After he’d showered and changed, Rajon Rondo sat before his locker and was asked what positives he and the Lakers took from playing a talented opponent as close as they did in their 131-120 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
“Makes no difference,” Rondo said.
LeBron James had just walked over to a nearby mirror and heard both the question and answer.
“Better stop asking those questions to me and ’Do,” James said.
The two of them, of course, have won championships before, and understand that sometimes, especially now, a win is a win and a loss is a loss. On Friday night at Staples Center, the Lakers led by as many as 12 points, but stalled late in the fourth quarter. They committed three turnovers in the game’s final 2:36 and couldn’t stop the Bucks.
“For some reason, we kind of fell apart at the end there,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “When we’re playing the elite teams, we have to take games.”
James, Brandon Ingram and Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe each scored 31 points. Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 16 points with 15 rebounds, but it was guards Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon, who scored 21 points, that the Lakers had the most trouble containing.
“Everybody tends to talk about Giannis so much, but it’s the supporting cast that he has, those guys go out and do their job every single night,” James said. “Obviously Bled, you seen him sign an extension today for the obvious reasons. Then [Khris] Middleton being an All-Star, Brogdon being a former rookie of the year, they’ve surrounded Giannis with a great cast.”
The Bucks were just the type of elite opponent the Lakers love playing. The Lakers have surprised the best teams in the league this season, beating Houston, Golden State, Oklahoma City and Boston.
Milwaukee had an early lead, but never a big one in the first quarter. Rondo attempted seven three pointers in the first, making his sixth attempt to the delight of the Staples Center crowd.
“Shooters shoot,” Rondo said, with a shrug. He’d never attempted more than seven three-pointers in a game before, but attempted 12 Friday night, making four.
Ingram made all six of his shot attempts in the first quarter, and his first nine overall. He didn’t miss until 9:23 remained in the third quarter. On one play, Ingram spun past Nikola Mirotic, drove under the basket and dunked. On another, he elevated over seven-footer Brook Lopez, dunked on him and then screamed under the basket.
The Lakers built a 12-point lead in the third quarter at 79-67, but the Bucks were ready to show them just how they’d quietly earned the NBA’s best record. A 16-3 run erased that lead.
Rather than crumble after losing their advantage, the Lakers kept fighting. The Bucks took a six-point lead twice in the fourth quarter, but successive three-pointers by James and Rondo tied the score at 106.
The Lakers had a two-point lead at 118-116 on another James three-pointer when the game began to unravel.
“We turned the ball over a couple times,” James said. “But we had some breakdowns in individual defense.”
Back-to-back possessions ended in turnovers, first when Rondo lost control of the ball, then when James committed an offensive foul under the basket. Brogdon hit two free throws to give the Bucks a three-point lead, and Brogdon connected from the corner after the Lakers had a turnover on the inbound pass.
Milwaukee scored 11 points in a row in less than two minutes, and that was more than enough.
With the loss, the Lakers fell to 30-32 while the Bucks won for the 13th time in 14 games to improve to 48-14. The Lakers are four games behind the Clippers, who won Friday night at Sacramento and are the seventh seed in the Western Conference.
The Lakers are 31/2 games behind the San Antonio Spurs, who are in eighth, with 20 games left.
“There’s still a lot of time,” guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “We’ve got other teams that are playing well and are in front of us. We still have time to do what we do. Win ... and continue to trust each other throughout this process.”
When: 6 p.m. PST Saturday.
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Update: The Suns, with the worst record in the league, are one of the teams the Lakers must beat if they hope to make a playoff run. Devin Booker averages 24.6 points a game to lead Phoenix, which has lost 18 of 19 games.