LOS ANGELES — Playoff teams have players that step up in the face of adversity.
When the Lakers make a third-quarter push (what is it with the Clippers and the third quarter?) and took to take an 82-79 lead, the Clippers responded with their own 8-0 run — with every basket from rookies Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet. The Clippers moved the ball and trusted their teammates, particularly in the fourth, and it led to open looks. All night long Patrick Beverley was a pest.
In the fourth quarter and down 12 — with their season essentially hanging in the balance — the Lakers finally started to play with real urgency. Or, desperation if you prefer. It worked for a stretch, the Lakers cut the lead to five. However, to complete a comeback a team has to get stops and the Lakers defense, which has been worst in the NBA in the 10 games prior to Monday, could not stop the Clippers. With the lead at 5 LeBron James hustled hard and overhelped, which left Danilo Gallinari open, and the Clippers best shooter drilled a three.
The Lakers never got closer than those 8 points.
The Clippers responded to adversity and that earned them an important win Monday night, 113-105, both helping secure their playoff spot and putting a dagger in the Lakers’ playoff dreams.
It was the kind of win that had Clippers owner Steve Ballmer walking down the halls of Staples Center after the game yelling, “Yes! Yes!”
With this loss, the Lakers playoff chances are all but mathematically dead. They are now 5.5 games back of the eight-seed Spurs with 18 to go. Basically, the Lakers have to go 15-3 the rest of the way to get to the 45 wins it will take to make the dance in the West. That’s not happening from a team that has gone 2-4 since LeBron said he was activating playoff mode after the All-Star break, and they are 4-9 overall since LeBron returned from his groin injury (4-8 when LeBron plays).
The Clippers will be going to the playoffs (barring an utter collapse). And it’s because when this team was hit with serious adversity this season, the players rallied.
“We took a hit. When we made that trade (sending out Tobias Harris at the deadline) it hit our locker room,” Clipper coach Doc Rivers said. “But we got them to believe we want to win still, we’re going to win still. Then for them to start start doing it just shows you how resilient they are.”
The Lakers were done in Monday by three things that have plagued them all season and will have them vacationing by mid-April.
One is injuries. Brandon Ingram, who has averaged 27.8 points per game on 57 percent shooting since the All-Star break, was out with a sore shoulder. LeBron grabbed his groin and asked out at one point. Kyle Kuzma left the game in the fourth quarter after tweaking his right ankle, and while X-rays came back negative coach Luke Walton said after the game he didn’t expect Kuzma to be ready for the Lakers next game Wednesday.
“The injuries are taking their toll on us,” LeBron said after the game, noting the Lakers were basically down to a six-man rotation by the end of this one.
Without Ingram, the Lakers didn’t have a consistent secondary scorer. Rajon Rondo started that way shooting 3-of-3 from beyond the arc and hitting some driving layups. However, the Clippers kept letting him take jumpers and Rondo shot 1-of-7 the rest of the way.
Which leads to the second issue — the Lakers do not have enough shooting. The Lakers got a lot of clean looks in this game but shot just 26.2 percent outside the paint. They were 10-of-36 from three (27.8 percent). That was a design flaw in the roster from how Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka constructed it last summer — saying they thought it was more important to put playmakers around LeBron than shooters — that has come back to bite them on too many nights.
However, it is the defense — the third issue — that has done them in. While the defense was better for stretches against the Clippers than it was in recent losses to the Suns and Pelicans, it was not good. And not near good enough consistently. The Lakers didn’t close out well on shooters and didn’t protect the rim. Gallinari led the way for the Clippers with 23 points, and Lou Williams had 21 off the bench.
The Clippers stars stepped up under adversity and executed. It’s something the Lakers need to model… next season.