MILWAUKEE – Nine games away from the ultimate bust of a season or an inevitable first-round playoff elimination, the Los Angeles Lakers’ defense still straggles along without much urgency. A playoff berth within reach, and Lakers players continue jogging back on defense, listless, and have far too many turnovers and breakdowns in execution to sustain their offense. The closer the Lakers get to the playoffs, the more this season begins to appear like a lost year, and they keep making the game increasingly difficult on themselves.
For as much as injuries have decimated the Lakers, and they’ve been repeated blows, there has been a large failure to establish Pau Gasol within the offense. Here’s a perennial All-Star, a player who doesn’t need to prove his worth after being the second option on two straight championships, and yet touches come and go for Gasol and he’s been in more pick-and-rolls than ever this season.
The Lakers have tried to force-feed Gasol at times since his return last week from a torn plantar fascia, but it has been superficial faith. Gasol has admitted his benching out of Mike D’Antoni earlier in the season affected him, and why should anyone – much less the Lakers – be surprised? With Gasol, his psyche has always been about trust, about the confidence in him from people around the team, and that can’t be faked.
Maybe Gasol came back from the plantar fascia injury too soon, running up and down the court hobbled for stretches of Thursday’s 113-103 loss to the Bucks. The Lakers made a concerted effort to go to Gasol to start the second half and midway through the fourth quarter and it worked efficiently for a bit – Gasol scoring three of the team’s four baskets, including a smooth fadeaway jumper over Ersan Ilyasova, in a third-quarter stretch.
The gameplan to use Gasol’s mismatch on Ilyasova didn’t last, however, and the Lakers soon got back to the careless style that has been damaging for them. Larry Sanders feasted off their weak interior defense all night and was clearly the best big man on the court, dropping 21 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. Yes, on a night when Kobe Bryant had to be crutched out of the Bradley Center, this would have been the game to slow down offensively and utilize Gasol.
“For the most part, it’s good for us to slow games down, especially on back to backs where energy is not very high,” Gasol said late Thursday night. “We need to do whatever it takes to slow the game down to control the game. … Sometimes, we have to go away from Kobe and move the ball to the other side.”
Except the Lakers have essentially had Bryant be their first and second option on most nights. Since Gasol’s return, he and Bryant have spent game stoppages talking to each other, taking their time walking back to the Lakers’ bench to point out what was going so wrong: mostly, careless turnovers by both Bryant (six) and Gasol (four) due to a lack of knowledge about where the other was positioned on offensive possessions.
These aren’t disputes. If there’s anyone who still trusts and pushes Gasol, it’s Bryant. But rather, those two have been trying to formulate plans to resurrect some chemistry they’ve seemed to lose at some point in the past two seasons – when the rise of Andrew Bynum and arrival of Dwight Howard respectively stunted Gasol’s presence within the offense.
“It’s been a long year, there’s no doubt about it,” Gasol said. “Lots of ups and downs.”
As D’Antoni made clear, the Lakers feel they have to come as close to winning out as possible in their last nine games beginning Saturday against the Sacramento Kings. “I don’t think we’re playing with fire, but you could see guys run out of steam, some guys slower,” the coach said. Yet the fact that the Lakers have been decimated by injuries wasn’t out of the realm of possibility when this veteran team was put together.
Coming off the court after playing a post-up session with Robert Sacre on Thursday night, Gasol signed autographs for fans, when one Lakers fan asked him whether the team can move up in the Western Conference. Gasol smiled and sighed, telling the fan he hoped so. Now, the Lakers are barely ahead of the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks for the eighth spot, their health, seed and old faith in Gasol dwindling away.