For weeks, Lakers Coach Frank Vogel said the Lakers wouldn’t change the way they played or their goals in their seeding games once they clinched the top seed in the Western Conference.
The goal, after all, was not to simply claim that top seed. The Lakers wanted to sharpen up before the playoffs, to regain some semblance of the momentum they had back in March when the season was abruptly halted because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But with each passing game, the Lakers’ offense has experienced similar struggles, and on Wednesday they were dominated by the Oklahoma City Thunder, losing 105-86, and are now 2-2 in the NBA’s bubble.
“I thought we took a step back tonight just in terms of our overall energy, effort, execution,” Vogel said. “We’ll get back to the drawing board tomorrow.”
Vogel played all of his starters against the Thunder (42-25, 6th in the west), with both LeBron James and Anthony Davis playing about 30 minutes. James scored 19 points with 11 rebounds and four assists while Davis contributed only nine points.
“From a rhythm standpoint, definitely gotta find a rhythm,” James said. “I know for me, I’m finding a rhythm, putting guys in position, putting myself in a position where I can find rhythm throughout the course of the 48-minute game. It’s just some things that you really can’t control that’s here, that I really don’t want to talk about that’s kinda like off the floor. But you just try to be there for your teammates.”
There were some indications he’s had some discomfort on the court too. James changed his shoes at halftime — something he had also done in the Lakers’ bubble opener against the Clippers.
“The court was a little slippery in the ones I had on, so I wanted to change it,” James said. “Plus I feel like I wasn’t in good rhythm. It’s a superstitious thing. An OCD thing too.”
It was again the Lakers’ shooting that was a problem. They made one of their first 12 shots and things did not improve much from there. Eight players attempted at least one three-pointer without making any, among them James, who attempted five, and Davis, who attempted three.
Overall, the Lakers made only 13.5% of their three-pointers and 35% of their shots overall.
“We just gotta make shots,” Dion Waiters said. “Guys still getting familiar playing one another. You know we still getting our legs up under us. And still adjusting to this new norm right now that’s going on. I think we’ll turn the corner.”
It’s a mantra they’ve maintained through their four games of shooting woes. Overall in the bubble, the Lakers have shot 25% from three-point range, with Wednesday’s showing their worst.
They’ve taken some solace in their defense, which has been just as stingy as it was during the season. But when asked how far that would carry the Lakers, Kyle Kuzma was blunt.
“We just got blew out,” Kuzma said. “So not very long. Especially in the playoffs, I’ve never been there, but I know you gotta get buckets.”
They beat the Clippers and the Utah Jazz, but lost to the Toronto Raptors and Thunder. Their starting lineups have been outscored by opponents. Even before Wednesday’s game, their offensive rating was the worst in the 22-team bubble.
Vogel was asked if he was considering any changes to the starting lineup.
“We’ll see,” Vogel said. “We’re looking at everything, but it’s bigger than that. It’s just looking at our bench guys, we’re working in some new guys. You have to learn how to use them, what combinations they fit best with and so we’re looking at everything.”
In fewer than two weeks the playoffs will begin. James was asked if that heightens his concern, and he calmly said it didn’t. He talked about the work he and his teammates have done to try to prepare themselves, and expressed confidence that will pay dividends.
“This is a totally different situation than any other situation that I’ve been in in my career,” James said. “So I have zero experience with having the No. 1 seed inside of a bubble during seeding games playing in August. This is all a learning experience for all of us.”
Here are three observations from the game:
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The Lakers struggled shooting three-pointers. It has been their weakness throughout the league’s restart in the bubble. Against the Thunder, the Lakers made 13.5% of their threes (five of 37), which is worse than their average coming in. Oklahoma City capitalized on this.
This marked the Lakers’ first loss of the season to the Thunder. They’d previously won two in Oklahoma City and won at Staples Center over the Thunder.
One celebrity fan attended the game virtually — rapper Lil Wayne. He took full advantage of the medium, trying to high-five virtual fans who were virtually next to him. But he also shared in the pain of Lakera fans as the game fell further out of reach, gripping his head with his hands and shaking his head as the deficit fell to double digits in the third quarter.