Lakers ‘disappointed’ by loss to Clippers but encouraged by performance without LeBron James

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LOS ANGELES — James Harden caught an outlet pass from Kawhi Leonard in transition, took a dribble into the paint and jumped for what he assumed was going to be an uncontested layup.

D’Angelo Russell, sprinting back, timed out Harden’s attack and swatted the attempt, preventing an easy basket.

Austin Reaves corralled the loose ball, took a dribble and threw a cross-court chest pass to Taurean Prince, who finished a layup on the other end. The four-point swing — accentuated by a defensive highlight from a player not known for his defense — epitomized the Lakers’ impressive spirit and effort without the injured LeBron James in their 127-116 loss to the favored LA Clippers on Tuesday night.

Disappointed in the loss but proud of how our guys competed minus LeBron,” head coach Darvin Ham said. 

Prince’s basket brought the Lakers within two points, 110-108, with 7:32 remaining in the fourth quarter, the closest Los Angeles got in the second half after trailing by as many as 16 points. The Clippers, who shot a sizzling 59.1 percent from the floor and had six players score at least 16 points, swiftly responded with a 9-0 run to essentially put the game away.

Russell (27 points, five rebounds and 10 assists) and Anthony Davis (26 points and 12 rebounds) were both stellar, but the Lakers didn’t have enough firepower sans James to keep up with their hallway rivals. With the loss, the Lakers dropped to 22-23 and just 5-6 since the start of 2024. They remain No. 9 in the West because the Utah Jazz lost earlier Tuesday. They are now 2-1 against the Clippers this season.

“You damn near have to play perfect basketball to beat these guys,” Ham said of the Clippers, who have won 11 of 13 games.

The Lakers were far from perfect, turning the ball over 15 times, missing seven of their 22 free throws (68.2 percent) and missing a slew of open 3s (they made 11 of 32, or 34.4 percent). Russell had five of those turnovers, but the Lakers welcome his recent uptick in aggression, believing the benefits outweigh the costs.

Over the six games Russell has played since returning to the starting lineup, he is leading the Lakers in scoring (27.2) and assists (7.0) to go along with shooting splits of 53.5 percent from the field, 51.0 percent from 3 and 93.8 percent from the free-throw line. He’s found an extra gear amid incessant chatter that he’s likely going to be traded within the next two weeks ahead of the Feb. 8 trade deadline.

“Just his aggressiveness,” Jarred Vanderbilt said. “I think him being aggressive helps everybody. Throughout the game, they started blitzing him and it created opportunities for everybody else. So, an aggressive DLo is better for everybody. We encourage him to keep being aggressive, keep making plays for him and for others.”

The Lakers partly made up for their offensive miscues on the defensive end, where they were active and disruptive with nine steals and nine blocks. The combination of Cam Reddish, Davis, Vanderbilt, Prince and even Reaves, who was matched up against Harden and Leonard, did as well as reasonably possible against the Clippers’ immense wing talent. The Clippers made a lot of difficult, contested shots.

“We had a couple of breakdowns, but for the most part, they made some tough, tough shots,” Ham said. “Our guys competed. They competed their butts off. But again, whatever mistake, if you close out the wrong way or you’re not doubling in a timely fashion, they’re going to make you pay. That’s just who they are. How they’re built.”

With Rui Hachimura replacing James (left ankle) in the starting lineup, the Lakers functionally maintained their recent shift to a more offensive-minded identity. Since returning to the offensive trio of Prince, Reaves and Russell as starters, the Lakers have scored at least 112 points every game, including 127 points against the Dallas Mavericks and 134 points against the Portland Trail Blazers.

Over that period, the Lakers are eighth in points scored per 100 possessions — a drastic improvement for a group that has been a bottom-10 offense nearly all season (they currently rank 21st in offensive rating). Their defensive rating over that stretch has been worse than their season-long figure (115.5 vs. 114.1), but they still rank 14th in the NBA in both scenarios as leaguewide offensive output has increased lately.

One strategy the Lakers prepared for at shootaround Tuesday was to crash the offensive glass more, leveraging their size and athleticism against the Clippers in the paint, especially with starting Clippers center Ivica Zubac out. The Lakers grabbed 13 offensive rebounds, leading to 18 second-chance points and a notable percentage of their 60 paint points.

Vanderbilt (six offensive rebounds) and Davis (four) were the primary crashers. Vanderbilt used his quickness and the Clippers not guarding him to his advantage, while Davis simply mashed the smaller Mason Plumlee and Daniel Theis near the rim.

The Lakers’ 25th-ranked transition defense has played a role in their reluctance to attack the offensive boards, as well as Ham’s history working under former head coach Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta and Milwaukee. But Ham is softening his stance in an attempt to weaponize the Lakers’ frontcourt size more consistently.

“Where I come from, offensive rebounding is a luxury that you allowed maybe one or two guys to enjoy,” Ham said. “Our emphasis in previous places, previous stops, Atlanta and Milwaukee, we always emphasized transition D. … But with our size, our length, our athleticism, we feel like, maybe, we can strike gold and do both. And so we’ve identified certain guys, where their job is shot goes up, you know you just get back to start the process of setting up our defense. And certain guys are going to have the freedom to go crash and get us some extra possessions, all simultaneously.”

The Lakers are now 2-3 without James this season, with no assurance he’ll be back Thursday for their matchup against the Chicago Bulls. Ham said the Lakers were being “proactive” with James’ ankle, but added he’ll “probably be day-to-day.”

Reddish also suffered a right ankle injury after contesting a Harden 3-pointer, momentarily writhing in pain near midcourt before limping to the locker room. He returned to the bench but didn’t re-enter the game. His status for Thursday is unknown.

Thursday’s game against the Bulls marks the Lakers’ final game in Los Angeles for January and until the Feb. 8 trade deadline — the same day they play the Denver Nuggets for the second time this season and the same day they will unveil Kobe Bryant’s statue. Between now and then, the Lakers will embark on a grueling six-game Grammy road trip. Los Angeles has lost four straight road games, which is a concerning trend ahead of a pivotal stretch of their season, both record-wise and with the team needing to decide its ultimate direction ahead of the trade deadline.

Even if the results have been modest, the Lakers are seemingly trending in the right direction. Two of their three recent losses came without James. They have notable wins against the Clippers, Mavericks and Thunder, surging role players and an offense that’s finally improving. Wins need to follow at some point, though.

It remains to be seen how sustainable their recent play is, which is the story of the highs and lows of the Lakers’ season. The road and the deadline will certainly test them over the coming weeks. However, the group is showing a baseline level of competitiveness and competence that had eluded them for most of the previous month.

“Obviously, not having LeBron, that impacts the game … just a little bit,” Ham said. “But that said, I think the way guys are trending, how comfortable they’re getting into a rhythm with one another, we’re getting healthy bodies back. So when (James) gets back into the fold, we’ll have a stretch of games here where we’ll really turn up the heat on trying to get into a rhythm, a real consistent rhythm.”

(Photo of Lakers’ Jarred Vanderbilt and Paul George of the Clippers: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)





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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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