The last time I checked in with the Los Angeles Lakers, I pondered if they had reached rock bottom following a humiliating loss on the road to the struggling Cleveland Cavaliers.
Well, that post came a game early, because the Lakers were blitzkrieged in their following game against the New York Knicks as Carmelo Anthony went into Team USA mode and dropped 30 points in just 23 minutes before spraining his ankle midway through the third quarter. With Anthony spearheading the charge, the Knicks poured in a ridiculous 41 points in the opening quarter. The Knicks entered halftime ahead 49-68, and after Anthony went down, they held on to close the game out and win 107-116.
Now, the Lakers are riding a three game winning streak, bumping them up to 12-14 overall, so does this mean all is well in Lakerland?
Not even close.
A convincing winning streak could have inspired some faith, but squeaking out wins against the Washington Wizards, Philadelphia 76ers, and Charlotte Bobcats is nothing to hang your hat on. Well, let me revise that, the Lakers actually played well against the 76ers, winning on the road. However, the 76ers were without their star point guard, Jrue Holiday, due to a sprained foot, and were forced to start Kwame Brown due to the perpetually injured Andrew Bynum.
For each of these games, the old cliche, "A win is a win," is applicable, but sometimes some wins can feel like losses — especially the most recent game against the Bobcats.
Let me break down the games to point out why these wins highlight just how mediocre this Lakers team is currently playing.
First up, the Wizards game, on the road. After getting absolutely scorched by Carmelo Anthony in New York, the Lakers were handed a gimme game with the worst team in the NBA — the Wizards entered the game with a 3-16 record.
The Lakers came out with some energy and showed some promise. After one quarter of play, they led 27-25. The Lakers didn't commit a single turnover the entire quarter, yet they were unable to sustain an early eight point lead, and the Wizards closed strong on a 7-2 run.
In the second quarter, the Lakers decided to just outscore the opposition rather than try to shut down an offensively challenged squad. In about an eight minute stretch, Cartier Martin lit up the Lakers as if he is a super-duper-star. Who? Exactly. From the final two minutes of the first quarter, to the first six minutes of the second quarter, Martin scored 15 points by shooting 3-3 from deep, and finishing two and-ones. Behind Martin's efforts, the Wizards scored 30 points in the quarter and entered halftime trailing by just three points.
In the third quarter, the Lakers played how they should have been playing all along by upping the defensive intensity and winning the quarter 25-14. The Lakers forced three turnovers in a 50 second span early in the quarter, and they ran away with the lead, finishing the quarter ahead 83-69. The Lakers held the Wizards to 5-24 (21%) from the field, and after Martell Webster hit a three pointer on the opening possession to tie the game at 58-58, the Wizards didn't score another point until the 7:54 mark.
On the heels of a dominant third quarter, the Lakers looked as if they would blow out the Wizards. Unfortunately, the big lead didn't last very long. By the 5:31 mark, the Wizards utilized a huge run to get within three points, 92-89. Five different Wizards scored in that stretch, carving up the Lakers with drive and kicks and strong attacks to the basket. The gap remained in single digits the rest of the way, and the Lakers were forced to claw their way to a 102-96 victory.
If not for a stunning Kobe Bryant tip in following a missed Dwight Howard free throw with just over a minute left in the game, the Lakers may have lost — the momentum began to pull in the Wizards' favor up until that point. Only three Lakers scored the entire fourth quarter, and only Bryant and Howard scored for the Lakers in the final 8:48 of the game (eight points for Bryant, six for Howard).
Instead of putting away a horrible team, the Lakers allowed the Wizards to outscore them 27-19 in the final quarter of play. This first win of the streak could have been a "good win," but the Lakers tainted it by not closing the door on a squad that is absolutely horrible. The Lakers allowed four Wizards to top at least 16 points, with three of those Wizards coming off the bench. If not for 30 points from Bryant, and 24 points from Jodie Meeks off the bench, the Lakers would have lost — no other Laker reached at least 14, and Howard finished with just 12.
The next game against the 76ers, the Lakers actually played well, winning 111-98. They took care of business against a team they should have had no problem with. With Jrue Holiday and Andrew Bynum out, the Lakers won every quarter except for the fourth — getting outscored 25-24 when the game had already been decided. The Lakers played consistent ball, and they played much stiffer defense. For the first time in 10 games (a span of 19 days), the Lakers held their opponent without a 30 point quarter. These poison pill quarters have been a staple of the D'Antoni era, but the Lakers handled their business and kept the 76ers out of arm's reach the entire game. The scoring distribution was also much more even, as six guys hit double digits. Bryant led the way with 34, and four other players scored at least 14, with Meeks rounding out the double digit scorers with 12.
The only black mark on the 76ers game was Nick Young dropping 30 points on 52% shooting from the field, including 6-12 from deep. Young tends to play well against the Lakers, so his performance wasn't surprising, but a couple of defensive lapses allowed him to drain some open threes that are his trademark. In fact, as a team, the 76ers shot 49.4% from the field, and 40% from deep. Those numbers speak ill of the Lakers defense, however, the Lakers were able to force 18 turnovers, and they capitalized with 16 points off of those turnovers. Overall, the good outweighed the bad, and the Lakers turned in a solid performance.
On the heels of an impressive victory on the road, the Lakers headed home to face the lowly, 7-16 Bobcats. The Bobcats entered the game on an 11-game losing streak, failing to win since a double-overtime 108-106 victory over the Wizards on November 24th.
With that in mind, eeking out a 100-101 victory doesn't boast any sort of confidence for the Lakers. In fact, the Bobcats had three shots on the final possession of the game, with Gerald Henderson missing a layup that circled around the front side of the rim before rolling off the right side of the iron in the final seconds.
