The Lakers started the night just one game behind the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference standings. But the longer the Saturday night went on, the wider the gap got.
When it ended, 133–96 on the wrong side, the Lakers had fallen to just 21–22, but they looked like a very bad team. The loss lacked urgency, defense and shooting, the Lakers’ third straight season in a season that quickly turned south.
It wasn’t only that he led the league to MVP Nikola Jokic (17 points, 13 assists, 12 rebounds) in a triple-double pile shortly after halftime; Jeff Greene (26 points) embarrassed him with wide-open dunks, and rookie Bones Hyland skated around and through them for a career-best 27 points.
All the excuses that have been swirling around the Lakers until recently seemed so shallow to explain the worst margin of defeat they’ve experienced an entire season. Though they were without All-Star big man Anthony Davis, Denver, too, was nothing short of full force without Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr. The Lakers had the advantage of two days between games on a particularly mild week. And though coach Frank Vogel said the team went through a “spirited” filming session dissecting their weak defense against the Sacramento Kings in Wednesday’s loss, there was no evidence on the floor.
In Russell Westbrook’s opinion, the difference was clear.
“We have to make a decision: we just have to work harder,” he said. “Sometimes the plans and how you play doesn’t really matter. You just have to work hard sometimes. Teams are playing harder than us, that too easy.”
The Lakers were particularly skewed around the perimeter: Denver scored a staggering 23 out of 40 from 3-point range, the most 3-pointers any team has held this season so far.
It mattered little that LeBron James scored 25 points – his 13th game in a row hitting that mark – as it took him 23 shots to get there. Westbrook showed signs of getting out of his slump, scoring 19 points and scoring his first 3-pointer after a six-game drought.
The performances of the superstars in front of the rallies were next to the point. Nuggets periodically swarmed together. A demonstration sequence ensued just before halftime, when Will Barton caught a wide-open 3-pointer, then skated through the lane for a layup, then Green caught a 3-pointer from the corner with 1.7 seconds remaining. Knocked.
That entire section of three Denver baskets unfolded in just 48 seconds. This gave the Nuggets 39 points in the second quarter, and their 73 halftime points gave the Lakers the most points at any halftime this season.
Vogel gave the Nuggets some credit for their hot shooting, but he also noted that the other factor going against the Lakers was that Denver punished every instance when the defense tried to double-team the versatile Jokic.
“We had a plan to try to reduce the mismatch created by Joker,” he said. “And every time they achieved something they scored.”
The Lakers saw an aggressively dry second half, scoring just 36 points after halftime. James and Westbrook had some early success going into the basket, and Dwight Howard surprised with 13 points, all in the first half as Jokic’s defense began. But as the game progressed, the Lakers seemed less inclined to cruise inside, throwing lazy long balls (10 for 30) with mediocre efficiency. Denver is ahead by 42 points.
While he scored 50 points in the paint, Vogel put some of his shot selection in a harsh light: he was just 2 for 18 on the jump shot from the dribble, he said, and needed to be more aggressive against a Denver team that Haven’t defended the rim very well this season.
“We’re not attacking the paint as much as we have to,” he said.
Carmelo Anthony, who has averaged 13.2 points mostly as reserve, missed badly. No Lakers bench player scored in double digits: Trevor Ariza was the closest with nine points. Hyland almost got out on his own off the Lakers bench (32 points).
James did not speak to the media after the game. His silence must have been one of the most damaging aspects of the evening after arguably the team’s worst performance.
Most worryingly, the Lakers have a tight schedule in the coming weeks, starting Monday against the fourth-placed Utah Jazz at home. Soon after, the Lakers embark on a six-game journey that will take them through Miami, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia — some of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
And where do the Lakers come into the mix? Standing says they are in the middle of the pack. But recent results suggest that this too is a rosy picture.
Westbrook said the Lakers now understand – although they should have been before – that they need to compete hard to win. Howard agreed, albeit with a numb resignation.
“We’ve been saying it all year, so I shouldn’t keep saying it,” he said. “But, you know, he’s right.”