Sports

Matt Ryan may have saved the day, but Darvin Ham’s flexibility was the story of Lakers’ win over Pelicans

Darvin Ham made a curious decision Wednesday with his Los Angeles Lakers trailing the New Orleans Pelicans 111-108 in the closing seconds. Down three points, he sent LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Patrick Beverley, Lonnie Walker IV and Austin Reaves onto the floor without Matt Ryan, the team’s best shooter. Walker missed the game-tying 3-point shot. Dyson Daniels rebounded it for New Orleans. That appeared to be that. With two shots at a game-icing free throw, the Pelicans appeared to have secured the victory. The decision to leave Ryan on the bench was so strange that even Lakers commentators Stu Lantz and Bill MacDonald questioned it on the air.

And then Daniels missed both free throws. The Lakers pulled in the rebound with 1.3 seconds to go. Ham drew up a second potential game-tying play. Guess who saved the day?

It’s a remarkable story for a young player who only a year ago was delivering food for DoorDash. In the grand scheme of things, though, it’s a far more notable moment for a young coach whose development is ultimately far more important to the Lakers. With 7.8 seconds remaining in a close and relatively significant regular-season game, Ham made a mistake that could have cost his team the game. Through sheer luck it didn’t, but that wouldn’t have meant a thing if Ham hadn’t made the most of his second chance.

He did, and in the process, he displayed one of the most important traits any basketball coach can have: adaptability. That was something that his predecessor, Frank Vogel, often lacked. The Lakers of the past few years were fairly slow to adjust. The offensive scheme was stagnant. When injuries allowed, the rotation was as well. Players such as Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan and, yes, even Russell Westbrook remained in the starting lineup far longer than their play warranted.

But as the Lakers won their second consecutive game, Ham yet again flashed his willingness to make changes quickly, and it wasn’t confined to the final eight seconds. In a recent one-point loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, Westbrook largely doomed the Lakers’ late-game offense by killing its best play, the LeBron James-Anthony Davis pick-and-roll. His terrible jump shot essentially turns that play into an unwinnable 3-on-2, and with roughly four minutes left in the fourth quarter, that happened against New Orleans. The Pelicans didn’t guard Westbrook. It killed the possession.

This was a problem that persisted for nearly all of last season. Vogel didn’t bench Westbrook for crunch time until the middle of the season. Ham saw Westbrook’s fatal flaw on display just once Wednesday and it was enough for him to pull the former MVP out of the game. 

“You can’t be afraid to make a decision,” Ham remarked after the game.

Thus far this season, he hasn’t been. It’s practically impossible to fairly judge an NBA coach through seven games. That is especially true when his roster is as flawed as Ham’s. But nothing dooms a coach or a team faster than a stubborn refusal to change. By the time Vogel was willing to make changes last season, it was already too late. Ham needed less than eight seconds to make the change the Lakers needed to win on Wednesday, and that kind of decisiveness is going to serve him well as he attempts to salvage a team coming off of an 0-5 start.

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