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What is the quality of the Lakers? Depending on the night, but against the Rockets, the terrible version returned.

 

HOUSTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 29: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers is fouled on a play during the second half against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center on January 29, 2024 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
By Jovan Buha

Jan 30, 2024

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HOUSTON — The Lakers’ only consistency this season has been their inconsistency.

After an impressive double-overtime victory over the Warriors that marked their fifth win in seven games, the Lakers turned in one of their worst defensive performances and overall efforts of the season in a 135-119 blowout loss to the Houston Rockets at the Toyota Center on Monday night.

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The Lakers trailed by as many as 30 points in the third quarter, with Houston’s starters running LA’s off the floor to start both halves. Los Angeles used a 20-5 run midway through the fourth quarter to trim the deficit to as few as 10 points, but the energy expended to make the run could only carry the Lakers so far as the Rockets responded with six unanswered points to put the game away.

Once again back to .500 at 24-24, the Lakers have simply failed to display any level of consistency — in either direction, frankly. They’ve lost four games in a row twice and won three consecutive games three times. They’ve never had a streak extend longer than four games on either side of the ledger. Otherwise, they’ve hovered around .500, give or take a few games.

From night to night, they vacillate from their ceiling looking like a championship contender to their floor looking like a team could miss the Play-In tournament.

“You just got to be a better team,” LeBron James said. “We got to be better to win ballgames. And we weren’t tonight.”

There were two turning points in the game, both in the first half.

With 3:59 left in the first quarter, rookie wing Cam Whitmore, who was the No. 20 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, three spots after the Lakers selected Jalen Hood-Schifino, entered the game and single-handedly swung the momentum. He scored 12 straight points, largely in transition, over the final 2:19 to give the Rockets an 11-point lead going into the second quarter.

“The first half was lost in the last two-and-a-half minutes of the first quarter,” James said. “We didn’t get back in transition. And they just ran out on us. … Didn’t have a sense of care factor.”

It didn’t help matters that coach Darvin Ham referred to Whitmore, who could’ve been a Laker, as “another bright, young superstar that’s going to be in our league for a long time” pregame. He also noted that the team had a pre-draft workout with Whitmore. It was a painful reminder of what could have been for Los Angeles.

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“The kid is going to be special, man,” Ham said before Whitmore scored his 20 points off the bench.

The second turning point came at the 10:17 mark of the second quarter.

The Lakers rediscovered the value of last season’s starting lineup in their Saturday win over the Warriors, with the group playing a season-high 19 minutes — nearly double its season total up to that point of 11 minutes — and outscoring Golden State by 14 points. Though Ham didn’t start the lineup against the Rockets, he went to it earlier than he ever has this season, inserting Jarred Vanderbilt for Taurean Prince at the 5:44 mark of the first quarter. The Lakers were plus-three in less than two minutes with the unit, continuing a trend of positive play every time they share the floor.

Early in the second quarter, though, Lakers nemesis Dillon Brooks pushed Vanderbilt in the back on an uncontested dunk in a dangerous play that had an immediate ripple effect. A few possessions later, Brooks arm-barred Vanderbilt under the basket, leading to Vanderbilt retaliating by pushing him back in the chest and earning a technical foul. Brooks continued trash-talking Vanderbilt and walked towards him before turning his back. As he turned, Vanderbilt flicked Brooks’ braid, receiving a second technical foul and an ejection.

“It’s not a safe play,” Anthony Davis said of Brooks’ foul on Vanderbilt. “Guys get hurt like that. And you got to know what type of player he is. You kind of let that just keep going on and he kind of provoked it. He talks and says whatever he wants to the refs, to players. And at the end of the day, we’re men. No man is going to talk towards another man the way he was talking to Vando. So, Vando did what he had to do.”

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Ham applauded Vanderbilt for standing up for himself, saying, “my hat’s off to Vando,” even if it ended up hurting the team.

“It’s hard to control yourself, man,” Ham said. “… Maybe Dillon Brooks shouldn’t have been in the game either.”

The Lakers trailed by 20 points when Vanderbilt exited the game, with the deficit reaching upwards of 30 in the third quarter and 24 entering the fourth. This was an especially tough matchup to lose Vanderbilt after already missing Cam Reddish. The Rockets are one of the more athletic and perimeter-oriented teams in the league, leaving the Lakers shorthanded with length and athleticism at the point of attack and on their guard/wing rotations.

Jalen Green (34 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists) and Alperen Sengun (31 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists) largely had their way, either getting into the paint and scoring at the rim or shooting over the top of LA’s defense. James, Davis and D’Angelo Russell nearly matched them by scoring 23 points apiece, but it wasn’t enough.

“In order to communicate, you got to know what we’re doing out on the floor, first of all,” James said of the team’s recent defensive issues. “And when you make adjustments throughout a game, you got to know when the adjustments are made so everybody is on the same page. So, everybody needs to be in tune with what we’re doing so there’s no mishaps. And sometimes there will be mishaps, you have to cover for one another.

“So, the game, it’s not just X’s and O’s. It’s also being able to do things on the fly as well when things break down or the game presents different challenges.”

James, who also took a shot to the face from Brooks while jockeying for a rebound in the fourth quarter, a play that was upgraded to a flagrant foul 1, cut off a reporter’s question about Brooks during his locker-room availability.

“Next question,” James said sternly.

Did Vanderbilt cross a line against Vanderbilt and James?

“Yeah, both,” Davis said. “I mean, you take a hard foul. That’s part of basketball, but you are just not going to blatantly push someone in their back when they have no control of their body and they are in the air. And he should have gotten ejected for that. And then you know him and Bron have their whatever, and from what I saw it was just a blatant hit to LeBron to his face.”

With the Lakers down by 24 points entering the fourth quarter, Ham planned on giving his team one more shot to make a run before pulling the plug. With Christian Wood struggling, Ham deployed Jaxson Hayes and the Lakers’ 2-3 zone defense.

“That’s the toughest position to be in,” Ham said of the decision whether to pull the plug. “When the game gets away from you but you also have a lot of time left, you know you’re taking the chance of trying to cut the lead down, which we did. … But the deficit is so huge at that point, when you’re chopping it down, chopping it down, you basically have to play perfect basketball. I think we spotted them the first 29, 30 minutes.”

Ham decided not to put Davis back in the game, both riding the rhythm the lineup was in with Hayes and giving Davis a much-needed rest after his ongoing groin injury flared up.

Ham said the Lakers were “being really careful and cautious, precautionary about putting (Davis) out there.” Davis added that he had limited mobility on both ends of the floor in the second. He said it felt “a little sore.”

“I just couldn’t move how I usually move,” he said.

The Lakers travel to Atlanta for the second night of a back-to-back Tuesday. James confirmed he intends to play. Davis isn’t sure yet. Ham said the Lakers would know more on Davis’ status by the morning.

The 19-27 Hawks have lost four of five games. All eyes will be on several principal figures in the game, including Austin Reaves, Russell and known Lakers trade target Dejounte Murray, who is questionable with a hamstring injury that forced him to miss the Hawks’ last game.

The Lakers are 21st in defensive rating since the In-Season Tournament, but the Hawks are just 17th in offensive rating over that span. It’s a winnable game, despite being on the back end of a back-to-back and the Lakers just 7-16 on the road. It’s just a matter of which Lakers squad shows up.

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