Stu Lantz mentioned one word during the broadcast that was used a lot with this Laker team a few seasons ago – fortitude. Three seasons ago, they were overflowing with it, individually and as a team. No lead was big enough to keep from scoring and no deficit was too large that they couldn’t overcome. This season, it’s a word used to describe a quality of which they lack, and they lack it from every point that their most mentally-tough player, Kobe Bryant, is starting to show signs of despair.
Bryant, who has been a scoring machine this season, started the game with four assists before scoring his first points, and the Lakers actually opened the evening by playing some tight defense and causing Denver to miss their first seven field goal attempts. Unfortunately, instead of the defense growing more intensely, it waned and the Nuggets, despite the lead going back and forth for most of the contest, were able to do whatever they wanted offensively and came out with the win.
Falling behind by eight points after the first quarter, the Lakers rallied to end the first half and tied the game at 60. Allowing the Nuggets a 52-point second half and only mustering up 45 of their own, however, was their downfall. Just like the last game against the Clippers, Bryant tried in the end to win the game, scoring the last four field goals for the team, but just like in the last game, the Lakers’ did little defensively to keep Denver away from their offense.
Seeing the high points in all these losses is becoming more and more difficult to highlight when, in the end, they did little to nothing to contribute to a victory. Dwight Howard finished with 14 points, 26 rebounds and 4 blocks, but with the Lakers down by four points with two minutes left in the game, he made a bad pass and Denver scored. He also had 10 of those points in the first half, going just 2-2 for the entire second half. Add to that a re-aggravated right shoulder, just to add salt to the wound. Steve Nash had another double-double, 10 points and 13 assists but had five turnovers, a few of which were uncharacteristic bad passes. Pau Gasol started the game with 11 points on 5-6 in the first half, and went the rest of the game 0-3. In the fourth quarter, Javale McGee elbowed him in the face and Gasol couldn’t even shoot the two free throws he was owed because blood was gushing from his nose. Kobe Bryant started the game as a facilitator, and through three quarters had gone just 4-14 but had handed out seven assists. In the fourth quarter, with the Lakers down, he was more aggressive offensively. Unfortunately, the game isn’t won on offense alone.
Defense – Any more harping on this issue and it becomes but white noise. 60 points in the paint given up, 25 fast break points and just 10 turnovers forced or unforced.
Ball movement (second half) – In the first half, the Lakers handed out 19 assists on 23 made field goals and they shot 56%. In the second half, 11 assists on 15 made field goals, 37% shooting. The Lakers only converted 15 of 41 attempts in those final two quarters. It’s bad enough they weren’t playing any defense, but a suffering offense too? They didn’t have a chance.
Turnovers – 18 turnovers that turned into 14 Denver points.
Confidence – It’s becoming more and more apparent as these losses add up. This Lakers team looks apprehensive. It’s as if they don’t know how they won those 15 games in the first place. All the logistics are accounted for – skills, abilities, experience, potential. The issues are not mechanical – they’re mental. This is deemed an old team, but if the Lakers were winning, they’d be called the more favorable “veteran” team. The term “chemistry” has been tossed around often this season too, but it’s negligent to say this team has no chemistry, when they’ve beaten teams before with lots of it – 15 times, in fact.
Loss – This loss takes the Lakers’ record to three games below .500. What an unfamiliar place to be.
The grocery list of everything the Lakers did wrong tonight, and throughout the season, is a long one. At each bullet point was a disclaimer that provided hope for future resolution – stagnant offense? Should be better when Steve Nash returns. Weak defense? Dwight Howard’s still recovering. Unstable rotation? Will stabilize when injuries are done with. Sub-.500 record? Still early in the season.
33 games in, and the number of checkmarks signaling progress or completion of the above issues totals zero. Nothing’s been resolved, and an 0-3 to start the new year doesn’t sound all that surprising with this perspective in tow because from Day 1 of this season, the Lakers have looked like nothing but a work in progress. There have been games where they looked dominant, followed by three games where they appear to know little about each other’s game. Another question now remains – what’s Derek Fisher doing these days?