The Lakers’ past several games have been perhaps the most brutal stretch in an already excruciating season. L.A. got exactly one game of Anthony Davis and LeBron James on the court together in January, and the latter is now dealing with swelling in his knee after the former missed over a month with an MCL sprain.
The Lakers are 1-3 during James’ most recent absence, and suffered an especially heartbreaking loss against the Clippers on Thursday, as what would have been a game-winner from Davis rimmed out in the final seconds, dropping the Lakers to 25-28 on the season. It’s tied for the furthest below .500 they have been all year, and the team currently sits at ninth place in the Western Conference, four games out of a sixth-place seed that would allow the Lakers to avoid their second straight play-in tournament berth.
A win over the Clippers would have moved the Lakers to the eighth seed, but instead, L.A.’s other team now sits 1.5 games ahead of the Lakers in the conference standings.
As rough as such a close loss after a big late rally was for Lakers fans, the team took it just as hard (or perhaps even harder). Getting so near to what would have been a huge victory only to come up short was especially brutal for Davis, who has been on an absolute tear since his return from injury, averaging nearly 30 points per game over his last four starts.
“It’s tough, because they were a half-game ahead of us, and we’re fighting,” Davis said after Thursday’s loss. “Dealing with injuries all year, COVID earlier in the year, and it’s an uphill battle for us now, missing [LeBron]... We’ve just got to keep plugging away. Obviously, there are no moral victories, and no one feels sorry for us. We don’t want anyone feeling sorry for us. But we’ve got to find a way to just keep pushing.”
After getting understandably pilloried over the previous several weeks for his poor play, Russell Westbrook has also improved lately, averaging 20 points, six rebounds and seven assists over his past seven games. But the only Laker to play in every game this season knows that none of their individual production will matter unless the team builds some continuity, and that continuity translates to winning.
“We’ve just got to figure it out on the way, the best way to play better, and try to find ways to get some wins,” Westbrook said on Thursday.
One area the Lakers can improve on is their third-quarter play. That has been a problem almost all year, but especially lately, as opponents are averaging 28 points against the purple and gold in the third period over the past five games.
As of Jan. 31, the Lakers had a net rating of -4.3 in the third quarter this season, their lowest in any of the four quarters. And even though coming out strong after halftime has been a season-long issue, the Lakers still don’t know why that is.
Updated team performance by quarter. What stands out? pic.twitter.com/BQS3zaOpiR— Tom Bassine (@tvbassine) January 31, 2022
“We’re trying to figure the same thing out,” Malik Monk said when asked about it on Thursday. “We talk about it every day. Every time we’re together we talk about ‘why does it happen?’ And we don’t know, man. I’m tired of saying it, man. We’ve got to figure this shit out.”
As the Lakers are well aware, they’re running out of time to do so. We are well past the midway point of the NBA season, and although the All-Star break may provide a chance for the Lakers to recenter themselves a bit, they will only get a handful of opportunities to move up meaningfully in the Western Conference standings between now and the end of the regular season. They can’t afford to blow many more of those chances like they ultimately did on Thursday.