5-2 just looks, and feels, a lot better than 4-3.
With the Lakers fighting for dear life just to gain entry into the postseason, any loss significantly hurts their chances to do so. Currently in 10th place in the Western Conference with a 24-28 record, the Lakers trail the Houston Rockets by three and a half games for the eighth seed, and the Utah Jazz are a full four games ahead for the seventh seed.
5-2 should have been manageable on this "Grammy trip," but coughing up a game against the lowly Phoenix Suns to start the road schedule pretty much ended any hope of that happening. Relative to the type of season the Lakers have had this season, this trip was successful, but in reality, this trip should have closed the gap on the eighth seed, and instead, the Lakers are exactly where they were before the strip started, three and a half games behind the eighth seed.
Playing eight games in 13 days, with seven consecutive games on the road, probably didn't help the Lakers' chances, but this is the hole they have dug themselves in, and now it is time for them to buck up and survive. Metta World Peace gave the best sound bite following the game against the Heat, stating, "Going 4-3 on a seven-game road trip is successful for losers, [a 4-3 record is] successful for people who think of us as a losing team. It's successful for losing minds, not successful for winning minds." I couldn't have said it better myself, the Lakers had a chance to make a real dent in the standings with a realistic opportunity to go 6-1, instead they barely came out ahead.
After starting the first of those seven road games with a collapsing loss to the Suns, the season defining stretch certainly got off on the wrong foot. The Lakers followed that up by building a 29-point lead against the Timberwolves, only to see it collapse to four points with five minutes remaining in regulation. The Lakers fought off the comeback, but for the second straight game, they collapsed in the fourth quarter. Then came an unnecessarily close game against the Pistons on Super Bowl Sunday. The Lakers scraped by for a one point win despite Earl Clark and Steve Nash missing four straight free throws in the final sixteen seconds, allowing the Pistons one final chance, and a darn good attempt at a game winning alley oop dunk.
Following this bumpy opening, the Lakers pulled out their finest victory of the trip, a win against the Nets sans Dwight Howard, Metta World Peace, and Pau Gasol (tore his plantar fascia with four minutes remaining in a close game). Following the injury to Gasol, Kobe Bryant shamed Howard into playing through his shoulder pain, and the Lakers were destroyed by the Celtics for their worst loss of the season, a 21-point drubbing. Howard was a tentative non-factor, and it was clear that he was not ready to play in that game. The Lakers followed that up the very next night with a pathetic performance against the Bobcats in which they got down by 20 points with 17 minutes remaining in the game before rallying and pulling out a seven point win. With such roller coaster performances, the Lakers hoped to close out the Grammy trip with a defining win against the Miami Heat.
With three quarters of solid play behind them, it looked like the Lakers might actually sneak out of Miami with a win. Strong performances from Bryant, Nash, Howard, and Clark kept the Lakers within striking distance — of the four, only Clark failed to shoot above 50% from the field in the first three quarters — and the Lakers only trailed 73-78 entering the fourth quarter. In fact, that deficit should have been even less, but a costly mistake allowed LeBron James to end the third quarter with a free throw, a miss that led to a tap out by the wily Shane Battier, and a dagger three-pointer from James in the final seconds. Battier's tap out capped off a disappointing rebounding performance for the Lakers in the third quarter — the Heat were able to produce 10 points off of six offensive rebounds in the third quarter.
Despite the rebounding woes, things were looking good. As a whole, the Lakers only had six turnovers entering the fourth quarter — a phenomenal success considering the Heat's stellar defense, and the Lakers' high amount of turnovers this season (sixth highest average in the NBA). Back to back turnovers from Howard early in the fourth quarter foreshadowed things to come, but a Jodie Meeks three-pointer that put the Lakers down just one, 81-82, with 8:47 remaining in regulation, certainly inspired hope. From there, the Lakers crumbled with numerous mental lapses as the Heat turned up the defensive pressure.
