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Column: Building momentum difficult for Lakers with LeBron James in and out of the lineup

Lakers forward LeBron James holds his hands out to react to a foul call.
Lakers forward LeBron James reacts to a foul call during a 119-115 loss to the Clippers on Friday night at Staples Center.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Here’s where the Lakers are in this maddeningly inconsistent season:

With LeBron James back in the lineup Friday after a false-positive coronavirus test had briefly put him into NBA protocols, the Lakers never led at any stage of their 119-115 loss to the Clippers, who were without Kawhi Leonard and Nicolas Batum and feared they’d become soft defensively following back-to-back ugly losses to New Orleans and Sacramento.

Remember when Anthony Davis said last week the Lakers were capable of reeling off 10 or 12 straight wins? They couldn’t extend a budding two-game winning streak. That’s undoubtedly related to the fact that James hasn’t played more than three games in a row in a season that has trudged past the one-quarter mark.

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The Clippers more than compensated for what they were missing by cleverly using the assets they had. They got 21 points from forward Marcus Morris, who was six for nine from three-point range, and 19 off the bench from Luke Kennard, who hit two open three-point shots over the Lakers’ fly-by defense in the last minute and 12 seconds. After the second one, with 37.5 seconds to play, Kennard pointed to the Clippers name on the front of his jersey, in case anyone had missed it.

The Lakers credited the Clippers for making a lot of tough shots, but the Lakers (12-12) didn’t do enough to make those shots tougher, no matter their claims to the contrary.

“I thought pretty much we were pretty much on time and on target with our defense, but sometimes, at the end of the day, better offense is gonna beat the best defense no matter what,” said James, who had 23 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in just over 36 minutes and was minus-5 defensively. “And we’ll do a better job of that the next time we play ‘em.”

The Lakers’ immediate concern remains the same as it has been all along: getting comfortable with each other and figuring out the most effective rotations. That enormous task has been made tricky by James’ frequent absences.

The Lakers fell to .500 with a 119-115 loss to the Clippers, who never trailed in the game and made timely shots whenever the score was close.

He has been in and out of the lineup because of two injuries, a one-game suspension, and the false-positive test that kept him out of the Lakers’ win at Sacramento on Tuesday. Like the Lakers, who rank seventh in the Western Conference, James has been unable to get into a steady flow and establish consistency.

His latest attempt at that was interrupted by the coronavirus test result.

“I felt like going to Sacramento I was getting into a really, really good rhythm, like offensively, defensively, as a team we were playing well and those guys did a hell of a job to win that game,” he said. “But for me it’s just been very frustrating either dealing with the groin, the abdomen, and then having to deal with the false-positive that knocked me out of a game and knocked me off the floor and not being able to keep my rhythm.”

The NBA increased the frequency of player testing after Thanksgiving, anticipating a spike in COVID transmission during the holiday season. James said he returned home Monday evening after being told he had tested positive. The NBA said Thursday that James had been placed in the protocols Tuesday after a series of tests produced conflicting results, one of them a positive result Monday. He was cleared after he took two PCR tests conducted more than 24 hours apart that were negative.

James said he had to isolate at home until he was told he was cleared at about 4 p.m. Thursday. The team’s meeting Friday morning was the first time he had touched a basketball since Sunday.

“I knew I was going to get cleared because I never, ever felt sick at all. I know you can be asymptomatic, but I mean, if what I had was a positive COVID test, then what are we doing? What are we talking about?” he said. “I just thought it was handled very poorly. It all came to, taking the test and being able to get cleared, that was definitely a breath of fresh air not only for myself but for my family and friends and everybody that’s involved.

“The fact that I tested negative first and then my second test came back positive and usually when you have a positive, they will test you right away to make sure. There was not a follow-up test after my positive test. It was straight isolation and ‘You’ve been put into protocol.’ And that’s the part that kind of angered me.

Luke Kennard, one game after being critical of his play, has 19 points off the bench and makes two key three-pointers late in 119-115 Clippers victory.

“I had to figure out a way to get home from Sacramento by myself. They wouldn’t allow anyone to travel with me. No security, no anything when I traveled back from Sacramento. Then I had to put my kids in isolation for the time being and put people in my household in isolation for the time being so it was just a big-time inconvenience. That was the angry part.”

James said the NBA has done “a great job ever since the protocol was put into place.” He added, “I just think the way it was handled in Sacramento was a little different. I’ll say that. But from a league standpoint they’ve done a hell of a job.”

Having James back long enough for the team to develop some familiarity should solve some of the Lakers’ problems. “Well, not all of them, you know?” coach Frank Vogel said. “There are still things we need to do better and we’re working on those. But certainly, that will help a lot.”

Despite the Lakers’ struggles so far, James remains optimistic. “It’s been a very challenging year to start a fourth of the season for myself,” he said, “but only good things ahead.”

They’ll need better defensive efforts and longer streaks, both of wins and of James being in the lineup, to have any chance of realizing their championship hopes.


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