A brief respite from a six-game run through a gantlet of NBA powers appeared to arrive in Staples Center in the form of the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night.
But what should have been a sight for sore Lakers eyes turned into an eyesore of a 109-99 loss that was as ugly as any of the team’s defeats this season, especially for rookie sensation Kyle Kuzma.
Two days after scoring 31 points and making eight of 18 field goals and six of 11 three-pointers in a Christmas night loss to Minnesota, Kuzma scored only nine points against the Grizzlies, making four of 24 shots from the field and one of 11 from three-point range.
The forward had averaged 27.8 points and shot 52.9% from the field in his previous five games and was averaging 18.1 points on the season.
“I think Kuz just had a poor shooting night,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “He’s been shooting, playing, scoring lights out, and you’re gonna have off nights. It’s part of the reason I always stay on him about how important the rest of the game is, being a playmaker, a defensive stopper, so when you do have off nights, there are still positive ways to affect your team and win ballgames.”
Kuzma, who left briefly in the fourth quarter after taking a knee to the quadriceps, played 34 minutes Wednesday night and is averaging almost 32 minutes a game this season. Could fatigue have been a factor in his poor night?
“I didn’t think he was tired going into the game, but he’s played a lot of minutes, and here we are getting to the dog days of an NBA season,” Walton said. “He’s a rookie, he’s never gone through this before. He’s playing a lot of minutes, taking a beating every night, so fatigue is always a factor.
“It’s one thing young players have to learn, how to fight through that, how to take care of yourself mentally and physically, how important sleep is, ice … all of those things are part of this whole growing process in the NBA. Whether that affected him tonight or if it was a random off-shooting night, you’d have to ask him.”
Kuzma’s misery had plenty of company. The Lakers, who have lost seven of eight games since Dec. 12 and 17 of 23 games since Nov. 8, shot 37.6% from the field, their second-worst game of the season and 28.6% from three-point range (eight for 28). The worst free-throw-shooting team in the league was true to form: The Lakers made 21 of 33 (63.6%) from the line.
Without point guard Lonzo Ball, who missed his second game because of a left-shoulder sprain, the Lakers scored nine fast-break points and had only 14 assists, though poor shooting certainly contributed to the latter figure.
Among the few bright spots was the return of forward Brandon Ingram, who attacked the rim aggressively and scored a team-high 23 points after missing the previous two games because of quadriceps injuries. Point guard Jordan Clarkson had 22 points, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope added 16 for the Lakers (11-22).
Memphis (11-24) entered the game ranked 29th in the NBA in points per game (97.1) and field-goal percentage (43.8) and 28th in three-point shooting (34.4%) and rebounds per game (39.6).
Coach David Fizdale was fired Nov. 27 and replaced by J.B. Bickerstaff, point guard Mike Conley has been out since mid-November because of a sore left Achilles, and the Grizzlies were playing the second game of a back-to-back after Tuesday night’s loss in Phoenix.
But they seemed more spry than the Lakers, with guard Tyreke Evans leading all scorers with 32 points, including 14 of 15 from the free-throw line, and seven assists. Jarell Martin added 20 points on eight of 10 shooting, and Andrew Harrison had 15 points for the Grizzlies, who made 34 of 39 free throws.
The Lakers trimmed a 100-88 deficit to 100-94 late in the game when Josh Hart made two free throws, Clarkson drove for a layup and Ingram made a left-handed follow shot with 2:13 left.
But Hart was called for a foul on an Evans drive — the Lakers’ rookie guard thought he made a clean block — and Evans made two free throws. Evans made seven of seven free throws in the final 1:49 to seal the win for Memphis.