In the case of the Lakers, they were shaken by a startling comeback by the New Orleans Pelicans, in arguably the most important half of the Lakers' season.
The Lakers deflating 116-108 loss to the Pelicans — which all but guarantees that the Lakers will end up as either the No. 10 seed or miss the Play-In game — was emblematic of a roller-coaster campaign defined by inconsistency and momentum-killing injuries. They followed up their most impressive half of the season with an inexplicable letdown. LeBron James, meanwhile, rolled his left ankle early in the second quarter, which he admitted was in “horrible” shape afterward.
The Lakers were promptly outscored 25-41 and take a 4-point lead into the 4th quarter. https://t.co/IzTbyuwOOs
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) March 28, 2022
“A microcosm of the season,” LeBron said. “Sustain. We haven’t been able to sustain all year and tonight was one of those instances once again.”
In the spirit of the Oscars recaps surely slapping (sorry) you're timeline, here are a few highs and lows from an equally confounding Lakers loss in NOLA.
HIGH: Ahh…those glorious first two quarters
Since their hard-fought, LeBron-less loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday, the Lakers bucked the typical day-to-day pablum. Instead of pretending to treat the Pelicans matchup like any other game, Russell Westbrook deemed the test as a “must-win.” Pregame, Frank Vogel admitted his team had discussed the significant standings implications.
Initially, the Lakers appeared to validate those labels. LeBron full-court pressed on the opening possession. The Lakers jumped out to a 12-0 lead. All in all — considering the stakes, two-way intensity (building off encouraging recent performances), and staggeringly high-percentage shooting, the Lakers played their best half of the season. They hit the frame up 69-49. LeBron had 25 points, and seemed, at first, to shake off the tweaked ankle. They looked committed.
LOW: Shot selection, late
The Lakers' prior four games were defined by an uptick in, to steal a Vogel-ism, “care-factor.” They moved the ball and themselves around the court with aplomb. They registered at least 25 assists in four consecutive contests.
In the first half at the Smoothie King Center, the Lakers remained on-trend. But whatever juice they drank seemingly ran out, and there was no Michael A. nor B. Jordan (nor the in-house Razzie Winner) to offer any Secret Stuff.
The Lakers labored and staggered throughout the final two quarters. They were outscored 25-41 in the third, and 14-26 in the fourth. Down the stretch, their shot selection went particularly out-of-whack, including forced jumpers from LeBron, Russ, Talen Horton-Tucker, and Malik Monk.
LeBron's evident ankle pain sapped the team of some mojo, at the worst possible time.
HIGH: Westbrook produced another solid outing: 18 points, 8-of-15 shooting, seven rebounds, six assists. Monk continues to embrace any role he's assigned — Sixth Man or starting two — dropping 23 points on 9-of-17 FG. D.J. Augustin has converted nine of his past 12 three-point attempts. So that's good.
LOW: Carmelo Anthony
A few weeks back, when asked to cite a few bright spots amidst a dark season, Vogel highlighted LeBron's brilliance and Melo's reliability in their 19th season.
Sometimes, though, Anthony just doesn't have it. In New Orleans, Melo was continually exploited on defense, yet couldn't compensate via hot hand. In general, if Anthony isn't cooking — or isn't in any semblance of a rhythm — there's no reason for him to be on the court.
Confusingly, Vogel re-inserted a frigid Melo into the game in crunch-time as a small-ball center, only for Jonas Valanciunas and Brandon Ingram to find themselves matched up against Monk on crucial possessions, anyway (easy buckets). Either Dwight Howard, who gutted through 33 minutes on a bad groin but also got consistently toasted, or Wenyen Gabriel (18 minutes) should have been out there.
LOW: LeBron's ankle
LeBron — nursing a weary left knee but relatively fresh from five days off — went up for a rebound and landed in front of Jaxson Hayes. His ankle rolled and he immediately crumbled to the hardwood in pain. The Lakers called timeout, which allowed him a chance to test his ankle and re-lace his Nikes.
LeBron James went down after rolling his left ankle but he's up and will try to continue. 🙏 pic.twitter.com/80KfTrA1aE
— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) March 27, 2022
Following the stoppage, LeBron air-balled a three. Then, he drilled four deep treys in a row.
Predictably, LeBron's ankle stiffened up during halftime. His explosion waned. He finished with 30/9/5 on 14-of-27 shooting but noticeably lacked a bounce in the second half. His days of picking up full-court were over.
More worryingly were LeBron's postgame remarks.
“I have no idea how I finished the game, to be honest, after watching that replay. It’s pretty nasty. I felt a sharp pain in my leg and it started getting hot. I’ve been there with ankle sprains before. I didn’t want to come out of the game because I understood how big of a game it was for us. It’s horrible right now. And unfortunately, we’re about to hop on a flight too. I’ve just got to get treatment around the clock, see what happens day-to-day, but it’s pretty sore right now.”
The Lakers will take on Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday. The Mavs beat Los Angeles, 109-104, earlier this month.
BONUS LOW: Tony Brothers
If the Lakers had won by one point, I personally would have made a louder deal of this technical foul, assessed by Tony Brothers to Naji Marshall.
Seriously what is Naji Marshall supposed to do here? Guy sneaks in as he's in the air. Horrible call. pic.twitter.com/Nqmhy6voj3
— Jed DeMuesy (@JedDeMuesy) March 16, 2019
So where are we?
This Lakers team has, officially, not turned the corner. In the aftermath of that disastrous second half — when all their bad habits re-emerged — there's no reason to believe they've genuinely made any progress. Vogel is still tinkering on the go, they're overly reliant on LeBron, and they can't execute crisp offense nor rely on their defense when the game is on the line.
The Lakers have now lost the tiebreaker to the Pelicans, regardless of what happens when the two squads face off at Crypto.com Arena on April 1. The Lakers are now essentially slotted into the No. 10 seed, which means they'll need to win two games in a row on the road for the opportunity to face the Phoenix Suns. The Lakers haven't won two games in a row since Jan .7, own an 11-25 road record, and have lost their last six games to the Suns by an average of 18 points.
Frank Vogel on the Lakers loss to the Pelicans: "This game's over. We gotta turn the page to the next one. It's not good. This game hurts…Time's running out on us. We came out with the proper urgency in this game, but weren't able to close it…Our defense let us down again."
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) March 28, 2022
They have the hardest remaining schedule in the NBA, and their most valuable player is in severe ankle pain. They're one game up on the San Antonio Spurs, who own the tiebreaker over Los Angeles.
As bad as LeBron's ankle feels, though, the loss stings even more.
“It feels like sh*t,” LeBron said about the defeat. “Excuse my language, but that's what it feels like. I came in with the mindset of understanding it was a playoff-type atmosphere, playoff implication. It feels like a wasted opportunity.”
One moment, you're killing it on stage. The next, you're being hit in the mouth at the worst possible moment.
“We are who we are,” LeBron added.