Lakers’ late-game struggles continue in loss to Kings
LOS ANGELES — It’s been rare enough that the Lakers hit a big shot in a critical moment this season. For a fleeting instant, Kendrick Nunn’s 3-pointer felt something like that.
An almost impossible-to-win situation seemed a little closer when Nunn launched a shot with De’Aaron Fox at his side, bringing the deficit to a single point with seven seconds left. But Richaun Holmes – and the game itself – slipped just a little beyond Max Christie’s grasp on the ensuing inbounds pass, and a split-second decision by the rookie to foul ultimately cost them.
The Lakers have lost three of their past four games – each in excruciating fashion. But in the latest, a 116-111 defeat to the Sacramento Kings, a clear-path foul by a rookie guard felt, at least, on theme in a season in which the Lakers have underwhelmed to close out tight contests.
Holmes made a pair of free throws, Trey Lyles made two more, and the Lakers trudged off the court, missing another golden opportunity in a game they had led by as much as 14 points. A small but vocal contingent of Kings fans chanted “LIGHT THE BEAM” – a reference to Sacramento’s home arena winning celebration this season.
“I just went with my instincts,” Christie said later. “He obviously did have a clear path to the rim but time was running out and we were down so I just felt like, instinctually, I just had to go foul him in some way.”
Of all the culprits in the Lakers’ latest defeat, the 19-year-old rookie’s foibles were the easiest to understand.
LeBron James wound up with a game-high 32 points, adding nine assists and eight rebounds, while four other Lakers (all off the bench) scored in double figures. Christie was arguably one of the heroes of crunch time before the final moments, stirring the Lakers out of stodgy sequences with his 12 gritty points.
But Fox led his group with 31 points among six double-digit scorers. And unlike their SoCal counterparts, the Kings have executed down the stretch more times than not.
James attempted to characterize it as a “game of inches,” one in which the Lakers might have prevailed if a shot or two hadn’t rimmed out. But he was closer to the truth with another sentiment when commenting on how the Lakers had turned the ball over only seven times: “We have zero room for error.”
The finish of the game was riddled with painful possessions, with the Lakers squeezing the shot clock for every second while searching for answers that have often eluded them in critical moments. On two particularly brutal looks, the Lakers forced up 3-point attempts from Patrick Beverley and Westbrook with the shot clock winding down, neither of which seemed to have a real chance.
The Lakers quickly closed a five-point gap with a tip-in layup from Wenyen Gabriel that spun furiously around the rim, followed by an and-one basket from James, who tied it at 108-all at the free-throw line with 1:10 left. But on the subsequent defensive possession, the Lakers fouled Harrison Barnes on a clunky double-team that gave him an and-one basket.
The Lakers isolated James above the break, and the 38-year-old missed a 3-point try with 36.6 seconds left. It was the last chance the Lakers really had to equalize: Fox made a free throw on the next possession to extend the Kings’ lead to four points with 12.2 seconds remaining.
“It’s tough because we’ve got this big collage of games and it sucks to lose these close games,” Coach Darvin Ham said. “But I still feel wholeheartedly that, at some point, we’re going to break all the way through.”
The Lakers entered Wednesday’s game with a minus-8.1 net rating in “clutch” minutes of games within five points with five minutes remaining, good for No. 23 in the NBA. In the last week, they dropped a double-OT game to Dallas and never got off a shot to win in a one-point loss to Philadelphia.
It’s a team that keeps finding new ways to lose.
The Lakers had different explanations for the issues with their often ineffective late-game offense. Ham called it “indecisiveness” while James mentioned the need for more “awareness,” and an internal clock for when possessions are slipping away. Wenyen Gabriel pointed to the variety of closing lineups: “There’s been a bunch of different lineups and closing units that we’ve seen the last five games and that stuff matters.”
The fact that these are issues the Lakers are dealing with past the midseason mark is, in part, a reflection of a team playing without All-Star big man Anthony Davis and two of its key wings. But that doesn’t ease the hard truth that the Lakers are still stuck in 13th place in the Western Conference and losing ground in the standings.
The Lakers entered the night with a 1-2 season record against the Kings, who are making an inspired push at the top of the Pacific Division. But in the last meeting, the Lakers eked out a road win in Sacramento thanks to a controversial foul call and a pair of Dennis Schröder free throws. This time, they had the benefit of a night without having to defend Domantas Sabonis, an All-Star candidate this season who has picked them apart in past matchups.
That seemed to be a crucial factor in a lopsided first quarter, as the Lakers attacked the Kings relentlessly inside, hitting 17 of their first 26 attempts. By the end of the first quarter, the Lakers looked primed to roll with a 39-28 lead and James hitting at a fast clip just two days removed from his 48-point effort against Houston.
But Fox, the healthy Kings star, had plenty to say in the middle quarters, making tough jumpers and racing past Lakers defenders to his spots. The rest of the Kings picked up on his lead, crushing the Lakers by 12 points in the second quarter, as Holmes raced end-to-end in four seconds for a go-ahead basket just before halftime.
The Lakers dropped to 9-17 against teams above .500 with the sizzling Memphis Grizzlies (31-13) on deck Friday night. James said the Lakers could take some of their defensive film and apply it to guarding the Grizzlies.
“De’Aaron Fox is probably the fastest guard we have in our league, and Ja Morant is probably the most athletic we have in our league,” he said. “If you don’t load your defense early, they will exploit you, and we’ve had a rough time in a four-game series versus De’Aaron Fox this year, so good thing about it, we got a taste of it, that speed and that continual aggression going towards your defense tonight.”
That notion, however, probably shouldn’t give the Lakers any comfort: Their hardest lessons this season still haven’t stuck.