What looked like a winnable game for the Lakers against a struggling and short-handed opponent was an ugly 109-99 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies in Staples Center. Here are five takeaways from the Lakers’ seventh loss in eight games since Dec. 12 and 17th in 23 games since Nov. 8:
1. Kyle Kuzma is human. The rookie forward has been otherworldly for much of the season, averaging 18.1 points and 6.8 rebounds a game, shooting 49.9% from the field and 41.6% from three-point range before Wednesday. In his five previous games, he averaged 27.8 points and shot 52.9% from the field.
Kuzma had one of his worst shooting nights of the season, making four of 24 shots from the field, one of 11 three-pointers and finishing with nine points. Most of his shots hit the front of the rim, and he air-balled a three-point attempt midway through the third quarter, an indication that fatigue might be a factor as Kuzma transitions from college to the grueling 82-game NBA season.
Coach Luke Walton raised that as a possibility when he said Kuzma is “a rookie, he’s never gone through this before, he’s playing a ton of minutes and taking a beating every night, so fatigue is always a factor.”
Kuzma respectfully disagreed.
“I’m not gonna make an excuse,” he said. “I mean, basketball is basketball. Shots just didn’t fall tonight. Usually they do. Some nights they don’t. … I’ve been doing well with my body for the most part all season. It’s a long season. We have about 100 more games. Just have to get prepared for that.”
2. A methodical, half-court team, the Lakers are not. They love to push the pace offensively but were unable to do that against the slow-and-go Grizzlies without point guard Lonzo Ball, who missed his second straight game because of a left-shoulder sprain. The Lakers scored nine fast-break points and shot 37.6% from the field, their second-worst shooting night of the season. They had 14 assists.
“We know how important Lonzo is to us with the way he plays and the way we want to play, the way he pushes the ball, the way he hits whoever is open every time,” Walton said. “That’s contagious. And now that he’s not out there, we need to make sure to make a point that that’s still how we’re going to play. We’re not goning to turn into an [isolation] team, that’s not our strength.
“We don’t have guys who are ready to just go one-on-one. We have guys who are on their way to that, we have a lot of talented young players and some solid vets, but the way for us to win, and the way for us to be at our best, is to play for each other, share the ball, make the extra pass and when you’re open, and whether we’re hitting them or not, you have to shoot it with confidence.”
3. Practice doesn’t always make perfect. The Lakers, who have the worst free-throw shooting percentage (68.9%) in the league, have been shooting hundreds of free throws every day in practice. They shot 63.6% from the line Wednesday night, making 21 of 33. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope actually made all seven of his free throws. His teammates combined to go 14 of 26.
“It’s just one of those things we’re working on, we’re drilling it,” forward Larry Nance Jr. said. “It doesn’t get better overnight. There are going to be some growing pains with it, but the work is being put in, and we’ll figure it out.”
4. Brandon Ingram looks healthy. The second-year forward missed the previous two games because of injuries to both quadriceps, but he was explosive Wednesday night, attacking the rim aggressively, finishing plays at the basket and scoring a team-high 23 points.
“I felt good mentally and physically,” Ingram said after the game. “I may be sore [on Thursday], but I’ll be fine.”
Ingram’s performance did have its flaws. He made nine of 20 shots from the field but only five of 11 free throws. He had five turnovers, two in a fourth quarter that began with the teams tied at 76. He had a shot blocked and drew a technical foul in frustration in the final minute.
“I was terrible shooting free throws tonight, and that was critical for us to win the game,” Ingram said. “If I knock down those free throws, cut down on the turnovers, we could have won the game.”
5. Jordan Clarkson might not be the best option at point guard in Ball’s absence. Clarkson, a high-volume shooter who is used to coming off the bench and scoring, looked uncomfortable at times running the offense Wednesday. One out-of-control drive led to a traveling violation with 8:32 left in the third quarter. He scored 22 points on seven-of-17 shooting but had only two assists, though the Lakers’ poor shooting contributed to that.
“It’s always a fine line between facilitating and scoring, especially when you’re a natural scorer like he is,” Walton said. “But with the position he’s in now, we definitely need him playmaking for others as well as looking to be aggressive and to score some points.”
Clarkson had 17 points and seven assists in Monday night’s loss to Minnesota but missed his first seven shots and took 24 shots in all, making eight of them and missing all three from three-point range.