The Los Angeles Lakers haven't stopped fighting following their elimination from playoff contention on Friday night, defeating the visiting Sacramento Kings at Staples Center 111-106 on Sunday night.
The victory halted L.A.'s five-game losing streak, but the Lakers have only won two of their last 12 games. L.A. sprung out to a 16-point lead with two minutes remaining in the third quarter, but the Kings battled back and cut the deficit to 106-104 with 16.6 seconds left in regulation.
Sacramento fouled Lakers All-Star forward LeBron James on the next two possessions, and he sank all four free throws to seal it.
The three-point shot was silky for both teams, as the Kings sunk 14 and the Lakers 13.
L.A. forward Kyle Kuzma accounted for five of those threes. Kuzma and James led all scorers with 29 points. James recorded his eighth triple-double of the season with 11 rebounds and 11 assists.
Following a career game in Friday night's loss with 33 points and 20 rebounds, Lakers center JaVale McGee contributed 17 points and 14 rebounds.
Rookie No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley III had 25 points and 11 rebounds, leading the way for SacTown.
The loss is a blow to the Kings' slim postseason chances, as they entered Sunday's game 5.5 games behind the San Antonio Spurs for eighth place in the Western Conference playoff picture.
Kyle Kuzma Must Be Off Limits in Offseason Trade Talks for Lakers
The remainder of the Lakers' 2018-19 season is a campaign for who gets to stay in L.A. alongside James next season and beyond, and Kuzma's 21-point third quarter in a meaningless game on Sunday night was the latest sign he should not be traded.
Among the Lakers young core of 23-year-old Kuzma, 21-year-old point guard Lonzo Ball, 21-year-old forward Brandon Ingram and 24-year-old guard Josh Hart, Kuzma is the best fit best alongside James on the court. Statistically, Kuzma is the team's second-leading scorer at 18.5 points per game behind James (27.4).
Prior to Sunday night's win, James posted a promise to his Instagram. "Believe me!" the 34-year-old wrote. "Promise #LakerNation the spell won't last much longer! I swear. The marathon continues!"
James can't stop the Lakers' six-season postseason drought by himself, as this season proved, and keeping Kuzma around will go a long way in the right direction. On Jan. 10, while James was still out with a groin injury, The Ringer's Dan Devine spelled out Kuzma's value:
"The Lakers score nearly eight more points per 100 possessions with [Kuzma] on the court and have scored about as efficiently in minutes when Kuzma's on the floor sans LeBron as when they share it.
"At 23 years old, Kuzma is already the Lakers' second-best scoring threat. Even if that's all he is, and it's still too early to write that story, that's not nothing. It's a lot, in fact, which is why Kuzma—making just $1.7 million in the second season of a rookie contract that will keep him under team control through at least 2022—is such an interesting piece for the Lakers."
To be fair, Kuzma has been the healthiest this season and had the best chance to mesh with James. Ball has been out since Jan. 19 with a sprained left ankle, and he won't return this season. Ingram was shut down for the season on March 9 with deep venous thrombosis in his arm. Hart has dealt with a nagging knee injury.
On Feb. 27, James lauded both Kuzma and Ingram for stepping up this season (h/t Anthony Irwin of Silver Screen and Roll):
"I think, obviously, both of them are improving their game, especially offensively. B.I. is in a crazy shooting zone right now, with his efficiency more than anything. Kuz as well, he's been very efficient with every shot attempt he makes. It's been very good to see them and their growth throughout this process."
Regardless of whom James praises publicly, change is coming in L.A. this offseason, and nobody seems safe—even head coach Luke Walton, who, if dismissed, could be replaced by Jason Kidd, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.
Earlier this season, all Lakers not named LeBron were put on notice when New Orleans Pelicans All-Star forward Anthony Davis publicly demanded a trade in January. The Lakers were the most aggressive team trying to work a trade for Davis before the Feb. 7 deadline.
Their final offer reportedly included Ball, Kuzma, Ingram, Hart, center Ivica Zubac and two first-rounders. The Pelicans declined, the deadline passed, but it's a foregone conclusion that L.A. will try again to land Davis this summer. The next time around, the Purple and Gold should take Kuzma off the table.
At All-Star Weekend, Kuzma voiced his commitment to the Lakers when asked on SiriusXM NBA radio about how the media coverage and trade rumors were affecting him:
However, it's his production down the stretch that speaks the loudest. Kuzma could easily throw in the towel and chalk it up to a disappointing season, but he's showing heart and showing L.A. a way to build moving forward in the LeBron Era.
The Lakers (32-41) will attempt to continue ending their season on a positive note against the Washington Wizards on Tuesday, and the Kings (36-37) will scrap for that last spot in the Western Conference playoffs at Dallas on Tuesday.