Defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, too early to call a complete collapse but too breathtaking to call a stumble, is now expected to compete in the NBA’s play-in tournament, with a little more in the regular season than a week remains.
Friday’s 106-101 defeat by the Portland Trail Blazers put LA in 7th place in the Western Conference standings, a full game behind the Blazers with five games left for both teams.
It was the Lakers’ eighth loss in their last 10 games to a fiery Blazers team that won six out of seven to win ahead of an LA team that missed their leader LeBron James and point guard Dennis Schroder.
While the Lakers continue to wait for James, Schroder has had his high sprain on his right ankle in the last three games, which has been holding him off the line for six weeks, and Schroder is expected to have to pause another 5-10 days for health and safety logs she’s a vintage performance by Anthony Davis in Portland.
Davis, who played in his ninth game after a nine-week absence due to a calf strain and Achilles tendonitis in his right leg, saw the left dominate with 36 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and a block against Jusuf Nurkic with 49.7 seconds One ball game stopped, giving LA a chance to tie the ground next time.
“This is definitely his best game since his return,” said Lakers coach Frank Vogel of Davis. “He’s getting a little stronger with every game. That’s a very encouraging sign.”
What wasn’t so encouraging was the Lakers’ late game run, losing a competition that was within their reach.
After battling all the way back after trailing 14 points in the first quarter, LA rose back and turned it into a one-ball game towards the end of the fourth quarter. The Davis block on Nurkic sparked a quick pause as Kyle Kuzma, who finished the game 2-11 and 0-6 with 3 pointers, caught up for a 25-foot wing 3 that could have tied the result but with Missed 42.9 seconds.
“Maybe Kuz could have got a 2 [and we would be] Down one, “said Davis afterwards about Kuzma’s decision.” Mainly because he was in trouble. … a guy who shoots the s — out of the ball didn’t shoot it well tonight. A wide open look, it’s a good shot. A layup is probably the right game, but we live with him who shoots the ball. “
Kuzma credited the LA fight against Portland, while perhaps hinting at Davis’ absence from losing to the LA Clippers on Thursday, when the big star played just nine minutes on a backache and the Lakers lost 24 points.
“I think we did a good job tonight,” said Kuzma. “I think that was number 1 that we did that wasn’t available in the Clippers game.”
Vogel’s criticism of Ben McLemore’s foul on CJ McCollum of 27.6 seconds in the fourth quarter and a 102-99 drop in LA was far less disguised. The coach’s expectation was that in this possession his players would play a direct defense and try to secure the rebound in the event of a miss. There was about a 10 second difference between the shot clock and the music box. Had the Lakers forced the Blazers to miss and secured the rebound, they would have had final possession and had a chance to score a draw.
“We don’t want to take a foul there, we want to play it off, try to get a stop and give us the chance to win it with the ball on the last possession,” said Vogel.
Alex Caruso, who played through a foot injury and got out of position with the point guard, blamed himself for the McLemore foul and consoled himself little with his 18 points in the season.
“As a point guard, one of the louder guys, one of the high-IQ guys on the team who is missing some of our leaders, our point guards are missing,” he said. “I was pretty disappointed with myself and only messed up that part of the game because we fought so hard.”
Portland could be a game ahead and have the tiebreaker from winning the season streak, but LA’s last five games are cheaper. The combined win percentage of the last five opponents of the Lakers is 0.485, while the last opponents of the Blazers win on a clip of 0.566.
Vogel said ahead of Friday’s game that he was “not afraid of the warm-up tournament with this team,” but if the Lakers needed a reminder of what could go wrong in a scenario with all the winners, it should motivate them to play avoid. Friday had a couple of them at all costs.
An injury that suddenly interferes with rotation? Look no further than Talen Horton-Tucker’s calf variety.
Foul trouble straightening his ugly head? Andre Drummond was whistled for the sixth time and fouled 6 minutes and 7 seconds ahead.
An inexplicable event? Davis flushed a 6:18 dunk through the tire that somehow got stuck in the net and was thrown straight out, negating the bucket.
A 50:50 call against you? Kuzma’s tip dunk with 4:03 remaining was considered offensive, and Damian Lillard scored a 3 on next possession, turning a two-point game into a seven-point Portland pillow.
“Of course these games can cost us a game,” said Davis.
The Lakers have five more games to go, starting Sunday against Phoenix, to ensure their repeated title bid doesn’t result in the results of one game before the playoffs even officially begin.