PHOENIX — A season that started with championship promise for the Los Angeles Lakers ended with the pain of not even making it to the qualifying tournament.
Tuesday’s 121-110 loss to the Phoenix Suns — coupled with a 116-97 San Antonio Spurs victory over the Denver Nuggets — officially knocked LA out of the competition with three regular-season games left.
Phoenix opened the game with a 35-22 third quarter, and the Lakers limped to the finish line from there. Suns’ Devin Booker (32 points on 12-for-22 shooting) and Jae Crowder hinted at their opponent’s bench, relishing the chance to bury the Lakers after Anthony Davis suggested last month that Phoenix’s win in the playoffs in 2021 against LA was a fluke.
In the end, it was just another tough night for the Lakers in a season that their fans would just as quickly forget.
Injuries sabotaged the season, with Los Angeles’ new Big Three of LeBron James, Davis and Russell Westbrook combining to play just 21 games together through Tuesday. The Lakers went 11-10 in those games – barely dominating, but definitely not cellar dwellers either.
Injuries played a role again on Tuesday, with James out for the fourth time in the last five games with left ankle pain. It was his 23rd missed game of the season. Joining James on the visitors’ bench at the Footprint Center in street clothes was Kendrick Nunn, missing his 79th game of the season with a bone bruise in his right knee but, oddly enough, still not simply ruled out for the season by the Lakers.
Even Davis, who was on the court to play his third game after a six-week absence with a sprained right midfoot, also suffered from plantar fascia in his right foot that has plagued him since his return, according to Lakers coach Frank Vogel.
The eruption of poor health – including COVID-19 which swept through the locker room in December – has led to a ridiculous total of 24 different players in suits for LA at one point this season. And that left Vogel with no choice but to constantly tinker with the players at his disposal as he tried out 39 different starting formations through Tuesday – the second most in the league behind the Brooklyn Nets.
A team chosen to win 52.5 games in pre-season by BetMGM Sportsbook and a heavy favorite – along with Brooklyn – to win it all, was knocked out of the qualifying tournament losing their seventh straight game to take their record to 31-48.
It’s the Lakers’ longest losing streak of the season, while San Antonio have won for the seventh time in their last eight games to guarantee they’ll be at least the 10th seed in the play-in. . The New Orleans Pelicans, who needed a Tuesday night win or loss to the Lakers, beat the Sacramento Kings 123-109 to clinch a playoff berth.
Los Angeles, meanwhile, hasn’t won back-to-back games since early January, when it beat Sacramento and Atlanta at home.
By the time the Lakers and Suns announced Tuesday night, the Spurs held a seven-point lead over Denver late in the third quarter, setting up half of Los Angeles’ elimination scenario. The Lakers clung to a 42-39 lead over the Suns midway through the second quarter when San Antonio put the finishing touches to their victory.
The loss unofficially triggers an offseason full of question marks for the Lakers. Will Vogel keep his job? Is there a reshuffle in store for the front office? Can the Lakers find a trade partner for Westbrook and cut their losses? Will James, entering the final year of his contract, sign a contract extension to keep him in Los Angeles beyond his 20th season in the league?
James, ever aware of the messaging, showed his alignment with the franchise through his attire on Tuesday. He wore a white T-shirt with “Lake Show” printed on the front in purple and gold letters, with caricatures of Laker legends Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson, Jerry West, James Worthy and Kareem Abdul -Jabbar.
No one from the 2021-22 Lakers made the cut.