The fourth quarter began with the crowd on its feet and the Lakers within striking distance and legendary downtown Sunday afternoon magic happening and …
Whoosh. Just like that, disappeared. Gone. All of it. The game. The week. The month. The season?
“Our spirit, it seemed to have left the building,” coach Darvin Ham said.
And the wonderfully energetic and engaged Cleveland Cavaliers were more than happy to swoop in.
Matt Ryan threw up a wild heave at the shot-clock buzzer. Donovan Mitchell converted a layup with an and-one.
Russell Westbrook threw a terrible pass. Dean Wade scored on a fast-break layup.
The Lakers’ Big Three combined to shoot better than 50% from the field, but the rest of the team’s offensive woes were evident Sunday in a loss to Cleveland.
Troy Brown Jr. bricked a three-point attempt. Jarrett Allen grabbed an offensive rebound at the other end and scored on a layup.
In less than two minutes, a seven-point deficit became a 14-point deficit, an inspirational comeback became another deflating embarrassment, and the Cavaliers eventually cruised to a 114-100 victory amid the sighs and boos of a disgusted and dejected crowd at Crypto.com Arena.
After which, poor Ham once again dug futilely deep for positives.
“We’re in a period of discovery about ourselves,” he said.
Nine games in, you know what’s been discovered?
The Lakers stink.
They’re no better than the 33-win team of last season. They’re no better than any current team with any playoff aspirations. They’re not even close to even the most conservative of expectations for a franchise whose celebrated legacy and crazy loyal fans deserve so much better.
They have been mocked for their poor shooting, yet they outshot the Cavaliers. They have been ridiculed for their lack of physicality, yet they outscored the Cavaliers in the paint. They led this game by a dozen points, led by half a dozen at halftime … then were outscored by 20 points in a second half during which their coach said their spirit left the building.
How does the spirit of the NBA’s greatest franchise just leave the building?
The Lakers have a roster with three future Hall of Famers, yet all three are either aging or passive or just plain detached.
LeBron James has been fighting illness, but it still looks like he’s lost a half-step, he’s not getting to the foul line, his shot is not falling, he’s not always finishing, and he’s not very happy.
“Our record is our record,” he said glumly.
Anthony Davis has been playing through a sore back, but he hasn’t always been playing with enough aggression, not always demanding the ball, and he disappeared completely in the fourth quarter Sunday, didn’t even attempt a shot.
The usually gregarious big man wasn’t available for postgame comment, which spoke volumes.
Then there’s Westbrook, the team villain who recently morphed into a feel-good story with tons of passion off the bench and fans serenading him with, “MVP … MVP” and Sunday he actually made his first five shots!
Yet he made just one of his final eight attempts, committed seven turnovers, and afterward refused to accept any point-guard responsibility for not passing the ball to the forlorn Davis.
“I don’t know whose primary job it is, to be honest,” Westbrook said.
Hmm, maybe it’s yours?
“I’ll leave it up to the coaches to figure out the best way for them to utilize [Davis],” he said.
Face it, the best way to utilize this team would be to break it up and start over again, but that’s not possible, so Ham’s main task over the next six months is to steer the players away from complete implosion.
He’s trying. He’s really trying.
Near the end of yet another agonizing postgame news conference, I asked him if he was angry, disillusioned or disappointed. He tightened his jaw. He held his ground.
“Man, that’s strong words,” he said. “But I’m not angry. I’m not disillusioned. I’m disappointed a little bit because I know how much better we can play. We just got to keep coaching them, man. And fighting the good fight, man. That’s what we signed up for. Eighty-two games.”
He was just getting started.
“I’m not disillusioned. I’m not … nah, none of that. No anger. None of that,” he said. “I’m here to help this team. I’m here to help Jeanie [Buss] and Rob [Pelinka] turn stuff around. I’m here to help Bron. I’m here to help AD. Russ. I’m here to help. And I’m not about to let them see me down or uninspired or whatever. This is part of sports. You got to experience the bad before you get to the good. And that’s where I’m at.”
I asked him if he was questioning whether he had a championship team in his locker room.
“Nah, it’s not about that,” he said. “To me, it’s about making this the best possible team day in and day out that I can possibly make it through our hard work and our togetherness. And once we do that, we’ll see where it takes us.”
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For now, it’s taking them to Utah on Monday, then back to Crypto for the Clippers on Wednesday, and by Friday they could have the worst record in the league.
Long term, it’s taking them nowhere, because it increasingly appears there’s nothing they can do to substantially improve. This column space has been screaming to trade Westbrook but it’s looking like any deal won’t be worth the draft capital it will cost them.
A couple of new sharpshooters won’t make a difference if James doesn’t suddenly get younger and Davis doesn’t suddenly get more aggressive. It’s going to take more than a couple of savvy veterans to make sense of this mosh pit of role players.
“We have to plow through, good, bad or indifferent,” Ham said. “We have to continue to fight, and that can’t change.”
But even when they show fight, they fall.
In the fourth quarter Sunday, one of the Lakers was assessed a technical foul for excitedly leaving the bench to cheer his teammates.
It was Dennis Schroder. He is injured. He was not in uniform. He has not appeared in a game this season. Yet he still manages to foul.
“We are who we are,” James said.
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