What was supposed to be a joyous holiday triumph ended on a sour note when LeBron James injured his groin, starting a massive snowballing of frustration crashing towards Los Angeles. Injuries to Rajon Rondo and Kyle Kuzma soon followed, piling on to an already bruised team.
Losers of four of their last five games without James, the Lakers continue to run into Groundhog Day-like scenarios they simply can’t escape.
“We’re losing the same way. That’s the frustrating part about it. We’ve got to learn that when adversity strikes, we can’t fray off into our own world,” said Lakers guard Josh Hart after the team's loss to New York.
The formula, or “way” the Lakers are losing as Hart puts it, is a combination of bad habits that have become excruciatingly magnified in crunch time.
Since James went down, the Lakers are scoring only 23 points in fourth quarters, which is good for 3rd worst in the league during that stretch.
Compounding their pre-existing offensive woes, the team is also only shooting 36.3 percent from the field, 26.9 percent from three and 59.4 percent from the line in their final frames.
The Lakers are also turning the ball over 4.6 times in the fourth during this stretch, an area head coach Luke Walton has blamed on a lack of ball-movement and too many isolations, among other factors.
“The frustrating part about it is that it’s things we talk about,” Walton said. “The ball was moving beautifully when we built our lead. We got to the fourth and we had a couple possessions of nice ball movement, and then once shots didn’t go in, guys started trying to do it on their own. That’s not a recipe for us to win.”
Walton's assessment of the Lakers’ recent struggles in the fourth tie back to their inability to score in half-court settings, the area of the game where a majority of contests are ultimately won and lost in crunch time.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers are scoring only 89.6 points per 100 half-court plays since December 27th, which is the seventh-worst in the league behind teams like the Hawks, Knicks and Cavaliers.
While the Lakers’ lack of ball-movement is definitely a reason for their drought against a set defense, the team simply does not appear to be running an offense able to crack even the most delicate of defenses, which has come back to bite them when it matters the most.
If the Lakers plan to turn things around late in games soon, they will have to do so away from their home court, which may be a good thing.
First on the docket for the club is a Sunday matinee against the Minnesota Timberwolves, who as of this preview are only three games behind the Lakers in the loss column.
Despite not making significant strides since trading All-Star wing, Jimmy Butler, the Timberwolves still have enough talent to give a likely once again short-handed Lakers’ team issues.
James has already been ruled out for the team’s road trip, and Kuzma has thus been listed as “questionable,” as he recovers from a back contusion. The sophomore forward missed the team’s last game against the Knicks, but reportedly will travel with the club with the possibility of suiting up.
Now armed with defensive savant, Robert Covington, Minnesota should be a good test for Brandon Ingram and the rest of the young core as they once again attempt to right the ship, and prove they can secure wins in crunch time. If they can’t, they’ll be left once again grumbling about their failure to learn from their past mistakes after the game, and lead to natural questions about whether this team can even fix these issues without LeBron papering over them this year.