The Lakers must go through an examination of conscience before every game to ask themselves, “How can we make this game difficult to win? What can we do to push ourselves to the very edge?” It is, in a word, maddening. Against Phoenix, they lost a 13-point lead late in the game and gave away a win that was absolutely theirs to lose. In Minnesota, they went from a 29-point advantage to a four-point lead before coming alive long enough to eke out a victory. And today, against the now 18-30 Detroit Pistons, they closed the first half with an exciting play and an 11-point lead, push the lead to 18 points in the third quarter, and then stumble to a one-point 98-97 win.
They never make it easy on themselves, do they? As we’ve learned often to do this season, however, we “celebrate” the victory nonetheless.
Earl Clark – The subpar season aside, one thing the Lakers can be proud of is how once bench-ridden players step up when their numbers are called. From Darius Morris and Chris Duhon playing the bulk of the season with Steve Nash and Steve Blake injured, to Jordan Hill stepping in when Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol had to sit out, and now the latest and greatest development – Earl Clark, stepping in (and starting!) with Jordan Hill out for the season. What a revelation the young Clark has been in this last stretch of games. Today he chipped in 17 points on 6-11 from the field, grabbed 10 rebounds, had two steals, blocked a pair of shots, didn’t commit a single turnover and was the recipient of the game’s highlight – an inbounds pass/lob from Kobe Bryant with 0.4 seconds left in the first half that he converted into a dunk. He also played almost 42 minutes. Oh to be young.
Pau Gasol – If anyone is relishing Dwight Howard’s absence, it has to be Pau Gasol, back in the starting line-up the last two games and making the most of it. Tonight he played over 40 minutes, went for 23 points on 10-18 from the field, grabbed 10 rebounds, handed out a trio of assists and just played with a fire and desire that we’ve missed in this not-so-ideal of a season.
Balance – A positive that has come out from the last few games has been the all-in mentality of this Lakers team. There were five players in double figures, all who saw minutes (except for Jodie Meeks) handed out an assist and the players on the bench who didn’t get the opportunity to even play, were on their feet, constantly encouraging their teammates on the floor.
First Half – The Lakers shot 57% from the field in the first half to take an 11-point halftime lead. They’d committed just seven turnovers and their ball movement was a source (16 assists on 24 made field goals). The inbounds pass/lob before the break was the exclamation point on an efficiently played two quarters.
Second Half – Unfortunately, the Lakers didn’t end the last two quarters in the same fashion as they ended the first. After scoring 62 first-half points on 57% shooting, they went cold in the second half, scoring just 36 points on 37%. They only hit seven of 23 shots in the third for 16 points from. They went up 72-54, four minutes into the second half, and suffered run after run by the Detroit Pistons who continued to, and succeeded, in chipping away at the lead until they tied it twice late (very late) in the game. The final 17 seconds of the fourth quarter seemed to last an eternity, with the Lakers holding on to a one-point lead and Earl Clark and Steve Nash (yes, Steve 90% career free throw shooter) going 0-4 from the free throw line. If not for Will Bynum, who had 18 points in the game, had not missed that layup or Andre Drummond had converted on that lob, the Lakers might not have been so lucky in the end, and by the way they ended this game, this was a lucky win.
Kobe Bryant – Maybe he’d been distributing so much that he forgot how to score because Bryant scored 18 points but went just 8-20 from the field. He did hand out five assists and completed a three-point play which were the Lakers’ final points in the game.
Inability to Close – This is the third game in a row where the Lakers have built large leads in the second half and were unable to sustain the energy and efficiency that brought them to that advantage in the first place. With the majority of the season behind them, they need to learn how to close these games out, and just when it’s close. Close games out as soon as you have the opportunity to do so, and learn to keep that intensity UNTIL THE GAME IS OVER.
The Lakers were able to escape after faltering in these last two games, but they should have finished that game in Phoenix with a victory. Who knows how they will fare against the next four opponents – Brooklyn, Boston, the dreaded Bobcats and Miami – if they continue playing the second halves of games in this manner? They’re 2-1 so far on this Grammy trip and four games from hitting the .500 mark. Ideal would be to get 30 wins before 30 losses. Can they? Yes, they absolutely can. WILL they? To be determined.