Lakers can't put Pelicans away after rallying 22 points down

Luke Walton looked up and down his bench hoping some inspiration would strike him for what group could change things for the Lakers.

They trailed the New Orleans Pelicans by anywhere from 16 to 21 points in the third quarter Sunday at Staples Center. His team wasn’t able to make more than minor dents in the Pelicans’ lead; they lacked energy and they lacked defense.

The unit that worked entered the game one at a time, not all at once, and fell into place like a secret combination that opens a locker.

Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram and Jordan Clarkson unlocked the togetherness and effort Walton sought. They took the Lakers from a 21-point deficit to a lead.

In the end, that comeback didn’t last.

The Lakers lost to the Pelicans 119-112 and fell to 1-2. Lonzo Ball neared a triple double once more, scoring eight points with 13 assists and eight rebounds. He fell one assist short of the Lakers’ rookie record set by Norm Nixon in 1977.

Jordan Clarkson led the Lakers with 24 points. Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope each had 20. It was Caldwell-Pope’s first regular season Lakers game after he served a two-game suspension.

New Orleans was led by its big men. Anthony Davis scored 27 points and had 17 rebounds and DeMarcus Cousins had 22 points with 11 rebounds.

“I’m happy they came back,” Ball said of his teammates. “That was the lineup that was working — leave them in as long as they could. … I was proud of them. Coming back from 20 like that on a team like that.”

A familiarly porous Lakers defense opened the game. After two games in which the Lakers allowed 53 and 73 points at halftime, they gave up 68 to the Pelicans in the first two quarters. New Orleans made 65.1% of its shots. The Pelicans had 44 points in the paint and 15 fast-break points.

“We weren’t playing for each other,” Walton said. “They’re not even a transition team. … We’re watching film at the half like, what? … It just all went to hell tonight. We weren’t willing to do it.”

The Lakers trailed by 22 points with 2:33 left in the second quarter. They cut that to 13 at halftime, but Davis scored six straight points to start the second half, and that brought the Pelicans’ lead right back up to 19.

Walton’s substitutions began with 7:16 left in the third, when Kuzma replaced Larry Nance Jr.

Then, around the halfway point of the quarter, he inserted Hart, the Lakers’ third first-round pick this summer. Hart’s only regular-season action this season was the 2:20 he played in Phoenix, his first minutes since bursitis in his Achilles caused him to miss the season opener.

Randle entered with 4:11 to go in the third. Then Ingram replaced Caldwell-Pope and Clarkson replaced Ball with 2:37 left in the third.

“I was going up and down the bench looking for guys that were ready for it,” Walton said. “… I kept making subs trying to find a group of guys that would compete the way we wanted to compete and that was it. That’s probably the first time they played together.”

Clarkson scored six and Kuzma scored five in the quarter’s final 2:37, and they entered the fourth down only 11. “In the NBA 20 points is nothing,” Kuzma said. “A 20-point lead in college takes a lot longer than in the NBA. … NBA it’s up and down, missed shot, hit a couple threes, it’s right there.”

They trailed by just one after Randle scored on a running layup. Then Hart made a driving layup off a jump ball that gave the Lakers their first lead of the game with 7:54 remaining. But the magical combination couldn’t last. Ingram got his fifth foul with 7:05 left and Ball replaced him, immediately collecting his 13th assist. Then New Orleans adjusted defensively and imposed its big men on the Lakers.

In the loss came a lesson.

“We know we can do it,” Ball said. “Y’all saw it. We came back from 20. But we gotta start from the beginning. It’s going to be very hard if we keep getting down by 20 and try to come back.”

tania.ganguli@latimes.com

Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli

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