In what is becoming a common occurrence, the Lakers lost another close game on Wednesday night (even though the final score doesn’t reflect it). This time the opponent was the Houston Rockets and the Lakers were unable to hold on to a late lead and ultimately fell 109-99 to drop their 4th straight contest. This is now the longest Lakers’ losing streak in 4 seasons and if I was the panicking type, now would be the time that I’d start to do just that. Since I’m not though, you’ll just have to read about how it happened…
The game started out well for the Lakers even if the results weren’t always perfect. The Lakers offense was much improved from previous nights as the ball moved around the court and each player was active and able to get up shots within the flow of the Triangle. Early post ups were ran for Odom and Gasol and the team was showing a cohesiveness on that side of the ball that had been absent for several games. Defensively the Lakers also looked good early. They scrambled on defense, did a good job of closing down the paint, contested shots at the rim, and got a few deflections when the Rockets tried to make forced passes against that active D. So, even though the Rockets still got some good looks off penetrations and kick outs and the game was close the Lakers looked to be in control.
However, most of why this game was close was based off the Lakers offense and, even more specifically, the dynamic play of Lamar Odom and Kobe Bryant early on. Tonight, Odom simply had one of those games that reminds people of his immense and natural talent. Whether in the post, driving in the half or open court, or pulling up for his jumper, Odom was making shot after shot and doing so in a calm, controlled manner. The Rockets simply didn’t have an answer for Odom as he constantly found ways to checkmate his defender by using his diverse skill set to his advantage. If a smaller player was on him he’d find a way to get into the paint and shoot over the top of his man. If a bigger player was on him he’d use his handle to either get to the rim off the dribble or create enough space to shoot his jumper. And since nearly every shot that Odom took was going down (11-16 on the night, 2-4 from behind the arc) the Rockets had to respect every facet of his game.
And then there was Kobe Bryant (at least early, we’ll get to his end of game performance a bit later) who, while not perfect by any means, was playing a very good floor game. He was moving the ball to the open man and looking to get his shots mostly within the flow of the offense. He was sticking his jumper even when well defended and it looked like Kobe was well on his way to having an efficient night where his ability to get shots within the Triangle while still able to create his own shot when needed would be a real difference maker.
But as the game wore on, certain negative trends started to take hold and they’d ultimately be the difference between the Lakers winning and losing. First and foremost the Lakers defense just couldn’t come up with stops consistently. The perfect example came late in the first half where the Lakers pushed their lead to double digits and looked to be in complete control only to have the Rockets make a quick run that cut the margin to 3 points at halftime. An unbalanced offense led to quick baskets on primary and secondary Houston fast breaks where the Lakers couldn’t contain dribble penetration. This then led to easy baskets at the rim, offensive rebound chances after helpers committed, and open jumpers off drives and kicks that the Rockets knocked down.
Over the rest of the game this continued in spurts as the Lakers just could never generate any breathing room and get a comfortable cushion on Houston. So the game stayed close and with a Rockets push it was a three point game in the closing minutes. Which, up to this point in the season, hasn’t been a situation that the Lakers have thrived in. And tonight that trend continued.
It’s difficult to really pin-point where it all went wrong as it really seemed like several things happened all at once and snowballed on the Lakers. A Shane Battier three pointer tied the game at 97 with 2:52 left. On the ensuing Laker possession Kobe missed a turnaround jumper from the elbow which led to the Rockets pushing the ball up court and finding Battier in the corner who again nailed a three pointer to give the Rockets a three point lead. Kobe then got fouled on a drive and sank the ensuing two FT’s, but those would be the last points the Lakers scored and there was still 2:16 left on the game clock. What followed was bad possessions on both sides of the ball where Kobe would slip trying to defend Battier who then sank a jumper and then Derek Fisher getting caught with the ball in his hands as the shot clock wound down and having to force a jumper that drew nothing as a 24 second violation occurred. On the next possession the Lakers still had life after Kevin Martin was called for a travel but instead got nothing but a contested Kobe three pointer and it was all downhill from there. A foul on Shane Battier’s three point attempt made it a 6 point game and the Lakers could only muster bad shot after bad shot on possession after possession to end the game. The final margin ended up being 10 because the Lakers continued to foul after Houston controlled the rebounds off the aforementioned misses.
So the Lakers have now lost 4 in a row and 6 of their last 11 games. I’ll repeat that this isn’t a time to panic but it’s definitely a time where frustration is understood. The Lakers are losing close games and seem to be pressing down the stretch of contests when, considering their pedigree and experience, you’d think the opposite would occur. They’ve got some issues to work out but with Bynum coming back at some point before Christmas the only thing to really do is ride this out the best that they can. As Phil Jackson said after the game “It’s way too early in the season (to be concerned about the losing streak). We just have to hang on and (find) the right spot for our team to get better. We have some guys struggling, not playing well, but (some of) our guys I thought picked it up pretty well.” And with that, the Lakers just need to move on. They next play on Friday and then don’t play again until Tuesday so with the schedule slowing down they can get some needed rest (especially Gasol who experienced some tightness in his hamstring during the game). And with no reinforcements on the immediate horizon, rest is where they’ll need to find that extra boost. Hey, no one said it would be easy.