Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
L.A., which will enter the restart as one of the league’s top championship contenders, dropped its first scrimmage to the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday, 108-104. It produced a strong all-around performance Saturday, shooting 56.9 percent from the field while holding the Magic to 34.3 percent shooting.
Orlando suffered its second straight loss after a 99-90 defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday. It’ll start regular-season play inside the bubble as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, 5.5 games ahead of the Washington Wizards.
Of note, Lakers star Anthony Davis exited the game after being poked in the right eye during the first half. He did not return, finishing with nine points, 10 rebounds and one block in nine minutes.
LeBron James (LAL): 20 PTS, 7 AST
Anthony Davis (LAL): 9 PTS, 10 REB
Kyle Kuzma (LAL): 25 PTS, 7 REB
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (LAL): 17 PTS
D.J. Augustin (ORL): 21 PTS, 5 AST
Aaron Gordon (ORL): 14 PTS
Nikola Vucevic (ORL): 10 PTS, 6 REB
Michael Carter-Williams (ORL): 15 PTS, 8 REB
Kuzma Looks Primed For Major Bubble Impact
James and Davis will need to dominate the next few months if the Lakers are going to navigate the loaded Western Conference and chase down the franchise’s 17th championship. They’re going to need help, however, and that’s the Lakers’ biggest question mark in Orlando.
Kuzma was the only L.A. player besides the team’s superstar duo putting up over 10 points per game when play was halted March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. He averaged 12.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 54 games after missing the season’s early stages with a foot injury.
It could make the 25-year-old Michigan native the ultimate X-factor inside the bubble.
If he plays like a third star, the Lakers will be an incredibly difficult out given their high-end talent and depth elsewhere on the roster. If he struggles, the burden on James and Davis may prove too much to sustain over the course of a playoff run.
Kuzma downplayed that line of thinking Friday, though.
“Honestly, I don’t even think about that, and I don’t even care about it,” he told reporters. “It’s all about the team game. That’s how we approach it. Obviously, I can score and get my own bucket, but we just try to play the right way.”
Kuzma posted nine points and seven rebounds despite struggling with his shot (4-of-13 from the field) against the Mavs. His stroke returned Saturday, making his first four three-point attempts and finishing with five makes from beyond the arc as part of 10-of-13 shooting.
It’s a promising sign with the Lakers scheduled to restart play Thursday against the rival Clippers.
Magic’s Cold Shooting Becoming A Concern
Orlando’s advantage heading into the coronavirus-shortened finish to the regular season is substantial, but it can’t afford for its offensive woes to carry over to the meaningful games if it wants to clinch a playoff berth without the need for a play-in tournament in the East.
The Magic must be more than four games ahead of the Wizards to earn direct qualification. Anything less would force a play-in tourney. It’s the same scenario for the Brooklyn Nets, who are a half-game ahead of Orlando. Two of the three teams will make the postseason.
Orlando’s competition in the exhibition slate has been tough, but the lack of offensive prowess is still a concern. It shot 42.1 percent from the field and made only five of its 28 attempts from three-point land against the Clippers.
Head coach Steve Clifford told reporters after the loss that the situation will be a work in progress while figuring out which players are ready to hit the ground running next week.
“We have some guys who could, I think looking at it, are ready to take a step and play more minutes. We have other guys who are not nearly where they need to be. So I think that would be every team. We still have a ways to go obviously in that regard.”
Orlando made just seven of its 39 three-pointers Saturday.
The Lakers will have leeway early in the restart since they’ve already clinched a postseason berth. The same can’t be said for the Magic. In turn, Clifford may be forced to rely more on the hot hand than players who excelled before the four-month layoff.