Those Lakers who were with the team last season know the burn of an unkind December.
Last December started a lot like this one has, with losses Dec. 2 and 3. This one has the potential to be as difficult as the last one.
“Everyone that’s with us knew this was going to be a testing time of the season,” coach Luke Walton said. “… More than ever, we’ve got to stick together. … This is the time of year that, it can really break teams down.”
On Sunday night, the Lakers lost to the Houston Rockets 118-95. It was their second loss in as many nights and fifth in a row. The Rockets have won 14 of their last 15 games and beat teams by more than 20 points per game since Chris Paul returned to the lineup.
Kyle Kuzma led the Lakers with 22 points while James Harden led the Rockets with 36. Paul added 21 and Eric Gordon, who had a plus-minus rating of 37, scored 22 points. Lonzo Ball had two points, three assists and one rebound for the Lakers.
“James missed probably the first three and then got like seven in a row or something,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He is ungodly. He’s ridiculous.”
The Lakers bench has been one of the highest-scoring bench units in the NBA, but Sunday they hardly scored at all. Only Kuzma cracked double digits, with most of his points coming in the fourth quarter. Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson added five points each and Tyler Ennis, who entered the game with 3:22 remaining, scored one two-point field goal.
There were some highlight moments for the Lakers. An alley-oop from Brandon Ingram to Larry Nance Jr. A Randle dunk early after he weaved through traffic. Back-to-back threes from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez that got the Lakers within three points in the third quarter. A thundering dunk by Kuzma over Clint Capela in the fourth quarter.
But Houston took off in the fourth quarter.
Paul opened that period with two three-pointers to extend a 12-point lead to an 18-point lead. The Lakers never got closer than 16 points again and fell victim to the team with the best record in the Western Conference (18-4).
Sunday’s game marked the first of three times the Lakers will face the Rockets this month. They will also face the Golden State Warriors two more times. They’ll play the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have won 11 games in a row and are the defending Eastern Conference champions. They’ll also face the Portland Trail Blazers, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Minnesota Timberwolves, three teams with legitimate playoff potential.
The Lakers will not return to Staples Center until Dec. 18 when they play the Warriors. From here they’ll embark on a four-game trip. If they’re not careful, they could take the tumble they did last season.
“We had a big-time losing streak last December and we had some injuries,” Walton said. “Hopefully we win some of these games this time. But I definitely learned from that. It’s the most important thing for us going into this stretch is continuing to know where our priorities are as far as what we’re trying to do and where we’re trying to get to. As long as we keep doing certain things, we’ll come out stronger on the other side.”
Last season the Lakers lost eight games in a row to open December. They won two games the entire month and lost 14. They had entered the month 10-10 and full of optimism that was crushed by the end of the year.
“I can see where this team is and where this team is going and the individual progress that’s being made,” Walton said. “Those things that we’re doing I truly believe as our young players grow, develop and turn into studs in this league, those are going to be the things that allow us to win consistently. In a weird way it’s a little easier this year than it was last year.”
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli