The frustrating part is the Lakers had it on the scouting report: Watch for R.J. Barrett to drive to the left.
Somehow in his 13-point fourth quarter on the way to a 30-point effort, the Knicks swingman found that path open more times than not.
Plenty can be attributed to his craftiness – a handful of finishes off the glass, a few good Euro steps, and reversing his direction even while staying with his left hand. But it was something Austin Reaves was kicking himself, and the team, over for letting it get away from them in a four-point loss on Sunday night.
“It’s still hard to stop,” he said. “But I think a little more attention to detail with what we’re doing, who we’re guarding, schemes and stuff like that – that’s what we’ll correct in film.”
The Lakers (33-35) were riding high on a three-game win streak, finally cresting them into play-in territory after a season of chasing most of the Western Conference. That run was fueled by another star turn from Anthony Davis, energetic and active defense, and just enough push on their outside shooting.
But if anything, Sunday’s loss showed the fragility of the ground the Lakers have gained since the trade deadline, sinking them back into a four-way tie (by record) with the rest of the Western stragglers. When Davis is bothered, when the shooting doesn’t arrive, and when energy isn’t enough on defense, they’re still figuring out the kind of second- and third-tier options to go to after the first plan fails, and how to fine-tune defensive schemes that are more specific to their opponents.
It’s a common problem in the postseason, when teams are well-scouted and have to play without their best option – the Lakers will have to play that kind of basketball just to make the postseason at all.
There’s plenty of opportunity to make up ground with nine of their 15 remaining games against teams that occupy the fourth through 12th positions in the West. But the head-to-heads with their standings foes also means the potential to fall quickly, too. The Lakers have known for weeks that the stakes of every game are high, but nothing quite underscores that like a loss.
While the Lakers have found ways to gut out wins while going 8-4 since the trade deadline, there have been a few common threads in the losses. When they fell to Minnesota, Davis scored 38 points, but the offense struggled to capitalize on it: Only two other Lakers scored in double figures.
Similarly, D’Angelo Russell had 31 points through three quarters on Sunday but was trapped and blitzed by the Knicks’ defense, forcing the ball out of his hands. Once that happened, the Lakers seemed paralyzed – at one point, New York had built a 21-10 scoring advantage in the fourth quarter. Davis blamed himself for missing shots, but there were pretty clearly other shortcomings in the offense.
“We still got to find ways to capitalize on that one, on the backside in ways,” Russell said. “So definitely I’ll learn something from the film and try to make them pay next time for trapping me.”
A helpful piece would be hitting shots. In the starting lineup, Troy Brown Jr. was 0 for 8 against the Knicks, while Malik Beasley continued a cold patch, going 4 for 12. Beasley, one of the team’s key acquisitions as a sharpshooter, is just 5 for 23 from behind the arc in his last four games; Ham said he wants Beasley to continue to shoot through it.
The learning curve is short: Tuesday night in New Orleans, the Lakers can ensure a tiebreaker with a win against the Pelicans, which is important with the continued bunching in the standings.
Davis, who has been cheerful in recent weeks, sat quietly with his hands pressed together in front of his face as he iced his feet after the Knicks game – a pensive pose that was more common in the depth of the team’s biggest struggles earlier this season.
“You already know every game is critical,” he snapped when asked about the stakes down the stretch of the regular season. “Every game we play is critical.”