ORLANDO, Fla. — As the Los Angeles Lakers fell behind by 28 points to the lowly Orlando Magic midway through the fourth quarter Wednesday, and coach Luke Walton sent developmental rookie center Thomas Bryant into the blowout, a frustrated Brook Lopez covered his head and face with a towel for several seconds.
In what has been perhaps the most frustrating season of his 10-year career, Lopez rubbed his eyes with the towel before briefly leaving the bench and heading into the tunnel during a timeout with 7:21 left in the fourth quarter. The team said the center left for a bathroom break. When Lopez returned quickly after, he proceeded to cheer on his teammates from the bench.
However, Lopez’s season hit its lowest point as the Lakers prepare to face the Nets in Lopez’s first game back in Brooklyn on Friday. Besides dropping an embarrassing 127-105 loss to the Magic — a team that had lost 20 of its previous 23 games — Lopez played a season-low nine minutes.
The proud veteran played a total of 1 minute, 33 seconds in the second half after Walton benched the starters less than two minutes into the third quarter for lackluster play. Lopez was the only starter who did not play the rest of the second half after the benching.
The starting center, who finished with five points and one rebound, and missed all three of his 3-point attempts, left without talking to reporters afterward.
Walton said he benched his starting five of Lopez, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Tyler Ennis early in the third because they allowed Orlando to score seven points in 44 seconds and clearly weren’t ready to play after halftime. The Lakers allowed the Magic to score 43 points and drill 9 of 13 3-pointers in the third quarter alone.
“I just thought we came out with no energy,” Walton said. “Everything we talked about at halftime … it just didn’t feel like our guys were ready to play. The message was, look, if you are not ready to play, if you don’t want to play, you are not going to play. So we went to the second unit and eventually kind of got guys back into the game, but just a teaching moment of, we come out, got to be ready to play basketball.”
When asked why Lopez did not play again in the second half, Walton answered, “Because by the time I would have put him back in, it was close to a 30-point game and [I] figured get Thomas Bryant some minutes.”
With the Lakers trailing 112-84, Walton subbed in Bryant, a rookie center who has spent most of the season in the G League with the South Bay Lakers, for Larry Nance Jr.
Lopez has averaged 31.5 minutes during his career, but just 20.9 minutes this season entering Wednesday night. The center, who missed eight games earlier this season because of a sprained ankle, has been a spectator in several fourth quarters and during crunch time as Walton often has gone with Randle at center with opponents going small.
Brook Lopez’s block prompts a Lakers’ fast break that ends in a one-handed slam from Brandon Ingram.
Including Wednesday night’s game, Lopez has not played in the fourth quarter in 16 of his past 18 games and has sat out 25 fourth quarters in games he has played this season. Despite being the highest-paid player on the team with $22.6 million due in the final season of his contract, Lopez has logged only 83 fourth-quarter minutes — including a total of seven fourth-quarter minutes in January — according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The 7-footer was accustomed to being a fixture in the lineup during his previous nine seasons with the Nets. The Nets’ all-time leading scorer nearly missed all of the 2011-12 and 2013-14 seasons because of foot injuries, but this season has provided him with a different type of frustration. Lopez, who is averaging a career-low 11.8 points and 43.5 percent shooting, would love to be playing more.
Some of Lopez’s teammates appeared to be concerned with the center when he briefly left the bench.
“Shhhhh, I don’t know,” guard Jordan Clarkson said when asked if he can see how frustrated Lopez is. “Brook [is] kind of stone-faced to me so. … He don’t really show much emotion most of the time when I am around, when I see him. Shoot, who knows?”
On Friday, Lopez will play against his old team for the first time in Brooklyn. He had his best game of the season by far with 34 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks while hitting six 3-pointers in a win over Brooklyn in Los Angeles in November.