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Up next for Lakers: Key stretch of road games

Published November 18, 2021, 7:00 AMMark Medina
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As the Lakers begin their 5-game trip against a handful of potential playoff teams, will their problems expand or disappear on the road?

LOS ANGELES — Despite having 12 of their first 15 games at home, the Los Angeles Lakers have mostly failed to seize their home-court advantage. Despite playing seven games against teams expected to miss the playoffs, the Lakers lost three of those games: once to the Minnesota Timberwolves and two times against the Oklahoma City Thunder. And despite having a roster full of star power, the Lakers labored through both injuries and chemistry issues.

And now all of a sudden, the 8-7 Lakers start their five-game road trip Wednesday against the defending-champion Milwaukee Bucks (7:30 p.m ET, ESPN), followed by a handful of potential Eastern Conference playoff teams including the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks. Are the Lakers’ problems about to get worse?

“We welcome the road trip,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “It will be good for us. We’ve been struggling. We’ve been a little bit up and down. We’re fighting for consistency, and a change in environment should be good for us.”

The stretch:

  • Nov. 17: Los Angeles at Milwaukee
  • Nov. 19: Los Angeles at Boston
  • Nov. 21: Los Angeles at Detroit
  • Nov. 23: Los Angeles at New York
  • Nov. 24: Los Angeles at Indiana

Star players expected to face:

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum, Cade Cunningham, Julius Randle, Malcolm Brogdon, Domantas Sabonis

What makes stretch significant:

It will give the Lakers more of a sample size on whether their early-season hiccups are more about ill-timed injuries or inevitable chemistry issues. At the end of this trip the Lakers will have completed 20 games, which are enough to provide them with a big-picture analysis of the state of their operations.

“After the first 20 games, then we know where we’re at,” Lakers forward Carmelo Anthony said. “We know what we need to do, after the first 20 games.”

What to watch for:

Will LeBron James return to the lineup? Will Russell Westbrook improve his fit with the team? Will the Lakers have the right rotations? For better and for worse, the Lakers will have clarity to those questions by the end of this trip.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that James could return as early as Friday’s game in Boston after missing the past seven games with an abdominal strain. The Lakers cleared him for some on-court work, but it remains unclear how much more progress James needs to make before playing again.

The Lakers have experienced the Westbrook rollercoaster with both exciting performances filled with triple-doubles as well as some maddening performances filled with turnovers and missed shots.

The Lakers have also struggled with their chemistry amid overlapping injuries to other players including Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, Talen Horton-Tucker, Kendrick Nunn, Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard and Austin Reaves. Ariza, Nunn and Reaves are still expected to stay sidelined and Horton-Tucker is playing again, but can the other returnees find their footing?

What would make stretch successful:

If the Lakers finished the five-game trip at least 3-2, James returns and their chemistry improves. The Lakers will have their hands full against the Bucks, but they certainly are capable of winning the field against everyone else. Then again, Los Angeles is just as capable of losing all five.

James’ expected return will certainly solve some of the Lakers’ issues … but not all of them. James has not played in a game in more than two weeks, so he may need some time to iron out his timing. Westbrook has been inconsistent both with and without James in the lineup, but perhaps James’ presence can ensure Westbrook plays smarter. And with

James’ expected return, perhaps Vogel has more clarity on if he should stick to a big or small starting lineup. 

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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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