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When dealing with NBA’s elite, the Lakers still fall short

If the Lakers’ game against the East-leading Boston Celtics was a barometer of where they stand, as coach Darvin Ham suggested it would be before they met on Monday, the answer was clear after the Lakers absorbed a 126-115 loss before a crowd that had wanted a victory for Christmas but instead left Arena with a lump of coal.

The Lakers, as they are now structured and playing, are not an elite team. They competed in spurts against the Celtics, erasing an early 18-point deficit to creep ahead by a couple of points in the third quarter, but they got into foul trouble and sent the Celtics to the free-throw line too early and too often. They committed 12 turnovers that became 19 points for the Celtics, and they couldn’t come close to matching Boston’s consistency, cohesiveness or quality depth.

Every Celtics starter scored at least 18 points, led by Kristaps Porzingis’ 28 and Jayson Tatum’s 25. Anthony Davis scored a season-high (and game-high) 40 points, but two Lakers starters didn’t even hit double digits, with Cam Reddish scoring five and Jarred Vanderbilt six.

It was the end of a happy trip to Southern California for the Celtics, who crushed the Clippers on Saturday, 145-108. On Monday against the Lakers, the Celtics bent a bit in the third quarter but had enough energy and poise to take control in the fourth and expand the nine-point lead they’d built after three quarters.

“It’s tough with them,” Austin Reaves said of the Celtics (23-6). “They have a lot of really good players that have bought into what they’re trying to do. You see that.

“You look at their starting five: Jrue Holiday took 10 shots and was seven for 10. For the most part every night those guys are going to be efficient because they don’t have to take bad shots.”

The Lakers had some good looks but not enough of them fell. Rui Hachimura was five for 14, including two for nine from three-point range. LeBron James also was five for 14 and finished with a modest (for him) 16 points, partly because of fatigue and partly the result of having gotten tangled up with Jaylen Brown during the second quarter and emerging with a sore knee.

“I felt offensively, we were pretty good,” James said.

But pretty good won’t be nearly good enough against the league’s best, as happened on Monday. The Lakers were 1-2 in consecutive games against Minnesota, Oklahoma City and Boston, closing out a rugged portion of the schedule with a wheeze. Oh, and if you’re counting, the Lakers (16-15) are 2-6 since they won the in-season tournament and hung that nice little banner on the wall.

They’re still tinkering with their lineup, still making adjustments in their second straight game with Vanderbilt starting in place of D’Angelo Russell. Before Monday’s game, Ham didn’t rule out additional changes. “There may come a time when we have to tweak something else. Who knows?” he said. He has until Thursday, when they play host to Charlotte, to decide whether to spin the wheel again or give the current group more time.

James said the Lakers’ injuries have prevented them from getting a true read of who they are and what they can be. Minnesota, Oklahoma City and Boston are all injury-free, he noted.

“I don’t think we’re healthy right now. I don’t think we are where we want to be to compete versus the top teams,” he said. “Until we continue to get better and better, work on our habits, for us we’re still trying to figure our situation out as far as how we want to attack each game. We’ll be better.”

They have no choice but to figure out how they can measure up after a game that emphasized how far away they are from contending for a championship. “Obviously as a group, me personally, I think we can beat any team that steps on the floor. If you don’t have that outlook, then what are we doing?” Reaves said.

“We have that outlook. We just have to tighten some things up and get that foundation planted and run with that. Anytime we step on the floor we feel confident in what we’ve got, and we have the talent and opportunity to win games.”

Ham took the big-picture view of their loss to the Celtics, saying he was disappointed but not discouraged, and that there’s time to do the necessary work in the 51 games left on the regular-season schedule.

“I’m not distraught or not seeing it for what it is. It’s the NBA season. You’re going to go through your ebbs and flows,” he said. “You’ve got teams that have been together and are going to be clicking, and you’ve got some teams that are struggling, especially coming into the second and third quarters of an 82-game season.

“The dog days are going to set in pretty quickly after these holidays are over with, and the biggest thing is to see where we can get better at day in and day out and get the opportunity to be not just stronger but more consistent night in and night out.”

They didn’t measure up on Monday. Simple as that.


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