From a vastly more experienced team, the Lakers got a lesson on Friday night at Staples Center.
If you aren’t perfect against the veteran San Antonio Spurs, they will make you pay.
“They’re smart, they’re talented, they’re well coached,” Lakers Coach Luke Walton said after the Spurs’ 116-107 victory. “You’ve gotta be hitting on all cylinders to beat them. Tonight we didn’t.”
Though the Lakers got as close as four points in the fourth quarter, the Spurs kept them an arm’s length away until the end. Point guard Tony Parker’s layup with 33 seconds left in the game gave the Spurs a six-point lead that grew as the Lakers fouled.
With the loss, the Lakers fell to 7-6. The Spurs improved to 10-3, and 7-0 on the road. Forwards Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge led San Antonio with 23 points each, with Leonard adding 12 rebounds and seven assists.
Lakers guard Nick Young scored 22 points on seven-for-12 shooting a day after being sent home from practice with a cold. And the Lakers’ bench was again pivotal. Guards Lou Williams and Jordan Clarkson combined for 44 points, with Williams notching a game-high 24.
Walton kept an eye toward the strength of his bench before the game even started. With point guard D’Angelo Russell sidelined by a sore left knee, Walton opted to start veteran point guard Jose Calderon instead of plucking Clarkson out of the second unit.
“They play together in practice every day,” Walton said. “They understand each other’s tendencies, how to get each other the ball. It’s something that’s worked for us so we’re not gonna mess with it for now.”
Heading into Friday’s game the Lakers had the highest-scoring bench in the NBA, and their second unit of Clarkson, Williams, Larry Nance Jr., Tarik Black and Brandon Ingram had developed a habit of digging the team out of early deficits.
On Friday, climbing out of an early deficit was a group effort. The Lakers trailed, 26-16, after the first quarter, then outscored the Spurs, 36-26, in the second. Luol Deng scored eight points in the second quarter, making two three-pointers, and Young made all four of his shots, including a three-pointer with 58.2 seconds left in the half. On the next play, Young drove to the basket for a layup that gave the Lakers a one-point lead. It was part of a 7-0 run near the end of the half that brought them back into contention.
Lakers center Tarik Black grabs a rebound from teammate Larry Nance Jr. and Spurs guard Danny Green at Staples Center on Nov. 18.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Lakers guard Nick Young tries to steal the ball from the Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard late in the fourth quarter of a game at Staples Center on Nov. 18.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Former Lakers forward and current Spurs player Pau Gasol disputes a call with a referee at Staples Center on Nov. 18.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Spurs Danny Green grabs a rebound from Lakers forward Brandon Ingram as Pau Gasol looks on at Staples Center on Nov. 18.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Lakers forward Brandon Ingram is forced into a missed shot by Spurs forwards LaMarcus Aldridge, left, and Davis Bertans at Staples Center on Nov. 18.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Spurs guard Tony Parker gets a pass off in front of Lakers guards Luol Deng, left, and Nick Young at Staples Center on Nov. 18.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
The score was tied, 52-52, at the half. But during the third quarter, the Spurs applied a stranglehold on the game, scoring on 11 consecutive possessions and shooting 73.7% to outscore the Lakers, 39-24, and take a 91-76 lead into the fourth.
“They hit some tough shots early in that quarter, they moved the ball,” Walton said. “They’re really good at the game of basketball.”
The Spurs’ momentum didn’t last. With 1:39 remaining in the game, they had made only seven of 18 fourth-quarter shots. And the Lakers, charged with the energy of their home crowd, made one final push.
“We just compete,” Clarkson said. “You know we get stops during those times. We’re pushing the ball and getting easy buckets in transition.”
Young hit a three-pointer to bring the Lakers within eight. Clarkson hit a three to bring them to within five. And after the Spurs took a time out to stop the bleeding, Julius Randle attacked the basket, going right at former Laker Pau Gasol, who fouled him. He made one of two free throws to make it a four-point game.
But that was as close as they got.
“They’re young, talented, they’re figuring things out,” Gasol said.
On Friday they faced a team that already has.