Elliott: For Lakers, brutal loss to Suns magnifies bigger issues that don’t have an easy fix

Lakers forward LeBron James expresses his displeasure with a referee's call during Thursday's game against the Suns.

So much for the possibility — the wild notion, as it turned out — that the Lakers might have gained some momentum from beating the Clippers and the Toronto Raptors in consecutive games, that those wins would become a springboard toward something better. To .500, at least, for a start.

Facing what Lakers coach Darvin Ham called the Phoenix Suns’ “three-headed monster” of Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, and Kevin Durant on Thursday, the Lakers once again faced the harsh reality of their injury-shortened rotation and their shortcomings.

The Suns’ 127-109 victory wasn’t a surprise so much as a return to what has become the new, bad normal for the Lakers, who again couldn’t defend three-point shots, turned the ball over way too much, and got too little support for LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

After three quarters, the Lakers’ five starters had a combined 47 points. Beal and Booker alone had 60. James, who tweaked his ankle earlier in the game, finished with a season-low 10 points, on three-for-11 shooting (including four failed three-point attempts) in 24 minutes and 16 seconds. He got to rest during the fourth quarter, with the Suns leading 105-78 after three.

Read more: Lakers’ winning streak against Suns comes crashing down in blowout loss

“It was just a tough night,” Ham said. “One of those nights.”

The Lakers (19-20) have had a lot of those nights this season. And they’re likely bound for more of them, with more lineup changes inevitable. Cam Reddish started Thursday but had to leave early because of left knee soreness. Rui Hachimura (left calf strain) and Christian Wood (migraine) already were missing. There has been little continuity.

And the schedule doesn’t help. They next travel to Utah for a Saturday matchup against the Jazz, who have won three straight and eight of their last 10 and also are 19-20. “They historically have one of the best home-court advantages when you go up there,” said James, who said he felt OK physically but spoke in a tone that wasn’t entirely convincing.

“Altitude plays a little part in it, so we’ve got to get into the flow early, catch our second wind as quick as possible, and then make them defend,” he said of the Jazz. “But they’re a very good team. They’ve been playing really well.”

After that, playing every other day, the Lakers come home to play Oklahoma City, Dallas, Brooklyn and Portland, then pretend to be the road team against the Clippers, and close out their January home schedule against the Chicago Bulls. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

“We have to stay together and push through,” Ham said. “No one’s going to feel sorry for us. Just got to man up and hopefully get as healthy as we can and get on that plane [Friday] with the focus to go get a game in Utah.”

Their challenges go well beyond that.

“It’s a lot we could talk about right now, as far as what could we fix, I don’t know, short term. Figure it out and try to be better next game,” said D’Angelo Russell, who scored a team-high 19 points Thursday off the bench again. “I think it’s just a lot of holes in our system right now. You use the regular season to figure those things out, the ups and downs, the digression, the setbacks, all these things, injuries just keep playing a part in our success. So, just next-guy mentality.

“I think having a positive energy coming into work, practice and things like that, and getting better from game to game, I think that’s where we start. We look at this game and get better in ways that we maybe haven’t had to look at throughout the season. Right now it’s time to figure it out and do something about it, whatever that may be.”

That’s alarming in itself, if they don’t know what to do about it.

“There’s so many different challenges that we go to try to bottle them up and limit as many as we can just to try to scrape out some wins, you know,” Russell said. “I think we’re a team that’s still trying to figure things out. We’re still mixing and matching lineups, finishing groups, starting groups.

“So, we’re still figuring it out. So, I wouldn’t say panic, or anything like that. Last year was a prime example of this team not being where they wanted to be and we had some new energy, new vibes and it kind of made… It got us to where we ended off last year. So, I think we can still see light at the end of the tunnel. We just got to get better, got to keep getting better.”

Last season, it took trades that brought in Hachimura from Washington, Russell from Minnesota, and Jarred Vanderbilt from Utah to turn the Lakers’ season around and help them reach the Western conference finals. This season’s trade deadline falls on Feb. 8. General manager Rob Pelinka must soon decide whether he wants (or has the assets) to make big ripples, or if he will nibble around the edges and change the supporting cast. As the Lakers are built now and as inconsistent as they’ve been on defense through almost half a season, they won’t go far.

For now, anyway, expect more of the same: James and Davis being the Lakers’ pillars but able to do only so much against three-headed monsters and the more conventional and better-balanced foes they’ll meet along the way.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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