Dennis Schroder and short-handed Lakers can't complete comeback in loss to Kings

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Dan Woike
·5 min read
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Los Angeles Lakers guard Dennis Schroder (17) drives to the basket as Sacramento Kings forward Nemanja Bjelica.
Lakers guard Dennis Schroder drives to the basket in front of Sacramento Kings forward Nemanja Bjelica during the second quarter of the Lakers' 123-120 loss Wednesday. (Hector Amezcua / Associated Press)

How does that old rock song go again? Is it “Take me out, coach?”

That was the tune the Lakers were singing before their game with the Kings on Wednesday night in Sacramento, Frank Vogel leaving one superstar back in Los Angeles and moving another key player to the bench as he continued to look beyond the 48 minutes in front of him.

For the first time this season, the Lakers played without LeBron James, deciding after their loss to Phoenix on Tuesday that their 36-year-old star could use a night off. The Lakers and James have both opened the door to resting at times during the season, but this was the first time they walked through it.

“We’ve had a mind-set to encourage him to take a game off if needed, but to support him if he wants to be in there,” Vogel said pregame. “He’s always said that if his body feels good, he wants to play. He’s pretty banged up right now and particularly soreness in the ankle and so we took this opportunity to keep him home this game.”

The decision to sit James gives him 10 days rest between Lakers games to heal his lingering ankle issue and to recharge, even if there’s a detour to Atlanta for the All-Star game built into the itinerary.

And even though the Lakers lost 123-120 to the Kings, the undermanned roster challenged throughout the game, a potential game-winning layup rimming out.

Kyle Kuzma had a last-second three-point shot to tie but it came up just short.

Without James and Anthony Davis and Alex Caruso and Marc Gasol, the Lakers were definitely going to need a big game from Montrezl Harrell, who started for Gasol on Tuesday against the Suns.

Harrell wasn’t much of a factor against Phoenix — six points in only 18:30 — so he told Vogel something players don’t usually say — bench me.

All things considered — it sorta worked. Harrell scored 26 points, matching his season best, but his game-winning putback on the Lakers’ chaotic last possession missed wide.

The team heads into the All-Star break losing seven of its last 10 games, a stretch that began when Davis re-injured his calf and Achilles against the Denver Nuggets.

Wednesday, their last game before the break, the Lakers found life from their role players who all get a chance to do more.

Harrell, the reigning sixth man of the year asked to start the game from the sidelines, pushing newly added Damion Jones into the starting five. Vogel agreed and made the switch, pairing Jones with Dennis Schroder, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma and Markieff Morris. The lineup has played zero minutes together this season.

But Vogel had a feeling pregame that what he was about to see would happen. Without four core rotational players, opportunities were everywhere for almost everyone on Wednesday. And teams respond to that.

“These are the fun games,” Vogel said. “…You get one or two of these throughout the course of the season where you got a lot of guys out or you got a couple of key guys out and everybody gets to play and everybody gets to play bigger minutes and have more offensive opportunities and whatnot. And a lot of times they end up being the more fun games of the year.”

With four parts of the rotation out of action, the Lakers needed Jared Dudley, Alfonzo McKinnie and Jones to play bigger roles, with all three players making positive impacts while Harrell, Kuzma and Schroder all elevated their play, too.

Schroder led the Lakers with 28 and Kuzma added 25 points and 12 rebounds. Buddy Hield scored 29 to lead the Kings.

Kuzma always had it

As the Lakers head into the All-Star break, they have to be happy with the way Kuzma has evolved into a consistent difference maker on the roster, an improving role player who is just as likely to affect winning by rebounding and defending as he is by scoring.

Sacramento coach Luke Walton acknowledged that Kuzma’s path to this point wasn’t easy — being counted on to be a key scorer and being asked to fit around superstars are two very different jobs. But there’s no shock that Kuzma figured out a way to make it work.

“I’m not surprised because Kuz ... one of his best attributes was how much he wanted to learn, how much he wanted to become a great player,” Walton, the former Lakers coach, said. “And he had a great work ethic. Anything that he’s improved on as a player doesn’t surprise me.”

Caruso had it too … and he might get even more this summer

Caruso also made an early impression on Walton in the former G Leaguer’s first stints with the organization.

While Caruso didn’t play Wednesday because of neck spasms he suffered against the Suns, his play in the first half of the season has solidified his place in a championship rotation just in time for the guard to hit free agency this offseason for a big raise.

“We loved his toughness from when we had him in the G League down there and just the way he competed on both ends of the floor,” Walton said. “And I think that obviously when they added LeBron, him and the way he sees the game, his intelligence playing with other players like that, will continue to make Alex’s game even better.

“His competitiveness, his IQ in how he sees and plays the game are what really stood out to us in his first couple of years,” Walton said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.