LOS ANGELES — The Lakers are not defeated.
Yes, they did lose their big Christmas Day contest with the Clippers on Wednesday, 111-106, and still have yet to beat a team considered a true contender for the title — they’re now 0-3 against the Bucks and Clippers (twice) — but in the postgame locker room, spirits could perhaps best be described as muted but hopeful.
Anthony Davis quietly cracked a few jokes with team employees. Alex Caruso and Dwight Howard visited with assistant coach Phil Handy’s excited nephew, asking him what he got for Christmas. This is not a team that’s splintering or giving up, but one whose frustration was perceptibly burbling to the surface, occasionally spilling over in a curse or sigh.
The Lakers knew they had this game, until a 15-4 Clippers run took it away. While the team credited the Clippers for doing what was necessary to take advantage of their ill-timed fouls and other defensive lapses, various players also used the phrase “beat ourselves” at least four separate times while speaking to the media following the game.
“We had a lot of mistakes at the end of the game, mental mistakes on both ends of the floor. We fouled a lot in that fourth quarter, put them to the line,” said Anthony Davis. “We gave that one away.”
Davis was particularly miffed that the Lakers were rushing shots at the end, and felt they weren’t aggressive enough at attacking the Clippers over the final stretch in which they were in the penalty. He also thought the Lakers didn’t box out well enough to close out the game, and was annoyed by how often the Lakers’ fouls were sending the Clippers to the line, preventing the Lakers from running. That last factor is something head coach Frank Vogel also highlighted as a key to the loss.
“We fouled them every time down, so when you’re taking the ball out of the net on a free throw, it really breaks your offensive rhythm, and we just had a lot of possessions in the fourth quarter where we didn’t execute well enough,” Vogel said. “We’ve got to play the game without fouling more because of the impact on the other end.”
Danny Green, who was particularly upset with his late fouls on his former Raptors and Spurs teammate Kawhi Leonard, took a big chunk of a blame for a loss he felt was self-imposed by the team more so than evidence of their mortality.
“We kind of beat ourselves, and that kind of started with me in terms of silly mistakes and fouls,” Green said. “As a veteran, as a leader, as a person that has that experience, I can’t continue to make those (mistakes), or that last stretch of the game put their best free-throw shooter on the free-throw line when it’s that close.
“It’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to be as aggressive defensively as we wanted to at the end of the game, but sometimes that’s how it is, how it’s going to be called,” Green said. “I’ve got to be smarter. Can’t make those silly f---ing fouls, it’s stupid.”
There was still some positivity to be found in the locker room, though. Both Davis and LeBron James liked that the Lakers’ defense seemed to be getting back on track one game after Davis said the Lakers “suck” on that end. JaVale McGee said the team “didn’t have too bad of a game at all” and that he “just felt like those turnovers at the end of the game were really crucial.” He also knows that after four straight losses, the real work begins to make sure the Lakers stay together.
“When you lose a couple, you’ve got to prevent the human nature for guys to start pointing fingers, or start complaining and things of that nature. You’ve got to stay locked in, have the same passion for the game as when you were winning. You can’t be one of those teams that shakes everybody’s hands when they’re winning, but when they’re losing you’re being anti-social,” McGee said. “You’ve got to keep that same energy on both ends.
“I feel like everybody needs a humbling stretch. You can’t be on top all the time, even though we still are in the West, at least. It’s just focus, and we’ll get back on track.”
Vogel also said the loss wasn’t totally discouraging anyway, and that he wasn’t going to place “a ton of weight” on the Lakers going down 0-2 in their season series against the Clippers.
“Obviously they’ve beaten us twice now, but I think we match up pretty well. I think both teams are pretty well put together, and we’ll see how it goes down the stretch,” Vogel said.
Still, James doesn’t want the Lakers to get ahead of themselves. He held back on being overly critical after a game in which he also missed a lot of shots (clanking 15 of his 24 attempts) and re-injured himself, but he also said it’s too early to project what this game will or won’t mean months from now, when the Lakers and Clippers are widely expected to meet in the postseason.
“This is Dec. 25, and we’ve got a long way to go before thinking about trying to compete with anyone in a seven-game series,” James said, adding that the Lakers need to improve offensively, defensively, at holding leads, executing under pressure and how to deal with ball pressure late in games.
“Those are things we can continue to get better at before we even get to talking about April.”
But while the Lakers are clearly trying to make an effort to remain even-keeled and to spout one-game-at-a-time coachspeak cliches, the subtext of their remarks made it clear that whether it was losing four in a row, losing to another contender or simply losing to this specific Clippers team again, this loss hurt a bit more than most.
“We just beat ourselves, plain and simple,” said Kyle Kuzma. “Credit to the Clippers for making shots down the stretch, but we just beat ourselves.”
“We did some good things but we gave that one away. We had the game. We were in control the entire game. We let them get back in it,” Davis added, an almost disbelief of sorts creeping into his voice. “That’s a game that you’ve got to close out. We gave that one away.”
Still, the Lakers really only lost by the narrowest of margins. It took a bad foul from Davis touching Lou Williams on a fast-break layup it appeared he would miss anyway, two bad decisions from Green playing Leonard too physically, and then a really incredible (and somewhat lucky) play from Patrick Beverley to poke the ball away from James in a mediocre-at-best game from the superstar for the Clippers to pull this one out. Even Kuzma (25 points, including 15 in the first quarter) showed signs of breaking out of his season-long slump, adding to reasons to be hopeful despite the ultimate outcome of this one.
The Lakers aren’t that far from beating these guys, making it all the more frustrating for them that they let the game slip away.
“When you’re a great team, you definitely want to have the mindset of not losing two in a row, and definitely not trying to lose three,” Kuzma said, and his tone made it clear that the Lakers especially didn’t want to lose four in a row, or to make it five when they take on the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday.
“But s--- happens,” Kuzma continued. “Just got to get back on track in Portland.”
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.