 Hawks' points and 23 personal fouls.

In some ways, Monday night was a show of both how bright the Lakers' potential is and just how much growing they still have to do.

"A lot of really nice moments tonight, but a lot of really young, youthful sloppy moments tonight too," Walton said. "We try to get better at just being more professional about the way we play."

On a daily basis, Walton has to find a way to walk the line of trying to win as much as possible -- the Lakers have the Cleveland Cavaliers's first-round pick but don't own their own first-rounder due to the Steve Nash trade, so they have no incentive to get a high pick -- and developing their young talent.

That is why Walton recognizes that this season's early growing pains are starting to pay off, with the Lakers learning how to finish games and take care of business against lesser opponents such as the Hawks. Earlier this season, the Lakers would play up to the competition against teams like the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets but suffer lackadaisical losses to mediocre or poor squads.

And coaching decisions that he made earlier in the season, such as playing Randle inconsistent minutes off the bench and even benching rookies Ball and Kuzma at times in the second half of games to try to demonstrate how hard the Lakers have to play, appear to be paying some dividends for Walton now.

"If the only goal was strictly to win every single night, then you take away from some of the development of our young players, and it is showing now why it was so important early in the year to let some of those guys play through mistakes and finish games," Walton said. "Because now we are getting to see the confidence level they are playing down the stretch of games and closing games out.

"Last year ... first we had to meet and get to know all of our players, we had a young group we were trying to develop," Walton added. "We were going through a lot of the same things, so it doesn't feel completely different. But this year we have done a much better job of fighting through the things as a group and coming out the other side and being better and stronger for it, so that part has been different."

Thomas has only been with the Lakers for a total of six games, but he sees what this core is capable of doing.

"I already knew how good these guys can be," Thomas said. "Even when I wasn't on this team, you see it each and every time they step on the court -- how special they can be if they all put it together. And now that I am a part of this team, I am just trying to help do that and put it all together and see how special we can be."

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