The Los Angeles Lakers concluded a monster seven-game road trip in Atlanta against the Hawks on Monday. Playing across 11 days, it's the longest and one of only five seven-game road trips in the NBA's first-half schedule.
Historically, a perfect unbeaten record on a trip this long is quite rare, and in these times marred by the COVID-19 pandemic, it becomes that much tougher. However, the defending champs fly back to Los Angeles with a 5-2 record despite playing three Eastern Conference heavyweights in the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics on this trip.
How did they fare so well? We take a look…
LeBron James' MVP play
In case anyone was sleeping on his play to begin the season, "The King" certainly made a statement with his performances on this road trip.
LeBron James in his 18th season:- StatMuse (@statmuse) February 2, 2021
He has missed 0 games. pic.twitter.com/ZYnDg5NTs0
Across these seven road games, James averaged 27.9 points, 7.6 assists, and 7.4 rebounds on .511/.472/.714 shooting splits.
27-7-7 is par for the course for James, averaging that throughout his career, but what's been impressive is his long-range shooting. For the season, he's knocking down 3-pointers at a career-high efficiency of 40.9%.
Adding to his early-season MVP case is the team's numbers with him on the floor, and how heavily they rely on him despite averaging a career-low in minutes played at 33.5.
|Team's Net Rating (Season)||Team's Net Rating (Road trip)|
|On the floor||+11.3||+10|
|Off the floor||-1.4||-15.2|
On the road, where the Lakers have been best in the league with a record of 12-2 (after starting out 10-0), James elevates his game a couple of notches. Here's a look at his home-road splits.
That's not all. James' fourth quarter play is also a huge reason for the team having the second-best clutch record in the league at 8-3. He's been taking care of games late to ensure the team finishes with the win, as his 136 fourth-quarter points leads the league.
In Cleveland, he scored 21 of his season-high 46 points in the final quarter, outscoring the entire Cavaliers team by two. In fact, in that game, he had a hand in 25 of the team's 28 points in the fourth quarter.
'Tired is only in the mind. ... I don't get tired," James said after the Lakers' 107-99 win in Atlanta. Arguably the most remarkable stat of his 18th NBA season so far: zero missed games.
Caruso showcases Lakers depth
There are no two ways about the fact that the Lakers were winners in the 2020 offseason. They re-tooled to bolster their roster depth and have ensured they ticked off nearly every box prior to the start of the season. With that being said, their depth flexed its muscles behind a player that was already on the roster.
The unsung star of the team's road trip was Alex Caruso, a player who averages 5.6 points per game for the season, good for the eighth-most on the team. Even on this road trip, his 19.3 minutes on the floor ranked seven-highest for Los Angeles but his impact can be felt on both ends of the floor.
Alex Caruso all by himself 💥💥- Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) February 2, 2021
@ACFresh21 x #NBAAllStar
(📺: @SpectrumSN) pic.twitter.com/c0Rhz8P3PM
Across seven games, Caruso's +/- of +6.3 is second only to LeBron's +6.9. When Caruso was on the floor during the trip, the team's net rating wass +17.5 (team-best) and when he was on the bench, the Lakers' net rating fell to -6.7.
Alex Caruso has led the Lakers in plus-minus in four consecutive games.- Jovan Buha (@jovanbuha) February 2, 2021
Caruso's bench play - especially in the last two games - helped the Lakers win and allowed head coach Frank Vogel to shorten his rotation with two key contributors in Wesley Matthews and Markieff Morris receiving DNPs. To elect not to play two veterans who have certainly proved themselves to be great complementary 3-and-D players says a lot of the team's depth and Vogel's roster flexibility.
Since acquiring Anthony Davis in the 2019 offseason, the Lakers have held a defence-first identity. The addition of Vogel as the head coach also played its part as the team finished No. 3 in defensive rating for the 2019-20 regular season - a huge jump from their 13th-ranked defence in 2018-19.
At the end of this road trip, they now have the league's No. 1 defence with a rating of 104.8.
This Lakers-Celtics ending was WILD 🤯 pic.twitter.com/VGm1QhABO9- Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 31, 2021
Over the past seven games, Los Angeles holding three of its opponents in Boston, Atlanta, and Chicago under 100 points helped support that league-best defensive rating.
Statement road trip
After the win in Atlanta, Los Angeles is only half a game out of the league's top seed. And while the Lakers' record might not be at the top of the league like it was when they took off for this trip, they've certainly made a statement with their play over these past seven games.
The Lakers beat the two-time reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in Milwaukee to begin the trip. They would later take care of business in a feisty game against their arch-rivals in Boston and battled fatigue and home-sickness in the trip finale in Atlanta.
"The last game is always tough and we didn't want to buy into 'being tired'." @AntDavis23 talks with @LakersReporter about capping off a long road trip with a big win over Atlanta. #LakeShow pic.twitter.com/ANohUfy761- Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) February 2, 2021
Of their two losses, the one in Philadelphia came off of a Tobias Harris game-winner in the final seconds and the loss in Detroit was a result in Davis being sidelined on the second night of a back-to-back.
It's important to note that the Lakers are one of a small number of NBA teams to not have their schedule affected by the league's health and safety protocols. Los Angeles has had no games postponed so far, meaning it has had momentum and continuity on its side.
What's key is that the Lakers have made the most of it as evidence of their 16-6 record.
After this road trip, the Lakers will be looking forward to some home cooking. Having played 14 of their first 22 games on the road, they play 11 of the remaining 15 games of the first half of the schedule at the STAPLES Center.
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