Missing Kobe

 —  February 8, 2005

According to our new-sound Laker radio station, Kobe is going to practice with the team today in New Jersey (although a return date is not yet set), and I think we can all say “thank god!” We’re past the “the team will learn from this” stage, past the “we’ll be better off in the long run for this” talk. The last two games have shown us just how much we need that well-dressed man sitting on the end of the bench — those are games we win with Bryant on the court.

Without him, optimism has left the Laker nation after two ugly losses. With games this week in New Jersey, Detroit and Cleveland, it’s not likely to return soon.

Things did not start out bad in Kobe’s absence, the Lakers were 4-1, Lamar was asserting himself and the ball was moving on offense (which hid the defensive weaknesses). Since then the team is 2-6 (making them 6-7 since the injury, and I’m counting the Cleveland win in there). Everyone was thinking “if they can just play .500 ball until he gets back we’ve got a chance” but with the remaining games this week that is not going to happen.

Last night’s loss in Atlanta really hurt – it was the worst Laker performance of the season. The Lakers played 12 minutes of defense — the fourth-worst shooting team in the NBA shot 51.7% (eFG%). It was a second straight slow start, this time the Lakers listened to poster Zach and ran a lot of plays for Lamar early, but he passed some and the Lakers were a jump-shooting team for the first few minutes. Eventually Odom started to attack the rim, but by then the Lakers were already down 14-0, a hole they would never climb out of.

Two straight games the Lakers have fallen behind early, in part because they don’t have a guy they can give the ball to and almost guarantee will give them two points. The other team gets on a run and there is little the sans-Kobe Lakers can do to break it. Lamar tries to fill that role, but he’s not that guy — he can be doubled and will pass out of it, Kobe can beat that or at least draw the foul. Against Atlanta Odom was the focus in the first quarter, getting plenty of isolation plays, but the Lakers never made a run. (The Lakers ran a lot of isolation against Atlanta, turning them back into a three-point happy team with 23 chances.)

Then there is defense — the Lakers have almost none on the perimeter with Kobe out. Atlanta brought Tony Delk off the bench (a guy averaging 18.3 points per 40 minutes, except that he only averages 24.5 minutes per game) and let him torch them for 25. Kobe was not there to shut him down, to turn the tide. Inside, we had the team’s worst interior defender — Slava — playing key minutes. Enough said.

And, do you think things could have been different at the end of last night’s loss with Kobe in charge of the offense? I do, I think the Lakers get better looks (and Kobe, if he got to the free throw line 20 times like Lamar, would have hit more than 12). Same with Houston, although there Cook got the kind of shot you want to end the game, one you expect him to knock down. He’s not Robert Horry yet.

Of course, the old issues are still there with this team. In Houston the Lakers had 21 turnovers to the Rockets’ 8, with led to 14 fast break points from one of the slowest-playing teams in the NBA, and the Rockets took 12 more shots than the Lakers. In Atlanta it was offensive rebounds — the Lakers grabbed 5 but gave up 15, and the Hawks took 12 more shots than the Lakers.

Kobe is not a cure-all, but this team is much better with him than without. And if the Lakers are going to make the playoffs, they need him back sooner rather than later.

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On a side-related Kobe note, I just want to wish his daughter well and I’m glad to read she is back home. I know first-hand how scary it can be when your child is sick.

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By the way, a quick apology for the poorly-researched preview yesterday. In my rush I didn’t bother to check the injured list, so I discussed Josh Smith and Al Harrington, neither of which suited up (which makes that loss even more pathetic). I’ll try not to let it happen again.