In that final eight minute stretch, the Heat forced six steals. The Lakers, namely Bryant, had success in the first three quarters by attacking the baseline and either scoring, finding cutters in the lane, or kicking out for a three-pointer — Bryant entered the fourth quarter with seven assists. However, in the fourth quarter, the Heat began crashing the paint and cutting off those passing angles. Bryant especially struggled with this adjustment, and he was forced into consecutive turnovers on the baseline at the six minute mark. Bryant finished the game with four turnovers, and three of them came in that final eight minute stretch. Although Bryant finished the game with a stellar line of 28 points on 11-19 shooting, with six rebounds, nine assists, and a steal, I'm sure that he would like a redo on those consecutive possessions. Antawn Jamison, Clark, and Nash also gave away a possession in that eight minute stretch.
With the Lakers wasting possessions with turnovers, the Heat capitalized with buckets on three of the six steals, with each score coming in transition for a tally of six points. With LeBron James throwing down two vicious slams, and Dwyane Wade hitting a pull up jumper, the Heat gained all of the momentum as the Lakers came up empty.
The first slam started with Wade cutting off the baseline, stealing a skip pass from Bryant, tiptoeing the baseline, and saving the ball by tossing it back in play just before falling out of bounds. Chris Bosh caught the ball, sent the outlet to Norris Cole, and Cole let the ball fly into the air for James to throw down with two hands as Nash ran out of the way. This put the Heat up 84-91 at the 5:58 mark.
The next slam featured a lazy entry pass over the top from Nash to Bryant that James was able to intercept and take the distance without any resistance. With the Red Sea parting as neither Nash nor Clark wanted anything to do with the ensuing poster, James threw down a monster one handed dunk before scowling on his way back down the court. This put the Heat up 88-97 at the 3:25 mark.
With the sixth turnover of the eight minute stretch coming from Bryant at the 2:30 mark, the Heat were able to push the lead to 90-102, essentially sealing the game. In the end, the Heat won 97-107.
Similar to the last game the Lakers played against the Heat, the Lakers had their chances late in the ball game, and they came up short. That nine point loss was tied up with just over two minutes remaining in the game. This 10 point loss was within seven points from the 7:15 mark to the 3:03 mark in the fourth quarter, but the Lakers just couldn't close the gap. Strong games against the world champion Miami Heat are encouraging, but encouraging doesn't equal wins, and right now, that is what the Lakers need the most. With two more games before the All-Star break, the Lakers are guaranteed to be under .500 despite having Bryant and Howard start for the Western Conference squad.
The Lakers are in a world of hurt, and there isn't a single easy way out. With a depleted front line that has Gasol out for at least six weeks, Jordan Hill out for the season, and Howard battling a torn labrum that will bother him until he undergoes surgery, the Lakers' biggest strength heading into the season, size, is now their biggest weakness. With Robert Sacre as the only big man available after Howard, the Lakers have been going small, deciding to keep Sacre on the bench, and instead rolling with a rotation of World Peace, Clark, and Jamison sharing minutes at power forward, and sometimes, the center position. Any time Howard goes out of the game, the opponent attacks the rim, and usually finds an easy bucket or an offensive rebound.
Despite this crazy season of instability, the Lakers have to keep grinding away, and if they keep at it, it looks like a down year for the Western Conference may give them a shot at the postseason. For the past five seasons, 48 wins has been the average amount of wins for the eighth seed in the West. There is no way the Lakers will win 48 games this season. Fortunately, this season, 43 wins may be the lucky number for that final playoff spot. The Jazz and Rockets each have 28 wins so far, but one of them is likely to slide — my pick is the Jazz, especially if they shake up their roster with a trade before the deadline. With 30 games remaining in the regular season, the Lakers would have to go 19-11 to finish with 43 wins, a .633 winning percentage.
Fortunately, the Lakers have a precedent for that type of winning percentage. In the D'Antoni era, the Lakers are 11-6 in games in which they don't give up a "poison pill," good for a .647 winning percentage. A poison pill occurs when Lakers allow the opponent to score thirty or more points in a single quarter. These quarters usually steamroll the Lakers, and they all but guarantee defeat, evidenced by the Lakers' 8-17 record in the D'Antoni era when they give up a poison pill. On the Grammy trip, the Lakers only allowed two of their seven opponents to produce a poison pill (the Bobcats and the Celtics), so there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. If the Lakers keep up their defensive efforts, they should be successful. If they don't, well, we already know what will happen if they don't.
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