Mark the calendar: It was nine days into a seven-game road trip before the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers showed any sign of being vulnerable this season, in Thursday’s 107-92 loss to the Detroit Pistons.
L.A. mustered just 34 points in the second half — the fewest the Lakers have scored in any half since LeBron James joined the franchise in 2018 — and was outscored 25-14 in the fourth quarter by a Pistons team that came into the night with the second-worst record in the league at 4-14.
The Lakers went scoreless for nearly seven minutes — from the 8:40 mark in the fourth quarter until there was 1:50 on the clock — as the Pistons’ lead ballooned from one to 17. L.A. went on an 0-for-12 drought with two turnovers as Detroit took control.
“I think we just weren’t connected defensively at the level we were kind of supposed to be,” said Kyle Kuzma, whose 22 points and 10 rebounds were spoiled by the Lakers’ late collapse. “Individually, everybody made mistakes and collectively with those made the team defense suffer a little bit.”
That team defense, which was ranked No. 1 in the NBA going into Thursday, played without Anthony Davis, last season’s Defensive Player of the Year runner-up, who was out with a bruised right thigh.
Whatever explanation might have existed for the poor showing, be it the absence of Davis, the accumulation of road weariness or the challenge of a back-to-back, James didn’t want to hear it.
“I mean, we still have games to be played, work to be done,” he said. “We got to continue to get better, and you can’t really get your mind into the grasp of how many days you are on the road or whatever the case may be. Every team does it. Every team hits a long road trip. We’re professionals.
“We got to keep our minds fresh, keep our bodies fresh as much as we can to go out there and put together a complete 48-minute game, or close to 48 minutes. Obviously we haven’t done it the last couple of games, and we just got to be better on Saturday.”
Coach Frank Vogel challenged last year’s Lakers team not to drop consecutive games all season, and it has remained a part of the team culture this year. L.A. made it more than a quarter of the way through the season before failing the mission, losing to Detroit a night after falling in Philadelphia.
The back-to-back losses also marred the Lakers’ perfect 10-0 road record to begin the season, which had set a franchise record. They’re now 10-2, with games in Boston on Saturday and Atlanta on Monday to finish out the road trip.
While no one sounded the alarm, both Kuzma and James lamented how the Lakers are still trying to find a set rotation, and because of a lack of practice time, end up experimenting with new lineups in the games.
“We’re a brand-new team,” Kuzma said. “We’re playing like 14 people. It’s a tough situation. Obviously, we’re working through things. The coaching staff is trying to figure out rotations and figure out what works with what best, what players can play certain lineups. And that’s just the point of the season we’re in.”
Kuzma provided a 10,000-foot perspective, saying that losses — even bad ones like Thursday’s — are “just the beauty of the journey” and the regular season is meant to be a rehearsal to work out the kinks before the playoffs, anyway. And, as the Lakers’ road trip stretches beyond a week and a half, he acknowledged the very real challenge of constant travel. “It’s still a pandemic out here,” he said.
Vogel put the performance on himself, saying he has to do a better job of putting his players in a position to be successful, but ultimately chalked the night up as something that won’t faze his team.
“We’ll be fine,” Vogel said. “You have nights like this in a long season. We’ll be fine. We’ll bounce back. Not happy, none of us are happy with how we played tonight, but we’ll bounce back.”