Lakers seek answers after latest fourth-quarter flop

MINNEAPOLIS — Fielding his fourth question about the pivotal fourth quarter in the 119-112 loss to the New York Knicks, Brandon Ingram briefly pushed back on the narrative Friday night.

He knew the media was interested in the final period, in which the Lakers (21-18) had been outscored 33-20. But he also felt there were other things to pick at.

“I don’t think the entire thing is the fourth quarter,” he said. “I think it’s sometimes on the defensive end where we have a loss of focus. Sometimes a loss of focus for myself. Sometimes free throws. Sometimes it’s different things. So I don’t pinpoint it to the fourth quarter.”

To an extent, Ingram had a point: The Lakers had 17 turnovers and allowed a season-high 41 free-throw attempts. For the first time in 13 games, they cracked 75 percent at the free-throw line, but would’ve liked to make more. These issues were not limited to any one period of Friday’s loss.

And yet the numbers – and the nosedive the Lakers have taken in the fourth quarter of the past five games without LeBron James – merit special attention.

As the team has gone 1-4 in that stretch, the Lakers are last in the NBA in net rating in the fourth quarter. In layman’s terms: Per 100 possessions, the Lakers are outscored by 24.6 points in the final period. They average five fewer points in the fourth quarter (23.0) than any other quarter in that five-game stretch.

The extreme nature of how the Lakers can’t function offensively in the fourth quarter points to just how much of a sticking point it has become without LeBron James. Luke Walton has mused that the ball movement cuts off and the tempo slows down in that period – both critical mistakes that cost the Lakers even more without James, Rajon Rondo and Kyle Kuzma.

“The shots aren’t always going to go. Even if you’re a great shooting team, you’re going to have off nights,” Walton said. “But we can control certain things that we did not do a good job of tonight and did not put ourselves in a great chance to win down the stretch.”

There were notable errors by the Lakers’ two remaining ball-dominant players. For one, Lonzo Ball had two turnovers in the final minute, including a rare five-second violation on an inbounds play out of a timeout. Walton later took fault for the error, saying the play needed to be run faster and he would do a better job of communicating the play to his personnel.

Ingram also missed his last three shots of the game, calling his own number on several possessions and missing on contested drives to the rim. Walton didn’t single him out for the loss, but acknowledged Ingram wasn’t play-making as much in the fourth as he was in other parts of the game.

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It didn’t help that the Lakers gave up 20 free throws in the final quarter and the Knicks made 16. This made it difficult to run the transition offense in which the team thrives. But the Lakers also got away from another offensive strong suit they had in the third quarter, when JaVale McGee and Ivica Zubac were a combined 8 for 9 from the field with 16 points.

McGee took only two more shots for the remainder of the game, and neither Tyson Chandler nor Zubac took any fourth-quarter shots. McGee said it would be “selfish” for him to say he thought he needed the ball more, but he also seemed frustrated the Lakers got away from what helped them come back down 17 in the first half.

“I think we just didn’t stay consistent on what was working,” he said. “It’s not necessarily me and Zu, there was a lot of stuff that was working. Me and Zu just had a couple hot spots out there to where we had some scoring streaks. But lot of things that were working that we coulda did. Lot of plays that we coulda ran. But we just didn’t do it.”

Answers aren’t easy to come by with many key veterans on the shelf, but the Lakers know they must respond: Losing to one of the few weak squads on the upcoming schedule doesn’t help them stay afloat in the Western Conference standings, where they are now a precarious eighth place.

“Every game is big in the West,” Ball said. “Plus, we keep losing the same way, in my opinion. We get up in the fourth and keep giving it away, so we got to change that.”

Kyle Kuzma on the road trip

There was some good news Saturday morning for an otherwise reeling Lakers squad: Kyle Kuzma was cleared to travel to Minneapolis for the two-game road trip. He’ll be questionable for Sunday afternoon’s tilt with Minnesota.

Kuzma has been missing since leaving the second quarter of Wednesday’s loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder with lower back pain. An MRI confirmed that he had a contusion, but Walton said Kuzma was still too stiff to play Friday, and he stayed home to recover.

The Lakers are already without James on the road trip as he continues to recover from a strained groin. The hope is the Lakers could return Kuzma, the second-leading scorer on the team (18.3 ppg) who would also add size to a lineup that is missing depth at forward. In Kuzma’s absence, 6-foot-5 Josh Hart has taken on more of the power forward responsibilities.

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