LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles Lakers coach Luke Walton blamed himself after a late turnover contributed to his team’s collapse in the waning minutes of a 131-120 loss to the NBA’s best team, the Milwaukee Bucks, on Friday.
Trailing 121-118 with less than two minutes to play, Walton called a timeout to draw up a play designed to feed LeBron James the ball and give him space in the open floor to mount an attack.
Only, while the mission of the play was clearly communicated, Walton said he failed to emphasize the initial trigger: inbounding the ball cleanly from the baseline.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was the inbound man and turned it over while trying to feed it to James, who was sandwiched by two Bucks defenders — Malcolm Brogdon and Ersan Ilyasova — in the middle of the lane. Ilyasova tipped the lob pass away from James out to Khris Middleton, and Middleton found Brogdon in the corner for a 3 that doubled the Bucks’ lead to six with 1:48 left.
“I’ll take that responsibility,” Walton said after the loss. “I took for granted that we’d get the ball inbounds. That is on me. We have an extra timeout, we’ve got to take it. We can’t afford to turn that ball over right there. But they came up with the press, and we didn’t get open and at that point we probably should have called that last timeout. I know guys always want to save them, but it was a costly play in the game.”
Caldwell-Pope found himself at fault, too, noting his role in the play going awry.
“I was just looking for someone to get open. I could’ve run the baseline and I didn’t,” he said.
The Brogdon 3 was part of a 15-2 closing run by the Bucks that dropped the Lakers’ record to 30-32 — 3½ games behind the San Antonio Spurs for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with 20 games to play.
Afterward, James — who has preached positivity all week — let the disappointment of the loss sink in.
“We blew it,” James told ESPN.
The Lakers led the Bucks by as many as 12 points midway through the third quarter before letting Milwaukee back in it. According to data compiled by ESPN Stats & Information, it was the seventh time this season that L.A. has lost after holding a double-digit lead in the second half this season, the second-most squandered opportunities in the NBA behind only the Orlando Magic, who have done it nine times.
“I mean, listen, this is win or lose. And obviously you want to build, but it’s win or lose in that particular moment,” James said, adding that he lives in the present. “Tomorrow, we’ve got to be great tomorrow in the next game. We can’t say, ‘OK, we were great three quarters, three-and-a-half quarters versus Milwaukee, we can carry that.’ Nope, we can’t do that. We have to be great against Phoenix and hit the restart button.”
From 7:09 remaining in the third quarter — when the Lakers held their biggest lead until — to the final buzzer, the Bucks shot 22-for-34 from the field (64.7 percent), including going 7-for-13 from 3 (53.8 percent) and scored 12 points off five Lakers turnovers.
“Defense,” Rajon Rondo offered as the reason for L.A.’s demise. “Simple as that. And they made three or four three-point plays. I had a bad turnover in the fourth, just led to a domino effect on the defensive end. Couldn’t get stops.”
The Lakers play the 12-51 Suns on Saturday and then return to Staples Center for a three-game homestand against the LA Clippers, Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics — three teams that would qualify for the postseason if the playoffs started today.
“I thought against one of the best teams in the league we really played well and then for some reason, we kind of fell apart at the end there,” Walton said. “We know we have to make plays. … When we are playing the elite teams, any team, we have to take games.”