Near the start of this two-week trip, Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram got away from all their distractions and retreated into the purity of the game they love.
In a gym in Sacramento on Monday night, they shot basketballs until early the next morning after a loss to the Sacramento Kings. Till 3 a.m., Clarkson guessed.
Each player wanted more from himself.
“I think the fact that we weren’t hitting shots that we just all felt the need to just get in the gym,” Ingram said. “It was good for me because I felt like I had a bad game; it was kind of something I did back home to get my mind right.”
The results were apparent on Saturday night in Cleveland, where the Lakers went toe-to-toe with the defending NBA champions. Although they lost, 119-108, the Lakers stayed right with the Cleveland Cavaliers before falling short at the end. And their performance provided encouragement.
Nick Young led the Lakers with 32 points, making a career-high eight three-pointers. Clarkson found a shooting rhythm he’d been missing, making seven of 12 shots, including four three-pointers, to finish with 20 points.
And Ingram, starting at point guard for Russell, nearly became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double. He finished with nine points, nine assists and 10 rebounds.
“That’s the best and most confident he’s looked all season,” Lakers Coach Luke Walton said of Ingram. “When he was playing point today, he was kind of controlling and demanding the offense. Getting people in position. Coming off looking not just to shoot every time. Reading how defenses were playing him. He was great on the glass tonight. He really helped out against a great rebounding team.”
The loss, in the second game of a back-to-back set, dropped the Lakers to 11-19, with the Cavaliers improving to 19-6, the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Kevin Love had 27 points and 17 rebounds and LeBron James scored 26 for Cleveland, which shot 51.7%.
“We are finding out how hard it is to win a single game in this league,” Walton said. “It’s hard. It takes a lot of effort and work. That team won a championship. That means they’re really good. So for us to come out and give ourselves a chance to win on their home court, be in the game, cut it to four at one point late there in the fourth, that’s a good effort for us. That’s growth from last game.”
On Friday night the Lakers beat the 76ers in Philadelphia, snapping an eight-game losing streak. It was the third of seven games on a trip that began Monday in Sacramento.
On Saturday they were without Russell, who played Friday and then told Walton before the game he needed a rest. Russell is a few games removed from having missed 12 games with a sore left knee.
The Lakers led after one quarter, but a 15-0 Cavaliers run spanning the first and second periods threatened to blow the game open.
The young Lakers didn’t allow it. After trailing by as many as nine points, they fought back to trail by only three at halftime, Clarkson banking in a driving layup to make it 62-59.
The game remained close through most of the second half — the Lakers even getting back to within three at 108-105 with just under four minutes to play — until a late dagger courtesy of James.
With 2:39 remaining, Young missed a three-point try that could have brought the Lakers to within two. At the other end, James hit a three, resulting in a six-point swing and an eight-point Cavaliers lead.
This loss, though, offered hope.
“It sucks that we lost but everybody kind of got in a rhythm,” Clarkson said. “We were really moving the ball. That’s why the shots came easier. We were feeling aggressive and assertive.”
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @TaniaGanguli