Judging by the outpouring of anger from fans, the reaction on the court, the calls for an investigation and the dramatic tweets that followed, you’d think Lakers were the first team in history to lose to bad refereeing.
Yes, the Lakers were robbed on Saturday night when LeBron James was flagrantly fouled on a game-winning layup attempt against the Celtics, the layup allowing the Celtics to secure an overtime victory. It also took a bit more over the next 24 hours to see the NBA officials’ Twitter account say there would be “sleepless nights” over the miss, and for James to publicly lament a series of questionable and/or missed fouls that have gone up against the Lakers over the past few weeks. Los Angeles could be mired in a particularly unfortunate stretch when those 50/50 decisions go against them. At the same time, the Lakers can’t let the officiating issues cloud the team’s real problems.
I understand why bad payments must be difficult for the Lakers. In addition to Tatum’s hack, there was also an uncalled foul on a recently Kendrick Nunn a potential winner and a questionable, late-game non-call-on Joel Embiid and Christian Wood. For a team from Los Angeles, only two games in the loss column after the fourth place Clippers, every game is high stakes. And the Lakers have been banging on the door of playoff respectability all season long. If a few layoffs go their way, the Lakers could be the fourth seed right now. Instead, they are 13th, 3 1/2 games back of fourth.
The thing is, with most teams about 50 games into the season, anyone can use that reasoning. If there’s one positive about the 82-game season, it’s that the issues tend to even out over time. Teams on the wrong end of bad calls are also on the right end many times. Are we really going to investigate every report from the last two minutes of the Lakers and retroactively determine wins and losses? What about the nights they capitalized on mistakes?
Want to know a bigger reason why the Lakers lost on Saturday? It’s an issue James mentioned literally after the first game of the season: Shooting. Los Angeles shot 12 of 42 from three against Boston, shooting 28.6 percent. LeBron himself shot 6 of 12. Late in the fourth quarter, the Celtics smartly stymied Los Angeles’ offense by putting Malcolm Brogdon On Anthony Davis. However, the Lakers could not capitalize. If Davis posted, Boston would ignore whoever was in the corners and effectively triple team the AD and shut down the paint. If AD sets a screen, the Celtics could easily switch. It took Los Angeles a few possessions to adjust, but the team lost valuable scoring chances trying to figure out that look. And Darwin Hamm looked for answers in the fourth quarter and OT, trying all three of Troy Brown Jr., Rui Hachimura and Russell Westbrook as a bottom-five option. These games wouldn’t have come down to the final possession and whistles if the Lakers had a better chance to execute in high-leverage moments.
LeBron and the Lakers are understandably disappointed. It was a trying season. The team is struggling with injuries. After a terrible start, thanks in large part to LeBron, the Lakers are also much closer to a playoff spot than most imagined they would be. The resilience of Los Angeles is impressive. And so it must be extremely devastating to lose close games against good teams when every win counts and roster limits are maxed out. But the Lakers can’t let that rough piece of talk define their current situation. If anything, with all the close games and the trade deadline just over a week away, Los Angeles clearly needs a little more help to get through this group.