As the double-digit lead quickly melted all the way down to a single point, Frank Vogel could look to the “Boom Baby” pin on his shirt that was placed over his heart.
Earlier Tuesday, Vogel learned that former Indiana Pacers coach and broadcaster Bob “Slick” Leonard had died, Vogel continuing to coach the Lakers even though he had lost a friend and mentor. To honor him, Vogel wore a pin with Leonard’s signature phrase affixed to his jacket.
Leonard always was fond of reminding Vogel to never get too high or too low, not with wins and losses, and definitely not with players. So as things started to spin out of control in the Lakers’ game at Charlotte, Vogel waited. He trusted. And his team? It rewarded him.
The Lakers closed a 101-93 win over the Hornets on a 9-2 run in the final two minutes to end a seven-game trip with an improbable winning record, with Vogel taking his last two timeouts back to Los Angeles with him.
Before the game, Vogel spoke about Leonard’s influence on him and his family, the Indiana basketball icon taking Vogel “under his wing” when he started his coaching career on the Pacers’ bench.
“I’ll be coaching tonight’s game with a heavy heart,” Vogel said on a videoconference.
But throughout the game, the Lakers’ ability to be levelheaded, the trait Leonard impressed on Vogel most, shone through. The team wasn’t extra sharp on offense, heavy-legged from a physical game at New York the night before, but it was mentally sharp, cutting its turnovers down to just 11.
The Lakers fought through physical problems, Markieff Morris getting scratched late with a sprained ankle and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope having to play through back spasms. Kyle Kuzma, who led the Lakers with 24 points, played with a sleeve over his strained calf. And Dennis Schroder, who has dealt with all sorts of minor issues, nearly fell asleep on his feet after he drained a clutch, late-game three.
“All our guys are really fatigued right now,” Vogel said.
They should get some life back in Los Angeles when they play Thursday against the Boston Celtics in front of, most importantly, about 2,000 fans in Staples Center for the first time since March 10, 2020.
“That energy that crowd gives you, that you feed off, that can be big,” Caldwell-Pope said.
The Lakers could use the help because most nights they’re undermanned, still without injured LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Morris, one of their fill-in starters, was unable to play, taking away another piece of their rotation.
Still, they were somehow the healthier team on the court. The Hornets were without their top three scorers in Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball as well as a fourth starter, P.J. Washington, who’s sixth in scoring. But the Lakers should’ve known the Hornets would play with plenty of fight.
After all, that’s how the Lakers have had to win during their own short-handed stretch, most notably in Brooklyn against the Eastern Conference favorites.
And even though they were in a rare spot against the Hornets — the favorites — they played with urgency even if they weren’t sharp offensively.
Guard Alex Caruso led the Lakers in little things, breaking up plays, diving for loose balls and hitting timely shots, scoring 13 off the bench and finishing plus-21.
He and Schroder hit big shots, and the Lakers made all six of their fourth-quarter free throws.
“Frank trusts us to just be poised, to be patient when they make runs like that,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We’ve been in situations like that many times. …We just know what to do.”
Three takeaways on the Lakers
Even at full strength, the adage goes that a winning record on the road is a success, and the Lakers avoided what could have been a disastrous stretch by winning four times during this seven-game trip, fighting off fatigue and an undermanned Hornets teams on Tuesday.
Kyle Kuzma opened the game by airballing his first shot and hitting the side of the backboard on his next three-point attempt. But he rallied to lead the Lakers with 24 points, including a monster dunk over Charlotte center Bismack Biyombo.
The Lakers managed to beat the Hornets without much production from their big men, with Montrezl Harrell and Andre Drummond combining to score only 10 points.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.