Short-handed Lakers fall short against Suns in feisty game


What will the Lakers make of this, their most recent challenge in a stretch where they’ve seemed to outnumber the triumphs?

Starting center Marc Gasol didn’t play and will be in the league’s health and safety protocols for an undefined amount of time. Montrezl Harrell, the Lakers starter on Tuesday against the Phoenix Suns, is still trying to grasp the team’s defensive schemes.

Add in the Lakers’ actual best center — Anthony Davis — on the bench and not particularly fond of playing center, and this is what the Lakers were left with — make-do options as the team got one precious game closer to the All-Star break in a 114-104 loss to the Suns at Staples Center.

Without Gasol and Davis, and with Kyle Kuzma a late scratch because of a bruised heel, the Lakers were again short-handed, forced to rely on veteran Jared Dudley and newbie Damian Jones to play critical minutes in the frontcourt.

Neither did enough to earn themselves a spot in the Mikan-Chamberlain-Abdul-Jabbar-O’Neal air-space, but for a night, it was just fine.

Dudley, the Lakers’ lovable chemistry czar, guarded Phoenix’s Dario Saric with tenacity, forcing turnovers and getting stops — the Lakers’ bench players jumping to their feet each time he made a play.

In the first three quarters with Dudley on the court, the Lakers were 11 points better than the Suns.

And then there was Jones, whom the Lakers signed after Phoenix decided to waive the 25-year-old, who entered the game and promptly blocked Mikal Bridges’ shot.

It was that kind of a game, unlikely players on the floor surrounded by unlikely scenarios, including the bizarre ejection of Phoenix star Devin Booker.

Booker, who escaped without a flagrant foul after grabbing at Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s foot, took a hard foul from Caldwell-Pope shortly after, crashing to the court with a thud that quickly echoed inside an empty Staples Center. Caldwell-Pope was called for a flagrant foul on the play.

As things remained physical, LeBron James and Frank Vogel were called for technical fouls.

Later in the game, though, Booker was quickly hit with a pair of technical fouls, a puzzling ejection without any obvious reason.

There were some constants — James scoring 38 to try to pull the Lakers back into a game where they were mostly outplayed.

Dennis Schroder scored 17 and Talen Horton-Tucker had 16 off the bench. Alex Caruso had to leave the game because of muscle spasms in his neck, one victim of the game’s brutishness.

The Suns, led by 21 from Saric, now have the second-best record in the Western Conference.

It all happened against the backdrop of the Lakers once again dealing with the league’s health and safety protocols.

Gasol was a surprise addition to the injury report issued to the league Tuesday afternoon. Players are tested three times for the virus on game days, including an early-morning test.

Players can enter the protocols for a variety of reasons, including exposure to someone who tests positive like Caruso and Schroder had to earlier this season. Players who themselves test positive have to either register consecutive negative tests at least 24 hours apart or must wait at least 10 days before beginning the process to gaining medical clearance.

Gasol, 36, had started all 35 Lakers games this season, averaging 4.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 20.1 minutes.

“It changes things a lot for us,” Vogel said pregame. “Obviously he’s our starting center. All I can really say at this point is he’s out for health and safety protocols and we’re gonna start Montrezl and have a next man up mentality for tonight’s game.”

Even before the last-minute switch for the Lakers, the center position had been a topic of conversation in NBA circles as the March 25 deadline approaches.

Rival scouts and executives believe the Lakers are looking for upgrades in their frontcourt. Obviously, Cleveland’s Andre Drummond would be high on their wish list if bought out.

Rival executives have wondered if the Lakers could either try to add Sacramento’s Hassan Whiteside or maybe even reunite with JaVale McGee if the former Laker gets bought out by Cleveland and becomes a free agent.

Those moves come later. Just making it through Wednesday’s game against Sacramento — their last for more than a week — is the immediate priority.

UP NEXT

AT SACRAMENTO

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday.

On the air: TV: Spectrum SportsNet; Radio: 710, 1330.

Update: The Kings have six players averaging double figures, lead by point guard De’Aaron Fox (22.8 points and 7.4 assists). They have lost nine of 10 games and are last in the NBA in points allowed (120.3), opponents’ field-goal percentage (49.2%) and three-point shooting (40.2%).