yardbarker
RealGM Basketball

Basketball Blog

Lakers Make The Wrong Statement

The Los Angeles Lakers needed to make a statement in their game against the Miami Heat at Staples Center on Thursday night, and they did. The statement was basically: “We are not good enough to beat the good teams.”

At least not right now they aren’t – not with an offense that’s still searching for an identity, and a defense that is continually under siege from younger, more athletic teams.

Ironically, it wasn’t the defense at fault in the Heat’s 99-90 victory, it was a stagnant offense that went scoreless over the final two minutes, as the Heat went on a 9-0 run to close the game.

"I thought we played well enough to beat them," Mike D'Antoni said. "That's a championship team. They turned on all the juices, so it's a good measuring stick. That's what they do, and we have to get better.”

This was supposed to be a preview of the NBA Finals, according to the prognostications of four months ago.  But while the Heat (26-12) look poised for another title run, the Lakers (17-22) look poised to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2005.  Things have gotten so dire that D’Antoni declared a season re-boot before last Sunday’s victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers – not a bad move, considering the Lakers had been 10-16 under D’Antoni’s tenure, including a six-game losing streak that dropped them to 11th place in the Western Conference standings.

But after two easy wins over the Cavs and Milwaukee Bucks, false hopes of a revival began to stir. Earlier in the week, Kobe Bryant looked forward to the Heat’s arrival as a yardstick for which the Lakers could judge themselves. All it proved, however, was how wide the gap is these days between the Lakers and the elite teams they once were thought to be.

The stats - and the action on the court - did not lie. The Lakers played well enough to win, but couldn’t execute in the most critical moments of a game they badly needed. On a night when hardly any other Heat player showed up offensively, the Lakers had no answers for LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, who torched them for a combined 66 points on 28-45 shooting in a brilliant display of dunks, fadeaways, alley oops, and unstoppable drives. 

"LeBron is going to get his points, but if we control Dwayne and Chris Bosh, we have a better chance of winning," Dwight Howard said later. "Tonight, D-Wade, he had it going on the offensive end. He was the difference.”

Sloppy Lakers play and opportunistic team defense by Miami - something utterly foreign to D’Antoni’s charges - also contributed mightily. The Lakers’ 20 turnovers (16 in the first half) enabled the Heat to outscore them 25-0 in transition. Astonishingly, for a team whose vertical reach was supposed to give them an advantage over the smaller Heat, the Lakers were blitzed 68-28 on points in the paint.  How dominant were the Heat inside?  James was 13-13 on shot attempts within five feet of the basket, while Wade was 7-8.

The Lakers welcomed Pau Gasol back into the lineup after a concussion, but Gasol came off the bench to spell Earl Clark  - a development he intimated he would not be thrilled with on a regular basis.

Gasol and Dwight Howard played reasonably well together, and the Heat countered by fronting Howard down low and daring him to beat them from the free-throw line. Howard was not up to the challenge, shooting 5-13, including two critical misses (one of them an airball) in the final two minutes.

And while the new strategy of putting Bryant on the opposition’s best player worked well against the likes of Kyrie Irving and Brandon Jennings, the effort of trying to stop Wade may have hurt Bryant on the offensive end, where he shot 3-16 through the first three quarters before coming alive in the fourth.

"I need some help offensively to save energy and not have to isolate and do things like that," Bryant said. "I'm going to need some picks. I'm going to need to catch-and-shoot like I did in the fourth quarter a little bit to make my job a little easier. I think the first three quarters of me just standing around the perimeter, the defense is praying for that. We have to do some things to free me up and get me in open spaces, this way I can be more active on the defensive end of the floor."

Freeing Bryant up from offensively was supposed to be one of the benefits of signing Steve Nash, but since his return from a knee injury, Nash has looked like an afterthought, just another expensive puzzle piece that has yet to jell in a system that has yet to click.

Already, the Lakers are threatening to be the biggest $100 million flop in sports history.  While fans could take consolation from the Lakers’ fourth quarter surge - an eight-minute stretch where they outscored the Heat 21-10 to take a three-point lead - that gave a glimpse into the kind of championship-caliber team they were supposed to be, it was just that, a glimpse, in a season long on glimmers of hope, and short on actual results.

Lakers Continue To Self-Destruct

And you thought the Lakers stunning Game 2 loss to the Thunder was a heartbreaker? Game 4 loss might have been worse.

For the second time in three games, the Lakers blew a fourth quarter lead and failed to execute at crunch time.  Somehow, the team with five championships in eleven years and three NBA Finals appearances in the last five has inexplicably lost their poise when the game matters most.  Somehow Kobe Bryant, the NBA’s greatest closer, has forgotten how to close out a game.

