Lakers shoot for stars while young core looks to brighten

EL SEGUNDO — Perhaps no one was more candid during exit interviews Thursday about their feelings on a star-level free agent joining the Los Angeles Lakers this summer than rookie Josh Hart. 

When asked if, as a member of the team’s young core, he’s excited about the mere possibility of a max-level player coming to L.A., he said he “definitely” was. But in almost the same  breath, he offered something of a caveat. 

“If that that happens, I think it could be nothing but great for this team and for this franchise,” Hart said. “But our job as players is to work like we’re not going to, to work as if nobody’s gonna come here in free agency, and to work as hard as you can to get to that next level. I think that’s the biggest thing.”

In his 170-word answer, Hart provided a glimpse into the mindset of himself, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram when it comes to their future roles for the Lakers. And looking more closely at how those three players developed during the season, that mindset is hidden in plain sight. 

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Lakers looking to stay motivated

The Los Angeles Lakers have already been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. And with just eight games to go in the regular season, the team is looking for ways to stay motivated through the stretch run.

Forward Brandon Ingram, who just returned from a groin injury that’s kept him out since March 1, said he felt somewhat disappointed that the team could no longer make the playoffs. But despite that, he and the rest of the Lakers are focusing on how they can keep their momentum going over the final eight games of the year, seven of which are in Staples Center.

“I didn’t lose sleep over it,” Walton said of being eliminated from the playoffs at Wednesday’s shootaround. “I’ve said all year: It’s about the journey we’re on and where we’re trying to get to. Obviously we wanna make the playoffs, but it’s part of the reason why we don’t talk about it all the time. Because now that we haven’t made it, we still have other goals we’re trying to reach and we still have other things we’re trying to do. I would expect our players to come in and play just as hard even though we can’t make the playoffs now.”

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Lakers lose late lead to end nine-game home winning streak

LOS ANGELES — The Lakers led by 11 with less than six minutes remaining, but then Damian Lillard happened.

Lillard scored 19 of his game-high 39 points in the fourth quarter and helped the Portland Trail Blazers end the Lakers’ nine-game home win streak with a 108-103 victory on Monday night.

“Damian Lillard was pretty impressive down the stretch there,” Walton said.

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L.A. well represented at All-Star Weekend

LOS ANGELES — Six was the magic number for this year’s NBA All-Star Game.

It was the sixth time in the event’s 67-year history that the game was held in Los Angeles — an NBA record. The first was in 1963, just two years after the Lakers moved to L.A. from Minneapolis.

It was also the number of L.A. natives that played in the game. Paul George, Kevin Love, Klay Thompson, Russell Westbrook, DeMar DeRozan and James Harden all have various ties to the city.

All-Star Weekend is a celebration and showcase of the best talent in the NBA, and perhaps no city is more representative of that than Los Angeles. George, who grew up about 50 miles from L.A. in his native Palmdale, feels the significance of being one of the formidable players that came out of the city.

“Here, just in L.A., we got just got so much (talent),” George said after scoring 16 points in Team LeBron’s 148-145 win over Team Stephen in Sunday night’s All-Star Game. “I think what makes us special here is we develop an all-around game by playing so much talent, so much competition in L.A. You just develop a different style of basketball. You see it from myself, DeMar, James, Russ. You just see — Klay. Everybody has multiple abilities on that court.”

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Shot contests at center of improved defense for Lakers

LOS ANGELES — Over the last four years, defense as been an almost unsolvable dilemma for the Los Angeles Lakers.

They finished each of the last two seasons last in the NBA in defensive rating, and in the bottom three the two years before that. This all despite coaching staffs stressing the importance of that end of the floor.

But through the first half of the 2017-18 season, the Lakers have made significant strides on that end of the floor. They currently sit at 11th in the league in defensive rating, allowing 105.1 points per 100 possessions. At times the season, the team has spent time among the top 10 in that category.

Perhaps one of the most significant indicators of the team’s improved defense is the way it consistently contests shots. The Lakers lead the NBA in contested shots per game at 68.5. The Boston Celtics, who have the league’s top-ranked defense, are seventh in contested shots per game.

Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr. said the team tracks shot contests — among other statistics — on an application. Each player can see how many shots they have contested as individuals, and Nance said that tracking could play into the team leading the league in that particular defensive category.

“I kinda think that has something to do with it,” Nance said. “We can check our progress and It makes guys want to see that number keep going up.”

Although the team does not drill it every day, Lakers head coach Luke Walton said the coaching staff emphasizes contesting shots daily. The coaches teach the players to not jump at an offensive player until he jumps.

In scouting reports, the Lakers also identify what the staff calls “run-off players,” Walton said.

“If you’re a run-off, we’re gonna do whatever it takes to run you off the 3-point line and not let you get that shot,” Walton said. “If you’re not, we drill that as a defender we do not jump until the offensive player is on the way of leaving the ground. And then from that point on, we’re jumping as hard and high to make him feel us and make him miss.”

Nance detailed the difference between guarding different players and how knowing the personnel on an opposing team is the most difficult part of staying consistent when it comes to contesting shots. When the Lakers played the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 19, Nance said Al Jefferson’s preferred use of pump fakes made the team think about its discipline in deciding when to jump with his shot.

But with Marcus Morris of the Boston Celtics, who Los Angeles played Tuesday, the Lakers were able to crowd his airspace because he is not a player that uses many pump fakes.

Assistant coach Brian Keefe pushes each player on the team to make their opponents miss because that type of defense allows the Lakers to get in transition and keep their pace up, Lakers guard Corey Brewer said. Los Angeles currently leads the NBA in pace.

“For us to run, we gotta contest shots and be able to make them miss,” Brewer said.

NBA players use different techniques to contest shots. Brewer said the most effective way is to put a hand directly in a shooter’s face.

“If you have a hand in the face, it’s always gonna make a guy think about you,” Brewer said. “He knows you’re there if your hand’s in his face.”

Nance, on the other hand, thinks just getting an offensive player to second-guess a shot is enough.

“If they’re going up for their shot, make them think about it a little bit,” Nance said. “Stunt at them. Make them pass-fake first. If you make them hesitate, then oftentimes, guys’ percentages drop drastically.”

Walton said the key to the team performing so well with contesting shots simply comes down to effort.

“Guys get shots because you’re scheming and you’re helping the helper, and then it’s about getting back to your own man,” Walton said. “It’s not easy to do. It takes a lot of energy. But if you’re doing it right and you’re doing it well, you can get the job done and that’s what kinda goes into contesting other team’s jump shots.”

Brewer agreed wholeheartedly.

“It’s all effort,” Brewer said. “Contesting shots is all about effort. Anybody can contest a shot. It’s all if you wanna do it.”

Clarkson helps Lakers top Pacers

LOS ANGELES — With three starters sidelined due to injury, the Los Angeles Lakers needed answers.

Jordan Clarkson was happy to provide them.

The fourth-year combo guard, and one of the team’s elder statesmen, put together the best game of the season with 33 points off the bench, seven assists and seven rebounds, leading the Lakers to a 99-86 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Friday at Staples Center.

“The rim liked me,” Clarkson said jokingly after the game.

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Hot Hand

PALMDALE — Junior shooting guard Matthew Hernandez scored 27 points and led The Palmdale Aerospace Academy boys basketball team to a 46-38 Heritage League victory over the Lancaster Baptist Eagles on Thursday night at home.

“We don’t have him tonight, we lose,” Griffins head coach Keith Bennett said of Hernandez.

Hernandez scored 20 of his 27 points in the first half, making all six of this 3-pointers in that span. His 12 second-quarter points were the only ones scored by the Griffins in the frame.

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