Lakers' hot shooting not enough in 129-121 loss to Hawks

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Atlanta Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter (12) dribbles past Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook (0) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr.)
Atlanta Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter dribbles past Lakers guard Russell Westbrook during the first half Sunday in Atlanta. (Hakim Wright Sr. / Associated Press)

Russell Westbrook stood in his defensive stance while Trae Young calmly got ready to attack — and that attack was coming faster than the Lakers could’ve realized.

Young quickly launched a three-pointer from 30 feet out, the ball rattling around the rim before falling through the hoop — a fitting ending for the Lakers’ six-game trip, the team close but, again, not good enough.

“Just fell short,” coach Frank Vogel said.

The Hawks, despite allowing the Lakers to score at will for most of the game, outgunned them 129-121, capping the season-long trip with four losses against just two wins (against Orlando and a very-undermanned Brooklyn).

Malik Monk, returning after missing Friday’s game in Charlotte, scored 33 with 10 rebounds. Anthony Davis, also back after missing Friday, added 27 and Russell Westbrook scored 20 with seven rebounds and 12 assists. And still, somehow, it wasn’t good enough, even with the Lakers making 54% of their shots.

Part of the issue was making only 12 of 23 free throws. And while the Hawks missed 11 from the line, too, Atlanta took nine more free throws.

“We’re frustrated right now because we’re supposed to win this game. And it’s self-inflicted mistakes. So that’s the frustrating part — where we can control those mistakes,” Davis said. “Trae hit tough shots. You can’t control that. But the little things — the offensive rebounds, the turnovers — you can control those things to give yourself a chance to win a basketball [game]. So that’s the most frustrating part.”

Young tortured the Lakers’ defense for most of the day, but especially late, carving up the coverages and leaving players like Davis visibly frustrated. Young found former USC big man Onyeka Okongwu for a lob and then stepped back to hit jumpers, unfazed by whatever the Lakers threw at him.

He finished with 36 points and 12 assists.

After winning the shootout with Atlanta for three quarters, the Lakers scored only 20 points in the fourth while allowing the Hawks to outscore them by 18 — a miserable ending to a trip that didn’t provide answers to any of the Lakers’ big questions.

“They picked the pressure up,” Monk said, “and we played right into their hands.”

The Lakers left for Orlando 11 days ago on this trip, certain of really only one thing. Win or lose, chaos or not, LeBron James would play well.

Their trip ended with James already back in Los Angeles, his swollen knee keeping him out of a third straight game leaving the Lakers short-handed in their shot at breaking even on this trip.

James had missed games in Philadelphia and Charlotte before returning to Los Angeles on Saturday. He underwent an MRI exam on his knee, with Vogel saying the scan only revealed general swelling.

Vogel said it’s a possibility that James could play Wednesday against Portland if the swelling goes down, though he’ll undergo further examinations early this week.

“As long as the swelling is there, he's going to be out,” Vogel said pregame. “And hopefully [we’ll] get him back as soon as we can.”

Prior to the injury, James said he was in one of the best offensive rhythms of his career. He had scored at least 25 points in 18 straight games (17 with Davis injured). Over those 18 games, James averaged 32.5 points while making 54% of his shots.

On the season, James is shooting 52.2% — his best field-goal percentage since joining the Lakers. He’s doing it on 20.9 shots per game — the most he’s taken for a team since 2007-08 when he was 23.

And while James has repeatedly maintained that his workload this season isn’t more than he can handle — his knee injury is the third separate ailment (ankle, abdomen) to sideline him for multiple games this season.

So even as James has played like a much younger player when he’s been on the floor, some of the injuries suggest his age, 37, is still worth considering.

“Yeah, I think about it every day. We're always mindful of the load that he's carrying, in constant communication with him and the medical team,” Vogel said. “And in terms of what we do going forward with the knee and where he's at, it's really a heavy lean on the medical staff and [assistant athletic trainer] Mike Mancias and what they feel is best. It's really not a head coach thing as much as it is relying on the medical team.”

As things slipped away in the fourth, the offense cold and the defense struggling, James’ absence was felt.

“He's just out there orchestrating everything for us. He's missed. Tremendously,” Monk said. “But it's our job to figure out how to play without him. We're not always going to have him.”

The Lakers were close — close against Charlotte on Friday, close against Atlanta on Sunday — a few more stops on Ish Smith on Friday, a few more made free throws Sunday away from a winning trip. But getting close isn’t good enough, not with the Lakers sub .500 (24-27) and scrambling for wins.

“Not enough energy, not enough urgency on both ends,” Monk said. “We didn’t respond the way we were supposed to.”

And if the Lakers don’t get it right, just like a Trae Young jumper, the end will come quicker than they’re ready for.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.