There were no fisticuffs at Staples Center on Monday night, but plenty of fight in a wild 143-142 overtime whiplash loss at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs that dropped the Los Angeles Lakers to 0-3 on the season.
The Lakers battled back from an eight-point deficit with just over a minute remaining behind a flurry of exquisite LeBron James moments — a kickout to Lonzo Ball and a pull-up 3-pointer to tie the game with 3.3 seconds — to send the game to overtime.
In overtime, it was the Lakers who seized control, then coughed up a six-point lead with less than a minute remaining. James orchestrated the Lakers’ overtime attack with beautiful execution, including a feed to Josh Hart at the hoop, a kickout to Ball for a pivotal 3-pointer and a gorgeous pocket pass on a pick-and-roll for Johnathan Williams. Then, it fell apart. James missed a pair of free throws, leaving the door open for the Spurs, down a point with one final possession and 12.8 seconds remaining.
Patty Mills made good on that opportunity, vaulting the Spurs into the lead with seven seconds remaining. James’ final shot attempt — a step-back 22-footer from the left side — was unsuccessful.
Patty Mills leaves just 6.8 seconds on the clock after his running jumper that gives the Spurs the lead.
Absent Brandon Ingram and Rajon Rondo, the Lakers started Ball at point guard and inserted Kyle Kuzma alongside James at the other forward spot. The shorter rotation prompted the Lakers to roll out some improbable lineup combos — at one point fielding a unit featuring Hart, Kuzma, Williams, Lance Stephenson and rookie Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, making his NBA debut. That ragtag unit managed to bring the Lakers even near the end of the first quarter.
James had a unusually quiet first half when he often opted to direct traffic at the top of the floor and facilitate from the foul-line extended area to find looks for the supporting cast. He didn’t score his first points until more than three minutes into the second quarter, and missed his first five shot attempts — three of them at point-blank range. His four points prior to intermission were his lowest total for a first half in nearly two years.
James came alive after halftime as hunted shots more aggressively, and zipped the ball to shooters when he didn’t finish. He fouled out Dante Cunninghamearly, and shots missed at point-blank range in the first half, when he scored only four points on 1-for-7 shooting, were finished with authority. At a crucial juncture inside of four minutes, James rumbled to the hole against a helpless Rudy Gay to cut the Spurs’ lead to two. His bounce pass through a double-team to Kuzma beneath the basket. He finished with 32 points, along with 14 assists and eight rebounds.
Kuzma was the most aggressive Laker on Monday night, attacking at will off the dribble as an improviser in broken half-court sets and igniting the Lakers’ break. Throw in a trio of corner 3-pointers, and another huge triple to keep the Lakers alive in the closing minute of regulation, and that was enough to lead the Lakers in the scoring ledger with 37 points, one shy of his career high.
But as much as the Lakers could use a little more organization in their offense, that wasn’t their primary problem. The Lakers entered Monday night ranked last in the league in defensive quantified shot probability — a stat that measures the likelihood of a shot going in while taking into account shot selection and the player shooting the ball.
In plain English: the Lakers are giving their opponents nearly everything they want, a trend that continued on Monday night.
It’s not merely that the Lakers are being blown by on dribble-drives and late to send help. The problems run deeper, as demonstrated on Monday. Coming off screens, Spurs shooters frequently encountered no contest from perimeter defenders. When Lakers’ defenders were sufficiently engaged, they were often frustrated — witness JaVale McGee banging with LaMarcus Aldridge then being deked into cheap fouls.
The Spurs are working without a true starting point guard, and now feature a collection of isolation scorers in Aldridge, DeRozan and Gay that compose an offense that’s a far cry from their old surgical attack. Yet the Spurs’ trio of iso-topes bludgeoned their counterparts. Aldridge dominated the post (37 points), DeRozan easily got to his comfy midrange spots (32 points, 14 assists), and Rudy Gay rose over shorter defenders to exact damage (16 points, including a huge 3-pointer with 15.4 seconds in overtime to keep the Spurs afloat).
The Lakers have promised a return to showtime — and they certainly produced high-grade entertainment on Monday night. But the final scene failed to deliver.
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