Entering Monday night's game in Phoenix on a three-game losing streak should come as no surprise, as the Los Angeles Lakers drew a bad hand from schedule-makers.
Starting out a road trip in Boston, against a team that had won nine games in a row, did not bode well for LA. Following that up with a game in Washington D.C. the next night, against a team that had blown a late lead at Staples Center two weeks earlier, promised to be a tough challenge. A third game in a third different city in only four nights would be tough enough under normal circumstances, but facing the "Greek Freak" and the Milwaukee Bucks on the road spelled out three losses in four nights and a 5-8 overall record for the purple and gold.
After Saturday's defeat in Wisconsin, the Lakers traveled to Arizona and are on the final leg of their road trip, deseperate not to return home winless.
Returning home with four defeats in four road games would be tough to rationalize, even if rookie point guard Lonzo Ball became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double on the road trip. Incidentally, when the Lakers played the Phoenix Suns on Oct. 20, Ball tabbed up 29 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in what was only his second NBA game. He missed the triple-double by one assist in what went down as the point guard's first NBA victory.
Considering the opposition and the history, Ball could conceivably record back-to-back triple-doubles, which would further cement his already impressive achievement.
The Suns fired their coach one game after the Lakers won that October meeting, and Phoenix went on to win four of five games immediately after the change. However, the new coach bump seems to have settled down with the Suns losing five straight games before finally recording a win over Minnesota on Saturday.
Interim coach Jay Triano has had a notable impact on the Suns' effort levels. With Earl Watson on the bench, the Suns opened the season with a 48-point home loss, and Watson's final game in charge was a 42-point defeat. With Triano, the Suns have won five of 11 games and have not suffered even a 20-point defeat. Clearly, Phoenix is better equipped to compete with its new interim coach guiding the team into battle.
Similarly, Lakers coach Luke Walton has his young team playing energetic defense and exhibiting a competitive spirit that has resulted in the purple and gold being fun to watch. More importantly, the Lakers look like they have a chance to win nearly every time out. The Lakers have not suffered a 20-point defeat through the first 13 games of the 2017-18 season, and the worst blemish of the season came via a 16-point Opening Night loss to the LA Clippers.
While Devin Booker leads the Suns in points and assists, a player to keep an eye on is fourth-year forward TJ Warren. Warren scored 35 points in Saturday's win over Minnesota, and the former member of the NC State Wolfpack scored 40 points in Phoenix's penultimate win. If Warren has a big night, the Suns' chances of getting a win seem to sky rocket. Against the Lakers in October, Warren tabbed 24 points, eight rebounds and four assists in a game the visitors won by a narrow margin, 132-130.
While Ball deserves his due for leading the Lakers in assists, the Lakers' bench scoring has been an impressive and often overlooked component of the team's competitive start. Jordan Clarkson is averaging 14.8 points per game in only 21.0 minutes off the pine. Clarkson is shooting 50.3 percent for the season and 39.5 percent from three-point range. Considering the limited run Clarkson is getting, his numbers deserve attention.
Also, Julius Randle has been a positive contributor in limited minutes after taking a couple of games to adjust to his new bench role. The bulky forward is shooting 60.4 percent from the field to average 11.8 points and 5.4 rebounds in only 19.8 minutes per game. Randle's new role seems to require greater use of energy in shorter shifts, but considering his production, one cannot help but wonder how Walton can work to consistently get the former University of Kentucky forward more minutes on the court.
With Larry Nance Jr. out injured, rookie Kyle Kuzma has jumped into the starting lineup and is averaging 37.6 minutes per game over the past five games. Over those same five games, Randle is averaging 20.8 minutes per game. Yes, Kuzma is in the neighborhood of averaging twice as many minutes as Randle on the court. While that balance may seem a bit off, Kuzma has been a bright spot and consistent contributor for the purple and gold early in the season.
Against Milwaukee, Kuzma logged 42 minutes, scored 21 points and pulled down 11 rebounds.
Desperate not to return home empty handed, the Lakers wrap up their four-game road trip on Monday evening in Phoenix with a 6 p.m. Pacific Time tip-off.