EL SEGUNDO — Ultimately in every preseason, there’s only one aspect that matters: staying healthy.
After six exhibitions with a 1-5 record, the Lakers slid the wrong direction in the last three weeks.
It was a sign of the already disconcerting injury report that coach Darvin Ham spent much of his Sunday afternoon media session recapping who will be able to hit the court for the season opener against Golden State and who won’t make it. The good news: Anthony Davis (back tightness) and Lonnie Walker IV (left ankle sprain) are expected to be ready to play without restrictions after missing the preseason finale. Dennis Schröder (right thumb ligament) and Troy Brown Jr. (back) are not likely to suit up for at least a little while.
Hovering somewhere in the middle is Russell Westbrook, who had to leave Friday’s game in Sacramento in the first quarter with left hamstring tightness. Even if Westbrook is able to play Tuesday night, it’s not clear exactly how he’ll be deployed. Ham acknowledged it was frustrating to not even see a full game of how Westbrook looked coming off the bench: “It’s not even an appetizer – it’s like when you go to an event and they give you the little cocktail shrimp.”
But all these challenges, along with some disappointing minutes in the last two preseason games against Minnesota and Sacramento, hasn’t softened Ham’s resolve to get out to a competitive start – no matter what the lineups look like.
“I just told the whole building today that we’ve got enough,” Ham said sternly. “We’ve got more than enough. Are we willing to do enough? That’s the question.”
While Ham said he would keep a lid on his regular season starters for at least one more day, the team released scrimmage footage of Davis, Walker, LeBron James and Austin Reaves on one squad wearing purple jerseys. Preseason lineups have recently hinted at the team skewing small despite signing two traditional centers this offseason.
Ham also hinted again that Westbrook, whenever he’s able to play, will come off the bench. Westbrook has not played a role off the bench since his 2008-09 rookie season in Oklahoma City.
“He comes with the right mindset and everybody’s been embracing the system,” Ham said. “He’s going to do fine no matter where I play him, whether it’s starting, quick sub and coming back with reserves, he cares. He cares about the game, he cares about his teammates. He just wants to put his best foot forwards.”
That’s what the Lakers want to do as well as a team – but their first game on the road against the defending champions on their ring night will challenge them off the bat.
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Defensive holes have manifested recently, including their last preseason game (albeit with several key injuries) in which they allowed 133 points by the Kings. The Lakers are still stitching together their drop coverage system under Ham, which is designed to encourage opponents to shoot midrange shots. On Friday, they weren’t stopping much of any kind of shot.
They’ll have to do much better against Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and the Warriors. Playing for Golden State for the past three seasons, Juan Toscano-Anderson learned how much the team relies on actions and reads rather than scripted plays, relying on their familiarity and experience to manufacture offense rather than diagrams and whiteboards.
“You’ve gotta blow a lot of things up,” he said. “Make them actually make plays that they’re not used to making. If you let them be comfortable and go from station to station and pass the ball, they’ll eat you alive.”
So much of the Lakers are new: Only James, Davis, Westbrook, Reaves and Wenyen Gabriel are back from last season (Kendrick Nunn was on the roster but didn’t play with a season-long injury). The Lakers know that they haven’t figured everything out in the preseason, and injuries and other logistical challenges have given them even less runway than hoped to find chemistry.
But Toscano-Anderson – who expects to receive a championship ring Tuesday for his role on the Warriors – said the Lakers can kick-start some progress with a season-opening win. He’s looking forward to the emotion of returning to the Bay Area and his old team, but beating them with his new team would make it “sweeter,” he said.
“I think that changes everything, when a team comes out and feels, ‘Oh, they just beat the Warriors. They just beat the champions,’” he said. “The Warriors are a hell of a team. I think that would do a lot for us, like a snowball effect. I think that would get us rolling in the right direction.”