DENVER — After the Los Angeles Lakers’ biggest fourth-quarter meltdown of the season, Lonzo Ball was the last player left in the Pepsi Center’s visitors’ locker room, walking gingerly with stiff calves.
The only thing tighter than the rookie’s calf muscles was the Lakers’ tightly-wound implosion in the final 3:56 of a 115-100 road loss to the Denver Nuggets. The Lakers have lost a season-high four straight games, but this loss left them as frustrated as they have been all season.
“The end of the fourth was probably as bad as we could have played,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “… We had, like, three or four travels where guys literally just caught the ball and took two steps before dribbling, which is absolutely unacceptable.”
After finishing the game being outscored 15-0, all the Lakers can do is walk away from this ugly finish and put it behind them as they return home to face the high-octane Houston Rockets on Sunday. The Lakers hope to have Ball, whose calves will be re-evaluated. Ball’s left calf was tight before the game, and he played with a sleeve on it, but his right calf tightened up during Saturday’s game. After the game, he walked through the locker room with a stiff, Frankenstein-like strut.
“I should be out there,” Ball said of playing against the Rockets. “Left one was tightening up, so we put the sleeve on it, and throughout the game, the right one started tightening up.”
Ball (9 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 turnovers) was one of a few Lakers players who tried to explain what happened down the stretch against a team that didn’t have Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap or Wilson Chandler due to injuries. A couple of Lakers players politely left the locker room without talking to the media, something they don’t normally do. And really, who could blame them?
This was as abysmal a finish as there is. The Lakers missed their final four shots, turned the ball over four times and committed six fouls. Ball was handed his first technical foul for what he said was complaining about a call against him to Walton before lead official Marc Davis overheard him and handed him a tech with 2:24 left. The Lakers were completely unraveling at that point, down six and sinking fast.
Lonzo Ball is called for a foul on Jamal Murray and then gets a technical called after he gets mouthy with the officials.
“I don’t think I deserved a tech for that,” the normally reserved Ball said. “I was talking to Luke, [Davis] overheard it and gave me a tech. I was pretty surprised.
“I just said it’s B.S. to Luke, and then [the ref] blew the whistle.”
To the Lakers’ credit, they have been in plenty of games this season that they probably didn’t have any business being in. If they blew a 20-point lead or fell behind big, the Lakers often managed to be in those games and compete to the end. Most teams as young and inexperienced as the Lakers would fold under such circumstances.
Even so, the Lakers disintegrated in Denver. They have lost many of their games this season while making just enough mistakes to lose. Tonight was an avalanche of miscues in the final four minutes.
Turnovers have plagued the Lakers, and it was a massive problem again. They can’t stop turning the ball over carelessly when running in transition or in half court when their offense slows down, and they committed 21 turnovers that led to 28 points for the Nuggets (13-9). The 21 turnovers weren’t even their season high, falling one short of that.
Brandon Ingram led the Lakers with 20 points after scoring a career-high 32 in the hard-fought overtime loss to Golden State. But his layup with 3:57 left to tie the game was the last basket of the night for Los Angeles (8-14).
“I think sometimes we get a little impatient at the end of the basketball game, and I think we were trying to take it upon ourselves a little bit,” Ingram said. “I know I had a few turnovers at the end of the game that I could have took care of the ball, but careless turnovers I think put them over the edge.
“Just by harping on taking care of the ball, I think going through these games like this is only going to make us better and make us value the ball even more. Of course, I think we were in control of this game the whole way through, but we just let that one slip.”
There are probably at least five games the Lakers could have won at the end, only to make the type of costly mistakes that young teams often make to let a veteran team get a victory. This is all part of the rebuild for the Lakers. Walton and upper management understand that these are necessary growing pains.
As time is expiring in the Nuggets’ win over the Lakers, Jamal Murray dribbles the ball around Lonzo Ball, and Julius Randle doesn’t like it.
But there was more frustration in the Lakers’ locker room Saturday night than there has been all season. They now are on their longest losing slide of the season, and former Clipper Chris Paul returns to Los Angeles with James Harden at his side.
The Lakers’ schedule gets only more brutal as the month goes on. After Houston, the Lakers travel to play at Philadelphia, Charlotte, New York and Cleveland. They face Golden State twice, Houston twice, Portland, Minnesota, Memphis and the Clippers all by New Year’s Day.
“We feel like we are playing good enough to win games. That is a positive thing,” Ball said. “Negative is we keep beating ourselves, we feel like.”