On Monday night, the Los Angeles Lakers return to play a game at Staples Center following a brutal four games in five nights road trip, but the NBA scheduling gods are not exactly rewarding the black and blue purple and gold with a long rest and extended time off.
From Monday night until the 23rd of December, which adds up to 19 days in total, the Lakers will play 11 games in eight different cities—nine if we count LA. If we were using modern true travel statistics, which is not really a thing, the Lakers play in 10 cities over the next 19 days, since the Lakers take off for a game on Wednesday in Houston and come back home for a couple games before turning into a nomadic herd of basketball wanderers not sure of the time zone, day, month or state.
LA's most recent road trip yielded three losses, three injuries and only one win in four games, but the team's ability to get a tough win in Chicago and remain competitive on the final night in Memphis proved to be encouraging signs. LA led for the majority of Saturday's game against the Grizzlies and only lost by three points despite playing without starting point guard D'Angelo Russell, forward Larry Nance Jr. and starting shooting guard Nick Young. LA also lost stand-in starting guard Jose Calderon after eight minutes, but the team still battled through blood and haze and only come up one possession short.
Lou Williams scoring 40 points helped, of course, as the former NBA Sixth Man of the Year looks like he could be in line to add to his trophy cabinet. Williams is averaging 17.5 points and 3.5 assists in only 24.2 minutes per game off the bench. When Williams won the award with Toronto during the 2014-15 season, the Georgia native averaged 15.5 points and 2.1 assists in 25.2 minutes. So, Williams is playing less minutes and having a greater offensive impact. He's also shooting a higher percentage from the field and from beyond the three-point line.
A big reason the Lakers have the best bench in the NBA is Williams' offensive production. LA's reserves average a league-best 52.3 points per game, which is more than 10 points more than the second-best bench in the NBA, Philadelphia at 42.1 points per game. And LA continues to keep up the second unit scoring despite a slew of injuries forcing forward Brandon Ingram to take on double duty with the starters and the reserves.
In the four games that Young has missed either entirely or partially due to injury thus far, Ingram has taken on the burden of increased minutes and averaged 38.5 minutes per game. Based on the initial timeline, Young could be back as early as Dec. 14 in Brooklyn, so the next five games promise the 19-year-old no. 2 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft plenty of opportunities to grow on the court.
For Monday's game against Utah, the Lakers list Calderon, Russell, Young and rookie center Ivica Zubac as out, though the last name on the list is busy getting playing time in the NBA Development League. Nance is questionable to take part due to a right knee contusion suffered late in Friday's loss to Toronto and which kept the forward out of Saturday's game in Memphis.
While Nance's injury is not considered to be serious, Russell could be back as early as Wednesday if he manages to hits the minimum on his original injury timeline. The Lakers have sorely missed the former Ohio State Buckeye's scoring in the starting lineup, as he recovers from a sore left knee that required a PRP injection. The second year starter has been traveling with the team while he rests.
While the Lakers fight injuries and their schedule simultaneously, Monday's game against Utah offers the team an opportunity to earn a quality win against a potential competitor for a Western Conference playoff spot. Utah is currently the seventh seed, while the Lakers sit in the nine-hole and on the outside looking in. LA lost in Utah earlier in the season, and faces a tough task considering the injuries. However, Lakers coach Luke Walton has found a way to earn at least one win against every team the Lakers have faced multiple times this season: Golden State; Atlanta; Oklahoma City; New Orleans; Chicago.
Sitting on 10 wins and 11 losses ahead of Monday's game, keeping touching distance of .500 is key to LA staying in the playoff race. Shorthanded though they may be, the Lakers need to protect their home court, and a win on Monday against the Jazz could realistically be the difference between making the postseason and missing out by the time April rolls around.
Notes: Jordan Clarkson started the second half in Memphis, so Lakers may rely on both Ingram and Clarkson playing extended minutes on Monday night. With Calderon and Russell out, Clarkson expects to start against the Jazz. Marcelo Huertas is the alternate option to start at point guard, but the Brazilian is more likely to earn minutes with the backups.