The glow of the Lakers’ galvanizing fourth-quarter comeback on Wednesday still lingers but the next bend lies right ahead. It’s a big night for western teams on the playoff fringe. Houston visits Golden State, Utah visits Chicago and the Lakers host Toronto.
What does this mean? Golden State has a two-game edge on Houston, possesses a solid home record and has won two in a row. Utah has a weak road record while Chicago’s coming off a couple tough losses – they’d love a win before heading west (facing the Lakers at Staples on Sunday). As for the Lakers themselves, winning is absolutely everything – currently 1.5 games out of eighth. With the right combo of wins/losses tonight, they could be just a half-game back come midnight.
It’s been a story about numbers lately, written here, there and everywhere. And as the Lakers demonstrated on Wednesday, there may well be a new wrinkle – Dwight Howard says the win brought the team closer together and for a season marked by injuries, inconsistency and conflict, the statement could be more than just words.
With just twenty games left in what was once termed a cakewalk season, the Lakers have a shot – to make the playoffs. This is where we find ourselves. Back at Staples, facing a team with a 9 & 22 road record on a night when the western conference schedule is as favorable as could be for a giant step forward. For Dwight Howard, another chance for redemption in front of a home crowd that wants to believe. For Steve Nash, he’ll be facing the team that most people assumed he would sign with during the off-season. It has been a period of willing reinvention for the 39 year-old guard. And for Kobe Bryant, there are no simple ways to convey what he means to the team or the city or the game itself. Tonight, he’ll take to the court once more, Sisyphus with a bad elbow and a glare, just looking for the win.
Watching Kobe Bryant play injured can be a cinematic experience. Dribbling down the court left-handed, his right arm dangling, finally using it as some sort of stabilizer appendage as he rises up to nail the outside three. And time and again, driving into the paint, knowing that his opponents are more than happy to keep wrenching at the wounded wing. It wasn’t a recipe for beating the Oklahoma Thunder on their home court, at least not without more team ingredients. Still, but you’ve got to admire the ability to adjust and recalibrate – just watching the economy of motion at the free throw line was memorable.
The Lakers managed to get close in the fourth quarter, narrowing the gap to five points before missing nine shots in a row. It didn’t logically feel like a game they should have won. It might have been a different story if Dwight Howard had been more of a force. And while it’s tempting to delve into the have and have-nots of a warrior mentality, it doesn’t change anything about the reality of this season and the numbers game. The Lakers are once again two and a half games back from the eighth spot in the west and running out of real estate.
Tonight, the Lakers have a chance to get back to .500. It won’t be easy, a back-to-back on the road for a team nursing a litany of injuries. If there’s any silver lining, it’s that the Hornets are having their own nightmare season – 21 & 40 on the year and looking toward the draft. It’s doubtful however, that they’ll simply roll over. There’s plenty of things that the Lakers need to do right to get the win – chief among them being a team-wide effort.
There’s been much written lately about Kobe Bryant’s future and whether he’ll retire after next season. He has hinted at it and there has been plenty of responses back, including the notion that his talent and determination are too precious to let go of. What nobody but Bryant can know however, is the reality of chronic pain. Last night was only the latest example of so many years of adjustment, the constant reconfiguration of body parts and the ability to accept and compartmentalize physical suffering. Tonight, he’ll be expected to go out on the floor again and do what he does so well and nobody will have a greater expectation than Kobe himself. The pain that often mingles, in your fingertips. Beware of Mamba.
Last night’s game against the Blazers seemed to hang in the balance the entire night. The game was tied countless times and it really didn’t seem like the Lakers would ever get over the hump and create the separation they needed to win the game.
In the first half, the Lakers found some success playing the way they have in their recent stretch, with Dwight starting to find his stride as a post practitioner, pick and roll finisher, and having some impact on defense (J.J. Hickson’s ridiculous shooting notwithstanding). Antawn Jamison was having some impact off the bench and Kobe, like he has been of late, was playing a very controlled game scoring 11 points on 9 shots with 3 assists and 3 rebounds.
This style, however had the Lakers trailing by two points.
In the second half, it was fair to question if the Lakers really would win this game that they needed so desperately. Portland looked like they were “due” to get a win after losing 6 straight and the Lakers looked like they would be the team to give it to them
Heading into that 2nd half, our own Emile Avanessian made a simple plea on twitter:
This whole “team ball” thing is great, but can Kobe just be Kobe for a half?
Emile would get his wish. In the 2nd half, Kobe scored 29 points on 14 shots and carried the team’s offense all the way to a win. The game itself wasn’t always pretty, but Kobe Bryant’s performance sure as hell was.
It feels cliche to continue to tell people to appreciate Kobe. But he’s been so good for so long we can sometimes take him for granted. Against the Blazers, though, he showed us once again what a classic Kobe game was. And for that, I know we’re all grateful.
