SAN ANTONIO — Looking at the hole in their lineup, the Lakers saw 29.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and 6.2 assists they had to replace.
Coach Frank Vogel reasoned no one could take on that production by themselves, so the Lakers did it by committee, with five players scoring at least 13 points, with five players with five or more rebounds, and whoever could make a play contributing assists.
But in the end, the Lakers still needed a closer. And that’s where LeBron James was missed the most.
A competitive effort in San Antonio fell apart late as the Lakers lost to the Spurs, 117-110, the team’s eighth loss in its last 10 games. As James sat on the sideline with knee pain wearing a dark hoodie and sunglasses, the Lakers tightened up for just 18 points in the fourth as scrappy San Antonio – which could conceivably catch them in the Western Conference standings – pulled away.
It was history for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who with his 1,335th win tied Don Nelson for the NBA’s all-time regular-season record. But it was just another tough-to-stomach loss for the Lakers, who were tied with nine minutes remaining, in a season that’s becoming uncomfortably full of them.
“One step forward, one step back, one step forward, one step back, five steps back, a couple steps forward,” Malik Monk said with a sigh. “We keep doing the same thing.”
While the Lakers, who have not won consecutive games in two months, formed an impressive effort among their pack, no one truly rose above. While San Antonio’s lone All-Star Dejounte Murray authored a 26-point, 10-rebound, eight-assist night with three steals, the Lakers’ leading scorer was Talen Horton-Tucker with 18 points.
Russell Westbrook, the last healthy member of the team’s envisioned “Big Three,” had an impressive start, but he didn’t stick the landing. He scored 14 of his 17 points and had five of his six assists in the first three quarters despite first-half foul trouble; in the fourth, he was 1 for 6. One of Vogel’s biggest critiques – that the Lakers were overly aggressive attacking the rim without looking to pass – seemed targeted at least in part at Westbrook, who drove in on one ill-fated possession with four Spurs defenders in the paint.
But it was also optimistic to expect the Lakers to win without James, given that just two nights before he was dropping 56 points on the Golden State Warriors, closing out the fourth with three of his six 3-pointers. Without him, those late fireworks just weren’t there.
“A lot of scrambling,” Westbrook said of how the Lakers adjusted to playing without James on late notice. “Some stuff hurt us in the fourth, but I thought we did a good job of doing the best that we could boxing out and different things of that nature.”
The Lakers also struggled to guard the Spurs one-on-one, which reached a tipping point late in the game. Seven-foot Jakob Poeltl scored 11 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter largely against a smaller lineup with Carmelo Anthony playing center.
While Anthony had moments of defensive intensity and muscled in for a pair of fourth-quarter blocked shots, the Lakers had no clear answer for Poeltl’s size in the post. Even when fouled, he was 6 for 8 at the free-throw line.
Despite a size disadvantage for most of the night (Dwight Howard started by played less than 18 minutes), the Lakers were most effective driving into the paint: They scored 60 to San Antonio’s 64 paint points, evening the edge with a fast-paced, aggressive attack.
The game began without much structure: Two short-handed teams running up and down the court. James’ sense of control was missing in the back-and-forth that more resembled AAU than NBA.
But the Spurs were first to seize control, running off nine unanswered points to close out the first quarter, and early into the second, the Lakers were down by double figures – a position they’ve been in for eight straight games.
The Lakers have been good at making a good effort after getting down, but the pattern is getting old. And this time, James wasn’t available to suit up and help them finish at the end.
“You miss somebody like Bron who draws so much attention out there on the defensive end, and he opens the court up for everybody else,” Anthony said. “That’s what we missed.”