After starting the first two games of the Lakers’ recent road trip shooting a combined 1-for-11 and scoring a total of two points, Lonzo Ball was mired in yet another ugly shooting slump.
But this one seemed to be a little more jarring considering Ball did not score a point in 28 minutes in a loss at Orlando last Saturday.
So before the Lakers played the Cavaliers, Ball’s coaches and teammates — including LeBron James — had the same message for the point guard. The Lakers told Ball to play aggressively and not settle for 3-point shots.
“Take it to the basket,” Ball said of the advice he received at the team’s morning meeting and before the Lakers’ last game at Cleveland. “Shot hasn’t been falling, so that’s what I tried to do, and it worked out for me tonight.”
While all the attention and spotlight was on James’ return to Cleveland, the Lakers saw something they were very thankful for just before Thanksgiving — the most aggressive Ball they’ve seen all season.
Ball had his best game of the season, knocking down 7 of 11 shots and finishing with 15 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists in the Lakers’ win at Cleveland. The Lakers hope to see the same aggressive Ball on Friday, when Ball’s 2017 rookie classmate Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz visit Staples Center.
“It was huge,” Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma said. “We always talk about him being aggressive. He’s always so passive. You want an unselfish point guard, but we need him to come in and score. Him coming downhill in transition where he’s at his best really helped us in this game.”
Rajon Rondo has been on Ball to play with more of an edge. The veteran point guard wants Ball to play angrier in hopes of getting him to play more aggressively, rebound and attack from rim to rim, and use his height inside against smaller point guards.
James also has encouraged Ball to not worry about his 3-point shot and to be aggressive.
Ball told ESPN last week that Rondo had tried getting under his skin in practices, talking constant trash to him in an effort to get him mad, and it worked. And he told Rondo to stay on him.
With James and the team imploring him to be more aggressive, Ball responded with his best game of the season in Cleveland. He didn’t just look to drive, but he looked for his own shot when attacking the defense. Typically, whenever the unselfish Ball penetrates, he looks to create for others first and foremost. But on this night, the Lakers saw a locked-in Ball look for his own shot inside, and they loved every minute of it.
Lonzo Ball blows by Cedi Osman and finishes with a one-handed dunk.
Perhaps the most impressive moment was when Ball passed on an open 3-point attempt to drive by a closing Cedi Osman before throwing down a thunderous one-handed dunk to start the third quarter.
Later in the quarter, the Lakers threw the ball downcourt to Ball. Despite his teammates still trailing, Ball opted to attack the basket with the Cavs’ defense still recovering before scoring on a swooping layup between two defenders.
“The faster the game is, I usually play better like that,” Ball said. “That’s what they were telling me. I get the ball, just push it, try to outrun everybody, and that’s what I tried to do tonight.”
In his second season, Ball has admitted that he has had difficulty getting engaged in games. The Lakers have tried a variety of ways to activate his aggression, whether it’s having Ball pick up point guards full court at times defensively or setting screens for ball handlers like James to get him to put a body on someone.
There are times when Ball relies too heavily on shooting 3s, but he attempted just two 3-pointers against Cleveland, the second-lowest number he has taken this season outside of going 0-for-1 in his first preseason game.
Lakers coach Luke Walton reminded people that Ball wasn’t able to play much basketball this offseason due to surgery on the meniscus in his left knee. Now 17 games into the season, the Lakers hope to see more of this aggressive Ball to come.
“I loved it,” Walton said. “It was one of my favorite parts of our game, was how much he was attacking the rim. Even the ones he didn’t finish, I didn’t care. Just seeing him get downhill and be physical and play make, he’s so gifted with that, to see him taking that next step was really a positive for us.”
“It’s unfortunate he had to miss this whole offseason as far as personal individual growth as a player, but he learned from being in the league last year,” Walton added. “Now this year he has to learn on the go [to adapt to the new roster], and that’s just where he’s at. And I think it helps, obviously, when you play with really good vets, and whether it’s LeBron or he’s working with Rondo or just getting that extra work in each and every day. He’s come a long way, and I thought he took a really big step tonight.”