Halfway (well, 65.8%, but who’s counting) through its annual marathon, the NBA bestows upon its rank-and-file (players, coaches, hell, fans) a much-needed four-day respite from the mental and physical grind of 82 in ~175. In 2013, nowhere is this midseason oasis more welcome than in Lakerland, where, in depressingly short order, euphoria and stratospheric expectations have devolved into the most disappointing campaign in franchise history, a nightly nut-punch mad lib on the floor outdone only by incessant upheaval behind closed doors.
On a far brighter note, the NBA convenes this weekend in Houston, to celebrate its present and future, flaunt its athletic wares and, presumably, provide tuition assistance to certain ilk of “law student.” Last night, behind 40, on an unreal-even-against-All-Star-D 18-for-22 from the field, and 10 rebounds by the Nuggets’ Kenneth Faried and 20 apiece from Cavs and Spurs sophs Tristan Thompson and Kawhi Leonard (who also had 10 and 7 rebounds, respectively), Team Chuck laid the wood to Team Shaq in a still-entertaining Rising Stars Challenge. This evening, the All Star festivities shift into top gear, with the always-meh Shooting Stars, underrated (seriously, I love it) Skills Challenge and All Star Saturday mainstays, the 3-point and slam dunk contests.
Though likely for the best, given the manner in which the pas three months have unfolded, conspicuously absent from tonight’s proceedings will be the Los Angeles Lakers. Not here! Infusing your day with memories of brighter days, a look back at the Lakers on All Star Saturdays past:
1984 Slam Dunk Contest
Three decades ago, the NBA lifted a(nother) page from the ABA playbook with a revival of the slam dunk contest. Fittingly, the event (re)debuted in the Rockies, where eight years earlier, at halftime of the 1976 ABA All-Star Game, a Spurs’ greats George Gervin and Larry Kenon, Kentucky Colonel Artis Gilmore, Denver’s own David Thompson and then-New York Net Julius Erving. The Doctor returned to headline the nine-man field, which included the preeminent perimeter defender of his (and maybe all) time and author of many a Coop-a-Loop, Michael Cooper. Suffice it to say, the Lakers’ inaugural All-Star Saturday performance was less than auspicious:
Though still immortalized:
1987 3-Point Contest
Three years after the slam dunk dud of ’84, Coop was back at All-Star Saturday, this time to take part in the second annual Larry Bird Invitational, err, 3-Point Contest. Accompanying Cooper to Seattle for the festivities was fellow sharpshooter Byron Scott. In a star-studded eight-man field featuring a who’s who of the game’s great shooters – and Danny Ainge (some grudges die hard) – Scott stumbled, while Cooper more than held his own, outscoring Bird, Dale Ellis and future three-time contest champ Craig Hodges in Round 1, before exiting in the Semifinals, the third place finisher.
1988 3-Point Contest
This time flying solo, Byron Scott returned to the 3-Point Contest the following year in Chicago. Scott rather emphatically avenged the previous year’s last place finish with a first round performance that paced a similarly power-packed field. Not surprisingly, as the stakes ratcheted up, so did Larry Bird’s performance. Though light years behind Bird, Scott and Dale Ellis engaged in battle for the second spot in the final round, with Ellis advancing by the narrowest of margins.
Is it wrong that this burns me up as much as any Lakers-Celtics battle of which we were deprived?
1994 Rookie Game
In a stirring homage to Michael Cooper’s showing the inaugural NBA slam dunk contest a year earlier, in the first-ever (at the time) Rookie Game, Nick Van Exel, in 20 minutes of burn, handed out six assists but turned in a rather impressive goose egg, whiffing on all eight of his shots (have you seen the defense in these things?!?), including three 3-point attempts. Oof. Let’s move on.
1995 Rookie Game
The Lakers’ first-ever lottery pick, the unheralded Eddie Jones (selected #10 overall in the 1994 draft) had quickly established himself as not only one of the league’s best young players, he’d almost immediately etched his name in the NBA’s top tier of perimeter defenders. This NBA ready defense, along with his stellar athleticism in slashing to the bucket earned him an invite to the second annual Rookie Game, where, sharing the floor with the top two picks in the draft, Glenn Robinson and Jason Kidd (Grant Hill had been voted into the big-boy game), Eddie stole the show, racking up 25 (including 4-of-8 on 3-pointers), six swipes, and handing out four assists en route to the game’s MVP award.
(I’d planned to include a highlight video of this game, but sadly was only able to find the full telecast, chopped into 20-minute clips. You can find those here.)
1995 Slam Dunk Contest
In the first round of the 1995 Slam Dunk Contest, Antonio Harvey almost set the desert ablaze, but instead became the Andy Reid of All-Star Saturday.
