Any professional basketball team that enters a season with four future Hall of Famers in its starting five cannot achieve a "moral victory."
There is no such thing.
Nobody would have guessed that a starting five of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard would currently be sitting in 11th place in the Western Conference with a 17-22 record, but such is the demise of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Now, it just comes down to wins and losses. That's it. A change in expectations does not change outcomes.
With just 43 games remaining in the season, and 10 of the next 13 games on the road, moral victories are not going to lead the Lakers into the playoffs this season.
Want to know what will get the Lakers into the playoffs? A 31-12 record to close the season will almost guarantee a seventh or eighth seed. Unfortunately, that calls for a .721 win percentage for a team that is currently playing .436 ball. Even under coach D'Antoni's new season timeline, the Lakers are playing just .667 ball.
How about a more manageable record, let's say 28-15? That record would leave the eighth seed as a possibility for the 45-37 Lakers, but it would also be highly volatile with teams such as the Jazz, Rockets, Blazers, Timberwolves, and Mavericks in the mix. Even in that hypothetical situation, the Lakers would have to play .651 ball for the remainder of the season.
Hey, if the Lakers keep up the pace they are on since the beginning of D'Anotoni's "new" season, they might just have a shot!
Either way, begin counting down the losses. With their loss against the Miami Heat, the Lakers have anywhere from 12-15 games to lose throughout the remainder of the season. With the postseason hanging on by a thread, the Lakers will have to pile up victories in bunches, because with each loss, the amount of bleeding will move from a minor abrasion on the finger, to a full on exsanguination.
So, yes, the Lakers played with effort and heart against the defending champion Heat, but that doesn't make the 99-90 loss at home any easier to digest, nor does it point to a team turning the tide.
Charles Barkley summed it up best in his post-game comments on TNT.
"Kobe Bryant is an older guy, he's one of the ten greatest basketball players ever, but to ask him to go out every night and guard the best perimeter player, and score 30 points a night, he's going to have more nights like tonight. Because, at his age, he can't do that anymore. They will question how long he can sustain it, and everybody is going to say 'Well it's one game,' but they are putting him in a situation where he is going to have more downs than ups. Everybody gets old [...] Kobe Bryant's an older player. To try and play great defense against the best guard every night, and tonight it was compounded, if he's playing against Milwaukee or Cleveland, it ain't the same as playing against Dwyane Wade or Russell Westbrook."
Following some statements from Kenny Smith and Shaquille O'Neal, Barkley continued,
"Why did LeBron James not guard Kobe Bryant until the last five minutes of the game? Steve Nash is not a good defender. You can't wear Kobe Bryant down night after night. He locked down Kyrie Irving, okay, that's pretty impressive. The next night he had to guard Brandon Jennings. But those young guys, they are wearing him down. Now he had to come down here tonight, and he didn't have anything left in the tank. He won't say that, but you can't do that."
To put these quotes in context, for the past three games (including the Heat game), in an effort to spur the Lakers defensively, coach D'Antoni has asked Bryant to guard the opposing team's best offensive playmaker. It worked well against Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers, as well as against Brandon Jennings and the Milwaukee Bucks. In each game, Bryant shut down the opposing guard as the Lakers went on to win each game decisively at home (93-113 against the Cavaliers, and 88-104 against the Bucks). Irving finished with just 15 points and seven assists as Bryant hounded him on the ball, sometimes even full-court. Jennings received the same treatment, and he finished with 12 points and one assist. Following the game, Jennings stated, "It was probably the best defense somebody's ever played on me since I've been in the league [...] Just constantly putting pressure on me, touching me, hitting me at all times in the game. He wouldn't let me just catch the ball easy, and I wasn't able to get the ball a lot, so it was pretty difficult."
With Bryant taking on a bigger role defensively, Barkley has his doubts about the sustainability of such a task, especially considering Bryant's age and fading athleticism. Despite Barkley's doubt, the Lakers have not allowed a "poison pill" quarter in the past three games (includes the Heat game) — a quarter in which the opponent scores 30+ points. After allowing five straight games with a poison pill, the defensive role of Bryant changed, and the results speak for themselves. With the loss to the Heat, the Lakers are 5-14 in poison pill games, and 7-3 in non poison pill games throughout the D'Antoni era. Bryant can still get the job done, but Barkley believes that doing so for every minute while he is on the court is counterproductive, especially against elite teams.
Case in point, Bryant shot 3-16 (1-6 from deep) from the field for just nine points throughout the first three quarters against the Heat. In the fourth quarter, Bryant began to heat up, and he finished the game 8-25 (4-9 from deep) for 22 points. Although Bryant began to finally hit shots when he should have been the most fatigued, that doesn't dispel the notion that he didn't have tired legs due to chasing Wade all over the court, rather it shows that Bryant can do some incredible things — Bryant hit four consecutive shots to score 10 points in a three minute stretch that gave the Lakers an 81-83 lead at the 6:33 mark, and later he hit a three pointer to tie the game at 90-90 at the 2:32 mark.
