- LeBron James and the Lakers suffered their third consecutive loss to start the season and are searching for answers on the defensive end.
LOS ANGELES — This time, the explosion didn’t come until the post-game press conference.
During a Saturday night loss to the Rockets, the Lakers’ frustration with the officiating simmered until the fourth quarter, when a hopping-mad Brandon Ingram lost his cool and set off a brawl that led to three ejections and, ultimately, three multi-game suspensions. During a stunning 143-142 overtime loss to San Antonio on Monday, though, L.A.’s persistent exasperation over calls and no-calls never found a true release. At least until coach Luke Walton addressed reporters after the Lakers’ third loss in three games.
“Again, they outshoot us from the free-throw line,” Walton said. “38 free throws! … We are scoring 70 points a night in the paint. We’re putting pressure on [the basket]. Watch how Josh Hart plays this game! He played 40 minutes tonight. All he does is attack the rim. [He takes] zero free throws tonight. Zero.”
The third-year coach stopped to hold up his fingers in a circle for emphasis.
“I know they’re young, I get that,” he continued, in extended comments that could well draw a fine from the NBA league office. “If we’re going to play a certain way, let’s not reward people for flopping 30 feet from the hole and [reward] plays that have nothing to do with that possession. They’re just flopping to see if they can get a foul call. And [then] not reward players who are physically going to the basket and getting hit. It’s not right.”
In truth, this was a contest designed to elicit maximum frustration. The Lakers, who were without Ingram and Rajon Rondo due to suspensions, conceded 40 points in the first period before digging their way out of a double-digit hole to make it a game in the second half. Then, in the closing 64 seconds of regulation, L.A. mounted a stunning 8-0 run, tying the game with 2.4 seconds remaining on a three-pointer by LeBron James. In overtime, L.A. built a six-point lead in the final minute but then conceded a 7-0 Spurs run, which ended with a Patty Mills go-ahead jumper in the closing seconds. James’s potential game-winner on the other end missed, and the 0-3 Lakers joined the Thunder as the only winless teams remaining in the Western Conference.
While the seesaw endgame was heartbreaking for the Lakers, their complaints began much earlier, as both Walton and James expressed their displeasure to the officials throughout the night. During the second quarter, Walton received a technical foul for arguing a particularly egregious no-call when James was raked across the arm while driving to the hoop.
“Watch the play where I got a technical foul,” Walton said. “Watch LeBron James’s arm. … James Harden and Chris Paul shot 30 free throws on us the night before. Then LeBron pulls up on a screen and somebody is trying to fight over—it’s the same thing they shot free throws on. Same thing!”
For the third time in three games, the Lakers struggled to get defensive stops. LaMarcus Aldridge had 37 points and a game-high 18 free-throw attempts, having his way with the Lakers’ big men. L.A. center JaVale McGee fouled out in 28 minutes, backup center Ivica Zubac committed five fouls in five minutes, and third-string center Johnathan Williams, who was a bright spot in overtime, committed four fouls in 14 minutes.
“I don’t want to say too much about the fouls because that’s saying something about the refs, and I don’t want to lose money,” McGee said. “Whatever [Walton] said, I co-sign.”
James—who attempted 11 free throws on Monday and missed a crucial pair in overtime—said that the Lakers are still adjusting to the NBA’s new emphasis on “Freedom of Movement.” Back in September, NBA VP of Referee Development Monty McCutchen announced that the league’s officials would crack down on off-ball clutching, grabbing and holding that impeded a player’s movement.
“We’re doing a lot of fouling,” James said. “It’s hard with the new rule changes. You literally can’t touch anybody.”
The four-time MVP then stopped and smiled, knowing that he had spent much of the night requesting calls that he didn’t receive.
“Well, you can touch somebody,” he deadpanned.
Through three games, the Lakers have allowed an average of 131.7 points and rank 25th with a 117.2 defensive efficiency rating. They’ve committed 25.3 fouls per game, seventh-most in the NBA, and are minus-24 in free-throw attempts on the season: minus-12 against San Antonio, minus-12 against Houston, and even against Portland.
“Defensively, we don’t know,” James said. “We’re trying to figure it out. Every time we’re on the defensive end, especially in the third quarter, we just kept putting them to the free-throw line. We’ve got to figure that out. We’re giving teams too many easy opportunities to go up there and knock down free throws.”
James and company will continue to be without both Ingram and Rondo when they search for their first victory of the season in Phoenix on Wednesday.