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LeBron James, Malik Monk help Lakers close out Kings

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LOS ANGELES — The Sacramento Kings aren’t a team to take down to the wire.

But lately, neither are the Lakers.

The Kings took them to three overtimes earlier this season, but the Lakers found a way to close them out in regulation on Tuesday night, 122-114, for their third win in a row, all at home. After a slow start, LeBron James set the pace with 31 points and scored 10 of the Lakers’ last 21, while Malik Monk scored 11 of his 24 points in the final seven minutes.

The Lakers (20-19) have won four of their last five games, rising above .500 for the first time since Dec. 21. Forced to deviate a little from their center-less lineups of recent weeks against Sacramento’s big-bodied frontcourt, the Lakers got contributions from some reserves who were coming off cold stretches and were able to pull away with a 37-point fourth quarter.

James started as slow as anyone, but he found his groove late to pull the Lakers over the finish line.

“You never lose belief that he’s going to do what he did in the fourth quarter,” Coach Frank Vogel said. “That’s just who he is.”

The Kings hurt the Lakers with their backcourt: De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield combined for 56 points, and the Lakers appeared to be on the ropes when the Kings started the fourth quarter with a 13-4 run.

But James turned it on down the stretch with 14 points in the fourth quarter and an eye for Monk, who has been the team’s second-leading scorer over the last six games. The duo had all five of the Lakers’ 3-pointers in the fourth, and James helped muscle the game home with tough layups against Damian Jones, including one where he rebounded his own blocked shot for a putback.

After his final basket at the rim, James barked at the gaping Kings bench: “I’m a (expletive) problem.” It was his eighth game of 30-plus points in his last nine since All-Star big man Anthony Davis got injured – no one has been able to solve him during that stretch.

“I missed a lot of really good looks early on,” said James, who added five rebounds and five assists. “And teammates kept just telling me, ‘Just bring us home.’”

After weeks of top-notch play, James looked pedestrian early. Through three quarters, his shot was short (6 for his first 17 from the field). And with James less effective from long range, the Lakers’ recent strategy of playing him at center didn’t space the court as much as it has in recent weeks.

Russell Westbrook came in with high energy and a lot of attention to taking care of the ball. Leading the league in total turnovers entering the game, he had none in his 34 minutes.

The Lakers set a season-low of five team turnovers, helping them generate 16 more shot attempts than the Kings. Westbrook had been under scrutiny in recent days after coughing it up nine times against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday.

“I don’t know if that’s realistic,” Westbrook said of their five total turnovers, “but it shows that when we put our mind to it we can do it as a team.”

Still, Westbrook was just 7 for 19 from the field, struggling to score with efficiency on his way to 19 points.

But even as the main stars slumped, another Laker broke out: Talen Horton-Tucker (19 points) had his best game since clearing COVID-19 protocols, scoring 11 points in the first 16 minutes of the game, including his first 3-pointer since Dec. 12, ending an excruciating cold snap.

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But little about Horton-Tucker’s game looked frosty as he slithered to the rim for layups and kicked back for fadeaway jumpers. He was the hottest shooter in the game, so much so that the Kings put Davion Mitchell, their rookie defensive specialist, onto him midway through the game.

“Through the times when I wasn’t shooting the ball well, I still was going out there shooting,” he said. “So, I didn’t feel like I didn’t lose any confidence at all. Even if I play bad. … So, feel like staying positive is kind of what I did.”

The Lakers also decided to go big again, at least off the bench. After spending three of the previous four games tethered to the bench, Dwight Howard dusted himself off for 14 points and 14 rebounds, emerging as a low-post scoring threat that the Lakers leaned on for lobs and putbacks. It was Howard’s best game (and first double-double) since the Lakers faced Sacramento last month.

James revealed later that the team had awarded him the game ball.

“As a professional, obviously we know it’s tough when you want to play and sometimes your number’s not called,” he said of Howard. “But it’s also even more of a professional when you stay ready and your number’s called and you go out and produce.”

“We won the game because we did not turn the ball over tonight.” @KingJames reflects on the keys to tonight’s hard-fought #LakeShow win that included big contributions from Dwight, THT, and Malik Monk. @LakersReporter pic.twitter.com/3PeLyQXD5P

— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) January 5, 2022

31 PTS, 5 REB, 5 AST @KingJames leads the @Lakers to their third-straight W and records 25+ PTS for the ninth game in a row! pic.twitter.com/9sCm3oyo9c

— NBA (@NBA) January 5, 2022

“Russ is really invested in this team. He’s not always perfect but he really cares. I was proud of his bounce-back performance.” Frank Vogel shares his key takeaways from tonight’s gritty win vs. the Kings. #LakeShow @LakersReporter pic.twitter.com/CHnwpNkJRP

— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) January 5, 2022

“If people don’t watch the game and just look at the stat sheet…then you’re not seeing the other things that impact winning.” Russell Westbrook had 0 turnovers tonight and the #LakeShow as a team had only 5. pic.twitter.com/tF1kRswdg9

— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) January 5, 2022

“It’s tough not knowing if you’re going to play…it’s all about sacrifice. For me, it’s about staying ready and staying positive.” @DwightHoward (14 PTS, 14 REB) talks with the studio crew following his productive outing against the Kings. #LakeShow pic.twitter.com/c5Zm4OTG2I

— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) January 5, 2022

“It helps when you have bodies out there that can change a game.” @carmeloanthony speaks with @Mike_Bresnahan about why he feels the #LakeShow may be turning a corner. pic.twitter.com/FFt552QkXl

— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) January 5, 2022

𝑩𝑰𝑮 𝑴𝑶𝑶𝑫. @KingJames pic.twitter.com/LIxX2EWa89

— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) January 5, 2022

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