Lonzo Ball passes against the Golden State Warriors on Dec. 18, 2017.
(Ty Nowell/Lakers.com)

Down 2 Starters, Lakers Prep for Rockets

by Joey Ramirez
Digital Reporter

The Lakers prepare to face the league’s hottest team without two-fifths of their starting lineup.

Brook Lopez (ankle sprain) is out for at least three weeks. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is unable to travel due to a legal matter. Meanwhile, the NBA-leading Houston Rockets have lost just four times in 29 games.

“We’re going to have to step it up on the defensive end,” Lonzo Ball said. “That’s two big scorers, especially from 3-point land. We just have to make up for it.”

Indeed, Lopez and Caldwell-Pope are two of the Lakers’ most high-volume 3-point shooters.

KCP leads the team in made 3’s (2.2 per game), while Lopez has struggled considerably more. The center has shot just 29.7 percent from deep, but provides invaluable spacing when his long ball is falling.

The Lakers will need to find some production from beyond the arc against a Houston team that is averaging 15.9 made 3’s a game — a mark on pace to crush their own NBA record.

Kyle Kuzma is the likely candidate to get some more looks from deep, as he is fresh off back-to-back 20-point games and shooting a team-best 38.0 percent on 3-pointers this season.

Another option is Ball, who has seen his perimeter shooting surge over the last four games, hitting 10-of-23 from downtown.

Head coach Luke Walton feels that the Lakers’ second-overall pick has found success as he has become more comfortable with the NBA’s larger 3-point arc and more athletic defenders.

“The 3-point line’s different, people guard you different, the length and speed is different,” Walton said. “And then every time you miss a shot, the entire media world comments that you can’t shoot.”

The Lakers will be without Caldwell-Pope (whose travel is restricted to in-state only) for occasional games over the next few weeks. But losing Lopez puts a significant wrench into Walton’s frontcourt rotation.

He could choose to start Julius Randle, who has thrived as the team’s second-unit center; but Walton has shown a preference for keeping continuity with his bench. Another option is 7-footer Andrew Bogut, who provides much of Lopez’s defense but none of his shooting.

There are also more unconventional options.

Thomas Bryant is with the team after a red-hot run in the NBA G League that saw him average 22.3 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.8 3-pointers on a 45.9 percent clip from deep as a true stretch center for the South Bay Lakers. But the rookie has yet to play a single minute in the NBA.

Then there is the possibility of moving starting power forward Larry Nance Jr. up a position to center and having a player like Kyle Kuzma start at the four.

Regardless of who starts, Walton seemed leaning toward playing a significant amount of small ball with either Randle or Nance at center.

But the Lakers will certainly miss the paint presence of Lopez, who ranks eighth in the NBA in blocks (1.6) and led the league in shots contested (13.5).

“Anybody that big with that skill set helps both offensively and defensively,” Ball said. “He’s big in the paint and can space the floor on offense.”

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