“Sometimes he doesn’t realize how great he is,” James said after a 90-83 win over the Utah Jazz on Friday night at Staples Center. “The things that he possesses out on the floor, when Zo realizes how good he is on the floor, it makes him a very dynamic player and it makes us even better. And he’s been doing that as of late, [with] his aggressiveness.”
Ball finished with 9 points, 10 rebounds and 2 assists against the Jazz, but it was his decision-making in the fourth quarter that made the difference. He played all 12 minutes, made his only shot from the field, picked up two assists and two rebounds, played active defense, and was instrumental in Los Angeles outscoring Utah 26-20 in the final frame to close out the victory.
“Even when he’s not making, just his attack as you’ve seen earlier in the game, just him getting to the rim [is important],” James said of Ball, who went 4-for-10 from the field. “He missed a couple of ’em; that’s absolutely fine. He had a couple charges; that’s absolutely fine. When he’s aggressive, it just changes our dynamic of the team, and he’s been doing it of late and we need him to continue to do that because he’s very good.”
ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk reported that James, along with members of the Lakers’ coaching staff, encouraged Ball to take more control of the action on the court after he struggled in a back-to-back against the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat last weekend, scoring two points on 1-for-11 shooting in the two games.
Ball responded with a season-high 15 points on 7-for-11 shooting in a win over Cleveland on Wednesday and a similarly aggressive game against Utah.
“I just play better like that,” Ball said, also crediting teammate Rajon Rondo for coaching him up. “… I have a great coaching staff, great teammates pushing me every day. So I just keep hearing them in my ear, trying to do the right things on the court.”
Ball helped Los Angeles pick up its ninth win in 11 games with a cutting left-handed layup with 3:57 remaining in the fourth quarter to put the Lakers up by six and then a drive-and-dish to JaVale McGee for a dunk with 2:11 left to increase their lead to nine.
“Well, they decided to blitz LeBron off the ball screen,” Ball said. “So that leaves me pretty much in the open floor, and I can do what I want with it. It’s tough. You got me coming down the lane or you got JaVale for the lob. So you got to pretty much pick one.”
If the former No. 2 pick is still finding his confidence, he is certainly not lacking it when it comes to evaluating his acceleration.
“I’m just faster than a lot of people out there,” he said. “So I can get to the spots. It’s just about finishing.”
Of course, playing fast can be problematic if a team doesn’t take care of the ball. The Lakers got the win Friday in spite of committing a season-high 24 turnovers. And their assist-to-turnover ratio made the miscues even worse as they distributed a season-low 10 assists.
“It was horrible. Horrible. Horrible, man,” James said. “You look at the stats, man [it was bad], but offensively, we just found a way late in the game. But we just defended. The best thing about it, when we was turning the ball over, but we still held them in the half court. We did a number on them in the half court defensively. But we’re not going to win many games like that, when you turn the ball over 24 times and just have 10 assists.”
The Lakers had only three assists at halftime — all belonging to James — and coach Luke Walton brought it up while adding a measure of motivation: He told his team if it won the game that he would cancel Saturday’s practice and give the players the day off.
Though the Lakers earned the time off, Walton made sure to pound the point home again in his postgame speech.
“It’s something that we will get to as a team, and when we get there, we will be a much better team,” Walton said. “So even if we’re winning games, we’re not going to slack off on the coaching of making the right pass and the extra pass, and I truly believe we’ll become that type of team.”
Walton said the one player who always makes the extra pass — sometimes so much that the team encourages him to hold on to the ball longer, so he can do something with it and make a play — is Ball.
“He doesn’t [even] have 82 games under his belt yet,” James said of Ball. “So I think every game is another teaching point for him, and experience will continue to happen more and more, and he’s going to know what he does extremely well to help us, but more importantly help him be successful on the floor. I can see it, but sometimes for you personally, you have to continue to figure it out. He hasn’t even put a full regular season into his books yet.”