What an odd week it has been for the Los Angeles Lakers.
A three game home stand saw Kobe Bryant reinvent himself as a triple-double threat, including an especially surprising ability to facilitate in spectacular fashion. Bryant dished out 39 assists in three games, his highest cumulative total in such a span throughout his 17 seasons of NBA play. Bryant also gobbled up 26 rebounds in this stretch to go along with his 49 total points on just 34 shot attempts. With Bryant controlling the tempo and setting up his teammates, the Lakers began winning ball games, going 3-0 at home.
Starting against the Utah Jazz, and continuing against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the New Orleans Hornets, the team began to give maximum effort on both sides of the ball. Dwight Howard may have played his best game as a Laker against the Jazz by playing stellar defense and throwing down four monster alley oops. Then Bryant turned in a classic performance against the Thunder by dishing out 14 assists and finishing the game in Mamba mode by hitting clutch buckets in the final minutes. Topping it off was a 20 point, 12 rebound performance on 8-11 shooting, including 4-5 from deep, from Earl Clark against the Hornets.
Throughout this bizarro world time frame, Bryant primarily led the charge by playing the point and initiating numerous screen rolls. With Bryant on the ball and picking apart the defense, Steve Nash played off the ball and turned into a catch and shoot threat. Nash is one of the greatest pick and roll artists in NBA history, but his threat as a career 42.8% three-point shooter allowed greater floor spacing for Bryant to drive and dump, kick, or score. With defenses unable to leave Nash, Bryant was given numerous options with a great amount of space. With Nash and Bryant playing opposite roles, the Lakers averaged 106 points per game, about four points higher than their season average.
Even more bizarre, the Lakers overcame two poison pills in the three games. The Lakers held the Jazz without a 30+ point quarter, but against the Thunder and the Hornets, the Lakers surprisingly overcame these failure prognosticating quarters. The Thunder dropped 30 on the Lakers in the second quarter, but the Lakers only allowed 23 in the first, 22 in the third, and an impressive 21 in the fourth en route to the 96-105 victory. That 30 point quarter should have spelled disaster, but the Lakers were able to dig in and pull out a victory against the best record in the NBA. Then, against the Hornets, the Lakers allowed multiple poison pills, as the Hornets put on a furious rally in the second half with a 31 point third quarter, and a 33 point fourth quarter. Despite nearly blowing an 18-point lead, the Lakers held on and won 106-111.
So, riding a three game winning streak, and essentially entering the make-or-break portion of the schedule with seven upcoming road games due to the Grammy's taking place at Staples Center, you would figure the Lakers would take care of the lowly 15-30 Phoenix Suns, right?
Despite leading 78-65 with 10:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Lakers blundered away the game with turnovers, a four minute scoring drought, and missed shots. As this happened, Michael Beasley decided to go into beast mode and score 10 fourth quarter points, including two go-ahead buckets with the score tied in the final two minutes.
Oh, and let's not forget that Dwight Howard injured his shoulder, again. Remember in the preseason when Howard, in an asinine attempt to distance himself from Shaquille O'Neal's moniker of "Superman," anointed himself "Iron Man?" What a joke. He ripped off O'Neal, and then he failed to know enough about the Lakers' history that he ripped off A.C. Green, a Lakers' great that played in 1,192 consecutive games.
Anyways, Howard is no "Iron Man." With 6:56 remaining in the fourth quarter, and the Lakers leading 78-73, Howard grabbed an offensive rebound, and as he went up with the ball, Shannon Brown (a memorable, former Laker) swatted down with two hands and stripped the ball from Howard. Howard instantly felt the pain in his injured shoulder, and he had to sit out the rest of the game due to his right labrum injury. I'm not questioning Howard's toughness, because a torn labrum is definitely a problem for a basketball player, I'm just pointing out that Howard is not an "Iron Man." Oh, and it would help if Howard kept the ball up high in the chest area like they teach big men at the high school level. Yeah, that simple fundamental aspect would help. In fact, the past two times Howard has aggravated the injury, he had the ball low, and he was stripped by a guard.
Moving on, Howard's absence isn't to blame for the loss. Even with Howard on the floor for most of this stretch, from the 9:59 mark to the 6:08 mark, the Lakers didn't score a single point. Not a field goal. Not a free throw. Nothing. This stretch featured two turnovers and nine missed shots. The worst culprit of this stretch would have to be the five bricks Metta World Peace laid, with most of the attempts wide open.