However, prior to his burst in the fourth, Bryant couldn't buy a bucket for his opening 31 minutes of play, and he also couldn't shut down Wade at any point. As Bryant missed good attempts that he normally drains, Wade went on to have a hell of a game on his 31st birthday, finishing with 27 points on 11-20 shooting, along with four rebounds, five assists, two steals, one block, and just one turnover. On the other hand, Bryant struggled to stuff the stat sheet, finishing with his 22 points, and just four rebounds, one assist, one steal, and six turnovers — about four too many, and attributable to fatigue and the stifling defense of the Heat.
So does this mean that Bryant should go back to roaming off of the weaker guards on opposing teams? No, not at all. It just means that the potential success of this team is severely handicapped unless a greater group effort is put forth. Bryant can't be a one man show against the upper echelon teams. Furthermore, if the Lakers actually make the playoffs, and want to do any sort of damage, having a worn down Bryant won't do the team any good.
So what's to be done? Well there are two solid alternatives, and each was pointed out by Barkley's co-analysts in the post-game show.
Smith stated, "Yes, I still would put him on Dwyane Wade or LeBron James in key moments, but I wouldn't have that as a diet." Smith is essentially saying, Bryant can still cover those guys, but he should do so for key stretches, not for every minute of the game.
Following this, O'Neal stated,"But, you have two seven footers out there. If one dominates, or two play great, then that diet is a good diet. It will work."
I believe O'Neal's statement is more on point. Essentially, O'Neal is stating, if Howard can dominate the paint offensively and defensively, it will ease the load on Bryant on both ends of the floor. Even further, if Howard and Gasol can dominate the paint, it will be smooth sailing for Bryant to give maximum effort defensively, because that maximum effort will be a lot less if he has intimidating big men taking care of business at the rim. The amount of effort Bryant has to play with when those guys aren't dominant is much greater than the amount he could play with if they are. Obviously, working less while fielding more efficient results is far more desirable, and it would lead to greater sustainability. With Howard finally looking healthy, the season will truly come down to if he can overpower opponents nightly and open things up offensively while clogging the lane defensively. If so, the Lakers should win a lot of ball games, and Bryant should be fresh enough to be able to deliver some damage when it matters most.
So how did the big men do?
Well, not so well. The Heat outscored the Lakers 68-28 on points in the paint. Just read that again. The Heat don't have a single player on their roster taller than 6'9".
Howard finished 4-7, 5-13 from the line, for 13 points, 16 rebounds, two assists, and one block in 38 minutes of play. A decent game — although the free throws were disappointing — but nowhere near dominant. Although the Lakers looked to feed Howard down low, the Heat did a great job denying passing lanes, fronting Howard, and constantly rotating weak side help to prevent lobs over the top — Howard didn't help the cause as he seems to regularly fail at pinning his man with his backside and anchoring post position to prevent rotating fronts.
Gasol was actually pretty solid in his first game back from the concussion he sustained against the Denver Nuggets on January 6th. In the second quarter, coach D'Antoni ran a few sets for Gasol on the box, and he delivered with an arsenal of post moves. In the fourth quarter, Gasol showed off his spectacular court vision, with three assists in a five minute stretch that led to an 81-81 tie at the 7:05 mark. Gasol even slammed home a dunk with authority following a drive and dish from World Peace in the fourth quarter — on a play that he has been laying up this year (encouraging).
Overall, Gasol shot 4-7 from the field, 0-1 from deep, and 4-4 at the free throw line, scoring 12 points, while also tallying four rebounds, four assists, one steal, and three turnovers in 25 minutes of play. Gasol converted three of his four makes in the paint, shooting 3-4 from within four feet, and just 1-3 from beyond — his next closest shot attempt came from 15 feet. When in the low post, Gasol showed that he still has the most extensive low post game in the NBA, one that, when used correctly, nearly led an upset against Team USA in the 2012 Olympics.
Despite the lack of domination in the paint, and a poor shooting game from Bryant, the Lakers were able to hang with the Heat all game. After a Bryant three-pointer in the fourth quarter, the game was tied 90-90 with 2:32 remaining in regulation. However, from there, everything went downhill.
First, Howard attempted a free throw likely epitomizes the Lakers' season thus far. Trailing 92-90 with just 1:51 remaining in regulation, Howard stepped up to the line and air balled his first attempt. Yes, air balled. Deflated, Howard clanked his next free throw back iron. Following that, the Heat came down, and Ray Allen sank a difficult fading jumper in the lane over Howard's outstretched hand, giving the Heat a 94-90 lead with 1:30 remaining.
Then, directly following Allen's shot, Nash tossed up a doozy of his own. Hounded by Wade in the post, Nash shook him off as he turned baseline with a pivot and scoop shot. However, Nash's shot went off the side of the backboard. Following Nash's blunder, James sealed the deal with a one-on-one stop and pop jumper over World Peace.
Following some desperate attempts, James closed the game with an unnecessary dunk that drew an and-one because Gasol rightly gave him a push in the back — there was no shot clock, yet James decided it was time to go dunk the ball. James sank the free throw to end the game, 99-90.
Anyone want a moral victory? I sure don't. This game was up for grabs and the Lakers let it slip away. A few more of these, and the season won't last longer than April 17th, aka, the Lakers final game of the regular season.
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