The Lakers’ season turned grim Friday afternoon when they announced Anthony Davis will be out indefinitely because of a right foot stress injury.
It turned grimmer a few hours later when the Charlotte Hornets, who had dropped to 8-24 after being clobbered by the Clippers earlier this week, took advantage of the Lakers’ sluggish and sometimes disinterested defense to score 62 points in the paint, 32 points off the Lakers’ 17 turnovers, and 29 fast-break points.
But things might have hit their grimmest point for the Lakers when center Thomas Bryant, who had capably filled in for Davis, hurt his right shoulder in the fourth quarter and missed the final 3 minutes and 16 seconds of the Hornets’ 134-130 victory before a rare sellout crowd at Crypto.com Arena. Already small, the Lakers can’t afford to lose Bryant’s size (6-foot-10). They urgently need his energy and tenacity.
“AD’s situation is what it is. We’ll find out about Thomas. But this league is heartless. They don’t feel sorry for one another,” coach Darvin Ham said as the team prepared to take a red-eye flight to Dallas for a Christmas Day game that will launch a five-game trip. A journey that loomed as challenging before Bryant injured his shoulder has now become worrisome.
“You got guys injured? Oh, well. Still got to play. Someone’s having a bad stretch? Oh, well. Still got to play,” Ham added. “So, the biggest thing that we can do is reiterate our principles and make sure we’re executing those on both sides of the ball and keep pushing forward and try to get better and learn from these losses.”
They’ve had enough opportunities to learn from defeat: they’re 13-19 after their third straight loss. Opponents have scored at least 130 points in each of those defeats, though in the first game of that streak, at Phoenix, they lacked several rotation players.
The Hornets, who ranked 29th in the NBA in shooting percentage before Friday’s game, shot a season-high .553 from the field in setting a season high in points. LaMelo Ball of Chino Hills scored 23 points, his sixth straight performance of 20 or more points since he returned from an ankle injury. He also had eight rebounds and eight assists.
“All the credit in the world to Charlotte. They played a hell of a ball game, but we helped them,” Ham said. “We helped them tonight and we got a lot of things we need to tighten up.”
The Lakers, who were outscored 81-60 in the second and third quarters at Sacramento on Wednesday, were outscored 70-56 in the second and third quarters Friday. The Hornets, who had all five starters in double figures, scored so many points that Lakers guard Austin Reaves didn’t realize how inexcusably big the final tally was.
“I don’t even know how many we gave up today. One-twenty-something. One-twenty-four. In the last game we gave up 134. It’s just too many points,” Reaves said. “You’re not going to win too many games like that.”
Of course, Davis’ absence accounts for a large chunk of the Lakers’ problems, and they haven’t had time to adjust. “It’s hard. You lose somebody like AD, he’s kind of the centerpiece to what we do defensively,” Reaves said. “Because once you get beyond the dribble you know you’re not entirely out of it because he’s back there.”
Reaves said the Lakers must fall back on the tried-but-true next-man mentality. Yet that goes only so far when the next man, Bryant, might be injured too.
The idea of leaving everything to LeBron James to fix isn’t going to work, though he scored 18 of his game-high 34 points in the fourth quarter, his sixth consecutive 30-point game. He reached a few more career milestones, by playing the 1,390th regular-season game of his career, passing Reggie Miller 12th most in NBA history, and starting his 1,389th game, tying Tim Duncan for the fifth-most games started in NBA history.
But he and Russell Westbrook, who had 17 points and seven assists off the bench after missing two games because of left foot soreness, can’t pull off magic tricks if there’s no cohesiveness or consistency on defense.
“We can’t just assume that … [because] we have first-ballot Hall of Famers on this roster that we can just play around with the game and waste possessions and someone’s going to put their cape on and come save the day,” Ham said.
“We have to get out in front of things. We have to be the ones to set a tone, not match someone else’s energy.”
James also cited Charlotte’s ability to capitalize on the Lakers’ turnovers and score in transition as some of the key problems on Friday. “We just don’t have a lot of room for error,” he said, “and we have to be able to control the things that we can control.”
They let control of the game slip away on Friday. It was a too-familiar scene in a season that has gone from grim to grimmer to grimmest after 32 games.