LOS ANGELES — The truth came crashing down on the Lakers on Sunday night at Staples Center: They need LeBron James to win.
And at least for one rare night, the Cleveland Cavaliers did not.
The franchise that is struggling at the bottom of the Eastern Conference embarrassed their hosts, winning for the first time in a month, 101-95, as the Lakers (23-21) continued to fall apart at the seams.
Laker fans have been restless since Christmas when James injured his groin. It came to a head as the team slid to 3-7 without James in the lineup: After the Cavaliers (9-35) had taken an 11-point lead in the final four minutes, a round of boos rumbled in the building.
The sluggish offensive style that the Lakers have often lambasted as a bad habit was on display, particularly as the team struggled to make shots from both beyond the arc (7 for 34) and at the free throw line (16 for 27). The transition-oriented team managed just 11 fast break points against the Cavaliers’ fouling strategy.
Giving up yet another double-digit lead in the first quarter, then playing from behind, there weren’t many satisfying explanations to be found why the Lakers couldn’t bring it Sunday night.
“I mean we’re losing games, so I don’t know why the energy’s not there,” Lonzo Ball said. “We can’t keep getting into holes like that.”
Kyle Kuzma led a late push with 18 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter, then hit a 3-pointer and then a lay-up in the last 22.6 seconds left to cut the deficit to 3 points twice. But Alec Burks (16 points) and Rodney Hood (18 points) each hit a pair of free throws to seal the result at the end, and the Lakers could not score on their final meaningful possession of the game.
The game did not reflect the kind of difficulty one would expect against the team with the worst record in the NBA. It was the Cavs’ first win since Dec. 18, after 12 straight defeats, accomplished without the likes of Kevin Love or Larry Nance Jr. Finally, the Lakers were the team that played weakly enough to let them win.
While the Lakers have won two in their last four games, they’ve also recorded losses to Cleveland and New York that have revealed the warts of a team that hopes to be playoff-bound in April. That is starting to look perilous just beyond the season’s halfway point: The loss slid them into a tie for eighth place with the Utah Jazz, who they lost to on Friday night.
Luke Walton said afterward that he still believes in his team, which has teetered without the leadership and production of James on the floor. But the latest loss didn’t advance that case.
“As a team, we gotta step up and go out and take some of these games,” he said. “We had plenty of chances to really try to get back over the hump, but we just didn’t do it.”
Changes are likely afoot: Walton said he anticipated a change in the starting lineup for Tuesday’s game against the Chicago Bulls. The first quarter gave him plenty of reason to want to adjust.
Another slow start gave the Lakers plenty of angst early on. They trailed 28-13 as early as nine minutes in, and timeout after timeout didn’t seem to do much to bring cohesion to an offense that has diminished over the last two games.
Lonzo Ball led the early effort, with 11 of his 13 points in the first half, as well as five of his eight assists. Brandon Ingram also added to the scoring punch with 22 points. But their support was tenuous: No other Laker scored in double figures, and JaVale McGee was held to just two points.
The lack of urgency is a concern as James’ injury stretches on — he’ll miss Tuesday’s game before his scheduled re-evaluation Wednesday. If the Lakers can’t turn it around in this stretch, it only gets harder.
“It’s a game we knew was very important to us,” Walton said. “[The frustration] should be pretty high. Hopefully that’s an anger that stays with us for a few days.”
Lonzo Ball on the low energy at the start of games: I can’t explain it. I mean we’re losing games so I don’t know why the energy isn’t there. pic.twitter.com/QDb7F6NUNl
— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) January 14, 2019
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