Asked why, a tight-lipped Bryant shook his head.

“They’re surrounding me, they’re surrounding Andrew {Bynum]. Simple as that.”

A night after bailing the Lakers out at the end of Game 3, Bryant missed 8 of 10 shots in the fourth quarter of Game 4, then blamed his teammates for not being aggressive enough.

“The shots that I took were tough shots,” Bryant said. “They didn’t fall for me tonight. Either we got to free me up to get better looks in the fourth quarter, or other guys got to be aggressive, one or the other.”

In the latter part of the regular season, Bryant seemed to turn a corner, admitting that he couldn’t do it by himself, that he needed his teammates. He facilitated while bolstering his teammates’ confidence. He let Andrew Bynum and Steve Blake win critical games with fourth quarter shots usually reserved for himself. When he sat out seven games with an injury, he reveled in his new role as unofficial assistant coach, giving out pointers, smiling, looking for all the world like the consummate teammate.

The good feelings and stellar play carried over through the first four games of the Denver series, when the Lakers took a 3-1 lead. Then they lost their mojo, let the Nuggets back into the series, survived a shaky Game 7, then found themselves in deep water against a Thunder team that is younger and athletically superior. Bryant has gone back to questioning his teammates – he sounded disappointed that Metta World Peace decided to trust Blake with the game-winning shot at the end of Game 2, despite the fact that Blake was clearly open and Bryant clearly was not. And when the game tightens, Bryant – like the rest of the Lakers – stop trying to pound the ball down low and resort to perimeter shots, which often lead to long rebounds and play right into OKC’s fastbreaks.

At this point, it’s tough to tell which is coming first: is Bryant taking over the game because his teammates are deferring to him, or are they deferring to him because they’re waiting for him to take over?

Whatever the answer, there’s a strange disconnect that’s enveloped this team for the past year.  Maybe things would’ve been different is Derek Fisher had still been around, but Fisher was no help a year ago when the Mavericks swept the Lakers out of the second round – which is where all the problems seem to have started.  Or maybe they started when David Stern vetoed the Chris Paul trade, Lamar Odom was shipped out, and Pay Gasol, nearly a Houston Rocket, slid into a season-long funk.

It’s also become clear that Bynum and Gasol do not play well together. This was not an issue during the back-to-back championship run, because Bynum often sat the fourth quarter (or large portions of it) and the Lakers had the slashing Lamar Odom to help keep defenses from collapsing the paint. Now, Gasol looks tentative and passive, and Oklahoma City is swarming Bynum down low.

All this aside, the Lakers almost rewrote the script that everyone had written for them after Game 3. The script suggested that the Lakers had spent all their energy pulling out a must-win, and that the Thunder’s younger legs would carry them in the second game of a back-to-back, the Lakers gradually succumbing to age and fatigue. 

But this is Hollywood, where scripts are constantly rewritten. Before the game, Mike Brown assured the media horde that the Lakers were fresh and ready for Game 4, and then they came out and proved it. Bynum was a beast, hitting 7 of his first 8 shots and having his way with whomever OKC threw at him. Bryant was at his playoff best, hitting 10 of 18 shots, dishing when he needed to, staying aggressive.  At the end of the first half, he responded to Kendrick Perkins blocking his layup attempt by coming back to hit a twisting, driving shot high off the glass to send the Lakers to halftime with a 10-point lead.

The Lakers kept the pressure on in the second half. For 40 minutes they were in complete control, maintaining a low double-digit lead, never letting the Thunder get closer than 7 points. OKC’s body language was frustrated; after Bryant found Bynum under the basket with a nifty pass that led to a dunk, Kevin Durant and Kendrick Perkins could only shake their heads. With a little over nine minutes to play, the lead was 13, Staples Center was rocking, and it appeared the series was headed back 2-2 for Game 5. 

Then the wheels came off the Lakers offense. As Bynum said later, Perkins started fronting him, and he got swallowed up in the post. Bynum got one shot off in the final five minutes, a hurried miss from the baseline.  Russell Westbrook and Durant took over the game.  Bryant kept shooting, Pau Gasol never got off a shot in the final 12 minutes, and no other Laker stepped up.

As Thunder coach Scott Brooks said afterwards, “I don’t know how it happened, but it did.”

