LeBron James and Russell Westbrook continued their scorching hot play, combining for 66 points, but the remains of their supporting cast struggled yet again and the San Antonio Spurs thoroughly dismantled the Lakers’ defense, beating L.A. 138-110. The ugly affair marked the final NBA game played at Staples Center before it’s renamed Crypto.com arena on Christmas.
James was once again the brightest star for the Lakers, finishing with a team-high 36 points, 23 of which came in the first half alone. This marks the sixth time in seven games that James has led the Lakers in scoring, and he’ll have to continue to carry a substantial part of the load with Anthony Davis out for the better part of the next month and the rest of James’ supporting cast outside of Westbrook either in health and safety protocols or struggling mightily to provide any real value on the court.
Westbrook finished with 30 points, including 17 in the third quarter. Talen Horton-Tucker was the only other Lakers scorer in double figures with 13 points, but he shot 5-13 from the field.
The Lakers’ defense continued to look horrible in Davis’ absence, allowing 103 points through three quarters. Despite Dwight Howard’s return to the starting lineup after he spent time in health and safety protocols, the Lakers’ paint protection continued to be absolutely abysmal without Davis, with both Howard and DeAndre Jordan looking like washed-up shells of the former All-Defense rim protectors they once were.
Trevor Ariza’s entrance into protocols earlier Thursday also meant that the Lakers had just two healthy forwards — the 37-year-old Carmelo Anthony and almost-37-year-old James — so their small-ball lineups were (understandably) extremely ineffective on defense as well.
The difference between the older and coronavirus-impacted Lakers roster and younger, healthier Spurs roster — which features zero players over the age of 30 and zero currently in COVID protocols — was especially evident in their second units, as San Antonio’s bench outscored L.A.’s 69-20.
LeBron says the Lakers can fix their defense, but they need help from guys they don't have right now.— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) December 24, 2021
"All our defensive guys are in health and safety protocols."
Mentions AD, Trevor Ariza, Austin Reaves and Kent Bazemore.
Whether due to the lingering effects of their COVID-19 outbreak — which many other teams have also dealt with — or just the general wear and tear endured by their aging roster, including the injuries suffered by Ariza, Davis and Kendrick Nunn, the Lakers are in another massive rut. The powers that be within the franchise are preaching patience until we see this team at full strength, but L.A. is now 16-17 and running out of time. The team that many expected to compete for an NBA championship has yet to show any signs of being a legitimate threat for a deep playoff run. Absences are setting them up for failure right now, but it’s also getting harder and harder to see them figuring things out in time.
The Lakers commemorated their final game in Staples Center before the name change with a t-shirt and souvenir ticket giveaway, and brought out an honorary “starting five” of former Lakers players and coaches at halftime to pose with the six NBA championship trophies won since the team moved into Staples Center in 1999.
The commemorative ticket and lanyard bring given to all fans before tonight’s Lakers game. pic.twitter.com/ZIN5nfli9F— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) December 24, 2021
The five ex-Lakers players present were Metta Sandiford-Artest, Robert Horry, Gary Payton, Byron Scott and Luke Walton—the latter two, of course, were also former Lakers head coaches. It was Walton’s first public appearance at Staples Center since he was fired as head coach of the Sacramento Kings earlier this season.
The @Lakers bring out Gary Payton, Byron Scott, Luke Walton, Metta Sandiford-Artest, and Robert Horry with the five championship trophies won in the Staples Center era #LakeShow pic.twitter.com/YKKiOi4yFm— ESPN Los Angeles (@ESPNLosAngeles) December 24, 2021
The Lakers now head into an uncertain Christmas Day primetime matchup against the Brooklyn Nets, who have dealt with an even larger COVID-19 outbreak than the Lakers have. Brooklyn had its past three games postponed due to the lack of players available, and currently have 10 players in health and safety protocols, including Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
However, three Nets players — including James Harden — cleared protocols on Thursday, giving Brooklyn enough healthy bodies to suit up for tip-off against the Lakers at 5 p.m. on Saturday. The game will be broadcast nationally on ABC.