But with a little more than four minutes left, the score was even — the Kings and Lakers about to enter crunch time with the outcome undecided.
The Kings have been one of the better teams in this situation, Wednesday being their 24th game within five points in the final four minutes. They’d won 13 of them with guard De’Aaron Fox quietly becoming one of the league’s top clutch players.
The Lakers? For them, it’s been a mixed bag, the early season struggles in tight games giving way to improved play before losses to Dallas and Philadelphia in the last week renewed old concerns.
At best, Wednesday, the Lakers were uneven down the stretch – trailing by five before coming back – only to blow it with defensive gaffes and more bad offense. The mistakes eventually cost them another tight game, the Lakers losing to the Kings 116-111.
Following a LeBron James three-point play to tie the game, Harrison Barnes easily split a double team by Patrick Beverley and Russell Westbrook to score while being fouled.
The Lakers wasted a possession, settling for a tough James three-point attempt before Juan Toscano-Anderson fouled Fox with just seconds left on the shot clock. Fox split two at the free-throw line and opened the door slightly, with Kendrick Nunn hitting a three to pull the Lakers within one with seconds left.
But the Lakers failed to properly foul, rookie Max Christie giving up a clear-path foul that gave the Kings two free throws, the ball and ultimately the win.
It was a perfectly Lakers game — plenty of fight and a disappointing result, the kind of night that’s defined their last week, in which they’ve lost three times by a combined 10 points.
Watching them against the surprising Kings was a pretty good reflection of where the Lakers are and the challenges they face.
There was good, there was bad, but maybe most importantly there was hope — especially in regards to Anthony Davis’ recovery.
Sacramento, playing without its surefire All-Star big man, Domantas Sabonis, cut through the Lakers’ defense to get most of what it wanted, Fox sliding past Dennis Schroder, Beverley and the rest of the Lakers’ backcourt for easy bucket after easy bucket . And if Fox wasn’t scoring, the Lakers’ defense was getting caught up enough in rotations that the ball eventually found an open shooter.
The Lakers’ offense, which cooked the Kings for 39 points in the first quarter, steadily slowed and predictably became too dependent on James, who finished with 32 points.
But the good? That wasn’t hard to find.
The Lakers, when playing with pace, controlled the game. James, more than halfway into his 20th season and coming off a season-high 48 points in a win over Houston, played with plenty of juice. And role players like Nunn, Christie and Wenyen Gabriel continued to make the most of their opportunities.
But as the team moves into trade season, a lot of the decisions that need to be made will depend largely on evidence the Lakers don’t have — their full roster unavailable for the last month as the team seemingly began to find an identity.
Davis, whose purple sweatsuit nearly matched the Lakers’ warmups, missed his 17th consecutive game as he recovers from a set of foot injuries including a bone spur and a stress reaction. Guard Lonnie Walker IV missed 10 straight with tailbone and knee injuries, and guard Austin Reaves sat for the seventh game in a row.
Coach Darvin Ham said all three are progressing on schedule, giving the most detail about Davis’ recovery.
“He’s coming along as planned. He’s getting more and more on court work. Doing 30-, 45-minute, almost an hour workouts,” Ham said. “Just us having him go through that workout, they are intense and just to see how the foot reacts to those workouts. And lately they’ve been, he’s been pretty much pain-free. So once that continues a little bit more time we’ll see where he’s at and when he can be reinserted into the lineup.”
Ham said Davis is doing one-on-one work, but he’s running and jumping – positive signs towards his upcoming return.
Ham said, though, the Lakers are understandably cautious.
“You have to be smart about it and there’s times you have to save the player from themselves. Again, you have to be careful because feeling good after a workout, an individual workout. It will be a little different when you’ve got extra bodies on the floor. You’re banging, changing speeds, changing direction,” Ham said. “So we want to make sure, our medical staff, they’ve done a tremendous job in that department. All of us we’ve communicated and everybody understands, and as impatient as AD is, you know and it’s rightfully so because of the way he plays and the way he wanted to attack the season even before the season started.
“It’s understandable that he has that mindset but all the while we have to be careful because we don’t want a recurring thing in terms of him being in and out, in and out.”
The Lakers have tread water with Davis out. But now, again five games under .500 and the season more than half over, they better start to swim.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.