Lakers struggling with end-of-game situations

Anthony Davis had the hint of a wry grin Friday night when he heard the question about the Lakers’ basketball IQ. If he wasn’t so angry, he might just laugh.

The 29-year-old proceeded to talk about high moments and low moments in the loss to the Sacramento Kings – with an emphasis on the low.

“I think we’ve got to do a better job of having an awareness of time, score, situation,” Davis said. “For example, like the end of the first half, they’re going on a run, 6-0 run. ‘Aight, slow it down. We’ve got to get a quality look.’ Even if you miss, they’re not getting out in transition.”

Davis went on to say the entire team could be better. There was just one eyebrow-raising issue: His words seemed to lay a lot at the feet of Russell Westbrook, who had two turnovers and two fouls in the final minute-and-a-half of the second quarter while running the offense as the lead ball handler. Westbrook did not speak after the game.

The way the 2-10 Lakers have lost lately, it’s going to be a challenge to not point fingers from time to time, especially without LeBron James, who hasn’t played altogether well at the end of games, but can sit in as a figurehead when the team takes a tough loss.

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that a team that hasn’t won games – period – hasn’t looked good in close games. But sometimes numbers paint a compelling picture: The Lakers, a team with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, are one of the worst clutch-performing teams in the NBA, with a minus-35.2 net rating in their five games that have been within five points in the last five minutes. That’s 28th in the league, above just the Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls.

A lot of those struggles are about shooting: The Lakers have the third-lowest offensive rating (85.7) in “clutch” situations, and they’re just 12 for 40 from the field in those crucial minutes.

While the whittling down of a second-quarter lead from 13 points to four was not the game-deciding run, it cut into their momentum in a game they were winning handily – the Kings never trailed by double digits again.

Lonnie Walker IV was asked if that letdown told the story of the game in and of itself: “It kind of tells the story of just how the season’s been. … We had the tendency of, along with myself, allowing to take bad shots or just self-sabotage. We could play smarter overall.”

Westbrook has taken more than a few of these sequences on the chin, most notably a loss to Portland that saw the Lakers leading by seven points with 1:56 remaining. Westbrook made the most obvious mistake, pulling up for a jump shot going for a two-for-one despite having the lead.

Since moving Westbrook to the bench, Coach Darvin Ham has kept the carrot of closing games available to the 34-year-old. Westbrook looked primed to reward that decision Friday, hitting a critical 3-pointer – he was 4 for 7 from deep – to put the Lakers up with 2:13 to go. But he was in the mix on critical game-turning plays: fouling Harrison Barnes, who tied it at 114; missing a 10-footer against the much-larger Domantas Sabonis with 1:21 remaining; allowing De’Aaron Fox to breeze past him on an ensuing floater.

Ham said he would put Westbrook in those situations again if given the choice – but perhaps without James and getting unsatisfactory return from other reserves, there might not be much choice available.

But there are other issues at play in the Lakers’ struggles, and a huge one has been Davis’ fading production on offense as the game goes on. Davis was critical in guarding several late pick-and-roll possessions run through Sabonis, but he managed just two field goals in the entire second half. It’s a problem that’s been talked about for at least a week: Despite being one of the team’s most efficient and prolific scorers, Davis averages only 3.3 points per fourth quarter (against his 23.1 game average).

Davis said late in games, teams throw more double-teams at him to take away his early post-ups, and if he sets screens in pick-and-roll, opponents will stack the paint to force kick outs to what is still the lowest-shooting 3-point team in the league (30%).

“I’m just trying to navigate that, figure out different ways to get the ball where it might not be a post-up,” he said. “It might not be a pick-and-roll on a screen that I’m rolling in and guys are right there in the paint. I’m just trying to figure that out and see what works.”

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The Lakers need answers soon: James is doubtful for Sunday’s game against Brooklyn, which is 4-1 in its past five games including a win over the Clippers on Saturday in L.A. Ham said the Lakers will go over more end-of-game scenarios, but they have to be better at solving issues in the moment.

“A lot of times, if it’s a breakdown in the flow of the game, and there’s not a stoppage, no dead-ball, no free throws or whatever, and the flow, you’re trying to figure this out on the fly,” he said. “They may randomly do something defensively that kinda throws a little monkey-wrench in what you’re trying to do. But you’ve just gotta be able to react quickly.”

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