It was bound to happen some time. Like the Wizards were due for a road win, the Lakers were due a heavy-handed slap by reality. Falling behind early and then rallying in the end, or creating large leads to start and then having to fight to keep a miniscule advantage for a photo finish victory is not how you win games. Let’s not take anything take away from the Lakers’ huge comebacks against New Orleans and the Raptors, and certainly having a huge lead through most of the game sometimes provides a sort of cushion for less than stellar play towards the end. But, again, this is not how the Lakers should be trying to win games, especially if they plan to make it past the first round of the playoffs.
With Utah losing tonight, the Lakers had a chance to pull further away from the threat of the Jazz retaking the eighth seed. With Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant returning to action after missing games due to injury, the Wizards could have and should have been dispatched early. This appeared to be the plan after the Lakers built an 18-point lead in the first half and led by 16 going into the third quarter. For all their efficiency in their first 24 minutes of play, however, came a complete undoing of all that was right and good in the final 24. The Lakers were outscored 62-43 and the Wizards walked out of Staples with a 103-100 victory.
First Half – For just the third time this season, the Lakers’ starting line-up looked exactly like the line-up we were promised back in August. With Dwight Howard and Steve Nash healthier, and the team having gone through a series of rotations this season, they appeared like they’d been playing together for years. The Lakers came out swinging in the first quarter, getting to a 16-point advantage to end the first while shooting 68% from the field and holding the Wizards to just 30% shooting. At halftime, the home team was in great shape, shooting 54% (50% from downtown) and still keeping Washington at bay with a 36% clip. The ball was moving and moving well. Led by Kobe Bryant’s six assists, the Lakers handed out 17 dimes on 22 made field goals. All nine players who’d seen minutes had scored, with the reserves outscoring the Wizards bench 29-12. The message on the whiteboard before the second half should have been, “Lather, Rinse, Repeat.”
Dwight Howard – Howard continues his solid play with another double-double tonight, 20 points on 8-9 from the field, 15 rebounds, three assists, and a block. He even hit 4-5 from the free throw line and has added a midrange jumper to his arsenal. The Laker bench’s contributions aside, Howard was the best player on the team tonight. The only downside to his night, is that he didn’t have a single shot attempt in the fourth. None. Zero. For someone who has a clear advantage against most every team, and as well as he was shooting tonight, he should have attempted more shots especially when the Lakers lost their lead and needed some easy offense.
John Wall and Trevor Ariza – So rarely does the opposing team get mentioned as a highlight, but the Washington Wizards would not have been able to pull out this win without either player. Wall had 24 points on 9-19, 16 assists, three steals and one turnover. He sped to the hoop like a blur and no one in a yellow jersey could seem to stop him. And our old friend, Trevor Ariza, who is still a fan favorite – boy did he torch his old friends. He had just six points on 2-5 from the field in the first half, and then exploded for 19 points on 7-10 from the field (5-7 from downtown) in the second half. Just like his Laker days, he was continuously left open (so wide open you could build a moat around him) and made the opposing team suffer because of it.
Mike D’Antoni’s Postgame – D’Antoni is usually so pleasant and politically correct when he’s interviewed, but tonight, he finally let it all out and it was about time. He called out his team for not putting in the effort, something he mentioned shouldn’t be a question at this point in the season. His best and most honest take, however, was this, “This is a good team that just for whatever can’t collectively, mentally, get stimulated to do it every time. And I told them in (the locker room), we put our hands in (the huddle), and you’ve guys have probably seen it, we say ‘Championship!” and go out there. And that’s laughable. Championship? You gotta be kidding me.” Preach, Mike.
Turnovers – Nine turnovers in the first half isn’t so bad, if the second half is filled with less than thast, but the Lakers added another eight turnovers to their count tonight for a total of 17 giveaways that resulted in 21 Wizards points. The Lakers weren’t blown out, but it makes this turnover issue an even bigger problem when the loss is by a measly three points and you gave away 21. If they had just taken better care of the ball (or better care of their game, in general), the evening would not have ended the way that it did.
Unraveling Second Half – Based on their history, especially this season, it might’ve benefited the Lakers to have played from behind instead of the other way around. After such a well-played first half, the home team just completely laid an egg in the second. The ball movement was gone. There were too many possessions wasted on isolation plays. After 17 assists in the first half, the Lakers handed out just 10 for the entire second half. Bryant had 11 assists through three quarters and then spent the fourth going 4-10. Was his three pointer in the end to get the Lakers within a point of the lead a good play? Yes. But should the have necessitated that shot in the first place? No. As far as defense goes, lets just say that everything the Lakers did to keep the Wizards shooting just 30% in the first quarter, they did not replicate in the final two quarters. Washington shot 58% for the second half led by Wall’s 18 and Ariza’s 19.
Antawn Jamison – Just when you thought the injury bug had passed, Jamison plays just seven minutes of the second half, and sits out the rest of the game due to what’s being considered a sprain to his right wrist. The hits – they continue to stike.
Losses to playoff teams are frustrating enough, but losses such as this should be borderline maddening for the Lakers’ coaching staff and downright shameful to the players themselves. Does this loss force them out of the 8th seed? No. But if this team can build large leads and still lose in the end, that 8th spot is certainly not officially theirs until this regular season is completely over.