PHOENIX — A season that started with a championship promise for the Los Angeles Lakers ended with the pain of failing to even qualify for the play-in tournament.
Tuesday’s 121-110 loss to the Phoenix Suns — coupled with a 116-97 win by the San Antonio Spurs over the Denver Nuggets — officially eliminated LA from play-in contention with three games remaining in the regular season.
Phoenix blew the game open with a 35-22 third quarter, and the Lakers limped to the finish line from there. The Suns’ Devin Booker (32 points on 12-for-22 shooting) and Jae Crowder let their opponent’s bench hear it, relishing the chance to bury the Lakers after Anthony Davis suggested last month that Phoenix’s 2021 playoff win over LA was a fluke.
Ultimately, it was just another rough night for the Lakers in a season that their fans would just as soon forget.
Injuries sabotaged the season, with LA’s new-look Big Three of LeBron James, Davis and Russell Westbrook combining to play just 21 games together through Tuesday. The Lakers went 11-10 in those games — hardly dominant, but certainly not cellar-dwellers, either.
Injuries played a factor again Tuesday, with James sitting out for the fourth time in the past five games because of soreness in his left ankle. It was his 23rd missed game of the season. Joining James on the visitors bench at Footprint Center in street clothes was Kendrick Nunn, missing his 79th game of the season because of a bone bruise in his right knee yet, curiously, still not simply ruled out for the season by the Lakers.
Even Davis, who was on the court playing in his third game back after a six-week absence because of a right mid-foot sprain, was also dealing with plantar fascia in his right foot that has afflicted him since his return, according to Lakers coach Frank Vogel.
The rash of poor health — including COVID-19 running through the locker room in December — led to a ridiculous total of 24 different players suiting up for LA at some point this season. And it left Vogel no choice but to constantly tinker with the players available to him as he tried out 39 different starting lineups through Tuesday — second most in the league behind the Brooklyn Nets.
A team picked to win 52.5 games in the preseason by BetMGM Sportsbook and a top favorite — along with Brooklyn — to win it all, was eliminated from play-in tournament contention by losing its seventh straight game to bring its record to 31- 48.
It’s the Lakers’ longest losing streak of the season, while San Antonio won for the seventh time in its past eight games to guarantee it will be at least the 10-seed in the play-in. The New Orleans Pelicans, who needed either a win Tuesday night or a loss by the Lakers, beat the Sacramento Kings 123-109 to clinch a playoff spot.
Los Angeles, meanwhile, hasn’t won consecutive games since early January, when it beat Sacramento and Atlanta at home.
By the time the Lakers and Suns tipped off Tuesday night, the Spurs held a seven-point lead over Denver late in the third quarter, putting one half of LA’s elimination scenario in place. The Lakers clung to a 42-39 lead over the Suns midway through the second quarter when San Antonio put the finishing touches on its win.
The loss unofficially starts an offseason that is full of questions marks for the Lakers. Will Vogel keep his job? Is there a shakeup in store for the front office? Can the Lakers find a trade partner for Westbrook and cut their losses? Will James, entering the final year of his deal, sign a contract extension to keep him in LA beyond his 20th season in the league?
James, ever cognizant of messaging, showed his alignment with the franchise through his attire Tuesday. He wore a white T-shirt with “Lake Show” printed on the front in purple and gold lettering, featuring caricatures of Laker legends Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson, Jerry West, James Worthy and Kareem Abdul- Jabbar.
Nobody from the 2021-22 Lakers made the cut.