While the Lakers were run out of the building in their game against the Suns, they had been generally playing some very good and fun basketball. After the Lakers loss to the Atlanta Hawks that saw Kobe Bryant go down with an ankle injury in the closing seconds, they played a tough, physical game against the Indiana Pacers and won a more uptempo finesse game against the Sacramento Kings.
The result of each game was a win despite the very different nature in which they were played, but a few things remained constant: 1) The ball moved very well, with all guys who saw at least 20 minutes in those two games shooting the ball at least six times. Five guys scored in double figures in the game against the Pacers and six guys scored in double figures in the game against the Kings. There was a natural flow to the offense, it was ran through Dwight Howard, and guys stepped up when needed. 2) The three ball fell at a solid rate in both games. They made .500 of their threes against the Pacers and .429 against the Kings. The Lakers three point success was directly related to the ball moving well and shots being taken from the offense playing inside out. 3) They didn’t let turnovers kill them. They had 15 and 13 turnovers, respectively, but neither the Pacers nor the Kings had a tremendous number of points off turnovers or fast break points. 15 turnovers is around their season average, and while it isn’t the most clean game the Lakers can play, they didn’t turn the ball over in positions favorable to their opposition.
In other words, the Lakers were Dr. Jekyll, a “large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty”. While smooth faced may not suit may guys suited up in the Forum Blue and Gold, they’re a rather large team full of old guys. And like Jekyll, the Lakers have been trying to fight off the hoop evils that just aren’t suited for a team of this stature. Considering the expectations, this Lakers team should be well above two games over .500 — and for those two games without either Bryant or Gasol on the floor — they ostensibly fought those evils away and played good basketball.
While it’s hard to ignore the egg that the Lakers laid against the Suns (again), the Lakers pretty much continued their stretch of good hoops in the first half of their game against the Wizards. The ball movement was absolutely brilliant, and the movement off of the ball was equally great. Dwight Howard made a gorgeous pocket pass to Pau in the paint. Steve Blake made a couple of gorgeous passes (one to a cutting Jodie Meeks and the other being a behind-the-back pass to Antawn Jamison who was cutting baseline). Kobe was using the attention he got from the defense to find open teammates, which led to six first half assists. Everyone who saw time in the first half took at least two shots and no one took more than six.
The three ball was also falling at a 50 percent clip. Ron Artest hit both of the attempts he took in the first half (his only two shots of the first half) and all four guys off the bench hit one-of-two from behind the arc. The Lakers only made one more three pointer in the first half than the Wizards, but the Wizards took three more attempts. The Lakers looked like a fine-tuned machine, a team that had spent the whole season together, the team pundits and fans alike expected to see by at least December. While it was a bit later in the season than expected, it was nice to see the potential of this team realized, even if it was against what seemed like an inferior opponent. The Lakers ability to shoot the ball at a high clip coupled with their exquisite ball movement led to a 16-point halftime lead.
There was a red flag, though. Nine turnovers. Nine turnovers is quite a bit, and those nine turnovers turned into 14 first half fast break points for the Wizards. The transformation was coming to the surface.
The Lakers turned into a completely different team in the second half. In an attempt to rid themselves of the hoops evils that had haunted them all season, those very evils came to fruition in the second half of this game and they were outscored by the Wizards 62-43 in the final 24 minutes.
On the defensive end, a combination of their inability to stay in front of John Wall coupled with their unwillingness to aggressively close out on shooters or run them off of the three point line led to them putting themselves in some compromising positions. Either John Wall was finishing around the rim, finding one of his bigs for a layup at the basket or finding a wing for a wide-open three pointer. Wall had 18 points on six-for-11 shooting with 11 assists in the second half alone.
The biggest beneficiary of Wall’s ability to get into the paint at will was ex-Laker Trevor Ariza, who hit five (WIDE OPEN) three pointers in the second half, seven in the game — a career high for made three pointers. Ariza was largely found wide open because of Kobe’s propensity to play free safety and his disinclination for getting back out to the perimeter when Ariza received kick out passes. And when Kobe wasn’t being lazy, he was just flat out wrong. There was one play in particular where Wall got caught in the air near the left wing and Kobe assumed that he was going to pass to Nene at the elbow, but instead opted for a skip pass to Ariza in the right corner, that led to one of his five 2nd half three pointers.
For the most part, the Lakers rotations were worse than biting into a steak sandwich laced with globs of unwanted mayonnaise (this happened to me tonight), and it all really began with the whole crew of guards’ inability to keep Wall out of the paint. One late rotation led to another, a pattern that continued until there was no rotation at all and an open shot was taken.
On the other end of the floor, the ball movement we saw in the first half was nearly non-existent. Guys held on to the ball for long stretches, there was too much dribbling without purpose and the shot distribution went from a looking like a plateau to looking like a cliff. Kobe took 13 shots in the second half, and no other Laker took more than five (Steve Nash took five, everyone else had fewer than that). And when the game was tight in the final eight or so minutes, there was a stretch where Kobe took eight of the Lakers nine shots, completely taking the rest of the team out of rhythm.
The result was a 103-100 loss at home at the hands of a team, while much improved, the Lakers really should beat. There was a whole first half of really good basketball, but even against some of the NBA’s bottom feeders, if you only play one half of basketball, chances are you aren’t going to pull out the victory. It was expected for this team to take a bit of time to figure each other out with Kobe and Pau back in the lineup, but with a 16-point lead going into the 2nd half, it’s a game that absolutely needs to be closed out regardless of circumstance.
And while the loss stings, it doesn’t sting nearly as much as the team potentially losing Antawn Jamison for some time because of the sprain wrist he suffered tonight. We’ll await the MRI tomorrow to know how serious, but a sprained wrist on the shooting hand of a guy who had been playing very well is going to have its consequences whether or not he misses games. The Lakers have the rest of the weekend off to work out some of their kinks before they head up north to play the Warriors in an important game in terms of playoff positioning.