Later that night, Bean returned to floor as the second Laker ever to take part in the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest. With the contest on the ropes (it would actually be shelved the following year), the league had implemented the latest of what ultimately became a comedic laundry list of gimmicks, allowing each competitor 90 seconds in Round 1 to do with as he pleased, with the best of two dunks making up his final round score. Sadly, this resulted in our being limited to a scant three dunks by Kobe in his lone appearance in the contest. As one would expect, however, Kobe made good, delivering as emphatic and technically perfect a one-hand reverse as you’ll ever see for an opening salvo. By the way, the whole “keep the warmups on” bit looks a lot cooler when it’s Kobe instead of Brent Barry.
After edging out now-assistant coach Darvin Ham (perhaps owing to a bit of judging generosity, but whatever), Kobe set the house ablaze with a thunderous between-the-legs number – remember, this is before Vince Carter and Jason Richardson made a mockery of the skill – which earned him 49 points and dunking supremacy
(Bonus points for aggressively flexing with the sub-Durant physique and openly cheering Michael Finley’s last miss)
2004 Skills Challenge
Ok, who had Open Court Legend placing second in a competition that rewards speed, quickness, agility and outside shooting?
Seriously, I remember guffawing upon discovering Fisher’s inclusion in this field (in large part, probably, because the Lakers were that year’s host, but still), and simply hoped he could out-duel Earl Boykins and avoid last place. Taking out Boykins, Stephon Marbury (when this was still an impressive thing) and making prime-Baron Davis work in final?
Really not a lot to say here. 12 points for Jordan Farmar, Andrew Bynum with 7 points and 4 boards in 18 minutes.
2007 Skills Challenge
Anyone else kinda totally forget that this happened?
With the notable exceptions of the Malice at the Palace and the 1984 Draft Lottery, I’m not sure there’s an event the NBA’s worked harder to bury in history than 2007’s All-Star Weekend in Vegas. Without going into detail, let’s just say it wasn’t exactly public relations coup for the league.
That said, it was there that one of the most stealthily cool competitions in ASW history took place. It’s over in a flash (pun possibly intended), and it’d have been awesome if Kobe hadn’t flubbed the opportunity to make a run at Wade’s final time, but simply having Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Paul – and no one else – in a test of basketball fundamentals is pretty awesome.
2008 Rising Stars
A year after posting a solid, if unspectacular 12 points as a rookie, Jordan Farmar returned to All Star Weekend as an NBA soph, and quietly turned in a stellar playmaking performance. In a game whose narrative was dominated by Kevin Durant (23 and 8), Rudy Gay (22 on just 12 shots), Brandon Roy (17 and 7 assists), LaMarcus Aldridge (18 and 9 rebounds) and MVP Boobie Gibson (33 on 11 threes), Farmar played a central role, feeding (among others) Gibson to the tune of 12 assists, scored 17 points on 10 shots, ripped four steals, and made the play of the game (#8 below).
It might even have been recognized as such had that lob found, say, Kevin Durant instead of Ronnie Brewer.
2010 Slam Dunk Contest
They Let Shannon Dunk. It… was.
Enjoy the festivities everyone – no Laker losses tonight!
Last night I watched news coverage of a burning house. And continued to watch the burning house. And I asked myself, how will CNN manage to tear themselves away from this all-consuming event? They wouldn’t go with a split-screen for the State of the Union would they? And then I watched the annual address and couldn’t recall the last time I’ve seen one half of a divided house looking quite so stubbornly grim. And the other side wasn’t exactly turning cartwheels. And then a game of basketball sections that felt entirely foreign to me, coming from a team I’ve watched for most of my life. There’s always silver linings and Dwight stepped up his game in a major way. And when it was over the Lakers had won but the season still feels like a lab experiment that has gone weirdly wrong.
I don’t think this team has an identity, apart from their unique individual personalities. This is how the media mostly examines them, and the fans and non-fans as well. It becomes a water cooler series about Kobe and Dwight and Mike and Steve and who said what to who and what about that crazy third quarter? And lost in the mixed-up mess is any sense of this team as a system or definable style.
Unique personalities were certainly present during the Phil Jackson years. He himself was print worthy and there were feuds and star wars and nutty supporting characters like the Machine. But the team still had an overriding presence – they were the Triangle offense. Even if they sometimes strayed from the system, they were still known by it. There was a concept in place and other teams recognized this and fans recognized it and the media recognized it and it became an easy label and it became something you could freelance from – there were the ups and downs and miscues and moments when Phil pondered the wood grain pattern under his high chair and refused to call a time out, but this also was a part of their overall identity and for the most part, it worked. Until it didn’t. And since then, the team has wandered. And no matter how many hirings and firings and big box purchases that the organization makes, the season still ebbs further from its epicenter with each passing game – win or lose. Even a coach who was once labeled by his own seven seconds or less creation, is now simply adrift.
They say that winning cures all and that it just takes some time. And that injuries are what they are. And that still doesn’t provide an identity, at least not one you want. Tomorrow night brings another chapter in the hallway series, with the Clippers going through their own struggles as off late, treading water at five-and-five for their last ten. And if anybody has a storyline for what comes next, just add it below the jump.