Riding a wave of momentum, the Lakers came out flat and spoiled a five game winning streak by losing on the road to the Denver Nuggets, 114-126, and in turn dropping to 14-15 overall.
If it didn't pop out at you, take another gander at that final score. Those season high 126 points allowed came in just 48 minutes of play. There was no overtime, nor something like a 50 point explosion from the likes of Andre Iguodala or Danilo Gallinari. Instead, six Nuggets hit double digits, with Corey Brewer leading the way off the bench with a career high 27 points, and the Nuggets shot 45-94 (48%) from the field, and 12-22 (55%) from downtown.
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126 points allowed is just unacceptable.
After eeking out unconvincing wins against some weak competition, the Lakers pulled their act together in games four and five of their win streak against the Golden State Warriors and the New York Knicks. It seemed as if the Lakers turned a corner in those games as Steve Nash returned to the lineup and brought a moxie to the squad. With Nash providing stability, and a "Never say die" attitude, the Lakers overcame deficits and played with heart and determination. In each game, the Lakers held their opponent to its lowest single quarter point total of the game in the fourth quarter.
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Against the Warriors, the Lakers overcame a 14 point deficit early in the fourth quarter by surrendering just 21 points in the decisive quarter, while pouring in 34 of their own, in order to force overtime and pull off a stirring 118-115 come-from-behind victory. With Nash and Kobe Bryant leading the charge offensively, the Lakers chipped away at the deficit while playing outstanding collective defense. The Lakers forced the Warriors to commit four turnovers in the final quarter, while forcing them to shoot just 8-19 (42%) from the field. After posting 27, 34, and 26 points in each of the first three quarters on a combined 35-75 (47%) shooting, the Warriors were unable to continue producing at a high rate in the fourth quarter and overtime. In overtime, the Lakers held the Warriors to 3-9 (33%) shooting while forcing two turnovers. Overall, the Lakers faced some adversity and responded well by overcoming the tough deficit — something they have failed to do repeatedly this season.
Against the Knicks on Christmas day, the Lakers turned in possibly their greatest defensive effort of the season by absolutely shutting down the high powered Knicks in the fourth quarter. Trailing by one to enter the fourth quarter, the Lakers upped their defensive intensity and allowed the Knicks to score just 16 fourth quarter points. Forcing five turnovers, and allowing the Knicks to make just 5-15 (33%) shot attempts, the Lakers clamped down in order to pull off the 94-100 victory at home — marking the first Lakers win on Christmas day since an 83-92 victory at home over the Boston Celtics in 2008. After allowing 23, 26, and 29 points in the each of the first three quarters, the Lakers pulled off an impressive fourth quarter and forced the best team in the Eastern Conference (according to the standings) to put up a measly 16 point quarter.
With two impressive wins against quality opponents, the Lakers finally showed some flashes of greatness that many expected with the foursome of Nash, Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard anchoring the squad. However, it seems as if the Lakers felt a little too good about themselves and their five game winning streak when they faced the Denver Nuggets this past game.
Against the Nuggets, the Lakers came out lethargic, and it showed right off the bat. In the opening quarter, the Nuggets gathered 11 offensive rebounds. Kenneth "The Manimal" Faried led the way as he grabbed five of those 11 offensive rebounds. Seemingly beating the Lakers to every loose ball, the Nuggets played in fourth gear while the Lakers were stuck in second. The Lakers surrendered 29 points in the opening quarter, with 11 of those points coming due to the extra possessions afforded by the offensive rebounds.
Although the Lakers hung around in the first half, it was a matter of time before things fell apart. Trailing 54-57 to start the third quarter, the Lakers were dismantled in the third quarter as the Nuggets blew the game open with 39 third quarter points. The Nuggets repeatedly attacked the rim for dunks, layups, and trips to the free throw line. If a foray into the lane didn't produce, the Nuggets kicked the ball out to the open man for three point shots. The pick and roll, drive and kick game, absolutely torched the Lakers in this quarter. Often times, Howard would look at his teammates with his palms up, exasperated, and wondering who should have rotated when and where.
Eventually, Howard boiled over, and at the 5:01 mark in the third quarter, he let his frustrations spill out as he committed a flagrant-2 foul on Faried. As Faried attacked the basket straight down the lane, Howard smacked him in the face, knocking him down, and clearly not making a play on the ball. The flagrant-2 earned Howard an immediate ejection. The flagrant foul seemed to serve as a message to his teammates, essentially stating, "I'm sick of this, we can't tolerate this anymore." While I would have preferred Howard to remain in the game and make a smarter play on the ball, I won't blame him. Following a pick and roll, Howard rotated from the weak side and dropped the hammer on Faried. I'd like to see more Lakers do this — while making plays on the ball. Howard may have acted a bit selfishly, but I think his message will go a long way.
You may wonder, well with Howard out, is that when the Nuggets began lighting up the Lakers?
