By: Andrew Lopez
“The big picture is that it pretty much was a must-win for us, and we didn’t get the job done,” said James. “We had great opportunities throughout the night, and we didn’t make enough plays down the stretch. So that’s the big picture.”
L.A. faced a crucial matchup against the Western Conference’s No. 9 team in New Orleans, two games up on the No. 11 Lakers coming into the night. The Lakers received a welcome lift from James, who returned from a left ankle sprain that cost him two games, and Anthony Davis, who was back in the lineup after an 18-game absence because of a right midfoot sprain.
The pair was productive with James (38 points on 13-for-23 shooting) leading all scorers as he topped 35 points for his fifth straight game and Davis (23 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists) making his presence felt on both sides of the floor. But things fell apart in the fourth quarter.
The Lakers led by five with 5:07 remaining in the fourth quarter, and the Pelicans reeled off a 13-4 run over the next three minutes of the game.
The last five minutes of the fourth were nightmarish. Davis went 0-for-3 from the field and 0-for-2 from the foul line; James went 0-for-3 from the field — including the airball after using three fakes to try to free up space — with a turnover; Russell Westbrook, missed two shots at the rim and fouled out.
“Just feels like you can’t catch a break,” James said. “No matter what’s going on on the floor, it just feels like the ball bounces the other way. The ball doesn’t always bounce in our favor. Or a call doesn’t go in our favor. It’s just like, when it rains, it pours for our year. It’s just the way it’s been going.”
L.A. now trails the No. 10 San Antonio Spurs by a game with five games left to play. But by virtue of the Spurs holding the tiebreaker, the Lakers have to pick-up two games on San Antonio before the season’s end to steal the final play-in spot. They’ll have to do it with a schedule that includes two games against Denver, one against Phoenix, one against Golden State and one against Oklahoma City.
“I don’t look at San Antonio at all,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of the final stretch. “I mean, obviously, finding out what their scores look like. But our focus is going to be on what we can control and that’s winning the next game.”
The Spurs have games against Portland, Minnesota, Denver, Golden State and Dallas remaining.
“Our mindset is to go 5-0 in these games, and let the chips fall where they may,” Davis said. “We dropped this one. But, we’ve got five left to try to control what we can control and hopefully things fall in our favor.”
L.A., which has lost five in a row and nine out of 11, will get its next challenge at home against the No. 6 Denver Nuggets in a Sunday day game.
Davis vowed to play through any soreness he feels in his foot after playing for the first time since Feb. 16, but James said he wouldn’t know his status until Sunday morning.
“Hopefully it reacts the proper way for me in the morning when I wake up and I have no setbacks,” James said.
Even though his team has now dropped two contests they called “must-win” games against New Orleans in the past week, James said the fight goes on.
“Until it says we’re eliminated, it doesn’t,” he said. “Until that moment, we’ll know what our destiny is, but right now, we don’t. So keep pushing forward.”
Davis said L.A. can still make something special happen out of a season that has been anything but.
“I think there is a lot of belief,” Davis said. “We know what we’re playing for. We know the position that we’re in. We know we’re playing against some top teams. So, I think we have to believe.
“I don’t think it’s hope. We don’t play off hope and ‘let’s hope we win this game.’ We have belief and I believe. … We got to go out and get it done. It’s that simple. We have to win these games and we have to have that approach.”
The ninth-place Pelicans swept the season series with L.A. and won for the sixth time in eight games.
Head coach Willie Green said the Pelicans found a little extra motivation after they went through “a good portion” of Friday morning shootaround at Crypto.com Arena in the dark.
“They didn’t turn the lights on,” Green said. “We talked to our guys about and we were like, ‘Look, we’ve all played with the street lights out before. So let’s get after it.’ I think it motivated us.”
Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram felt the light snafu might have sparked Green just a little more than it did the players.
“I ain’t take it as personal as him,” Ingram joked.
On the court after the buzzer sounded, Green was as animated as he has been all season, high-fiving with coaches and players as he walked off the court. Ingram said that energy was felt before the game and after as well.
“I like that,” Ingram said. “Especially when you get energy from the coach like that. It shows how much he cares. Especially just the burst of emotion like that. It’s good for our team. It builds confidence for our team.”