LAS VEGAS- A stunned murmur settled over the crowd at the Thomas and Mack Center when they realized what was happening. The Lakers had blown a lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers that had ballooned to as much as 19 points while the Lakers pushed pace and asserted their will in the first half.
Unlike the stunned fans filling the arena to support him and his team during the 88-80 loss, D’Angelo Russell thought the reason the Lakers’ undefeated run at Las Vegas Summer League came to an end was pretty simple.
“We just didn't make shots,” said Russell following the game. “I feel like, I don't know how many shots we missed, or took, but we missed a lot, and they made shots. So at the end of the day, it's put the ball in the basket.”
Platitudes aside, Russell thought fatigue may have played a role in the unexpected result.
“We ran out of gas. I feel like we scratched, fought, did everything we can do, but we ran out of gas,” said Russell. “They rebounded more, we missed free throws at the end. We just couldn't make shots and get stops at the same time.”
Making shots and getting stops are fairly key parts of winning basketball games, and the Lakers had alternately excelled at both at times during their run through Las Vegas.
Even in the first half when building their big lead, the team forced the less naturally talented Cavs to launch shots over their long arms on defense, and when those heaves clanked off of the rim, the team used quick outlet passing to get out in the open floor and get easy baskets.
Things slowed down a bit in the second half as Cleveland racked up an 18-8 advantage in free-throw attempts. Cavaliers guard Jordan McRae was responsible for six of those, but he didn’t need much help from the free throw line to light up the Lakers. The D-League star dropped 36 points on the night, with 20 of them coming in the second half as McRae got to the basket at will.
The Lakers head coach for summer league, Jesse Mermuys, knows McRae’s game from his own time in the D-League, and thus wasn’t surprised by the little-known guard’s explosion.
“He gets loose every time he plays, no matter who he plays,” said Mermuys. “He's a professional scorer. That guy's gotten 50, 60-point games under his belt.”
The Lakers held him to less than that, and were able to force plenty of misses as the Cavaliers shot just 42.5 percent from the field, but the team couldn’t close out possessions by coralling the miss.
Los Angeles gave up 15 offensive rebounds to the Cavs, with inatentive or non-existant box outs allowing Cleveland’s motley crew of fringe players plenty of second chances upon which to capitalize. Rookie center Ivica Zubac said making sure the Lakers patch those holes is one of the team’s biggest needs moving forward.
“Probably our rebounding,” Zubac said when asked what the team learned it needs to work on following their time in Las Vegas. “Rebounding and defending the paint.”
While disappointing for a talented team like the Lakers, losing in summer league ultimately isn’t such a big deal. More worrying for some were the continuing struggles of Brandon Ingram. The second-overall pick went 4-12 from the field and often looked to be floating around, not entirely sure where he should be or what to do.
Such issues are to be expected from an 18-year old rookie, and Russell said after the game that much like his own struggles as a young player in summer league last season fueled his run through the tournament this year, he thinks Brandon Ingram will be able to learn similar lessons from the disappointment.
“I think he could've played better. I feel like he knows he could've played better,” Russell put it candidly. “Not scoring the ball, but just the little things. He's young. Get some experience under his belt and he's going to come back and dominate this.”
More worrying than Ingram’s issues was a last minute injury to forward Larry Nance, Jr. The high-flying forward came crashing to earth while trying to get to the basket late in the loss, coming up appearing to clutch his right wrist.
“What he mentioned is that 'it's broken,’” said a visibly concerned Ivica Zubac. The Lakers announced there was a probable fracture to Nance, Jr.’s right hand, and that he would be re-evaluated in the morning.
“If it's not great news, he's a great kid, he's a hard worker, he'll be back sooner than whatever they say,” said Mermuys, but whatever the final result of Nance, Jr.’s re-evaluation ends up being (Update: Nance, Jr.’s tumble ultimately led to a sprained wrist, but no break), the tumble added injury to insult for the Lakers on a night it seemed everything that could go wrong did in the second half.
The team now has one more consolation game on Friday at 7:30, but unlike the title suggests, the contest will offer little consolation for a Lakers team that had finally shown some consistent reasons for optimism over their first three games in Las Vegas.