Basketball has been a vexing, stubborn adversary for a Lakers team that has spent the last four years trying to learn from losing what it takes to win. .
For 47 minutes on Sunday winning looked easy. The Lakers were pummeling a Memphis Grizzlies team that in the early season has been among the Western Conference’s best team.
But then a young team started to lose its composure. Defensive lapses, turnovers. With a minute left, what had been a 22-point lead was slashed to five on a 3-pointer by Mike Conley.
The Lakers, however, have veterans of their own.
Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored the Lakers final 12 points to ensure the Lakers escaped with a 107-102 victory that evened their record at 5-5.
“That’s why they’re here,” rookie Lonzo Ball said. “Make big plays throughout the game and then we can definitely look towards them at the end.”
Lopez led the Lakers with 21 points, including four 3-pointers, but with 42.5 seconds left in the game, he stood near mid-court, his hands on his hips, shaking his head. He had just been whistled for a foul that not only sent Grizzlies rookie Dillon Brooks to the free throw line to cut the Lakers lead to 103-100, but after a review the infraction had been upgraded to a flagrant foul.
The Grizzlies also got the ball back. In the early stages of the season, the Grizzlies have been one of the best teams in the Western Conference, beating Golden State, Houston (twice) and, on Saturday, the Clippers.
It was then, with 34 seconds left and a veteran team closing in, that Caldwell-Pope pieced together the sequence that preserved the Lakers victory.
He stripped the ball from James Ennis III then weaved to the other end. Using a screen from Lopez he got loose for a 19-foot jump that put the Lakers up 105-100. It was the Lakers first points since the 2:33 mark.
“They (the Grizzlies) did have a lot of momentum,” Caldwell-Pope said, “but that strip right there and the bucket on the other end kind of slowed that momentum down, and we finished the game up.”
The Lakers closed the game with two rookies, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma, another 20-year-old, Brandon Ingram, on the floor with Lopez and Caldwell-Pope, who had come up big three nights earlier with a game-tying 3 in the final moments of an eventual loss to Portland.
“That’s the difference between being in this league for a while,” Walton said. “When he was in Detroit, in a lot of their close games, he’s the one they ran plays for. So he’s taken big shots, he’s hit big shots.”
He added: “That’s where it’s nice to be able to count on that type of veteran leadership.”
There was one more piece of controversy before the Lakers, who won for the third time in their last four games, could go home.
Tyreke Evans cut the score to 105-102, and Kuzma nearly turned the ball over on the inbounds pass. However, a review determined the ball had gone out of bounds off of Memphis, and Lopez was able to seal the win with a pair of free throws.
“I don’t think you’ll ever see Kuz make that mistake again,” coach Luke Walton said. “That’s part of the fun of watching this team figure out how to win at this level and be able to pull out some wins while we’re doing it.”
Brandon Ingram added 20 points, including 18 in the first half on 7-of-9 shooting, while Kuzma double-doubled for the second straight game with 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Caldwell-Pope added 15 points and Ball, in a balanced performance, finished with nine points, nine assists and five rebounds.
Ball continued to struggle from the field, shooting just 3-of-13 from the field and 1-of-8 from 3.
History warns not to get too excited by a young Laker team’s early-season performance. Last year, the team started 10-10 before limping across the finish line at 26-56, next-to-last in the Western Conference.
This year, however, the Lakers seem better equipped to sustain their success. Walton agreed.
“Last year we were shooting the lights out to start the season,” he said. “When you shoot the ball that well, I think there’s a much better chance of hitting cold streaks.
“When you get hit with injuries like we did last year, we just didn’t have the rest of the foundation set well enough to sustain that.”