NBA Summer League in Las Vegas had become the next event on the Laker Calendar. Fans had circled this past weekend in red ink and transferred hope lost in Free Agency to this single weekend’s performance. Excited to see Brandon Ingram, the bulk of the Los Angeles Lakers roster in action, shout “LAR-RY! LAR-RY! LAR-RY!” and hopefully catch the game that proves D’angelo Russell can lead the franchise?
Lakers fans filed in at around 6:30pm for the matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans. The energy around the arena was amazing from a Lakers fan POV, as it seemed like a mini Staples Center. The Lakers fan base had “rolled deep” as always and the stadium was filled with forum blue and gold jerseys and provided a presence only the Lakers can. As anticipation built for the Lakers, fans noticed D’angelo and Coach Mermuys had been courtside also watching the previous game of the Minnesota Timberwolves versus the Denver Nuggets. As an unmistakable energy had filled the arena and the focus seemed to shift from the game momentarily. The crowds cheered watching the young Lakers roster enter the arena. Chants for Larry Nance Jr. began and cheers boomed as Brandon Ingram had entered with other teammates. Soon the crowd had grown weary of watching Kris Dunn shine in a losing effort to the Nuggets, and it was Laker time.
In the first summer league game, the Lakers looked noticeably different, the team seemed to pay closer attention to execution. The starting unit of Russell, Brown, Ingram, Nance, and Zubac, brought a controlled pace to start. D’angelo Russell was quite disengaged for the first 8-10 minutes and had lackadaisical turnovers in mid transition. His aloof and simple initiation on offense brought the clouded thought that Russell’s first and poor impression in summer league may be a story of repeat. However as soon as this thought loomed over fans minds he went on a tear for about 8 straight points and proved to be no match in the post.
“You just cant put little guards like that on him, he’ll just punish them.” Stated Larry Nance Jr.
Meanwhile Larry Nance Jr. had picked up where he had ended the 2015-2016 season, as a consistent finisher to plays in the paint and now even more so from 17 feet from the hoop. As foretold Nance also stepped out to the 3 point line where he found slight and timely success that allowed the Lakers to hold a sizable lead from the 2nd quarter on.
Brandon Ingram, the Lakers newest draft pick, displayed himself as advertised; he has a great feel for the game and forced not a single shot. He got to the rim when he attacked and took shots that only came from within the offense. His most impressive aspect was his physicality in use of his length on the defensive end. Ingram had a few blocks along with Ivica Zubac who took notice saying
“I was hoping to block a few more shots, but Brandon blocked before me, I was jumping behind him for nothing.”
Zubac who had immediately become the fan favorite started for the Los Angeles Lakers. His size in the paint was a problem for the Pelicans offensively and defensively. In his first game with the team ever Zubac had established a presence in the paint and showed some of his offensive ability. He was able to back down his defenders gaining great position, his moves although slow were well executed without turnovers. The love for Zubac however was made on the defensive end where he had 3 blocks and was able to protect the rim as a surprise to many fans, who yelled “Zuuuu!!!” in cheers for the added fan favorite. The team had brought themselves to a considerable lead early within the game and would not release their grip as the 6th overall pick Buddy Heild and the New Orleans Pelicans struggled to hit shots and proved to be no match for the high-powered Los Angeles Laker roster.
Day 2 began much like the first Lakers were deep and due to the well advertised match up between the first and second pick of the most recent NBA draft the stadium was filled well before their teams had made an appearance. As the stadium continued to fill Lakers brass started to file in. Jim Buss was seen signing autographs for fans, a scene much different than that of being booed while on the jumbo-tron just 24 hours prior. The buzz was nothing like the day previous, Keith Pompey of the Philly Daily News reported a record fan attendance of over 16,000 fans. More cheers came for the appearances for legends like Jerry West.
The game began slowly for the Lakers as the 76ers had started the game with better pace and a physical presence on the defensive end. The team had early turnovers, the same that had been a problem in their previous match up. Larry Nance Jr. was lacking in his natural consistency and D’angelo was having early turnovers and shooting the ball with inconsistency. The young guard still learning pace and how to control the NBA game continued to have lazy passes stolen in the half court. However Laker fans had not let hope die and cheered their support for the two and the Lakers responded. “We had taken some major punches, our offense was brutal. Their pressure was really taking us out of everything we were trying to do and (Nance) gave us life.” stated Coach Mermuys. Sadly this was in response to the killing of fellow Laker Ivica Zubac by 3 year NBA player Jerami Grant, who threw a vicious one-handed throw down on the young unexpected rookie. Larry Nance Jr. was not going to allow for that and after the game stated that he told Zubac that he’d get them back for him. “ and I did. That’s my center and I’ve got his back.” However the struggle was not over, Nance had only provided a shock to the dead body that was the Lakers. With Ben Simmons court vision on full display and exposing the Lakers defense with a simple back door cuts and interior drop offs, the Lakers were slow to cover. Simmons almost reached a triple double with his apparent disdain for shooting the basketball scoring 8 points 10 rebounds and 8 assists.
The game was only saved by the heroic efforts of D’Angelo Russell. Late in the third quarter Russell seemed to finally be able to get his shot going. He hit back-to-back buckets one a deep jumper and the other a 3. The late arrival was a sight welcomed with fans rising from their seats in hope of a chance at a win. With 5 minutes left, Russell gave the fans exactly that, with the back-to-back jumpers to keep his team within 3. The most exciting sequence of the game was within the last 30 seconds where Russell had hit a 3 to bring the Lakers up one. In a celebration Lakers lost Tyler Mcdoughnal who sprinted to the cup for an easy lay-up. 76ers back up 1 with less than 2 seconds left. The Lakers take a time out and execute a great inbounds play set to give Russell a clear look at the basket from 3-point range. From the time Russell shot caught the ball the stadium froze. Russell threw the shot up as he had done seconds before, and the stadium ripped in relief, amazement and excitement in response to the beautiful sound of the leather snapping the nylon net. The Lakers had capped off their first comeback with storybook fashion. Now 2-0 the Lakers must take these wins and translate them to growth come Monday.
Las Vegas NBA Summer League weekend is truly a NBA fans Disneyland, where the Laker attraction this year was in full affect. However at the end of the day progression is the goal especially for a young and unproven Laker roster. Starting with the future for the franchise D’Angelo Russell, he must learn to control the game from beginning to end. In his first appearance he had a slow start and had a late arrival in-game two. As the one who currently has the keys to the franchise he must be able to control the teams pace and put his fingerprints on the game. Russell had done so through playmaking by drawing the defense and scoring or assisting in spurts; once he can gain a consistent presence the Lakers growth will be expedited. The second player who will be heavily leaned upon is Brandon Ingram who showed spurts in his first game. Ingram failed to make an appearance in the second game. He started and received significant minutes however did not make any difference on the court offensively or defensively. I hope this is due to him being moved to the power forward position in-game two. I believe here he is up against players of similar size so his length is no longer a constant bother. These are slight judgments due to the fact that this team has only played two games. Monday will bring a more seriousness to the tournament as the team is in search to become champions. The Lakers next game is Monday July 11th at 7:30pm against the Golden State Warriors.