Lakers can’t close out Kings without LeBron, lose fifth in a row

LOS ANGELES — It was only two nights ago that Darvin Ham compared having LeBron James in the lineup to having a world-class closer coming out of the bullpen.

He’s played with Chauncey Billups. He’s coached Kobe Bryant and Giannis Antetokounmpo. James is one of the players who makes him feel like the wind is at his back when trying to eke out a game.

“Just guys that you know if you compete and you do what you need to do as a group, if the game is hanging in the balance, that you know you can ride them,” Ham said Wednesday night. “They can carry the team.”

There are a lot of things missing from this Lakers team, but on Friday night, a closer was one of them.

The Sacramento Kings were able to edge the Lakers in a 120-114 game that had that air of inevitability – but for the visitors. De’Aaron Fox made back-to-back shots in the final 1:06, finishing with a game-best 32 points while the Lakers, without James in the lineup, couldn’t find an answer.

Anthony Davis finished with 24 points, but went just 2 for 7 in the second half. Russell Westbrook had 21 points and 11 assists and made the home crowd surge with a 3-pointer with 2:13 remaining, putting the Lakers (2-10) up by two points. But he fouled Harrison Barnes to put the tying points at the line, then he and Patrick Beverley each missed shots in the final 1:30, leaving the stage open for Fox to steal the show.

Austin Reaves and Lonnie Walker IV each had 19 points in supporting roles. But sometimes you just need a crunchtime guy – and while James’ track record has hardly been perfect this season in that respect, his absence was deeply felt all the same.

The Lakers knew they’d be without James from the outset, replaced in the starting lineup by Wenyen Gabriel. It was the 37-year-old’s second missed game of the season, his first since straining his left adductor against the Clippers on Wednesday night.

It was only shortly before the game that Davis and Walker were still up in the air for the Lakers, but both made an impact in the starting lineup early. Taking a handoff from Davis, Walker drove into the lane on the first possession of the game for an easy jam – his first basket back from a two-game layoff for non-COVID illness.

Davis looked a little heavy on his feet after missing shootaround to recover Friday morning, but scrapped all the same tearing for loose balls and rebounds. By the second quarter, he found some of that missing burst by driving past Domantas Sabonis on the baseline and finishing with a reverse dunk.

The defensive intensity the Lakers have been missing the past four games showed up especially with their active hands: In the first half alone, they swiped away nine steals. But the Kings were still getting open looks, and eventually started hitting a few to gradually wedge their way back into the contest.

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The Lakers have been concerned about miserable third quarters, but their letdown started a little early. They led by 12 points with 1:01 left in the second quarter when questionable decisions began to unfold: Westbrook drew a foul for taunting Kevin Huerter with a rock-the-baby celebration and stare; he turned the ball over twice in the final minute, then committed a take foul with 2 seconds left.

With new NBA rules on take fouls this season, Sacramento got a free throw, then Fox nailed a three at the buzzer, making what had been a double-digit game into just four points at the half.

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