A TWC SportsNet Lakers promo reads: Prepare as one. Work as one. Focus as one. Play as one.
In the Lakers’ back-to-back championship seasons, this wasn’t just some cable network tagline – it was a philosophy; a way of life in the purple and gold jersey; the belief in the greatness of the sum of the parts. Kobe Bryant was getting better with age. Pau Gasol was an offensive threat (remember that?). Lamar Odom’s versatility, coming off the bench, was practically unguardable. But as an entire team, the Lakers were dominant, and you needed only to observe their efforts, regardless of how badly they were shooting or how many teammates were withstanding injuries. Their singular goal was unquestionable. This season, however, is filled with nothing BUT questions and tonight’s game is but a sample size of what a struggle it has been for this team to deny their own doubts.
These Clippers – they know who they are. They know who’s in charge and they know how to play to their strengths. They pounded an 18-point lead onto the Lakers, and when the lead dwindled to three, recovered for a quick run and went up by 16 again. Had the Lakers come out with some tenacity to BEGIN the game instead of rallying so late in an effort to catch up, the end of tonight’s contest might’ve ended differently.
Kobe Bryant – He continues to lead, yet his teammates continue to watch him from behind. It must be hard being the only player who’s ON-button works for an entire game, but that, again, was the case tonight. Bryant played almost 44 minutes, and even despite having to check Chris Paul for long stretches, he managed to score 38 points on 15-25 from the field (including a monster one-handed dunk on CP3), collect five steals and commit just one turnover. He scored 16 of the Lakers’ 31 points in the final quarter, including a three-pointer that cut a 19-point lead down to two with still about two minutes left in the game, but the Lakers’ lack of defense continued to hurt them and in effect, another excellent game by Bryant was played in vain.
Jordan Hill – The team’s energy off the bench did more in 19 minutes than his All-Star co-captain, Pau Gasol, did in 27, and that’s play with a purpose. Fresh off the pine in the first quarter, Hill grabbed three rebounds and scored three points in four minutes on the floor. He followed that with a nine-point, two-rebound second quarter. He finished with 13 points, seven rebounds, one block and zero turnovers. If not for Hill’s efforts on the glass, on defense, or in the game in general, the Lakers may not have gone on some of the scoring runs that they had.
Steve Nash – One of four Lakers who finished with a positive under the +/- , Nash did his best to settle the offense for his teammates on the floor. 12 points, including 3-4 from downtown, and 10 assists were not enough, however. Nash played almost 36 ½ minutes tonight, but it might’ve done the Lakers good had he played more than that, especially when Bryant was on the bench, resting for those four minutes. Some efforts offensively from Nash might’ve worn Chris Paul out.
Dwight Howard – 21 points on 8-14 plus 15 rebounds and two blocks. Had he not fouled out, Howard might’ve had a chance to do more to win this game, but without his presence on the floor, the team’s defense was further weakened. A hard foul by Caron Butler left Howard on one end of the floor clutching at his arm at one point in the game, but he returned shortly after trainer, Garry Vitti, examined it. Hopefully it’s nothing too serious, as the Lakers can’t afford another injury.
Pau Gasol – Gasol told Mike D’Antoni during that infamous dinner last week, that he wanted to be on the floor during crucial times in the game. With the Lakers never once leading in this game, Gasol’s quarter by quarter production were as follows: 1st Q – 2 points on 1-3, 1 assist, 0 rebounds, 1 block, 1 foul in 8:32 minutes. 2nd Q – 0 points on 0-1, 0 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 foul in 8:37 minutes. 3rd Q – 0 points on 0-2, 0 rebounds, 1 assist. 4th Q – Nothing but donuts. With his team losing so embarrassingly in this game, what points during his time on the floor, did Gasol not consider it a crucial time to step up? He played over 27 minutes and finished with two points, four rebounds, two assists, two fouls, and two blocks. The frustration with Pau this season, in general, is that he has shown signs of still being able to contribute and produce in effective ways despite not being the focus of the offense, but he has the confidence to shoot threes, throw lobs, and block shots for a stretch, and then play a game like tonight where he didn’t appear the least bit interested in helping this team win. His defense? We saw the efforts in those championship seasons, so we know what he’s capable of. He’s not being asked to anchor the defense as much as Howard and MWP are asked to do, but to allow Blake Griffin to take shot after shot over and through you, and stand there as four white jerseys run after an offensive rebound? It’s disappointing to the team he’s supposed to help lead and disappointing to the co-captain who spends most of his time defending him.
Metta World Peace – The three-point line has not been good to MWP, and tonight he added 0-4 to the struggle. Scoring only two points and fouling out of the game, Metta wasn’t the usual fire-starter he’s been to the team this season. Despite returning to the starting line-up, he continued to struggle from downtown and didn’t to the paint as he’s done so often this year.
Defense – AGAIN. Through three quarters, the Clippers had shot 55%, and despite keeping the home team to just 12 points through the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter, the Lakers didn’t do much else on that side of the ball. The Clippers got the best of the Lakers inside, outscoring them in the paint 52-36.
No matter how confident Kobe Bryant is, he must look at this team and wonder what more he could possibly do, other than to play his best season so late in his career, to inspire his teammates. Pau Gasol has been a cesspool of self-indignation since the Lakers lost to the Dallas Mavericks two seasons ago, and hasn’t been the same player since Game 7 against the Celtics THREE seasons ago. Steve Nash – savvy veteran who still has the chops to run any player guarding him off the floor, knows this isn’t his team like the Suns were and is trying to do more (setting up his teammates) by doing less (not offensively aggressive). Dwight Howard, still recovering or not, looks confident and dominant in some games, but apprehensive in the next. As a whole, the Lakers don’t appear to have invested in that singular goal TOGETHER, and therein lies the issue. How long they can carry out this disjointed effort and still have hopes for a run in the end is a dangerous thought, but they’ve still got a window (though smaller it gets with each loss) to recover.