Following World Peace's struggles, Bryant finally got the Lakers on the board with a jumper at the 6:07 mark. From there, Bryant would struggle to carry the team. Abandoning the pick and roll success of the first three quarters, and the three prior games, the Lakers began going to Bryant in isolation sets. Bryant shot just 1-4 from isolation sets in the fourth quarter, and just 2-7 for six points and two turnovers in the final 6:56 — the other Lakers shot 0-3 in this final stretch, with Gasol scoring two points off of free throws. To top it off, Bryant missed a left handed layup that would have tied the game at 88-88 with 23 seconds remaining in the game. Instead, the ball had a bit too much oomph, and it rolled off the front of the rim and allowed the Suns to hit some free throws and win 86-92.
I can't explain why the Lakers abandoned the pick and roll late in the game. It may have been due to numerous wide open bricks from the weak side, namely World Peace and his 3-10 shooting from deep. Earl Clark was no better with his 1-4 from deep. Even Nash shot 1-4 from deep. And Bryant himself was 0-3 from deep. It also could have been a function of the five turnovers in the quarter, with D'Antoni favoring just getting the ball to Bryant in isolations and not having to worry about moving the ball around.
Overall, Bryant scored six of the Lakers final eight points, but his inability to find teammates for easy buckets truly hurt the team. Bryant finished the game with nine assists — pushing his mark to a career-high 48 assists in a four game stretch — yet none came in the fourth quarter. Whatever the case, the Lakers scored just 13 fourth quarter points. Yes, 13.
Meanwhile, the Suns poured in 29 fourth quarter points as Beasley carried them with clutch buckets all up in World Peace's grill, including an impressive off hand layup that gave the Suns an 86-88 lead with 43 seconds remaining in regulation. Despite playing solid defense for much of the game, the Lakers allowed the Suns to finish the game on a 19-6 run in the final 5:09. Howard's absence was obviously a factor, but the Suns did hit four jumpers in that stretch for nine points, while six points came from layups, and four points came from the line.
It's a loss like this that may be the deciding factor as to whether the Lakers make the playoffs. 20 turnovers against a middling defense is unacceptable. Shooting 8-27 (29.6%) from downtown just won't get it done. Having just one Laker top 50% shooting isn't efficient enough. Six turnovers from Bryant, and four from Gasol, are far too many. With six more road games on this Grammy trip against very winnable teams, the Lakers need to go 6-0 just to get to .500 at 26-26. Facing the Timberwolves, Pistons, Nets, Celtics, Bobcats, and Heat, a 4-2 closeout is more likely, but I figured the Lakers would destroy the Suns, so who knows.
Sitting a full four games behind the Rockets for the eighth seed, and five games behind the Jazz for the seventh seed, the 20-26 Lakers can't waste any more opportunities, and their 5-16 road record doesn't boast any confidence. In fact, the Lakers finished the month of January with an 0-7 road record, marking the first time in the history of the franchise that the team finished with an 0-7 or worse road record in a full calendar month.
With just 36 games remaining this season, each mounting loss spells a postseason drought. Needing at least 25 more wins to have a chance at the postseason with a 45-37 record by season's end, the Lakers must go 25-11 in the final 36 games. Such a mark isn't impossible, but with the Lakers blowing games this season against the Mavericks, Kings, Magic, Cavaliers, Sixers, Raptors, and Suns, all teams below .500, I can't say this Lakers team has instilled any sort of consistent play that warrants my belief in their ability to turn this season around. I can hope, but I need to see results.
You know what may be the most damning fact of the season? 22 players this season have either set a season-high or a career-high in a specific category against the Lakers in just 36 games, and seven opposing teams have set a high mark as well, whether it is points in a quarter, most field goals at the rim, or most points in transition. 12 of those 22 player highs came in the points department, with Beasley's performance as the newest addition with his season-high of 27 points on an efficient 12-20 shooting, including 1-1 from deep and 2-3 from the line. Add in his six rebounds, one assist, and five steals, and it's clear that the Lakers allow players to blow up on them far too often.
To come full circle with the odd factor, despite not allowing the Suns to produce a poison pill quarter, the Lakers lost. After winning two poison pill games in a row against the Thunder and Hornets, the Lakers are now 7-16 in poison pill games, and due to this loss against the Suns, 8-5 in non-poison pill games throughout the D'Antoni era. What a weird week.
Three weeks ago, this team had no shot at the postseason. Then, this past week, the Lakers instilled some hope. Now, I just don't know how to feel. I have a suspicion that my uncertainty is likely no different from what's taking place inside the Lakers' locker room, especially with Howard's availability up in the air.
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