The Lakers had a Friday night in their home city waiting for them, a 20-point deficit in the second half to the playoff-bound Milwaukee Bucks the only thing standing between them and the weekend.
The things to play for? They didn’t really apply — not with the hopes for a trip to the postseason already extinguished.
But a group of players who have been doubted and dumped, traded and trashed — Tyler Ennis, Alex Caruso, Ivica Zubac, Channing Frye and Kyle Kuzma — triggered a furious fourth-quarter rally that electrified the crowd at Staples Center.
Zubac, the second-year center who’s been on the fringes of Luke Walton’s rotation, scored 14 points without missing from the field in the fourth quarter. He exited the game with his team back in the fight — and received a standing ovation for his efforts.
The rally fell short — Kuzma’s potential game-winner missed badly with Walton keeping a timeout in his pocket for the final attempt.
But in a 124-122 overtime loss, the Lakers provided another reminder that this team is closer to meaningful late-season basketball than they’ve been in years.
Squaring toe to toe with a playoff team, the Lakers looked the part. They’re just not quite there — an affliction that you can see on the roster.
One of their best players this season, second-year wing Brandon Ingram, is a string-bean-armed, ballhandling playmaker in the mold of Milwaukee’s young superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo — minus some muscle and some athleticism that Ingram might never develop.
“They’re both really good basketball players. They have the length. They have the unique ability to finish around people in the paint,” Walton said earlier Friday. “Because of that length, they both can handle the ball like point guards. There are definitely similarities to their game.”
Friday, it was wildly obvious that Ingram has work to do to make those comparisons anything more than the optimistic projections.
Antetokounmpo’s size, strength and skill went unmatched with the “Greek Freak” finishing with 27 points, 16 rebounds and 4 assists.
Ingram, in his second game back after missing a dozen games with a strained groin, tied the score in the final three minutes with a three-point shot fired in the tightest of windows.
But Antetokounmpo answered that shot with a flying two-handed dunk to put the Bucks back ahead.
Ingram finished with 12 points on five-for-seven shooting, making both of his three-point shots, three rebounds and six assists. He also missed all three of his free throws, had five turnovers and left the court near the end of the fourth quarter with an unknown injury.
Ingram was diagnosed with a neck muscle bruise. Preliminary tests for a concussion were negative.
The teams traded defensive stops, and after Kuzma’s contested three rimmed out, the Bucks failed in their two chances in the final seconds to win the game in regulation.
Eric Bledsoe opened overtime by scoring nine-straight points — he finished with 39 — but the Lakers had one more comeback try in overtime, again falling just short.
“What we take away from this, in the NBA, you’re never out of it,” Walton said. “…Possession by possession, you always have a chance in this league.”
The Lakers, who got Josh Hart back after missing extensive time because of a broken bone in his left hand, were without Lonzo Ball and three back-end players on their roster, who were in Oklahoma City for the NBA’s G-League playoffs.
Caruso is expected to join the South Bay Lakers in Oklahoma City before Saturday’s game against the Blue.
The ranks got even thinner just before halftime, when starting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was sent to the showers by referee Ed Malloy after a double technical foul for complaining.
A porous defense and hot shooting from Khris Middleton (28 points) and Bledsoe helped the Bucks build a 20-point lead with two minutes to go in the third quarter.
But Zubac entered the game, quickly made two free throws and helped push the Lakers on an 8-2 run that helped set the stage for the fourth-quarter comeback.
Zubac finished with 16 points — one of six Lakers who scored in double figures led by Kuzma’s 27.
Brook Lopez added 20 and Julius Randle had 18 and 10 rebounds.
Follow Dan Woike on Twitter @DanWoikeSports