No play epitomized the Lakers’ collapse more than the egregiously bad pass that Gasol made with the score tied. Holding the ball in the right frontcourt, he passed up an open shot and attempted a cross-court pass to World Peace. Durant anticipated it, picked it off with one swoop of his long arms, and calmly moved down the court, backing Metta on his heels before launching a long three that the entire building seemed to know was going in.

"It left my hand, (and) I was thinking, 'If this doesn't go in, it's going to be a terrible shot,'" Durant said.

It wasn’t, of course. Gasol’s pass, unfortunately, may be Lakers’ fans lingering memory of him when he is likely traded this summer.

“I could have probably taken a shot at that point,” Gasol admitted. “I thought I had a good look to Metta at the three-point line…. I could’ve shot it, I could’ve dribbled it… I am unselfish, and sometimes it kind of plays against me. Unfortunately, I made a mistake.”

Said Bryant of Gasol: “He’s looking to swing the ball too much, he’s gotta shoot it, he’s got to be more aggressive.  Got to shoot the ball, got to drive to the basket, and he will be the next game.”

A game that could well be the Lakers’ last of this often confounding season.

A Los Angeles Rivalry At Last

Maybe David Stern truly knew what he was doing when he nixed the trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers. By approving Paul’s deal to the Clippers, he not only forever altered the course of a cursed franchise, he also laid the groundwork for something Los Angeles has never truly seen: an authentic Lakers-Clippers rivalry.

After all, you can’t have a rivalry when one team consistently beats the other’s brains out. Or when one team is know for winning multiple championships, while the other is known for drafting Benoit Benjamin and Michael Olawakundi. But make no mistake – after just nine games, Chris Paul (with apologies to Elton Brand) is already looking like the best player in Clippers history. And after the Clippers’ solid 102-94 win over the Lakers on Saturday, there were can’t-miss signs of a rivalry in the making. There were five technical fouls. There was Chris Paul knocking Kobe Bryant to the ground with a serious hard foul; Metta World Peace swinging his elbows after a rebound; Blake Griffin shoving Lakers rookie Darius Morris to the floor after he continued playing after the whistle. There were scrambles for loose balls and lots of jawing and shoving. And there was Bryant, after the game, including the Clippers as part of a stretch of upcoming tough games on the schedule.

The Lakers have yet to beat these Clippers, having dropped two preseason games in December. They came into the game as the NBA’s top-ranked rebounding team, while the Clippers came in as the league’s worst. But it was the Clippers who controlled the boards all night long, outrebounding the Lakers 50-42, including 17 offensive rebounds, which Bryant found unacceptable.

“Seventeen offensive rebounds is a lot of offensive rebounds,” he said after the game. “That's the area that really killed us. We did a pretty good job defensively in holding them to a low shooting percentage, but 17 offensive rebounds and 25 second-chance points, that's tough to deal with."’

"It was a point of emphasis for us," said Griffin, who had 14 rebounds to go along with his 22 points and five assists. "There's not a lot of teams that should outrebound us."

And then there was Paul, who followed up a splendid 27-point, 11-assist performance against the Miami Heat with 33 points and 6 assists, including a shot-clock beating 30-footer that deflated a Lakers rally early in the fourth. It is hard to overstate the calm and control that Paul brings to this Clippers team, the way he controls the pacing and tempo of the game, the way he decides when to take charge and when to get teammates involved.  In other words, doing what every point guard is supposed to do, except doing it better than most. 

Though Bryant managed to break the 40-point mark for the fourth game in a row, including a 21-point third quarter barrage, the Clippers doubled him all night long and never let him take over the game.  They neutralized the Lakers bigs, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, and took advantage of a Lakers bench weakened by the injury to Steve Blake, out 3-4 weeks with fractured cartilage in the ribs connecting to the sternum.

As impressive as the Clippers looked, it’s going to take some doing to take the town away from their Staples Center co-tenants.  The sellout crowd was never louder than when the Lakers made a third quarter run that sliced their deficit from 11 to 2; a heavily pro-Lakers contingent chanted “MVP” for Bryant and booed Griffin for his hard foul on Morris.

Even so, step by step, game by game, the Clippers are shedding their image of perennial losers. And the good news is, they’re taking it in stride, refusing to get caught up in the hype, and downplaying the significance of beating the Lakers.

"It's early. We're not going to get too high with these wins," said Paul. "We definitely made strides in the right direction defensively and with rebounding. We got to make that a habit and not a one-time thing.  We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

 

Basketball Wiretap Headlines

    NBA Wiretap Headlines

      NCAA Wiretap Headlines

        MLB Wiretap Headlines

          NFL Wiretap Headlines

            NHL Wiretap Headlines

              Soccer Wiretap Headlines