In one of the lowest moments of this Lakers season, the ball popped across the court to a spot behind the three-point line above the left elbow and Andrew Nembhard swished a game-winner.
That was Nov. 28, a game the Lakers wanted to forget.
They’ll think about it now.
“It’s like Indiana all over again,” a disappointed Darvin Ham said.
With an opportunity to gain precious ground in the Western Conference playoff race, the Lakers again saw defeat handed to them with a last-second three from that very spot — this one with Maxi Kleber delivering the shot Friday night.
“It sucks to say the least,” Austin Reaves said.
The 111-110 loss Friday would’ve been miserable enough on its own, but with the team having just lost in Houston with Anthony Davis out for precautionary reasons because of his foot injury earlier this year, the Lakers are officially moving in the wrong direction.
It’s the first time the Lakers have lost consecutive games in more than a month.
“If you don’t care about losing games that are really meaningful, what’s the point of playing?” Reaves said.
The Lakers have been clear in their strategy over the last month, prioritizing health ahead of the standings. With no restrictions, no back-to-back games to hold anyone out, Friday, the Lakers just had an opportunity.
Playing the Mavericks, a team just a game ahead of them in the standings entering Friday’s game, the Lakers had a chance to make a real move. Minnesota, Golden State, New Orleans and Portland all lost, giving the team a precious chance to gain ground.
They didn’t take it.
After trailing by as many as 14, the Lakers fought back to lead by five in the fourth before the Mavericks mounted a comeback.
Three free throws from Kleber (after he was fouled on a three by Davis) made it a one-point game in the final minute.
Davis then split two free throws to give the Mavericks a chance to either win or tie.
There would be no overtime, the Lakers forcing the ball out of Kyrie Irving’s hands, but Kleber stepped in and swished the shot as the horn sounded.
Davis finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds and five other Lakers scored at least 10 on a night where the team was badly outshot by Irving and the Mavericks from the three-point line.
Dallas made 11 more threes than the Lakers, who also missed 12 free throws against just four for the Mavericks, who were without Luka Doncic.
Irving scored 38 to lead Dallas.
After the loss, which moved the Lakers into the slightest of leads for the final play-in spot ahead of Utah, the Lakers said they need to play like a team that needs them all.
But with restrictions on whether Davis can play back-to-backs, that’s obviously harder to do.
That strategy has a cost — and it’s one teams around the Western Conference seem willing to pay.
By emphasizing potential postseason health instead of regular-season wins, teams like the Lakers, the Clippers and the Mavericks are potentially sacrificing critical games in a packed playoff race.
It’s not completely off the radar. Friday at shootaround, Dennis Schroder told reporters that he had his eyes on a specific place — outside of the play-in tournament.
“I think how we are as a group right now, the chemistry, I think, is in a perfect place,” Schroder said. “Like I said, we just have to try to get the No. 6 seed, that’s our goal and our wish. And then go from there.”
Still, the No. 6 seed would open the playoffs on the road.
Ham, who has more than 25 years of NBA experience as a player and a coach, has seen a shift toward health becoming the most important thing for teams as they head into the postseason.
“I don’t think it’s completely changed, but I do think health takes precedence over [seeding],” Ham said before Friday’s game. “ … And the playoffs, I don’t want to say it’s overrated, but you’re gonna have to win on the road at some point in order to be world champions, so you just have to be solid, healthy, confident and playing in a good rhythm.
“And no matter where you play, you give yourself a chance. But just having home court, I’ve seen teams multiple times, many, many postseasons have home court advantage and it doesn’t matter, because they gave up those home games.”
History, though, says teams that have to fight uphill in the playoffs are at a tremendous disadvantage.
The 1995 Houston Rockets are the lowest seeded team to win a title after beginning those playoffs as sixth in the West.
The 1999 New York Knicks made the Finals as the eighth seed in a lockout-shortened season.
The Lakers’ seeding hopes aren’t individually tied to whether Davis is or isn’t on the court on back-to-back games (the Lakers play the Jazz and the Clippers in their final back-to-back of the year).
LeBron James continues to progress, with Schroder saying he has seen James go through multiple daily workouts in an effort to return.
Getting him back with time still on the season’s clock would be a huge boost.
Pregame, Ham warned against the team looking at the standings or setting specific win/loss targets in their final dozen games.
“Each game is its own entity, and we need to approach it that way,” Ham said. “Making sure we maximize and every day make sure we improve as much as we can while still trying to achieve our goal. But just have to take ’em one at a time.
“We can’t get overwhelmed where we got 12 left and we gotta get to that number [of wins], and you start overlooking things. Our priority has been to stay in the moment and take ’em one at a time.”
Friday, though, it was the Mavericks who took it.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.