The Los Angeles Lakers followed a familiar pattern against the Orlando Magic for a third consecutive game. They fell behind early, fought their way back from a deficit, and were in position to win come the fourth quarter.
It worked against the San Antonio Spurs, but the Lakers were unable to hold off Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers. They again were on the verge of blowing another late lead, saved only by Brook Lopez’s clutch free throws, and an assist from a “clock malfunction” that prevented the Magic from a potential final shot attempt.
Lopez’s free throws with 0.6 seconds remaining with the only points the Lakers scored over the final two minutes of the game in their 108-107 victory. They led by as many as 12 points in the quarter.
“We don’t know how to win yet,” Isaiah Thomas said of the recent growing pains. “We have a young group, we’re not executing the way we need to down the stretch. These guys, half of them are 20 years old. They don’t know how to win an NBA basketball game.”
The Lakers had shown improvement in closing games out, which factored into their recent, season-best five-game winning streak, and nine-game home winning streak. But head coach Luke Walton believes his team has been plagued by taking a sigh of relief.
“It felt like we started playing as if we had won the game. Teams in the NBA, they’re going to go on a run and they get dangerous when they’re in survivor mode. Players in this league are too good,” he said.
“There’s a certain time, where score and how much time is left in the game, where we’re OK with giving up contested twos and we don’t want to double anymore. We were in our normal defensive principles, and [Orlando] hit a couple threes, which got it close. That was on [the coaching staff] to get that information to them sooner than that.”
Walton’s belief was shared by Lonzo Ball, who said the Lakers “get relaxed” after jumping out to a comfortable lead. While he doesn’t believe they are there just yet, Thomas is confident the Lakers will shake free from the struggles of protecting a lead.
“It’s the experience, continue to play through the ups and downs of a long season, continue to learn how to win. That just has to do with experience,” he said. “It will definitely come. We’ve got to do a better job of taking care of the ball, getting a shot every time, and just executing. If we execute, we’ll be a lot better.”