Only 30 games remain in the 2017-18 NBA season, and the Los Angeles Lakers rank 12th in the NBA in defensive rating and have won 10 of their last 14 games despite star rookie point guard Lonzo Ball missing 10 straight games.
Ball won't play on Tuesday when the team hosts the Phoenix Suns at STAPLES Center, as the 20-year-old continues to recover from an MCL sprain that has sidelined the former UCLA Bruin for over three weeks.
Considering the team lost the first eight games Ball sat this season, the Lakers' ability to win six of its last eight games without its starting point guard speaks volumes to how the team has adjusted to the rookie's absence.
After a disheartening loss to the Orlando Magic on Jan. 31, Lakers coach Luke Walton decided to move Tyler Ennis, who had been starting in place of Ball, to the bench and push rookie Josh Hart into the starting lineup. This switch meant that Brandon Ingram would be tasked with more ball handling duties, and the move has worked out brilliantly for Walton thus far.
When this lineup first appeared in Brooklyn on Friday night, Ingram came within two rebounds of a triple-double and notched a career-high 10 assists on the night. A couple days later, the second-year forward finished the night with 16 points, five rebounds and five assists in another winning effort.
Beyond Ingram's ability to set up the offense, Walton also unleashed Hart, who has quickly become a fan favorite for his tough defense and timely shot making. Walton shared that the rookie had been instructed to focus on rebounding, and Hart grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds in the win in Brooklyn and followed that up with 11 rebounds in the win in Oklahoma City.
After Hart joked about "channelling his inner Charles Barkley," a teammate even went so far as to refer to the rookie as "Josh Barkley." Two double-doubles in two games from Hart have contributed to the Lakers bouncing back from the demoralizing defeat in Orlando.
Another player that has contributed to the Lakers' recent uptick, especially the past two wins, is veteran center Brook Lopez. Walton admitted that it was tough to stick with Lopez down the stretch in Brooklyn because of the smaller lineup put out by the Nets, but the center came up with a big block and also hit big shots to secure a road win in the building where he made his name. Lopez leads the team with 1.4 blocks per game despite ranking eighth in minutes at 21.1 minutes per game.
Walton could have easily reverted to playing a smaller lineup against Oklahoma City down the stretch on Sunday, but Lopez had managed to quiet down Stephen Adams, who had previously had his way with the Lakers' small front line. Lopez also continued to shoot well, especially from beyond the arc, and also tabbed a season high five assists.
While Walton may not look to Lopez late in games as a long term solution, the center does have significantly more NBA experience at closing out games than the players the coach typically calls on late in games. When Lopez plays 28 or more minutes this season, as he has done the past two games, the Lakers are 6-2.
Thursday is the trade deadline, and the two players that have been the Lakers' best performers this season are both clouded in rumors. Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle, who are the two longest tenured Lakers on the roster, have seemingly not allowed rampant trade rumors to distract from their play on the court.
Clarkson, who was designated the team's sixth man, has is averaging 14.7 points per game and ranks third on the team in that department, but he is averaging 6.3 fewer minutes than the team's leading scorer, Kyle Kuzma at 15.7 points per game, and 10.0 fewer minutes than Ingram, who ranks second with 15.6 points per game.
Clarkson is averaging 18.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game over his past 10 games and has notably taken on more of a playmaking role in Ball's absence.
Ranking fourth on the team in scoring at 14.0 points per game and averaging slightly fewer minutes than Clarkson, Randle has probably been the Lakers' best player this season. The 23-year-old is averaging 16.6 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists since getting the call-up to the starting lineup.
Against the Suns on Tuesday, Randle will start for the 20th straight game, and the forward has appeared in all 52 games the Lakers have played thus far. Clarkson is the only other player to appear in all of the Lakers' games this season, as the Lakers' Class of 2014 continues to provide consistent output for the Lakers despite Randle and Clarkson identified as the most likely Lakers to be donning different jerseys by the end of the week.
On Tuesday night, though, Clarkson, Randle and the Lakers are back at STAPLES Center for the first time in two weeks to host a Phoenix Suns team that is 2-8 in its last 10 games. Meanwhile, the Lakers look for their 11th win over the past 15 games.
Tip-off is 7:30 p.m. Pacific Time.