In what has been an all too familiar theme of late, the Lakers fought back from a deficit, had a chance to win a game, and came up just short. The Lakers just didn’t have enough plays in them at the end of this contest to make up for the plays they gave away in earlier portions of the game. And so, for the first time since acquiring Pau Gasol a bit over two full season’s worth of games ago, the Lakers have lost three straight and find themselves in a position where there are a lot of questions and not a lot of easy answers. In a way, this game was a microcosm of the Lakers entire season. The Lakers played well in spurts, and despite facing deficits as large as twelve, they were effectively in this game for most of the contest. They have the talent and the fight to come back in any game and they showed that fight in the 4th quarter today. But the issues that have plagued this team for most of the season were present throughout the game.
The Lakers weren’t able to keep Orlando’s perimeter defense honest by making outside shots and finished just 5-17 from behind the three point line. And because the Lakers weren’t making the long ball, our bigs found themselves either not able to receive viable entry passes due to sagging defenders or had to deal with helping perimeter defenders when they did get the ball. And having helping defenders in the lap of the Lakers’ bigs then bothered and pestered them when going into their offensive moves. Understand, that a key component to the Triangle offense is spacing. And without that spacing, passing angles get shut down, our post play suffers, and our offense becomes stagnant. A stagnant offense means less ball movement and more individual play. And while the Lakers have great talent, not every player on the team is talented as an individual scorer. Obviously Kobe, Pau, and Bynum have proven themselves capable of scoring in one on one situations. And Odom and Artest also have a history of being players that can capably create their own offense. However, the rest of this team relies on (or is best served relying on) the movement of the offense to get good shots. And when they can’t rely on that movement, they’re put in situations where they’re working harder for diminished results. This leads to team wide inefficiency on offense. We saw it today like we’ve seen it for too many games this season.
On defense, the Lakers couldn’t contain dribble penetration by Orlando’s guards/wings and didn’t rebound as well as they needed to on the defensive glass. Again, familiar themes. On Orlando’s P&R, Jameer Nelson and Vince Carter were able to get into the paint and either draw fouls or finish at the rim. And when they didn’t get the whistle or the bucket, they compromised our interior defense and created easy offensive rebounding opportunities. Orlando had 15 offensive boards and those rebounds often led to finishes in the paint or more fouls that resulted in FT’s for the Magic. But it didn’t even take the P&R for the Lakers to give up angles to the rim off the dribble as Nelson and Carter were getting into the lane even without the aid of a Lewis or Howard screen. And even though Bynum and Gasol finished with a combined six blocked shots, Orlando still got into the paint far too frequently which compromised our team defense, got Bynum in foul trouble that plagued him the entire game, and got our help defenders into scramble mode. Overall, this wasn’t a poor defensive game for the Lakers as they held the Magic to an offensive efficiency a full 4 points below their season average, but it was a performance that was eerily familiar to us that watch the Lakers play on a nightly basis.
But, this game was not all bad. Despite the criticisms just offered against the Lakers defense, the Lakers did do some things well on that end of the floor. Bynum and Gasol did an admirable job on Dwight Howard and held him 15 points on 14 shots. Rashard Lewis, despite hitting a couple of big jumpers, was also held down for long stretches of this game and only shot 4-13 on his way to a 12 point outing. The Lakers also forced 19 turnovers, by fighting through screens, having active hands in both the passing lanes and in helping on penetration, and also had those aforementioned six blocked shots. This grittiness on defense is also a season long theme and I think the Lakers deserve credit for being a tough team to score on in most of the ways that teams try to attack them. And, as I mentioned earlier, the Lakers also showed that they have heart and fight to come back in a game where all is seemingly lost. Down ten points heading into the 4th quarter the Lakers pushed forward, hit shots, attacked the basket, played tough D, and made a game of it. Kobe played his tail off down the stretch and even though he had some misses, when the pressure was on he also hit some unbelievable (for most players anyway) jumpers that kept the Lakers close and gave them a chance to tie the game at the end. When he rose up to shoot that final 21 footer from the top of the circle, I had a good feeling that it would fall – like so many others have fallen this season – but it was not to be. As I’ve been saying a lot this season, Kobe in full on come back mode is something special to see and I am continually impressed by his ability to hit shots that few other players could even get at the basket if attempted, much less bury.
But, this praise does not ignore the fact that this team has its issues right now. I consistently try to find the good in this team and that is not a difficult thing to do as you scan the line up, see the talent, and inevitably notice all the good that they accomplish every game. But the bad is there as well and it’s been there for long stretches this season. As I mentioned earlier, the outside shooting is a real problem. The Lakers’ lack of perimeter (especially three point) shooting creates a domino effect on offense that is difficult to overcome. Those struggles are matched by the inconsistency of our guard play. Many harp on Fisher, and after another 4-12 night, I don’t (really) blame them. But Farmar also had another lackluster night with zeroes in the shooting and scoring department and lapses on defense that allowed his man into the paint more often than a player of his athleticism should allow. And Shannon, though a spark in the open court, is still flashing his lack of true PG instincts in both the half court and in fast break situations that show again why the coaches have played him almost exclusively at shooting guard this season. Without consistent guard play it will be difficult for this team to win games in the comfortable manner that their top end should allow (I don’t think it’s coincidence that the Lakers best performances this season weren’t because Kobe went crazy but because our guards made shots and had a real impact on the game).
Just two three quick other notes to this game:
*This game was the chippy affair that you would expect between the two teams that squared off in the Finals last season. Both teams were aggressive and physical and it led to double technicals, double fouls, and this. Based off that video, you can see that Matt Barnes was in the middle of a lot of this stuff. He is a player that has an edge to him and he definitely played with that edge tonight.
*For all the harping on Gasol’s physicality, I thought he did a good job of fighting through a lot of pushing and holding that was being implored against him. Some may say that Gasol’s attempts to push back were a bit whiny, but I didn’t see it that way. Understand that Gasol, fair or not, is viewed as a soft player that will succumb to physical play. That inspires the players that guard him to try and be even more physical with him in order to make him wilt. Now, put yourself in his shoes – how would you respond if almost every player that guarded you took every liberty within (and some outside) the rule book in terms of physical play and did that to you on almost every possession. I don’t want to make excuses for Pau, but he faces some sort of dirty play almost nightly and I’m sure he’s tiring of it right now. Last season, I know that Phil played Pau heavy minutes and rode him the entire season to get him mentally and physically prepared for the type of play that he was going to face. I wonder, if the injuries that Pau had this year cost Phil his chance to put Pau through the proverbial wringer again this season to get his big man ready.
*Bynum didn’t have a great offensive night, but I was impressed with his activity on defense. While he could have done somewhat of a better job on the P&R as a helper, he was good on the glass and had 4 blocks. The next step in his evolution as a defender is to play without fouling and if he can get to that point he will be a special, special defender. Andrew, admittedly in limited minutes, was +10 on the night and it was obvious why. He gave Howard real problems when he contested Dwight’s rolling hook and drop step moves and was just solid on D. Like I said, if he could have played without fouling, I think his presence could have meant a few more stops and a securing of a few more defensive rebounds over the course of the game.