By Jeff Arnold, The Sports Xchange – UPI
CHICAGO — After a rough start, the Los Angeles Lakers have seemed to settle into a rhythm of late, winning seven of the past nine games.
Despite the Lakers’ stretch of success, however, that includes three straight victories, coach Luke Walton has attempted to drive home the importance of a fundamental facet that has eluded the team recently.
Free throw shooting.
Heading into Friday night’s game against the Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles (18-29) has struggled to convert from the line, including in its 108-107 win over the Boston Celtics when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope missed two free throws in the closing seconds that could have wrapped up the victory.
But as has been the trend with the Lakers, the ability to find a way to get a stop at the other end of the floor came to the rescue.
“The message right now is defense,” Walton told reporters Tuesday, according to the Los Angeles Times, after his team missed 15 free throws in the win. “Everything is defense. Because we’re shooting this (percentage) from the free throw line, because we’re not doing this — whatever it is — we’re still able to win games because of our defense.”
The Lakers’ 21-of-36 showing from the line against the Celtics followed a woeful 2-of-14 effort in a 13-point victory over the Indiana Pacers last week. On Tuesday against the Celtics, the Lakers missed four free throws in the final 20 seconds, which nearly cost them a victory.
Moving forward starting Friday in Chicago and playing without rookie Lonzo Ball (knee sprain), Walton insists things have to change.
“I know we haven’t made (free throws, but) we have guys that I trust at the line that need to step up and knock those down,” Walton said, according to the Times. “Obviously, we love the win, our guys did a heck of a job of scrapping and fighting … (but) our execution down the stretch is not OK.”
The Bulls (18-30) know a bit about failing to finish as well. After blowing a 17-point lead in the final minutes of a double-overtime loss to New Orleans on Monday, Chicago was listless in a 115-101 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in a game the Bulls trailed by as many as 25 points.
Chicago is expected again to be without starting point guard Kris Dunn, who continues to deal with a concussion. Jerian Grant will start in Dunn’s place as the Bulls hope to shake off a loss and show some energy that coach Fred Hoiberg said was lacking in the Bulls’ last outing.
“We didn’t come out with any grit or toughness,” Hoiberg said, according to the Chicago Tribune. “And then it just kind of became a ‘my-turn’ shot. A guy took a bad one and we said, ‘If he’s going to take a bad one, then I’m going to take a bad one.’ And it just kind of trickled down. It’s disappointing.”
The Bulls finished the loss shooting just 38.3 percent from the field. Now they’ll face a Lakers team that has built its recent winning ways around defense, which could mean trouble if the Bulls can’t muster more of an effort than they did Wednesday against the 76ers.
“We have to bring energy,” Bulls guard Zach LaVine told reporters. “We really aren’t at that point where we can turn it on at any time. We haven’t even jelled that much together as a team yet.
“Regardless, we have to go out there and play for one another and compete. That’s the main thing. We just didn’t bring it (Wednesday night) and we can’t have nights like those anymore.”