You’ve made your bed, Lakers, now you must lay in it. Get comfortable because boy have you put yourselves into a difficult situation, with more than half the season gone by and this team still not appearing close to being capable of defending anyone, let alone an NBA Championship Title.
Some will look at this game and say the defending champs were able to stay with the first place Spurs; that they never fell behind by double digits; that they contained Manu Ginobli and Tim Duncan; that they fought until the very end. The more realistic observer, however, will look at this game and see that rebounding and defense for this team has become a rare happenstance rather than a consistent effort; that the coaching staff is exhausted from having to repeat themselves about playing from the inside out; that the Lakers’ most skillful big man in Pau Gasol couldn’t defend a real swan if one had the ball with 22 seconds left in the game. People can squeeze all the moral victory juices from this loss, but the fact remains, the Lakers’ championship mentality is running quite dry these days, and the team can’t seem to find the well from which to quench their thirst.
The Spurs lost to the Portland Trailblazers on a night that the Lakers beat the Houston Rockets, putting them a whole game (thought still a bit of a ways) closer to first place. Tonight, they had another chance to close the gap even further and they failed for reasons beyond comprehension – because they didn’t fight for rebounds and couldn’t play an ounce of defense for the final 22.7 seconds of the game.
It really looked like the Lakers would take this one. It wasn’t a perfectly executed game by either team, by any means, but there was a hope that the home team would really show up tonight against a respected rival like the Spurs. They did show up in spots defensively, holding Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan to some shooting woes in the first half, and going off on a scoring run in the second quarter to overturn their six-point deficit into a seven-point lead. In the last 2:41 of the half, however, the Lakers waned on defense and the Spurs took advantage, evening it out before the break.
The second half output was just about even at 47-46. The Lakers played behind for most of the third and fourth quarters, until Pau Gasol hit two free throws to give the home team an 88-87 advantage. All the Lakers had to do was play 22.7 seconds of lockdown defense. But as has been the theme all season, the defending champions don’t defend very effectively, and in those 22.7 seconds, allowed the Spurs FOUR chances to score without a single challenge or defensive rebound. It was absolutely, inescapably, incomprehensible that San Antonio had that many opportunities to score in such a short span of time.
On a day that he was named to the All-Star team, Pau Gasol scored 19 points on 8-10 but collected just seven rebounds after grabbing 16 two days ago, and then blocking zero shots after preventing four against the Rockets earlier this week. His bright side tonight was that he dunked more often than he settled for outside shots. His downside – going up against a player with his similar size and body type in Tim Duncan or the super veteran Antonio McDeyss, and still getting outworked.
The end of the game may have looked a lot different had Andrew Bynum been in Gasol’s place, to challenge shots, which he did often tonight. Bynum had 10 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and three blocks, and played defense the only way he knows how – big. He protected the rim against Tony Parker’s penetration, jumped and fought for rebounds. It’s a real wonder why, even despite his four fouls, he wasn’t chosen to finish the game over the Spaniard.
Lamar Odom was passed over for the All-Star team (David Stern’s last minute choice notwithstanding), but tonight he showed why he belongs, scoring 16 points on 5-11. Odom rammed his way to the hoop a few times in this game for some easy layups, and he and the Lakers would be better served if he did that more often rather than settling for outside shots. His downside, however, is that he only grabbed six rebounds after taking down 20 a few days ago.
Ron Artest had a somewhat strange game. He scored 13 points on 6-11, five rebounds and two steals, and was charged with guarding the likes of Manu Ginobli and Richard Jefferson. His shot selection and general ball handling, however, is still questionable. When Artest has the ball too long, it almost always turns into a turnover because by the time he decides where he’s going and what he’s going to do with the rock, the other team (Tonight it was the Spurs) forces a turnover and there starts the run.
Kobe Bryant, unable to score efficiently, drew San Antonio’s defense like moths to a flame, and he burned them by passing off to the open man. It may have taken him 18 shot attempts and six free throws to score 16 points, but he also grabbed nine rebounds and handed out 10 assists; a crucial dime late in the fourth quarter to Lamar Odom, who drilled a three-pointer that brought the Lakers to within a point. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.
For all the hearts they broke in the form of buzzer-beating game winners last season, the Lakers faced their first of this season. Their longest road trip begins this week in New Orleans, with games against Memphis (who has beaten them twice), Boston (who just got four players on the East’s All-Star Team), New York (who will be waiting to avenge their 22-point loss), Orlando (with the new and improved roster), Charlotte (where they never win), and Cleveland (who, despite their awful record, probably hasn’t forgotten that 55-point smacking the Lakers gave them).
The Lakers’ issues have been plentiful, but with less than three months of the regular season left, they have no time to keep starting over after these so-called “wake-up” calls to play better. The Lakers have had countless wake-up calls this season but they continue to tap the snooze button. You can only afford to push the snooze button so many times before it finally gives up and you’re left scrambling to get ready for work in the morning, catching the worst rush hour traffic and walking in late for a meeting. If the early bird catches the worm, the late bird is left with the empty stomach. Which bird do you want to be, Lakers?
Pre-game Thoughts: Lots of making up to do for the egg they laid in San Antonio. Andrew Bynum is back in the line-up, and hopefully has a good game against his idol, Tim Duncan.
Half-time Thoughts: 42-42 – The Spurs lost a 6-point lead, then the Lakers lost a 7-point lead, and now the score is tied. Couldn’t have expected a more evenly matched fight. Neither team is shooting their best, with San Antonio at 40% and the Lakers at 45%. Richard Jefferson leads all scores with 12 on 5-7, and Pau Gasol’s got 10 points on 5-6. Kobe Bryant’s only 1-6 from the field, but he’s got 6 assists. Let’s hope the second half is just as much of a contest as the first.
Most Thoughtless Player(s) of the Game: Their 35 points aside, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol, after grabbing 36 rebounds against Houston, had just 13 boards combined against the Spurs and their defense…what defense? As the two bigs on the floor in the last 22.4 seconds of the game, their only job would have been to challenge and rebound and they did neither.
Most Thought-filled Player(s) of the Game: Kobe Bryant had a near triple double with his 16 points, 9 rebounds and 10 assists. Bryant took 18 shots, but late in the game, he deferred to the open man, assisting on the three-pointer by Lamar Odom that helped the Lakers close the gap in the end.