The Lakers began the final two weeks of the regular season in a fight they thought they had avoided, the prospect of a play-in tournament an increasingly frightening possibility. They had just suffered a shameful loss to the Sacramento Kings, who beat them without two of their best players and another scoring just two points.
And they had just learned that yet another of their key players, Dennis Schroder, wouldn’t be available, forcing the Lakers to lock in a little more, to play a little sharper and a little harder Sunday night as they make a real push for the postseason.
A response was required. The one issued was a surprise.
Kyle Lowry, the guard they decided not to trade for, ran up the sideline letting out a Ric Flair “Woooo” after a bucket. The Raptors bench bounded with life and energy.
And the Lakers, well they were just kind of there, a passive participant in their own demise.
After leading by 12 early — maybe they were mad — the Lakers just looked bad, falling behind by as many as 21 and greeting the deficit mostly with a shrug.
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That the score tightened at times was almost irrelevant. That the Lakers, a team that won a title on the backs of chemistry and effort, played for so long without either, is very much a problem.
The 121-114 loss Sunday, their sixth in their last seven games, dropped the Lakers into a three-way tie with Dallas and Portland. And LeBron James was forced back to the locker room midway through the fourth quarter, unable to return because of his sore right ankle.
“The last two games at halftime, after the break, it’s gotten a little sore on me, a little tight,” James said of his right ankle.
Coach Frank Vogel said the Lakers would see how James was feeling Monday morning to evaluate the chances he plays Monday night when they host Denver.
James scored 19 points in 27:33 in his second game back after missing 20 games because of a high right ankle sprain.
Maybe the Lakers’ problems began in mid-November when the NBA decided this whole thing would begin in a month, with players like Anthony Davis dipping their toes back into action like it was an unheated pool.
Injuries to Davis and James made the equations even easier to solve — nothing would matter unless the two players could come back heathy.
Staying competitive without their stars would be mentally and physically taxing. And if that meant so-so basketball in the meantime, so be it.
Highlights from the Lakers’ 121-114 loss to the Toronto Raptors at Staples Center on Sunday.
But Sunday, the fruits of that were on full display.
The Lakers were as disjointed as ever, now playing without their point guard. Just last week, Schroder told German media members that he was unsure about taking a COVID vaccine. Sunday, he landed on the league’s health and safety protocols, meaning either he or a close contact had tested positive for the virus.
The Lakers and Frank Vogel declined to update Schroder’s status beyond his place in the protocols. If the test were a false positive or inconclusive, he could return after only a one-game absence. Otherwise, at a minimum, he’ll miss the bulk of the remaining regular season.
“We need to be healthy … if it’s not one thing it’s another,” James said of Schroder entering the health and saefty COVID protocols.
His absence certainly won’t help the Lakers solve their continuity issues. The team has yet to play a single game this season with its likely playoff rotation intact thanks to Alex Caruso missing Friday’s brutal loss to the Kings.
But it can’t be much of an excuse, not when you consider the Raptors were playing without Fred VanVleet.
In his absence, Lowry, whom the Lakers pursued but ultimately didn’t pull the trigger on at the trade deadline, was sensational. He scored 37 points to go with 11 assists, burying deep threes to extinguish any embers of a comeback.
Kyle Kuzma, for his part, scored 24 and hit a key jumper in the final minute to make things sort of interesting.
Complicating things, Davis is still inching his way back, scoring only 12 in 33 minutes. And even more problematic, James wasn’t there to save them, too hurt to continue in a game the Lakers were going to lose anyway.
It was another blow on a night where the Lakers didn’t look like they were up to fight back.
When: 7 p.m., Monday.
On the air: TV: Spectrum SportsNet, ESPN; Radio: 710, 1330.
Update: The Nuggets defeated the Clippers 110-104 on Friday for their fifth consecutive win. Denver now is half a game ahead of the Clippers for third place while the Lakers are in a three-way tie with Dallas and Portland in a race for the fifth through seventh seeds in the West.