LeBron-less Lakers lose to Nuggets; play-in hopes fading fast

Lakers forward Carmelo Anthony and Nuggets center Nikola Jokic battle for a rebound.
Lakers forward Carmelo Anthony and Nuggets center Nikola Jokic battle for a rebound during the fourth quarter Sunday afternoon at Arena.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

LeBron James was on the bench, Anthony Davis was limping all over the court and the Lakers’ chances to extend this season continued to hang by the most fragile threads — the font getting bigger and bolder each time the team takes the court for its latest “must-win” game.

Russell Westbrook, playing with confidence and pace, kept the crowd engaged. Davis, even through the hobbling, had the kind of all-around game that reminds people of the talent he possesses.

Yet in what’s been a season-long trend, the Lakers didn’t have enough Sunday afternoon at Arena — unable to run fast enough for long enough in a game they desperately needed to win.


Despite leading by as many as nine, the Lakers couldn’t hold off Denver, a 129-118 loss trimming their already slim playoff hopes down another few notches.

As if the Lakers were in a 400-meter sprint with 300 meters’ worth of stamina, the Nuggets, like so many other teams have, zoomed past them in the fourth quarter.

“We fought extremely hard. The guys fought extremely hard today,” Davis said. “Like I said, the fourth quarter, the last five, five and half, six minutes, costly turnovers. I missed a couple of layups. We missed some easy shots. They made some tough ones. But we made some costly turnovers at the end. It’s always the last five minutes that kinda hurt us.”

LeBron James and Anthony Davis say the Lakers are still focused on earning a play-in game bid to the postseason despite string of losses.

April 2, 2022

Praising his team’s effort yet again, coach Frank Vogel was filled with a mixture of pride and frustration.

”It sucks. Sucks telling these guys after every game, ‘I’m proud of you. Good effort. We lost,’” Vogel said. “So, it’s not fun, but it could be worse. It’s easy to unravel. Our group has stayed together. They’re putting up the good fight. Their attitude has been wonderful, in terms of just working together to get this thing right. And it’s just disappointing to come in to keep saying we fell short.”

James, who played in Friday’s loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, was unable to suit up, his sore left ankle unable to recover by the matinee tip-off. The Lakers say James is day to day, with the team headed to Phoenix to meet the first-place Suns on Tuesday.


“I’ve been better,” he said in the hallway as he walked in. “But, I’ll be all right.”

Without him, Davis grinded through obvious pain to finish with 28 points, nine rebounds and eight assists while Westbrook contributed 27 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.

Contributions beyond those two were limited. Carmelo Anthony scored 17 points in returning from an illness, but he needed 18 shots. Malik Monk added 11 points and Avery Bradley had 10, but the season-long defensive issues meant the Lakers simply didn’t have enough firepower.

Denver’s Nikola Jokic scored 38 to go with 17 rebounds, and Will Barton had 25 points, making six three-pointers. The Lakers made just six shots from three-point range.

Lakers guard Russell Westbrook attempts a layup as Nuggets guard Davon Reed puts a hand on Westbrook's face.
Lakers guard Russell Westbrook attempts a layup as Nuggets forward Davon Reed puts a hand on Westbrook’s face during the fourth quarter Sunday afternoon at Arena.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

It was Jokic, though, who stated his most-valuable-player case against all the Lakers’ defensive options — Davis included.

“Give him credit. He played a hell of a game, hell of a second half,” Vogel said of Jokic. “We had some opportunities to get him into foul trouble and the refs didn’t blow the whistle, allowed him to play more freely, and we didn’t have enough answers for him down the stretch.”


It’s a scene that’s been on repeat, especially as the Lakers have been in their postseason chase, another example in which the team has been unable to stop people from easily running past them.

Maybe it’s fatigue, the Lakers’ age coming back to haunt them, or maybe it’s the lack of continuity because the team’s had to play through so many injuries. Vogel used his 39th different starting lineup Sunday.

“It depends. Sometimes it’s that,” Westbrook said of fatigue. “Sometimes it’s execution. Sometimes it’s just getting good shots. Sometimes it’s getting stops, not fouling. Sometimes it’s different variables. I can’t pinpoint one thing. Every game is a little bit different.”

The biggest problem for the Lakers, though, is the results. They’re almost always the same.