LOS ANGELES — With controversy swirling around them and frustration mounting over the past couple of tumultuous weeks, the Los Angeles Lakers avoided tying a franchise record low by snapping a nine-game losing streak with a desperately needed 132-113 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday.
And in the process, the Lakers (12-27) backed up Luke Walton’s and rookie point guard Lonzo Ball‘s statements that the coach hasn’t lost the locker room as Ball’s father asserted to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.
Facing what felt like a must-win against the worst team in the NBA with the possibility of things spiraling further out of control, the Lakers avoided adding fuel and speculation to what LaVar Ball said by not matching the franchise’s record low of 10 straight losses. A loss to the lowly Hawks (10-29) would have been embarrassing for a team that lost six games during the slide by 17, 10, 15, 18, 37 and 14 points.
After the Lakers’ first victory since Dec. 20, Walton was even able to crack a joke about LaVar Ball when asked about his strategy for taking his rookie point guard out midway through the first and second quarters to use him to start the next quarter with the second unit.
“Um, yeah, his dad was talking s— so I took him out early,” Walton deadpanned. Walton paused for a few seconds before saying “just kidding” and then explaining the point guard asked to come out early in the first quarter and that the Lakers’ plan was to play Ball more with the second unit at the start of the second and fourth quarters.
But, for once, the Lakers could finally smile and laugh after two and a half weeks of losing. The organization and players were certainly aware of the elder Ball’s criticism and how a loss to Atlanta could’ve inflamed things for the next few days.
“It is important for us to let that stay out of the locker room,” Brandon Ingram said of LaVar Ball’s comments.
“It is our job to come in here and listen to our head coach every single day and listen to the assistants,” added Ingram, who led eight Lakers in double-figures with 20 points and seven assists. “We can’t control what’s on the outside or who is talking on the outside. We just try to stay within this team and see how we can make each other better each and every day.”
During the losing streak, the Lakers held a team meeting to air out their issues with players voicing their frustrations about everything from how some players were being used to the direction of the team and how management is focused on next summer and landing two star free agents.
Walton had to juggle lineups and rotations with injuries to starters such as Ball, Brook Lopez and Ingram while also having to deal with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope not being allowed to play out of California due to legal restrictions stemming from a plea agreement out of his March arrest under suspicion of drunk driving.
Despite primary owner Jeanie Buss tweeting her support for Walton with the hashtag “InLukeWeTrust” on New Year’s Eve, Walton’s job security became a topic twice this weekend. On Friday morning, Walton said he wasn’t coaching as if his job was in jeopardy and then LaVar Ball criticized the head coach again this season by saying that “Luke doesn’t have control of the team no more. They don’t want to play for him.”
On the morning of the game against the Hawks, Walton and his rookie point guard were forced to answer several questions about whether he still has the locker room and their relationship.
Both disputed LaVar Ball’s assertion that Walton had lost the team and Lonzo Ball had to field numerous questions about his father’s opinion and if he agreed.
“He’s a grown man,” the Lakers point guard said of his father’s comments. “Like I said, he is going to say what he wants to say. I can’t [do] nothing about it.”
“My job is to play basketball,” he said when asked about having a preference for certain coaches. “I don’t decide who coaches.”
Doing what he has always tried to do when his father made headlines, Ball focused on playing. He had 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Ball helped push the pace to a new speed for the run-focused Lakers, who had 42 fast-break points. At the half, he outscored the Hawks in that category 28-0.
“We always say it, it is us against everybody,” Ball said of how the team has tried sticking together during the free fall.
The Lakers led by as much as 26, their biggest lead of the season, and trounced the Hawks (10-29). Now they hope to build their first winning streak since Dec. 9 by trying to beat the Sacramento Kings at home on Tuesday.
“Yes, it feels good to win,” said Walton, who received calls from some of his coaching peers expressing support. “I am going to enjoy the night and get some sleep finally and then we got to let [the win] go.”
“We need to focus our energy and minds on what we are doing and that is the message we send every day,” Walton added of dealing with distractions. “Don’t worry about what people on Twitter are saying, don’t worry about what this media outlet is saying or that one or your agent [is saying]. The people that matter to what we are trying to do is all in our room. So we have to be able to trust each other and have each other’s backs. That obviously is not always going to be 100 percent true but that is the messaging all year long.”