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Lakers drop critical game to Pelicans, putting play-in hopes in jeopardy

NEW ORLEANS — “Time’s running out.”

The truth has hung thick in the air for weeks, as the Lakers have been losing games since the All-Star break. But for the first time, coach Frank Vogel spoke the actual words – and crucially, the moment they needed to seize had already passed.

From up 23 points, the Lakers (31-43) frittered away a lead against New Orleans Pelicans (32-43), who started the night a half-game below them in the standings. In a game that Russell Westbrook called “must-win” earlier in the week, the Lakers couldn’t hold on in a 116-108, earning a playoff spot tie-breaker and taking the edge to host a single-elimination play-in game next month while also watching LeBron James – their biggest star and reason to hope for brighter days ahead – painfully twist his ankle.

Now, they face a cold realization: There’s no team between them and the 11th-place San Antonio Spurs (who also own a tiebreaker). Only a one-game lead in the standings separates the Lakers from the once-unthinkable possibility of missing the playoffs altogether.

“It feels like a wasted opportunity, obviously, for myself and for our team,” said James, who was hobbling on his wrapped left ankle on the way out of the Smoothie King Center after scoring 39 points. “We weren’t able to get it done.”

In a 12-0 start, no one was more engaged than James. The 37-year-old charged out of his six-day layoff, scoring four baskets before New Orleans had a point on the board. On defense, he was just as active, swiping away a transition layup attempt by Herb Jones in the early minutes.

But early in the second quarter, the Lakers momentum screeched to a halt when James fell under the basket and grabbed his left ankle with a yelp. After gritting his teeth, retying his shoe and getting pulled up off the floor, James walked off testing it with a grimace. When he checked back in after a timeout, his sprint was slowed to a jog, and he planted on defense.

“I have no idea how I finished the game, to be honest,” James said.

But what didn’t dry up was the 3-point shooting: After a Jaxson Hayes dunk brought New Orleans to within three points, the Lakers reeled off a 13-0 run including two threes by James. He kept firing, going 4 for 5 from distance in the second quarter, and the Lakers’ lead kept swelling. Into the half, the Lakers took a 20-point edge.

The lead crumbled slowly as rookie Trey Murphy took a blowtorch to the Lakers’ defense. He announced himself with a vicious dunk on Wenyen Gabriel (which drew him a technical foul) and nailed all three of his 3-point attempts for 16 of New Orleans’ 41 points in the frame.

In total, the Pelicans blitzed the Lakers by 67-39 in the second half. Vogel was disappointed by the ball stagnated: The team had just seven of their 26 assists (to go with seven turnovers) in the second half, which was influenced in part by moving James off the ball after he lost some mobility.

Russell Westbrook finished with 18 points and 6 assists, while Malik Monk had 23 points off the bench and made key baskets down the stretch that gave the Lakers a chance in the final minutes. But former Laker Brandon Ingram (26 points) helped put away the team that traded him three years ago, making critical free throws and a late fadeaway that sealed it.

Afterward, Monk stared with tired eyes at the stat sheet, pointing out the Lakers’ 14 points in the fourth quarter, going just 6 for 21 from the field.

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