• OPPONENT: Los Angeles Lakers

    RECORD: 28-34 (15-14 at home, 7-3 last 10 games)

    MEASUREABLES: 103.8 offensive rating (23rd), 105.4 defensive rating (11th), -1.5 net rating (21st)

    PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP: Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Brook Lopez

    INJURIES: Ingram (strained left hip flexor – questionable), Josh Hart (broken left hand – out), Channing Frye (appendectomy – out)

    WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 10:30 EST, Staples Center (Los Angeles), NBA TV

    The Los Angeles Lakers, out of the playoff race and absent a first-round pick come June, have the goods to be the NBA’s most effective late-season spoiler. Luke Walton‘s precocious team is 17-7 since January 7, tied with the Utah Jazz for the fourth-best record in the league over that timeframe. Not one side of the floor has been the biggest cause of its midseason turnaround, either; the Lakers have a 108.6 offensive rating and 104.4 defensive rating in their last 24 games, per NBA.com/stats, numbers that would both rank top-10 over a full season.

    For those who haven’t followed Los Angeles closely in 2017-18, it probably comes as a surprise that offensive improvement has been the greatest means behind its recent success. The Lakers, in a strong nod to Walton’s job performance in his second year on the bench, have exceeded expectations on defense all season long – not just for a team this young, but a team that most assumed didn’t have the personnel to manage even league-average play on that side of the ball.

    That’s why the typically overzealous excitement of Lakers fans all over the world isn’t completely hollow this time around. If they’re already a borderline top-10 defense, still in the early stages of rebuilding and relying almost exclusively on players with three years of service or less, just how much better will they be with additional NBA experience and increased comfort playing together? The blend of time and cohesion looms just as large as ability on defense, and Los Angeles doesn’t have it.

    It’s offense that led to the Lakers falling out of postseason contention months ago. They had an offensive rating of 100.9 before January 7, less than a point per 100 possessions ahead of the Sacramento Kings for the worst mark in basketball. The players who have spearheaded Los Angeles’ offensive success in the interim? Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and, most recently, Lonzo Ball.

    Ingram flashed newfound playmaking and shot-making knack when forced into action as the Lakers’ primary ballhandler with Ball sidelined for the majority of January and February. Randle, playing with even more verve after the trade-deadline departure of Larry Nance, is averaging 19.5 points on 58.6 percent shooting in his last 15 games, while converting an elite 70.2 percent of his attempts from the restricted area – remarkable growth for a short-armed big man who shot just 53.9 percent at the rim as a rookie. Ball’s sustained progress as a shooter might be more impressive. After making just 13 of his first 59 tries from beyond the arc as a pro, everyone’s favorite or least-favorite rookie has shot 38.0 percent on 5.6 3-point attempts per game since November 11, per NBA.com/stats.

    Sample size matters, as always. But for each of Los Angeles’ prized youngsters, a designation that should now apply to Randle, there’s more room for optimism than a big-picture snapshot of the season suggests. That doesn’t mean Ingram, Randle and Ball are on the fast track to stardom. Given so much concern over the viability of this team’s rebuilding effort before the New Year, though, it’s time their growth into effective offensive players with ample room to improve begins getting nuanced attention on the national level.

    Ball’s crunch-time shooting exhibition in the Lakers’ comeback win over the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday night certainly got people talking.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-ITmNRsSOE

    That was Los Angeles’ second victory against the Spurs, and its eighth win over a team in playoff position since January 7. The Portland Trail Blazers can’t take the Lakers lightly, basically, even if Ingram, who missed Saturday’s game with a sore hip and recently received further evaluation, is unable to play. Terry Stotts’ team is already catching a break given the absence of rookie Josh Hart, too, a dogged defender of multiple positions who broke his left hand in practice last week.

    Key to getting a win on the road for the Blazers and further distancing themselves from the overloaded pack of teams fighting for playoff spots below the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors will be limiting the Lakers in transition. Ball will pitch ahead in transition at every opportunity when he’s not pushing the ball up floor himself, and Randle, more empowered than ever, has become a grab-and-go beast. Los Angeles isn’t considerably more efficient in the open court than than the halfcourt, but ranks second in overall ratio of possessions finished in transition, per Cleaning the Glass. Walton wants his team running and gunning, a style of play Portland has avoided all season long.

    The Lakers also feast in the paint. At 49 percent, they lead the league by a wide margin in percentage of points scored from the paint, according to NBA.com/stats. Randle and Kyle Kuzma, who will start on the wing if Ingram can’t go, are natural bucket-getters from that awkward floater range and closer, while Ingram’s long-stepping off-dribble game has made him increasingly effective near the basket as the season’s worn on. Brook Lopez, when he’s not bombing threes with mild efficiency, remains a load in the paint, shooting career-high 70.1 percent from 0-to-3 feet, per basketball-reference.

    Both teams are playing the best basketball of the season. Portland has the edge in health, while Los Angeles has the benefit of an ever-excitable Staples Center crowd. Throw out the win-loss records, and either’s standing of perceived quality on the national level. The Blazers and Lakers, both wanting nothing more than a win, could put on a show Monday night. Get your popcorn ready.

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