There was some poetry in the place this all ended. Oracle Arena was where Lakers coach Luke Walton first learned to be a head coach, where he led the defending NBA champions to a 39-4 start — what wound up being a precursor to his dream job.
The first season of the Walton era in Los Angeles closed with the Lakers losing 109-94 to the Golden State Warriors. But it didn’t feel like the end for Walton.
“This wasn’t, coming in, ‘Hey let’s go turn this thing around in year one, competing for a title. … We didn’t have the same goals as Golden State had starting this year, or Cleveland starting this year,” he said. “Our goal from the coaching standpoint was getting better at passing, getting better at playing defense, making reads on the court, having the individual skill level of the young guys. That’s where we’re at right now and that’s going to continue into the summer.”
It was a season that tried Walton and taught him patience in the face of losing.
“You have no choice,” Walton said. “You either go insane or you learn to be patient when you lose a lot.”
The Lakers (26-56) played their regular rotation, except for D’Angelo Russell, who was still in Louisville, Ky., mourning the death of his grandmother.
The Lakers led one time in the game. With one minute and 29 seconds elapsed in the game, Clarkson hit a three-pointer to give them a 3-2 lead. By the end of the first quarter, the Lakers were down by 15, with the Warriors having scored 43 points, including 15 from Kevin Durant and nine from Stephen Curry.
At halftime, the Warriors led 64-50, and Durant’s output had reached 24 points. The Lakers trailed by as many as 27 points in the fourth quarter, before fighting back to shrink the gap to the teens. The ending fit a season in which the Lakers found some life to close. The Lakers won five of their last six games.
So ended Walton’s first season as an NBA head coach.
He did not begin this year with much experience with losing.
Arizona was an NCAA tournament mainstay, and made the national championship game while Walton was there. The Lakers only had one losing season in Walton’s eight years playing for the organization. They traded him to Cleveland in March of 2012, and the Cavaliers struggled, but as soon as Walton finished playing there he joined a Warriors staff that won the NBA championship.
He took this job knowing he was entering a rebuilding situation — knowing he would have to bear some losing before wins returned to the storied franchise he considered part of himself.
But things didn’t start that way. The Lakers won 10 out of their first 20 games. They beat the playoff-bound Houston Rockets in their season opener. They beat the Warriors at home, and beat them badly, 117-97. They stayed competitive with the San Antonio Spurs.
They showed fight and spirit and rewarded their head coach’s almost unceasing positivity with visions of perhaps sneaking their way into the playoffs.
It was a heady time, and one that perhaps meant a little too much, players and coaches later admitted. December shocked them and brought Walton to the brink of a breaking point. He hardly slept that entire month.
The Lakers went 2-14 in December, suffered injuries to significant players, and endured an eight-game losing streak. The last of those eight games was in Brooklyn, against a team that would finish the season with the worst record in the NBA.
“That was a dark time for me,” Walton said.
“It was getting to everybody,” Larry Nance Jr. said. “It wasn’t like he was hanging his head or anything like that. The wear and tear of the season is hard on guys. Coaches especially. This is his first head coaching job. This is a bunch of guys’ first, second year. You can see it wearing on guys. I think it means a lot that we stuck with it and had this nice little run at the end.”
In the locker room after the game, Walton challenged his players not to be soft. He reached out to Warriors coach Steve Kerr. He reached out to his sports psychologist Mike Gervais. He wrote in a journal.
It was one of two eight-game losing streaks the Lakers had this season. They also had losing streaks of six, five and four (multiple times).
That’s experience the first-year coach might not have liked, but knew served him, just as his time with the Warriors served him in another way.
When Wednesday’s game ended, Walton lingered on the court. He stopped for a smiling chat with Kerr. He hugged other members of the Warriors’ staff, players and security staff. Later he would find Warriors general manager Bob Myers for another post-game chat.
In this arena, his vision for the Lakers’ future can be seen fully matured.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli