The minutes of evidence are minimal and the sample sizes are small. But ... they’re getting larger by the game.
It’s been two games. The Lakers aren’t well. And after a month of preaching patience, the signs that it’s wearing thin are the most defining trait of a team with four of the NBA’s top 75 players ever on its roster.
Players fighting with each other, another jawing with a fan, a coach running onto the court in a moment of rage and bad basketball clouding any rays of positivity defined a 115-105 loss to the Phoenix Suns.
Cameras caught Davis grabbing Howard by the arm, and when teammates intervened, Howard ended up getting shoved back onto the bench. Davis pointed at Howard as he was pushed away.
“It’s over with,” Davis said, adding the disagreement was over a pick-and-roll coverage.
During the timeout, an upset Howard bounced around the perimeter. He and Davis got face to face and had an animated conversation before the timeout ended.
“We squashed it right then and there,” Howard said. “… We’re grown men. Things happen.”
The Suns scored eight of the next 11 points to cap a disastrous second quarter in which Phoenix outscored L.A. 34-18.
“In my 42 years of being associated with the Lakers organization, I’ve never seen something like that smh,” Lakers great Magic Johnson tweeted after the loss.
The @Lakers have a team issue and basketball issue.
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) October 23, 2021
With the taste of the embarrassing quarter still coating their palettes, the Lakers came out and were immediately beaten for an uncontested dunk by Mikal Bridges to start the third quarter.
“We knew the margin for error was going to be slim,” coach Frank Vogel said. “We’re just disappointed that we’re not winning.”
If it were just one incident Friday, maybe it could be explained away by heat-of-the-moment competitiveness. But the incident with Howard and Davis was one of a handful of times when the Lakers look rattled.
Upset that officials didn’t call Chris Paul for an offensive foul, Vogel ran onto the court to argue, quickly drawing a technical foul. A second technical and an ejection could’ve been looming had assistant coach David Fizdale not nudged him back toward the bench.
And Rajon Rondo and a fan sitting courtside got into an argument; Rondo signaled for security and called for the fan to be ejected. It appeared Rondo made a gun gesture with his hand, pointing at the fan, who slapped it away. Rondo again made the gesture, and the referee ejected the fan without further incident.
“I think they’re three isolated incidents,” Vogel said. “… It says we want to be 2-0 and we’re not.”
Until late, the Lakers’ energy, just like their composure, was zapped — LeBron James racing back to challenge a Cameron Johnson dunk attempt only to spend the subsequent possession in the backcourt while the Lakers bricked shot after shot at the rim.
James said the Lakers were too concerned with officiating. “One call here, one mistake here seems like the end of the world when it shouldn’t be,” James said.
At least early Friday, the Lakers were making some jump shots, helping keep the game tight despite their obvious deficiencies on both sides of the court. That they fell behind by double digits was bad enough — that they were hitting 60% of their threes at the time is a major red flag.
The shooting predictably went cold as the Lakers fell behind by as many as 32 to the Suns, strangely enough the last team the Lakers beat — back on May 27 — 148 days ago.
That Phoenix team came back from down 2-1 to beat the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs last spring, that defeat putting the Lakers on edge in addition to the struggles building chemistry.
The team showed life in the fourth quarter, sparked by positive minutes coinciding with Austin Reaves’ NBA debut. Reaves hit the first three shots of his career before missing late in the fourth to finish with eight points.
With Trevor Ariza, Kendrick Nunn, Talen Horton-Tucker and Wayne Ellington all injured and unavailable to play, Vogel turned to the undrafted rookie after stints with Avery Bradley, Malik Monk and Kent Bazemore were mixed, at best. Reaves played the entire fourth quarter when the Lakers outscored the Suns by 17.
Predictably, Russell Westbrook was better than he was in his Lakers debut, though the spacing issues created by having a poor-shooting point guard might not be going anywhere. Friday he was six for 15 to go with 11 rebounds and nine assists.
Davis, who picked up double technical fouls with Suns center Deandre Ayton, finished with 22 points and 14 rebounds. James scored 25 to go with five assists.
“I’d rather our guys care than not care,” Vogel said.
While the star power is there, the questions still are so far from being answered.
How will this team score? How will this team get stops? And how much longer can the Lakers ask for patience if they’re not showing enough of it themselves?
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.