Prior to Howard's ejection, the Nuggets scored 21 points in the third quarter. Following his ejection, the Nuggets closed the quarter with another 18 points. For the quarter, the Nuggets shot 11-19 (58%) from the field, including 5-8 (63%) from deep. Brewer closed the quarter with a buzzer beating three pointer to put the Nuggets ahead 87-96.
In the fourth quarter, things didn't get much better. The Lakers lost the quarter 27-30. The Lakers trailed by as many as 15 points, and they rarely were able to get the deficit within single digits. Unable to slow down the Nuggets in a similar fashion to the Warriors and Knicks games, the Lakers lost 114-126.
Following the game, defense was a main theme from the post-game reporters.
Coach D'Antoni was the first to respond. When given a followup question regarding the offensive rebounds and defensive woes, D'Antoni was asked, "Was that a hustle thing or positioning thing, or a little bit of both?"
D'Antoni bluntly stated, "You'd have to ask them, I don't know. Whatever it was, we didn't come off the ball, and they did. Somebody did something, and we didn't do it."
D'Antoni's statement definitely seems to come off as a shot at his players. He deflects any personal blame by stating, "You'd have to ask them," and he doesn't offer any sort of schematic explanation as for why the woes occurred. Obviously, D'Antoni was not pleased with the effort of his squad.
Next up was the most interesting post-game response. Howard was asked, "We've been talking about this all season, the area of defense, what was plaguing you guys tonight on that end?"
Howard responded, "The pick and roll defense wasn't great tonight. The help wasn't there, the help the helper wasn't there. It just has to be better overall."
Another reporter followed up, "Those are things you have talked about a lot of times this season, what's the learning curve going on in regards to that?"
Howard replied, "Those guys gotta be in the right spots, and they have to be taught it. It has to be something that you practice on, so guys can understand [what] they have to go through. You can't just talk about defense, and talk about where to go, you actually gotta show guys where to go."
Hello! Howard definitely takes a shot at D'Antoni with this statement. I guess Howard isn't too fond of D'Antoni being proud of practicing defense for half an hour. Howard shifts to the second person, referencing D'Antoni when he states, "You can't just talk about defense, and talk about where to go, you actually gotta show guys where to go." Clearly, Howard wants more focus on the defensive end, and he must feel that his coach isn't living up to the task of preparing the team with defensive schemes and rotations.
While Howard may come off as deflecting the blame, or throwing his coach and teammates under the bus, he must feel this way for a reason. He is not happy with the Lakers defense, and as the anchor of the defense, he understands that it is his responsibility to get the guys on the same page. However, he also understands that if the guys aren't playing together and hashing out the details, they aren't going to improve, and the same flaws will continue to be exposed over and over.
For example, the Lakers routinely give up layups following the pick and roll, and often times, it's because the five guys on the floor fail to play on a string. As Howard comes over to hedge the guard, more often than not, a weak side teammate fails to rotate and pick up Howard's man in the lane. This leads to numerous easy opportunities in the lane.
Although it looks as if Howard is at fault to the naked eye, it's obvious that he is reacting within the assigned scheme, namely, softly hedging any opposing guard to buy time for his picked teammate to recover, and then hoping to recover into the lane to pick up his own man. While Howard hedges, the weak side guys should collapse into the lane and cover Howard's man until Howard can recover. Often times, this doesn't happen, and with this failure, the Lakers bleed points at the rim due to open layups and dunks.
In fact, the Nuggets outscored the Lakers 58-38 on points in the paint despite running very few traditional post ups. A majority of those points came from pick and rolls, whether the guard got in the lane and finished, or the guard dumped it off to the roll man for a finish. Even worse, when teams destroy the Lakers with the pick and roll, the Lakers will overcompensate with help, and then the opposing team will kick the ball out for uncontested three pointers.
This squad needs to strike a balance in its defensive rotations, and Howard is not shy about calling for that to happen. With 14 of 19 opponents topping at least 30 points in a single quarter during the D'Antoni era, Howard clearly feels that it's time for some change.
To round out the post-game interviews, Gasol, Nash, and Bryant each touched upon a common theme of energy, aka, a keyword for defense.
Gasol stated, "Overall, [we] didn't bring enough energy and effort to be able to win this one here."
Nash stated, "We didn't match their energy."
Bryant stated, "Tonight it seemed like we were just a step slow, seemed like we were a little stuck in the mud. We played old. They played with a lot of energy, a lot of youth, got up and down. It just seemed we were in a lower gear."
Energy, energy, energy, it's been a common statement in post-game interviews following losses this season. The Lakers are the fourth oldest team in the NBA this season, and it shows when they take plays off on the defensive end. Whether that's a byproduct of a D'Antoni coached unit, or simply fatigue, it's most likely a combination of both. Something needs to be done about this "Energy" issue, otherwise, the Lakers will have plenty of energy when they are sitting at home in June — or even worse, April.
After seeing the defensive success the Lakers had against the Warriors and Knicks, it's clear that this squad has the capability to play up to some lofty standards. Unfortunately, consistency has haunted this team all season long. If Howard's physical and verbal messages can spur some consistency, I'm all for it.
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