Lakers start slowly and fall short late in losing to Pacers

The hottest conspiracy theory in the NBA’s bubble is that the Western Conference playoff teams that aren’t the Lakers are trying to help the Portland Trail Blazers become the eighth seed in the playoffs.

Portland has been one of the most impressive teams in the bubble, with wins over the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets. The Trail Blazers also nearly beat the Boston Celtics, who are in third in the Eastern Conference and have 46 wins.

So when Clippers coach Doc Rivers rested Kawhi Leonard for Saturday’s game against the Trail Blazers and then pulled his other star, Paul George, from the game with three minutes remaining and the Clippers trailing by two, eyebrows were raised. Was this an attempt to throw the game to improve the chances the Lakers would have to see this tough team in the first round?

Rivers said it was simply that George was on a minutes restriction and his time had expired. He was asked whether he thought the Blazers could beat the Lakers.

“I don’t get involved in that,” Rivers said. “I honestly don’t look at it. I heard our guys talking about it. I’m like, ‘Listen, that’s their business. Our business is who we’re playing.’ We need to focus on that.”

But the Clippers won, which put Portland 1½ games behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and only a half-game ahead of the 10th-seeded San Antonio Spurs. Once the seeding games have ended, the two teams in eighth and ninth place in the Western Conference will participate in a play-in game.

The Lakers, meanwhile, sputtered at the start of their game against the Indiana Pacers on Saturday evening. They again struggled to shoot or get their offense going for most of the first half, trailing by 15 points. But by halftime, the Lakers had a five-point lead. The second half was a tightly contested affair, but ultimately the Lakers lost 116-111.

Here are three observations on the Lakers:

1. Rajon Rondo’s presence doesn’t cure all ills, but the Lakers’ lack of depth at the playmaking positions showed in Saturday’s game. Their offense often stagnated when missing either LeBron James or Alex Caruso.

2. Indiana’s T.J. Warren has been impressive in the bubble, scoring 53 points in his restart debut against Philadelphia, and the Lakers struggled to contain him as well. Warren scored 39 points on 15-for-22 shooting against the Lakers.

3. After shooting 10.5%, 13.5% and 25% from three-point territory in three of their bubble games, the Lakers shot better from long distance Saturday. That was in part because of the performance of Quinn Cook, who was five for nine on three-point tries.

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