Luke Walton is not used to losing.
After two championships as a player with the Los Angeles Lakers and a title (nearly two) as an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors, the first-year Lakers coach took his team to task after a 107-97 road loss to the Brooklyn Nets Wednesday night, the team’s eighth in a row.
“As a group, as a team, we’ve got a lot to learn about winning and how hard it is,” Walton said after the game.
“He just challenged us,” Larry Nance Jr. — who had one of the best dunks of the year in Wednesday’s game — told The Comeback. “He said we were mentally weak, we’ve gotta bring it. He challenged us as men, as basketball players. And we need to respond.”
Injuries to starting guards D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young hit the Lakers after an impressive 10-10 start, but the rest of the team has struggled to find their optimal roles after those players returned, leaving one of the league’s youngest clubs and its rookie coach searching for answers.
“We try to keep the message that [they should] stay confident, we’ll find it, it’s going to work out,” Walton told The Comeback before the loss to the Nets. “How have I helped, I have no idea. We’ve lost seven [now eight] straight, maybe I haven’t helped at all.”
One thing the Lakers definitely haven’t done well, even before this losing streak, is defend.
It was rather telling that after allowing 107 to the Nets, one of the Lakers television analysts tried to get Nance to acknowledge that the team actually had a better defensive performance than usual. Los Angeles is 27th in the league in scoring defense (111 points allowed per game) and 29th in defensive efficiency, giving up 112 points per 100 possessions, per Basketball-Reference.
“Defense has got to be paramount for us in every game,” Nance said.
Derrick Rose started off a perfect 8-for-8 from the floor against the Lakers! pic.twitter.com/K1YiaOFa9m
— NBA TV (@NBATV) December 12, 2016
What Walton’s challenge to the team after the game, however, was eliminating its mental weaknesses.
“I think the resiliency we’re lacking right now is due to a weakness mentally,” Nance said. “So I think he’s right.”
“I don’t think it was a personal shot at anybody,” said starting power forward Julius Randle, “he just challenged us as a team to step up. And we’ve gotta man up and take ownership.”
After Walton’s challenge to the team, the Lakers locker room remained silent, which was a rarity, according to Russell.
“Usually after the game, we come in and somebody cusses everybody out, everybody puts their two cents in,” Russell said. “And it doesn’t work.”
Things were working for Walton and the Lakers through the end of November. They beat the Warriors, who were playing with a full lineup, by 20, and got wins over the Thunder, Bulls and Hawks (twice).
Randle has been playing extremely well, proving why he deserved to be the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft. After shooting just 42.9 percent from the field last season, he’s up to 48.6 percent this season while averaging over 12 points, nearly nine rebounds and over three assists per game. A lot of that, he said, has to do with Walton’s leadership.
“He’s more than just a coach,” Randle told The Comeback. “I have a personal relationship with him, a mentorship.”
Randle said that Walton called him the day he got the job last April, telling the 22-year-old how excited he was to try to help him excel on the court. But during this losing streak, Randle has reverted to his poor-shooting ways from last season, hitting just 41.2 percent of his shots in December, while the team has woefully struggled offensively with Randle on the floor.
“Whatever it is,” Randle said, “things aren’t going our way.”
Julius Randle beats the buzzer to end the first half. #LakeShow
The proverbial honeymoon for Walton and this Lakers team is over. After being Golden State’s interim coach for the first half of last season, this losing streak is the first true extended period of adversity for Walton as a professional head coach.
“The losses, obviously, they hurt. It’s frustrating,” Walton said. “But it’s the fact that we haven’t found our way again since the injuries hit. And now that we have guys back, we’re still playing without a purpose for too much of the game.”
Walton is definitely a player’s coach, Nance said, but that hasn’t meant that he won’t get tough with them, especially during the season’s roughest stretch.
“That’s not the first time we’ve heard it,” Nance said. “I just hope we respond to it well.”
Over thinking corrupts the mind, destroys happiness and creates problems that never even existed in the first place. #Loading
— D'Angelo Russell (@Dloading) December 14, 2016
After the Brooklyn loss, Russell said he was excited to get back on the practice court and use Walton’s challenge as motivation to get out of their current rut.
“We’ll get to see who takes what he says, including myself, and goes with it,” Russell said.
The Lakers are two games into their longest road trip of the season, a seven-game odyssey that lasts until they host the rival Clippers on Christmas Day. How Walton and his players handle themselves over the next 10 days may ultimately define the direction the team takes the rest of the season.
“We’ll get back there. When? I’m not sure,” Walton said, hoping that the team’s winning habits quickly return. “I guess at some point on this trip, we’ll find our way again.”