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Lakers, Hornets

3 surprising keys that fueled Lakers’ impressive win vs. Hornets

On the second leg of a back-to-back at the end of a seven-game road trip — the final five of which came on the East Coast — the Los Angeles Lakers earned a hard-fought, sneakily impressive win over the similarly undermanned Charlotte Hornets, 101-93, at the Spectrum Center on Tuesday.

The victory moved the Lakers to 34-21, solidly in fifth place in the Western Conference playoff picture. Frank Vogel’s unit improved to 6-7 without LeBron James and Anthony Davis, 4-3 on the road trip, and 3-2 in the Atlantic time zone portion – just about as successful as even the most optimistic folks could have envisioned.

Granted, the Hornets (27-26) were even more shorthanded than the Lakers, who deployed their 17th starting lineup of the season. Charlotte took the floor without five of its six top scorers: Gordon Hayward, LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, P.J. Washington, and Malik Monk.

All things considered: this could have easily been a throwaway game. Both teams are headed to the playoffs (or at least the play-in tourney) and couldn’t come close to fielding their best lineups for this April matchup.

Yet, for a few reasons, this performance sticks out as a low-key indicative win for the Lakers. They were physically drained but mentally resilient. They didn’t have their best stuff by any means but played smart and hard enough to squeeze out a W — the formula for treading water while the superstars are sidelined.

“I think all of our guys are really fatigued right now,” Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said after the game. “We are stretched really thin with all of the injuries and the compact schedule. To come out of it 4-3 on this stretch, we feel good about that.”

The Lakers almost always play with heart and effort no matter who’s out on the court. It’s a contagious and embedded feature of their culture that James, Vogel, and the organization deserve joint credit for imparting. They scrap, cut, help, hustle, and straight work on defense — from the top down.

Following a disappointing showing at Madison Square Garden on Monday, they tried their best to bring that into Charlotte. That mindset is nothing new.

However, the fact that the defending champions relied on the 3-ball, kept their turnovers down, and sunk free throws is notable. Those factors — along with the clutch heroics of Plus-Minus Lord Alex Caruso (+17) and Kyle Kuzma’s 24-point effort — should have the Lakers heading home happy. Let’s examine the three surprising keys to victory.

Turnovers

The Lakers have been plagued by turnovers all season, often a result of over-passing and ambitious assist attempts when players should be quick-firing like a Top Chef contestant. Entering Tuesday, the Lakers ranked dead-last in turnovers per game. Since James’ injury, they’ve averaged 18.1.

The Lakers were stifled by Tom Thibodeau’s cagey scheme in the 111-86 loss to the Knicks, turning it over a season-high 25 times. Afterward, Vogel and multiple players cited the sloppiness as the defining characteristic of a generally poor offensive effort — the polar opposite of their “best win of the year” over the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday.

In Charlotte, the Lakers cleaned up their act. L.A. turned the ball over 11 times, including zero in the third quarter, which proved crucial on a night when their tired legs naturally restrained their firepower.

Schröder — who blamed himself for the errors at MSG — posted 19 points, four rebounds, six assists, and one turnover.

3-point shooting

The LakeShow ensemble hasn’t exactly transformed into the 2015 Golden State Warriors … but they’re heading in the right direction. On Tuesday, the Lakers again rode high-volume shooting to success.

Like Thibodeau, Hornets coach James Borrego sought to contain L.A.’s bigs, largely via zone (unlike the Knicks). After combining for three points in Manhattan, Andre Drummond and Montrezl Harrell totaled 10 in Charlotte. The Lakers were outscored 50-32 in the paint. The Big Penguin described the past two games as, offensively, “probably the worst I’ve played in my career.”

Vogel didn’t exactly agree with his starting center.

“Having LeBron and AD out there will help him,” Vogel said. “Tonight they played zone the whole game to pack it in and take away players like Andre. … We just have to take what the defense gives us, which was a lot of perimeter shots, a lot of drive-and-kick situations, and it didn’t result in Drum having a high point total.”

Vitally, L.A. knocked down shots. After starting 0-8 from downtown, the Lakers drained nine of their next 12 triples and ended 16-of-44. The Hornets shot 9-of-35 from 3-point range.

Prior to the road trip, the Lakers ranked 24th in 3-point percentage, 27th in makes per game and 25th in attempts. Over the past seven games, the Lakers are shooting 40% (77-of-189) on 3-pointers.

Plus, as Schröder noted after James went down, the Lakers simply need to take more 3s, and they’re certainly doing that. During the road swing, they’ve averaged nearly 38 attempts per game.

In Buzz City, no triple was more important than Caruso’s dagger in the final minute to put the Lakers up by four with 43.3 seconds to go.

“That was a big shot to seal the game,” Vogel said. “He does so much dirty work for us that it was great to see him hit that shot.”

Caruso had 13 points on Tuesday, and Vogel dubbed him the “star of the game.” In his postgame comments, Kuzma shouted out a handful of “little things” Caruso did, too.

“I think the guys that have been here, we just know how to make championship-winning plays, plain and simple,” Kuzma said. “Obviously, AC hit a huge 3, him getting a huge rebound, him getting a huge crack-back seal off of a defensive rebound … just little things that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet and helps us win ball games.”

Caruso’s up-and-down accuracy from beyond the arc has mirrored his team’s. He got off to a scorching opening month, then sharply cooled off. Since March 31, he’s 21-of-39 (53.8%) from distance.

“He’s a hell of a player,” said Drummond. “His plus-minus numbers say it. When he’s on the floor good things happen.”

Free throws

It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely how crucial free-throw shooting will be for the Lakers. In 2019-20, they ranked 28th in FT percentage and eighth in attempts during the regular season, yet won the title.

Once again, the charity stripe has been a weak point for L.A. The Lakers rank 25th in percentage in 2020-21 but rank sixth in attempts, and they can certainly be more aggressive within the flow of the game. Vogel loves when his players hunt foul shots and even resorted to awarding days off for drawing fouls on 3-point attempts.

At the Spectrum Center, the Lakers’ success at the line proved pivotal. L.A. hit 17-of-18 from the stripe, including 6-of-6 in the final minute to fend off a late buzz from the Hornets. Charlotte made just 12-of-18.

Next up: the Lakers will return to Staples Center to face their longtime rival, the Boston Celtics, on Thursday. For the first time since March 2020, they’ll play in front of (2,000) fans.