LeBron James returns, but Lakers outplayed late in loss to Clippers

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  • Los Angeles Clippers
    Los Angeles Clippers
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Los Angeles Lakers
    Los Angeles Lakers
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  • LeBron James
    LeBron James
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  • Frank Vogel
    Frank Vogel
    American basketball coach
  • Anthony Davis
    Anthony Davis
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  • Malik Monk
    Malik Monk
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LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - DEC. 3, 2021. Clippers forward Paul George goes to the basket.
Clippers forward Paul George attempts a layup against Lakers forwards Anthony Davis (3) and LeBron James during the second quarter Friday night at Staples Center. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

They see it — Lakers coach Frank Vogel and star big man Anthony Davis predicting the Lakers are on the cusp of a long winning streak.

But the images on the court, the mistakes that plagued them in Friday’s 119-115 loss to the Clippers at Staples Center, have made it tough enough to win on any night, much less 10 in a row.

As the Lakers fought to grab their first lead early in the second half, LeBron James stood in front of the Lakers’ bench, his arms wide and his eyes too. He wanted the ball and Davis never saw him, instead trying to force a pass inside to Dwight Howard that the Clippers easily defended.

Minutes later on the defensive end, James sprinted from behind Paul George to try to force a steal, leaving Marcus Morris in the corner. Howard was slow to rotate and James was left sort of shrugging while the Clippers hit an open three. Davis later misjudged a touch pass to Malik Monk, with Reggie Jackson easily swiping it and taking it the other way, where Morris hit a three while being fouled by Talen Horton-Tucker.

And that was just the beginning.

In the fourth quarter, it was missed free throws and offensive fouls keeping the Lakers from ever nudging ahead, each mistake almost immediately responded to by the Clippers. It was that way all game — approach and retreat, approach and retreat, approach and retreat.

Then, it was just defeat.

“We had our chances,” Davis said.

The Clippers celebrated on the Lakers court inside the arena they share, fighting off every possible comeback with a parade of better execution and timely shots and putting the finishing touches on a win in which the Lakers never led.

Morris and Luke Kennard found the gaps in the defense in the biggest moments, the two hitting huge shots to smother the last comeback attempts. The Clippers scored 68 points in the second half, with Morris and Kennard scoring 32 of their combined 40 points in the final two quarters.

Clippers guard Luke Kennard celebrates after hitting a three-pointer against the Lakers with about 38 seconds left.
Clippers guard Luke Kennard celebrates after hitting a three-pointer against the Lakers with about 38 seconds left to play Friday. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Lakers forward LeBron James reacts to being called for a foul against the Clippers in the third quarter Friday.
Lakers forward LeBron James reacts to being called for a foul against the Clippers in the third quarter Friday. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“We had plenty of chances to take the lead, but they made some big shots,” Davis said. “… Just little things didn’t go our way and they came down and made some tough shots.”

The Lakers had five players in double figures led by Davis’ 27, with James adding 23 in his return from the health and safety protocols and Malik Monk scoring 20 off the bench.

The loss is the latest failed attempt to grab any real momentum on a game-to-game basis, the Lakers plugging one hole only to find two or three more leaks.

“We’re working on things and getting better, but it is part of the challenge,” Vogel said.

Needing spacing and some offensive punch, the Lakers moved James and Carmelo Anthony into the frontcourt alongside three guards to stretch the floor to its greatest potential.

It worked — the driving lanes opened and the three-point looks became clearer, the ball falling through the basket on nearly every trip down the court.

But with that problem solved, the Lakers’ defensive deficiencies became fully unmasked with Clippers reserve center Isaiah Hartenstein blowing by James off the dribble and getting to the rim as he scored seven quick points against the lineup.

The Lakers hope, eventually, that Horton-Tucker can be a part of the answer on that side of the court.

Early Friday, Horton-Tucker’s arms spread wide across the lane while George yo-yoed a dribble between his hands. Such moments are the ones Vogel wants, the Lakers’ 21-year-old wing standing across from the opposition’s best perimeter player and forcing him into tough shots like he did with George on a handful of possessions Friday.

“To me,” Vogel said before the game, “that’s the hope — the hope that whatever perimeter player we’re playing against tonight, he can draw that assignment. But he’s still a young player, and we have to put him in those situations before we can make that evaluation.”

Vogel used a revamped starting lineup Friday, using Horton-Tucker and Howard with James, Davis and Russell Westbrook. Avery Bradley and DeAndre Jordan, the two players Vogel replaced, both failed to crack the rotation.

Lakers guard Malik Monk scores a basket against Clippers center Serge Ibaka.
Lakers guard Malik Monk scores a basket against Clippers center Serge Ibaka. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The change, like most of the moves at Vogel’s disposal, could yield only marginal results at best.

The bigger issues seemed more like fundamental flaws — the ways the Clippers were able to pack the paint early while the Lakers clanked jumpers and the ways the Lakers couldn’t get stops when the game was on the line both are problems that have nagged the team through the first quarter of the season.

The Lakers on Friday did manage to mostly corral George, limiting him to 19 points on seven-for-20 shooting, but he hurt them other ways with eight rebounds and nine assists.

Davis was very good, pulling down 10 rebounds, and James, fighting off rust after not playing since Sunday because of a false positive on a COVID-19 test, added 11 rebounds and six assists.

But the pair combined to miss six free throws while the Clippers hit 21 of 24 from the line.

“Make ’em,” Davis said when asked how the Lakers could improve at the charity stripe.

It was a simple answer after another 48 minutes of evidence that their problems could be a little more complicated.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.