LOS ANGELES — A night before in the shadow of one of his teammates, Quinn Cook had been bathing in relative anonymity.
He was one of two Lakers teammates who came out to a Tuesday event in downtown Los Angeles for Anthony Davis’ partnership with a snack food company. At 6-foot-1, the unassuming Cook mostly blended in with guests – attempting rainbow fadeaways on pop-a-shot baskets between sips of water.
Many in the crowd didn’t seem to recognize a Laker (and an NBA champion) was in their midst. After Wednesday night, he might get more than a second glance.
It was Cook, and a number of the Lakers reserves who average the fewest minutes, who helped power them back into the game against the Orlando Magic (20-21) at Staples Center on another night without Davis (bruised backside) in uniform. But a chance to tie the score with five seconds left eluded their grasp, as a 3-point attempt by LeBron James (19 points, 19 assists) rimmed out and the Magic got the rebound and Aaron Gordon made a clinching free throw.
Cook made the last shot of the night, a 3-pointer with just 0.4 seconds left, but it was not enough to keep the Lakers (33-8) from losing 119-118. It was their first loss this season to a team with a sub-.500 record after starting out 22-0 against such competition.
It was the reserves who made the most of the night: Cook, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Troy Daniels combined for 56 points, giving credence to the Lakers’ pride in their depth. James spoke glowingly of Cook, who scored 22 points to lead the Lakers. He’s known him since Cook was 18, and first got to be his teammate when Cook played for the Canton Charge, a G-League affiliate of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“Now he’s here and he’s making the most of it, just at true professional,” James said. “Someone who has the ability to put up bunches of points when the opportunity presents itself but more importantly, he just always stays ready. Great teammate no matter what the circumstances is if he’s playing or not.”
On Wednesday, the Lakers needed Cook and company just to make a game of it.
A 22-2 run to end the third quarter brought the Lakers back from the brink of oblivion. Twice, they trailed by at least 20 points. With an 87-66 deficit looming over them, a lineup powered by bench shooting got into the thick of things.
A string of hustle plays got the crowd to buy into the hope that the comeback might be completed: Caldwell-Pope took a charge, Dwight Howard took out Wes Iwundu one-on-one, and Jared Dudley dove for a tough loose ball. The energy transferred into the audience as the game got closer.
Cook shined the brightest at the end of the third, making three consecutive shots to bring the Lakers to within one point at the end of the third quarter. He and LeBron James were also prominent at the finish, hitting two late 3-pointers that got the Lakers within 111-110.
But defensive miscues cost the Lakers late: Nikola Vucevic hit a 3-pointer, then Markelle Fultz hit back-to-back shots by driving into the paint. Neither player had been available for the Lakers’ win over the Magic in December, and both took their vengeance combining for 40 points. Fultz managed his second career triple-double (21 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists).
Still, the performance validated some of the least-seen Lakers during a dominant start to the season. Even down the bench, there are players like Cook who can make a difference. Cook said he’s found ways to quiet the voice in his head that speaks to his self-interest, and his teammates have been a well of support.
“You can get consumed with yourself. ‘I should be playing. I can do this. I can do that. I’ve done this. I’ve done that,’” Cook said. “But we all have one common goal at the end of the year. There’s a lot of guys who’ve won in this locker room, and we know what it takes.”
After humming for the last three games without Davis, the Lakers’ offense hit a wall against the long limbs of Orlando. Vying against one of the most athletic rosters in the league, the Lakers’ leading scorers looked rusty.
It was almost enough to rob the crowd of its collective breath in the fourth quarter when James, one of the NBA’s most emphatic dunkers for his entire career, came up short on a slam attempt straight into the rim.
It was that kind of night for the Lakers’ top available scorers. Even as James piled up a season-best in assists, his own shot was hit-or-miss (7 for 19). One of his biggest came in the fourth quarter, when the Lakers finally took their first lead of the second half on a 3-pointer.
Kyle Kuzma, who had enjoyed a run of strong games starting for Davis, had a shooting rut as well, just 2 for 10 from the floor and sitting out the closing minutes.
A comeback wouldn’t have been possible without strong minutes from centers: Howard (nine points, 16 rebounds) was on the floor for the entirety of the 22-2 run in the third quarter, muscling around Vucevic in the post. JaVale McGee was 6 for 6 from the floor and had three blocked shots – including a dazzling rejection of Terrence Ross that was one of the most impressive blocks of the season.
“It was either way: It could have been the dunk of the year or the block of the year,” said McGee with a grin. “So luckily it was on my end.”
But the defense struggled as a whole to counter the spacing of Vucevic and the drives of Fultz and Aaron Gordon (21 points). The Magic had 60 points in the paint and 22 points off of the fast break. It was a game in which the team acknowledged Davis, a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year could’ve cleaned up a lot.
It was the first game the Lakers had lost in the four since Davis was sidelined. The Lakers kick off a five-game trip Saturday in Houston.
A perilous few weeks on the injury front for the Lakers got a little worse: Alex Caruso took an elbow to the jaw from Magic center Mo Bamba at the end of the first quarter. After an inconclusive concussion evaluation, the Lakers held out Caruso for the remainder of the game, expecting a follow-up evaluation on Thursday.
Still, it was striking how after a loss, the Lakers seemed to be brimming with confidence at the season’s halfway point, still leading the Western Conference by four-and-a-half games. Cook said James’ and Davis’ trust in him has helped keep him on track with the Lakers, even as his minutes have ebbed and flowed.
“He believes in me,” he said. “That’s all you can ask for from your leader and it means a lot.”
RIM PROTECTOR JAVALE!
— NBA (@NBA) January 16, 2020