Sun, Dec 15, 2019

LeBron James teams are notorious for starting slowly. The 2010-11 Miami Heat kicked off their season as the 9-8 ship that launched 1,000 blogs. His second tour of duty in Cleveland screeched through a 19-20 start, and the Cavaliers ultimately needed to change coaches (in Year 2 of James’ return) to win a championship. So when James teamed up with Anthony Davis to revitalize a Lakers team that even he couldn’t lift out of the lottery alone last season, the general assumption was that they’d need a few months to find a groove. 

That … isn’t what happened. The Lakers currently stand atop the NBA with a 15-2 record. It would be mathematically impossible for the Lakers to match Miami’s 9-8 mark now, and odds are, this team isn’t going to go 4-18 in its next 22 games either. A slow start to the season just isn’t in the cards for this time. 

The most amazing thing about that, though, is that the Lakers actually are very slow starters … but within games. They entered Monday with a net rating of only +1.8 in first quarters. That is a figure you’d typically associate with a sixth or seventh seed over the course of a full season, not a 15-2 juggernaut. But in first quarters, the Lakers don’t play like a juggernaut. 

Virtually every Laker game starts the same way. The starters build a slight lead. LeBron James takes his first rest, and the bench unit surrenders some of it. The first quarter buzzer sounds, and the game is relatively close (11 of their first 17 games have had a first-quarter margin within five points). Things get a bit better in the second quarter. The two teams retreat to their locker rooms for halftime. And then? Armageddon. 

The Lakers outscore opponents by 12.9 points per 100 possessions in third quarters and 9.9 in the fourth quarters. They are the only team in the NBA to be ranked in the top five in net rating for both of the two final quarters, and trail only the Denver Nuggets with a total second-half net rating of +11.1. 

The inevitable comparison here is to the Golden State Warriors of the past several years, who were notorious for blitzing teams out of the third-quarter gate. At its peak, Golden State outscored opponents by a staggering 23 points per 100 possessions in third quarters during the 2016-17 season. Defense obviously played an important role, but for the most part, they decimated teams offensively. The Warriors shot a staggering 42.1 percent from behind the arc during that insane 2016-17 season, and they never scored fewer than 119.3 points per 100 possessions in third quarters while Kevin Durant was on the team. 

Despite having very different kinds of rosters, the same has largely been true for the Lakers. After posting only 109.3 points per 100 in first halves, the Lakers jump all the way up to 118.3 in third quarters. While the superstars obviously play a role in that, the real uptick has come from the Lakers’ role players. 

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is shooting 57.1 percent from the field in third quarters. Danny Green’s 3-point percentage jumps from 37.2 to 45 after halftime, and for whatever reason, JaVale McGee, who only played in short bursts during his stint with Golden State, has seen his field goal percentage jump from 55 to 68.1 after playing a half. 

The general pattern held firm on Monday as the Lakers defeated the San Antonio Spurs 114-104. The Lakers trailed by two at halftime. They wound up winning by 12. Green scored all six of his points after halftime, and McGee got six of his eight. Caldwell-Pope shot 75 percent from the field, and Troy Daniels joined them with two big 3-pointers to finish a perfect night from behind the arc. 

To some extent, this success comes from fluky shooting numbers. Some of these role players are going to regress. But the fact that they are making these shots indicates that the Lakers are generating good opportunities for them. That they’re coming far more frequently in the second half than the first points to a coaching staff making the right adjustments at the half and the roster buying in fully. 

Those are no small feats. The thing that so frequently leads LeBron teams to slow starts is rigidity. He plays the way that he plays. His newfound superstar teammates struggle to adjust to him, and all parties involve chafe under coaches who need to assert themselves in order to gain the respect of players who have all succeeded without them. 

But the Lakers have played the season with surprising flexibility on all sides. Anthony Davis and Frank Vogel have found a workable compromise on the great center debate of 2019. The rotation has been malleable enough for 12 different players to have seen over 100 minutes so far. James has embraced his role as this team’s point guard, prioritizing setting the table for his teammates above all else. 

These are the kinds of things that James teams tend to figure out in April and May. It’s November, and the Lakers already act like a championship team, and that makes their postseason destination that much more tantalizing when spring eventually does roll around. 

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