In what’s too early to call a complete collapse but too stunning to label a mere stumble, the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers are now slated to compete in the NBA’s play-in tournament with a little more than a week remaining in the regular season.
Friday’s 106-101 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers dropped L.A. to No. 7 in the Western Conference standings, a full game behind the Blazers with five games remaining on the schedule for both teams.
It was the Lakers’ eighth loss in their past 10 games, coming against a red-hot Blazers team that has won six out of seven to surge ahead of an L.A. team missing its leader, LeBron James, and its point guard, Dennis Schroder.
While the Lakers continue to wait on James, out the past three games to rehab his high right ankle sprain that kept him out of the lineup for six weeks already, and Schroder, expected to be sidelined another 5-10 days because of health and safety protocols, they did receive a vintage performance from Anthony Davis in Portland.
Davis, playing in his ninth game back after a nine-week absence of his own because of a calf strain and Achilles tendinosis in his right leg, looked dominant with 36 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and a block on Jusuf Nurkic with 49.7 seconds left that kept it a one possession game and gave L.A. a chance to tie their next time down the floor.
“This is his best game since his return for sure,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of Davis. “He’s getting a little bit stronger each game. It’s a very encouraging sign.”
What wasn’t as encouraging was the Lakers’ late-game execution, losing a contest that was in their grasp.
After battling all the way back from a 14-point first-quarter deficit, L.A. climbed back to make it a one-possession game late in the fourth. The Davis block on Nurkic sparked a fast break when Kyle Kuzma, who finished the game going 2-for-11 overall and 0-for-6 on 3-pointers, pulled up for a 25-foot wing 3 that could have tied the score but missed with 42.9 seconds remaining.
“Maybe Kuz could have gotten a 2 [and we would be] down one,” Davis said afterward of Kuzma’s decision. “Especially because he was struggling. … A guy who shoots the s— out of the ball, he didn’t shoot it well tonight. A wide-open look, it’s a good shot. A layup is probably the right play, but we’re living with him shooting the ball.”
Kuzma credited L.A.’s fight versus Portland while perhaps alluding to Davis’ absence in Thursday’s loss to the LA Clippers, when the star big man played just nine minutes because of back spasms and the Lakers lost by 24 points.
“I think we did a good job of competing tonight,” Kuzma said. “I think that was the No. 1 thing that we did that wasn’t available in the Clippers game.”
Vogel’s critique of Ben McLemore’s foul on CJ McCollum with 27.6 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and L.A. down 102-99 was far less veiled. The expectation from the coach was for his players to play straight-up defense on that possession and try to secure the rebound on a miss. There was about a 10-second differential between the shot clock and game clock, so had the Lakers forced the Blazers into a miss and secured the rebound, they would have had the ball on the final possession with a chance to tie.
“We don’t want to take a foul there, we want to play it out, try to get a stop and give ourselves a chance to win it with the ball on the last possession,” Vogel said.
Alex Caruso, who played through a foot contusion and started out of position at point guard, blamed himself for the McLemore foul, taking little solace in his season-high 18 points.
“Being a point guard, one of the more vocal guys, one of the high I.Q. guys on the team right now with a couple of our leaders missing, our point guards missing,” he said. “I was pretty disappointed in myself, just messing up that part of the game because we had battled so hard.”
Portland might be a game ahead and owns the tiebreaker from winning the season series, but L.A.’s final five games are more favorable. The combined winning percentage of the Lakers’ last five opponents is .485, while the Blazers’ final opponents are winning at a .566 clip.
Vogel said before Friday’s game that he was “unafraid of the play-in tournament with this team,” but if the Lakers needed a reminder of what can go wrong in a winner-take-all scenario that should motivate them to avoid the play-in at all costs, Friday had a few of them.
An injury suddenly affecting the rotation? Look no further than Talen Horton-Tucker’s calf strain.
Foul trouble rearing its ugly head? Andre Drummond was whistled for his sixth and fouled out with 6 minutes, 7 seconds remaining.
An inexplicable occurrence? Davis flushed a dunk through the hoop with 6:18 remaining that somehow got caught in the net and flung right out, negating the bucket.
A 50-50 call going against you? Kuzma’s tip dunk with 4:03 remaining was ruled offensive basket interference and Damian Lillard scored a 3 on the next possession, turning what would have been a two-point game into a seven-point Portland cushion just like that.
“For sure those plays can cost us a game,” Davis said.
The Lakers have five games remaining, beginning Sunday against Phoenix, to try to make sure their repeat title bid won’t come down to the results of one game before the playoffs even officially begin.