Before you can escape the fumes from the coach buses idling in the Ball Arena loading dock, a sign above reminds you what your lungs already know.
“The Mile High City,” the welcome sign reads. “Elevation 5,280 feet.”
Heading into Wednesday’s game with the Nuggets, people around the Lakers organization were still trying their best to view their team from that kind of distance — the focus on the general principles and the big picture still outweighing the grisly details. But with each passing game, each misfired jumper and each wince, the pressure to readjust that focus only builds.
With Russell Westbrook on the bench injured, the team got to make some of the changes so many fans and pundits have clamored for … and nothing really seemed that different.
The rims still seemed to shrink whenever the Lakers took a shot, the talent disparity seemed to tilt too far in the opponent’s favor, and for good measure, Anthony Davis winced and reached down at his lower back as Denver began to pull away.
The Nuggets beat the Lakers 110-99, the team losing for the fourth straight time to begin the season. Only the Orlando Magic and the Sacramento Kings also remain winless.
The Lakers were better from three-point range, though they needed to heat up to 26.5%. And their defense, which had kept them in games against the Clippers and Trail Blazers, unraveled in the third quarter as Denver pushed their lead to double digits.
They had a chance to cut the Nuggets lead, which climbed to 18 in the third, down to five in the fourth quarter but LeBron James missed a layup and Denver responded with a three to go back up 10.
Later in the fourth, with James complaining about a no-call, Lakers coach Darvin Ham stormed onto the court and was called for a technical. James finished with eight turnovers and 19 points, making just eight of 21 from the field.
James said he plans to look to be more aggressive for his own offensive opportunities in the future.
Westbrook did participate lightly in the team’s shootaround Wednesday morning in Denver, shooting free throws and three-point shots before Ham officially ruled him out pregame.
“We talked about it over the course of the couple of days and how to approach it, what would be the best strategy to use,” Ham said of Westbrook’s hamstring. “We all came to the conclusion that it’s early in the season and there’s no reason to stretch it out or put him in a vulnerable position and just take it day to day. We all decided that he’d be out today.”
Ham started Austin Reaves in his place.
“It’s another basketball game,” Reaves said. “Try to play the game the right way regardless of starting, not starting. I just try to help the team be successful.”
Ham had toyed with Westbrook coming off the bench in the team’s preseason finale — Reaves was in the starting lineup that game — but the experiment ended after five minutes when Westbrook exited with a hamstring injury.
Westbrook later said the change in his routine by coming off the bench contributed to the former MVP tweaking his left hamstring.
Westbrook played well in the team’s opener before struggling offensively in the second and third games of the season, only turning up the volume on his awkward situation within the organization and among Lakers fans.
Davis spoke out in support of Westbrook on Tuesday, and at the team’s shootaround Wednesday, former Warrior Juan Toscano-Anderson called Westbrook one of his best teammates ever.
“Before I met Russ, I didn’t really like Russ. And I think a lot of people have that type of lens about Russ just because he’s so competitive. From the little time that I’ve known Russ – and I’ve had some hell of … I’ve had some great teammates — Russ is probably in my top five, top three teammates I’ve ever had,” he said. “He’s an amazing teammate and an amazing person. And at the end of the day, I played overseas for five years before I made it to the NBA so I kind of have a [broad view]. I can differentiate between NBA life and real life. And he’s a human being, bro. Like, he’s not perfect. He’s a human being. And I think people forget that.”
At minimum, Wednesday’s performance in Denver was a reminder that the Lakers’ problems extend beyond Westbrook, who has been one piece of a team that, as a group, is still struggling badly on a possession-by-possession basis.