The past week began on the highest possible note for the Los Angeles Lakers as they defeated the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors in a high-profile Christmas Day contest. The game achieved record television ratings for ESPN and ABC, and it would have represented the high point of the Lakers’ season but for one crucial factor.
In the third quarter, LeBron James stumbled, said he heard a pop and suffered a strained groin. Although an MRI revealed that he avoided a major tear, James missed the remaining three games of the week.
In his absence, the Lakers lost consecutive contests to the Sacramento Kings and Clippers before winning a rematch with Sacramento at home in a come-from-behind victory.
There were good individual performances in each game without James, and the team was in position to win all three. The common theme in the defeats was that the Lakers unraveled in the fourth quarter, allowing opponents to overcome big deficits in both instances.
Here is a summary of what went right and what went wrong as the Lakers were forced to endure the absence of not only James but Rajon Rondo who suffered yet another hand injury that required surgery.
What Went Right
The Lakers played a complete, 48-minute game against the Warriors for one of the few times this season.
After James was injured in the third quarter, the Warriors went on a big run and cut the lead to two points. It looked like a sure win for Golden State at that point, but surprisingly, the Lakers rose to the challenge and by late in the fourth quarter their lead was over 30 points.
James, in little over a half, had 17 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists. Kyle Kuzma was the leading scorer for the Lakers with 19 points to go along with 6 rebounds.
The players of the game for the Lakers, however, were Rajon Rondo and Ivica Zubac. The latter had 18 points on 9-of-10 shooting, along with 11 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks. Rondo assumed the leadership role with James out and was outstanding, finishing with 15 points, 10 assists and 5 rebounds.
The following game in Sacramento was the first time this season that that Lakers were without James. The young core played well until the last six minutes of the game, when the Kings overcame a 15-point deficit to stun the Lakers at the final buzzer.
Lonzo Ball, freed of standing around watching James and Rondo control the offense, was outstanding on both ends of the court. He finished with 20 points, 12 assists and 9 rebounds. Kyle Kuzma was an offensive force, scoring 33 points and grabbing 9 rebounds. It was the third game this season in which Kuzma exceeded 30 points.
After the heart-breaking last-second loss to the Kings, it figured the Lakers would struggle the next night against the Clippers. Surprisingly, after a slow start, the Lakers played well and had a double-digit lead late in the third quarter, before falling apart and allowing the Clippers to score 22 straight points.
Kuzma was again the leading scorer for the Lakers with 24 points, and as a sign of his improving all-around game, he also had 8 rebounds and 6 assists. Ball was outstanding again, finishing with 19 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds.
As certain as it looked that the Lakers were going to win in Sacramento, that is how much it looked like they were going to lose in the rematch a few days later. The Kings, who are a talented team, led nearly the entire game, with Bogdan Bogdanovic and De’Aaron Fox leading the way.
Somehow, the Lakers, who showed little passion the entire game, found the energy during the final few moments of the game to get the defensive stops they needed.
Josh Hart was player of the game, finishing with 22 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals. Ingram had 21 points, 9 assists and 7 rebounds and was instrumental at the end. It was one of the few times this year when he tried to get others involved instead of just dribbling and shooting. Kuzma shot poorly but still finished with 18 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists. KCP scored 21 points.
The unexpected win to end the week brought welcome relief to a team that looked beaten without James and Rondo. Whether it was a coincidence or not, it marked the return of JaVale McGee who missed the previous seven games with a respiratory illness.
What Went Wrong
The loss in Sacramento was one of the season’s biggest disappointments to date. The Lakers’ starting lineup consisted of two 23 year olds and three 21 year olds. It was a great opportunity for the young core to be front and center with James, Rondo, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley all out.
They played very well until late in the fourth quarter, and to lose on a contested three point shot at the buzzer was a real shock.
Speaking of Rondo, after leading the team to an outstanding victory against the Warriors, it was announced that he had sprained a finger. No one knew when the injury occurred and nothing was mentioned immediately after the game. Two days later he underwent surgery and is now due to be out another four to five weeks.
This has been a lost season for Rondo. After a three-game suspension earlier in the year for spitting at Chris Paul, Rondo had just returned from a month-long absence to heal a broken hand. Now he will be out until at least the end of January, and possibly later, with his new injury. Rondo’s absence this year has really hurt the team.
Ingram continues to be an enigma. All season the narrative has been that he is being held back by James. With James out, this was the time for Ingram to step up and lead the team.
He has not been offensively and made key shots late in the win against Sacramento. He also had his best assist game of the year, but then he over-dribbled and had the ball stolen from him in the waning moments of the contest which could have been disastrous. Ingram has scored well since returning from an ankle injury, but he is yet to have a breakout game.
It may be that Ingram’s performance against the Kings to end the week was the best the team can realistically expect of him, a good all-around showing. His free throw shooting must improve, however, as he is getting the line regularly but making only 62 percent on the season.
Ball played second fiddle to Rondo against the Warriors, then put together two strong performances in Sacramento and against the Clippers. Just when it looked like he was on a roll, he had an underwhelming performance to end the week when he missed layups and free throws and was torched by his Kings’ counterpart Fox, who in his second year looks to be on the cusp of stardom.
In Sacramento and against the Clippers, the Lakers lost their cool in the fourth quarter and had no one who could close. The Kings overcame a 15-point deficit with six minutes to play, winning on a desperate three point shot by Bogdanovic as time expired.
The Clippers ran off 22 consecutive points at the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth quarter, which eclipsed the Lakers’ lead and put the Clippers in control.
The Lakers were fortunate to salvage the week with the last minute win over the Kings at Staples Center. Their defense got them in a hole as the Kings scored 68 first half points when they shot 60 percent from the field, but defense bailed them out at the end when they got key stops.
This past week showed once again that no one other than James can be counted on to excel every game. Kuzma comes closest, but he still does not play with the consistent energy and swagger he showed all of last year, and his poor three point shooting is holding him back. Hopefully Ingram’s solid, all-around performance to end the week will be the start of improved play on his part.
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