A month into the bubble, the Lakers are feeling the strain away from home

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Before the Lakers played the Pacers on Saturday night, Frank Vogel looked back behind his bench to see his 14-year-old daughter Arianna in the crowd.

The actual seat was some 2,500 miles away in Los Angeles, but her picture was on the digital screen, over the Lakers’ bench. The Lakers’ coach was playing the team from Indiana, where he used to live, near Orlando, where he also used to live. But the home he longs for at the moment is on the West Coast. And for a moment, Vogel was able to see a reminder of the life he’s missing in the NBA bubble, as his team pursues a title.

A day later after a Lakers practice, Vogel raised a fist and cheered at the memory.

“Once the game started, I didn’t look back too much, a couple of times during the timeouts,” he said. “The beginning of the game I tried to wave and she didn’t wave back, so I didn’t know if she could see me or not.”

These very small windows to the world outside the bubble are both sustaining and not sufficient for the Lakers, who as of Sunday had spent a month on the Disney campus chasing championship dreams. This week, the Lakers have been more openly acknowledging the strain of being isolated in the bubble without familial comforts. Even LeBron James, who has been to the Finals in eight straight seasons, said he lacked a frame of reference for how a playoff run should look in this unique environment.

The NBA is targeting the end of the month, which is around the end of the first round of playoffs, for a time when players could bring in three to four guests and pay for additional rooms themselves. So far, there hasn’t been much added information, several players said, and coaches and staff may not be able to bring in guests at all (given that all new entrants increase risk and expense in the bubble).

The Lakers have had team dinners, golf outings and a Madden video game tournament that is ongoing. But there’s only so much time those pursuits fill, and only so much it can break up the monotony of staying put. While many players said there’s been more to do than they expected before they got to the bubble, there’s a cumulative mental toll.

“It definitely adds up over time,” JaVale McGee said. “You get a little cabin fever, I feel like, just being in the same place doing the same things every day with no variation, but it’s necessary for the goal in hand which is to win an NBA championship. We all knew what we were getting ourselves into. It’s actually more things to do than we actually anticipated, so it’s not horrible.”

The basketball in the restart has been fairly compelling: Saturday’s games, for example, saw high scores and tight finishes, including three overtime periods. Some off-court drama has also gotten more saucy: Damian Lillard traded shots with Patrick Beverley and Paul George on court, in postgame and on social media after his Blazers fell to their Clippers.

Green said he thinks the added chippiness is in part from the rising tension of bubble claustrophobia — which can also turn inward to teammates in some cases.

“You’re seeing guys get less patient with each other, some teams get less patient with each other,” Danny Green said. “That’s gonna be another challenge, another task, another obstacle that you’re going to have to fight through. Being in that type of atmosphere all the time and trying to get the chemistry right, and not have the escape that you normally have, or the outlets you normally have that are right there for you. So the mental aspect of it gets only tougher and tougher every day.”

Vogel said he’s considered giving his team some time “apart” in the bubble, but it hasn’t been necessary yet.

Several Lakers have also had their families cycle onto the digital screen: JaVale McGee had his mother, his sister and his daughter’s mother on screen against the Clippers (he called it “some Black Mirror-type stuff”). Many players and coaches spend hours on FaceTime with their families and loved ones, trying to steal little scraps of their three-month road trip back.

What they try to come back to is making the sacrifice worth it.

“Everyone that came on the trip wants to be here and wants to compete for a championship so we have that mindset of being able to go out there and play games and know why we’re here, what’s our purpose,” Anthony Davis said. “So I don’t think that mental aspect is getting to us but there’s more so just on-court things — getting back in a rhythm and things like that. But I think we’re mentally strong enough to withstand the next six weeks or whatever — however long we’re here.”

Caldwell-Pope to miss Monday’s game vs. Nuggets

One of the most impressive active streaks on the team will end Monday night: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will sit out.

The 27-year-old has played in 177 straight games, last missing a Lakers contest on Jan. 21, 2018. He’ll sit out with right ankle soreness after Myles Turner landed on it in the second quarter of Saturday’s game. After spending several tense moments down on the ground, Caldwell-Pope popped back to standing after James teasingly mocked him to get up. He returned to the game after the timeout and wound up playing 31 minutes.

Vogel said medical evaluation “came back clean” for Caldwell-Pope, but the Lakers are playing cautious with just two games remaining in the regular season and a thin back court rotation. Alex Caruso also missed a game last week with neck soreness after an on-court collision.

“I have a great deal of respect for guys like that that are iron men,” Vogel said. “KCP is sort of the all-reliable for us and he could play tomorrow if we needed him. Obviously with Avery out, he becomes one of our more important players, what he can do on the defensive end. And great respect for guys like that that play every night.”

Caldwell-Pope’s absence will continue to sow a little disorder into the Lakers’ rotations, which have been irregular throughout the seeding games as the coaching staff has sought to blend new components and give players like Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith a look — but neither played Saturday. Vogel said he would continue to mix and match on rotations against the Nuggets.

“We’re still going to look at different combinations and get guys involved,” he said. “We’re not going to have a full ‘this is our playoff rotation’ mindset tomorrow night. We’re still going to work in some guys to get familiar in our system and the way we’re playing with the starting lineup.”

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