Los Angeles — As Rajon Rondo fielded questions from the media after the Los Angeles Lakers collapsed against the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night, he was asked if he could take anything positive from L.A. keeping up with the team with the best record in the NBA.
“Makes no difference,” Rondo said, and before another question could be asked, the next voice to cut through the silence of the postgame locker room was that of LeBron James, chiming in from behind the scrum of media as he attempted to latch the clasp on his necklace in a mirror.
“You gotta stop asking me and ‘Do those questions,” James said.
But while James seemed to be referring to the idea that he and Rondo are former champions with 27 years of combined experience in the NBA, and that no, they don’t think that playing close with any team is a good thing if they don’t get a win, he also hit on an important note for the Lakers: If there was ever a time to take heart in moral victories, that time is over.
“Listen, this is win or lose. Obviously you want to build, but it’s win or lose in that particular moment,” James said. “We’ve got to be great tomorrow in the next game. We can’t say, ‘okay, we were great three quarters, three-and-a-half quarters versus Milwaukee, we can carry that.’ Nope, we can’t do that. We have to be great against Phoenix, and hit the restart button.”
If the Lakers can’t hit the restart button soon, their season may get permanently stuck on a red ring of death after the warranty expires. And after going just 2-3 since returning from the NBA All-Star break, and 30-32 on the season, the team is sitting 3.5 games back of the Western Conference’s eighth seed with 20 games to go. There isn’t a separate column in the record books for staying close against good teams, or at least not one that matters.
And as much as James’ request to not ask him and Rondo about moral victories made it seem as though only veterans could understand such a mindset, Brandon Ingram made it clear that he also gets that the time for fun and games is over.
Ingram has been playing arguably the best basketball of his life since the All-Star break, tearing out of the starting gate of the season’s final stretch by averaging 28.4 points on 58 percent shooting over the last five games. You would have no idea that was the case if you just watched him talk after games, in which Ingram speaks with all the enthusiasm of a moody teenager at a family dinner.
One answer that emphasized how little Ingram cares about his level of play when it’s not resulting in team success came Friday, when Ingram was asked which of his two dunks against the Bucks he enjoyed most, and responded “I just really love to win.”
Even ever-positive Lakers head coach Luke Walton, who thought the Lakers made progress in their loss to the Memphis Grizzlies earlier this week (no, seriously, he actually said that) appeared to be struggling while looking for optimism to take away after the loss to the Bucks. And while Walton did note that he thought it was good that the Lakers stayed in the game against Milwaukee, even he couldn’t really spout too many rainbows as their playoff lives slip away like their lead in the fourth quarter did on Friday night.
“I thought against one of the best teams in the league we really played well and then for some reason, we kind of fell apart at the end there,” Walton said, putting some of the blame on himself for a late clock violation turnover on an inbounds play under the basket that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope didn’t call timeout on. “When we are playing elite teams, any team, we have to take games.”
The Lakers couldn’t do that against Milwaukee, and while that’s not a surprising result given how amazing the Bucks have been this year, it was a disheartening one after Walton played three of his starters nearly 40 minutes to chase a victory on the first night of a back-to-back.
L.A. will have to find a way around that when they take on the Suns on Saturday night, although despite the fact that they all seem to recognize that this team is running out of rope, they also have a nonchalance to them, an at this point arguably overconfident belief that they can figure things out over the next 20 games, and that the playoffs are still well within reach.
“I don’t really believe in pressure,” said Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma. “I think we’ll be alright. Everybody knows what we have got to do, we gotta win, play hard and bring that effort in. After the past two, three games, we’ve done that. At the end of the day that’s all you can ask for is effort.”
Well, not all you can ask for, because after all, the Lakers need to start asking for some wins, too. In a victory of morals, if not a moral victory, the team at least seems to understand that.
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. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.