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Missed free throws at finish nearly cost the Lakers a victory against Celtics

At the end of the Lakers’ tight matchup against the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was in the game because Lakers coach Luke Walton trusted him to make free throws under pressure.

But with 5.7 seconds left and the Lakers up by one point, Caldwell-Pope missed both free throws after the Celtics intentionally fouled him.

Seconds later, he made up for it, hounding Celtics guard Marcus Smart as Smart came up the court for the final shot. His defense helped the Lakers hang on for a 108-107 victory over the Celtics at Staples Center.

“KC made a big stop,” said Jordan Clarkson. “Everybody’s going to look at the free throws, but he made a big stop on Marcus that forced him into a tough shot at the end of the game. He made it up on that end.”

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Caldwell-Pope had left the locker room by the time Walton’s news conference finished, leaving behind a locker with a basketball in it that had the words “free throws” scrawled on it in black marker. While he has made 76.8% of his free throws this season, that’s been a problem area for the team as a whole lately.

The Lakers won despite making 21 of 36 free throws (58%), two games after making only 2-of-14 free throws in a win over the Indiana Pacers. With the win the Lakers are 18-29 while the East-leading Celtics fell to 34-14.

“The message right now is defense,” Walton said. “Everything is defense. Because we’re shooting this from the free throw line, because we’re not doing this whatever it is, we’re still able to win games because of our defense.

“We should be quite aware of the fact that we’ve lost our fair share of games because we didn’t shoot free throws well.”

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Kyle Kuzma heated up in the fourth quarter. After scoring 11 points through the first three periods, he scored 17 in the fourth, including a three-pointer that gave the Lakers a late lead.

Kuzma contributed in other ways too. The Lakers took a 90-89 lead with 6:40 remaining in the game, when Kuzma flipped the ball behind his back to Larry Nance Jr. for a dunk.

Kuzma notched his 15th 20-point game of the season, the most by a Lakers rookie since Eddie Jones had 15 in the 1994-95 season.

Kyrie Irving scored 33 points for the Celtics, 12 of them in the fourth quarter.

“We were talking a little bit,” Kuzma said of Irving. “He’s a great competitor. I like playing against guys like that. Good chirping.”

The Celtics entered the game on a three-game losing streak. After a close first quarter, they threatened to pull away late in the second, building a lead of 14 points, but the Lakers scored six unanswered points at the end of the half to cut that lead to eight.

The Lakers’ continued their run after the break, scoring six points in a row to open the third quarter. They outscored the Celtics by 10 points in the third.

The Celtics trailed by six points at 106-100 when Smart made a three-pointer after a Lakers miscommunication on defense.

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The Celtics then aimed at the Lakers’ biggest weakness — free throw shooting. And it almost worked.

The Lakers missed four free throws in the game’s final 20 seconds, after intentional fouls by the Celtics. Boston had the ball with 5.7 seconds left in the game, trailing by one, when Smart missed.

Although pleased with the win, Walton quickly scolded his players for their free-throw performance in the post-game locker room.

“I know we haven’t made [free throws, but] we have guys that I trust at the line that need to step up and knock those down,” Walton said. “Obviously we love the win, our guys did a heck of a job of scrapping and fighting. ... [but] our execution down the stretch is not OK.”

tania.ganguli@latimes.com

Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli


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