LeBron James’ triple-double couldn’t save the Lakers from facing a harsh truth.
The Lakers might miss the playoffs for a sixth straight year.
With Magic Johnson, president of basketball operations, in attendance, the Lakers lost to the Atlanta Hawks 117-113 and have a losing record for the first time since November.
“You either make it or don’t make it,” James said, when asked whether there’s concern about missing the playoffs. “That’s when you worry about it.”
The Hawks improved to 19-38 with Tuesday’s win while the Lakers fell to 28-29. James had 28 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds.
Atlanta got 22-point efforts from Trae Young and John Collins. The Lakers shot slightly worse than the Hawks overall and from three-point range, but their biggest discrepancy came at the free-throw line. While Atlanta made 80.8% of its free throws, the Lakers made 68%.
“We know that it’s getting smaller and smaller, that opportunity, and we know that this is one that would have been big for us,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “But the end of the day, we didn’t handle our business tonight. So, we got time. It’s going to be hard. But we have a group that we believe can get that done.”
The Lakers head into the All-Star break with a great deal of uncertainty facing them. They are 2½ games out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference and still awaiting Lonzo Ball’s return. The playoff berth that seemed like a formality two months ago took a hit when the Lakers went 6-12 without James in December, January and for one game in February.
James’ injury was only the next in a long line of small catastrophes to befall the Lakers throughout the season.
They played two games with their full roster, before Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram drew suspensions for their involvement in a fight in their home opener against the Houston Rockets.
Rondo broke his hand on Nov. 14, had surgery the next day, and sat out five weeks because of the injury.
Ingram sprained his ankle on Dec. 5 and sat out two weeks because of the injury.
Both players returned Dec. 21, at a time when the Lakers were playing well. By late December, they had risen to fourth place in the West and appeared to be a threat to not only make the playoffs, but also to make a run while in them.
But Ingram’s return came just four days before the Lakers lost James to a strained groin for five weeks and Rondo to another hand surgery, this time for a Grade 3 sprain in his right ring finger, which sidelined him for four weeks.
Not long after they returned, the trade deadline unsettled the Lakers as their front office took a big swing for Anthony Davis and offered nearly all of them up in a potential trade. Their discontent culminated in a 42-point loss to the Indiana Pacers.
Hours after the trade deadline passed on Feb. 7, the Lakers beat the Boston Celtics, an NBA Finals contender, in stirring fashion with a game-winner from Rondo against the team that drafted him and with which he won a championship.
But three days later, another blowout loss followed, though this one came to the Philadelphia 76ers, another Finals contender, whose loaded roster overpowered the Lakers.
The Hawks, on the other hand, are not among the East’s best teams. Rather, they are among the East’s worst teams — a franchise in transition.
But winning games like this will be critical to the Lakers’ playoff hopes.
Atlanta took advantage of the Lakers’ lackluster defense of late from the start of the game, making 10 three-pointers in the first quarter and taking a 10-point lead at one point.
The Hawks went into the second quarter with a six-point lead. By halftime, the Lakers had recovered, and took a four-point lead into the second half.
After Atlanta took a seven-point lead with 6:22 left in the game, both teams stalled offensively. The Lakers missed several shots and committed turnovers for the next 3½ minutes until a free throw by James finally broke the game’s scoring drought.
It was too late. The game ended on a Lakers turnover.