With Pau Gasol returning to the starting lineup following an eight game absence due to tendinitis in his knees, the Lakers fielded a lineup that should have dominated the weak frontcourt of the Bobcats. Instead, the Lakers were outscored 40-36 on points in the paint. Furthermore, Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, and Ramon Sessions lit up the Lakers by draining deep shots, continuously attacking the basket, and combining for 67 points on 25-54 shooting (46%) from the field, including 7-13 (54%) from deep.
Early in the game, the Lakers came out lethargic. The Lakers quickly fell behind 12-5 in the opening four minutes. By the 1:43 mark, the Lakers were able to tie the game at 23-23. A shot from Gasol gave the Lakers the lead to close the quarter ahead 25-27. Although the Lakers finished ahead, their opening performance was disheartening. Byron Mullens especially capitalized on the lackadaisical effort, scoring 10 of his 13 points in the opening quarter. Mullens stretched the floor as a 7'0" big man with range, hitting two threes in the quarter.
Although Gasol looked a bit rusty with two turnovers and some missed free throws, he finished with a well rounded quarter, shooting 2-4 from the field, scoring five points, grabbing five rebounds, dishing out three assists, and blocking three shots. Gasol's performance was a welcome sight early in the game — he would noticeably tire later in the game.
In the second quarter, things got ugly. Six straight points from Metta World Peace pushed the Lakers ahead 29-40 by the 7:52 mark. It looked as though the Lakers would turn the game into a rout. Then Walker, Henderson, and Sessions spearheaded a furious Bobcats charge.
Those three combined to score 28 of the Bobcats final 29 points in the second quarter. With those three leading the way, the Bobcats ripped off a 29-13 run to take a 58-53 lead into halftime. The Lakers went ice cold, shooting 5-15 (33%) from the field, highlighted by a missed alley-oop slam from Howard that surely would have made SportsCenter following a gorgeous feed from Bryant.
Although the Lakers froze up offensively, their defensive performance was slacking, especially in transition. The Bobcats shot 9-14 (64%) in that eight minute stretch, with their small ball trio shooting 9-11 (81%) from the field, and a red hot 4-5 (80%) from deep. As the Lakers missed shot after shot, the Bobcats pushed the ball and routinely found the open man in semi-transition. Practically shell shocking the Lakers, the Bobcats turned an 11 point deficit into a five point lead. The Bobcats finished the quarter with 33 points, marking another team to hand the Lakers a poison pill quarter.
To start the third quarter, things went from bad to worse. The Bobcats ripped off a 20-7 run, pushing the lead to 78-60 by the 6:07 mark. As the Lakers shot 2-10 (20%) from the field, including 2-6 (33%) from deep, the Bobcats once again pushed the tempo in semi-transition, and they capitalized by shooting 8-10 (80%) from the field, including a perfect 4-4 from deep. The Lakers poor play in this stretch was highlighted by a double dribble violation from Howard, and a sequence where Mullens swatted World Peace in the lane, and then recovered to swat Howard as well.
Riding a 49-20 run from the 7:52 mark of the second quarter to midway through the third quarter, the Bobcats embarrassed the Lakers and showed just how poorly this Lakers team often plays defensively. The Bobcats played without fear. They attacked the Lakers without any hesitation, and their confidence swelled with every made shot.
From the midway point on, the Lakers began to creep back in the game. Reaching into the depths of their thirty minute defensive practices, the Lakers allowed the Bobcats to score just six more points in the final six minutes of the third quarter. The Bobcats shot just 3-9 (33%) during this stretch, including 0-2 from deep. The Lakers didn't shoot much better, shooting just 3-10 (30%) from the field, and 0-4 from deep, however, the Lakers were able to slow the game down by attacking the basket and earning trips to the line.
The Lakers made 11-12 (92%) from the charity stripe during the remaining six minutes of the third quarter, thus slowing down the semi-transition attack of the Bobcats, and forcing the Bobcats to run their half court offense. When the Lakers actually had a chance to set up their half court defense, they were great. The Lakers forced four turnovers, two of which were shot clock violations. Riding a strong defensive effort, and numerous trips to the line, the Lakers entered the fourth quarter down 84-77 following a 16-6 run in the final six minutes.
In the fourth quarter, the Lakers initially sustained their defensive effort while surging ahead with an 11-0 run to take the lead. A Bryant and-one layup put the Lakers ahead 84-87 at the 9:52 mark, and a three pointer by Darius Morris capped the run. Following Morris' three pointer, Walker got the Bobcats on the board with a runner at the 8:33 mark, making the score 86-90. By the six minute mark, the Bobcats trailed 91-92. A Bryant three pointer buoyed the Lakers, but the team went dry, and three minutes later the score was tied 95-95 at the 2:35 mark.
After trading buckets, Bryant closed the game with four straight points. Bryant attacked the basket with authority to convert a tough layup that probably should have been an and-one. Then Bryant hit a 19-foot jumper from the near high elbow following a high pick from Howard. Sessions followed with an and-one after driving to the rim and finishing, making the score 100-101 with 47 seconds remaining. Following this, Bryant once again tried to close the game, but this time, his 21-foot jumper from the near wing was hotly contested, and he hit back iron, setting up the Bobcats for the final shot of the game.
With 21 seconds remaining in the game, the Bobcats called timeout and set up a play for the win. Following a double pick at the top, Bryant switched onto Walker at the near wing. Bryant shaded Walker well, forcing him baseline and staying on top of his right hip in order to prevent Walker's trademark step-back jumper. Walker attacked the rim and was swatted by a rotating Howard. As the ball flew off the glass, Henderson crashed the lane and grabbed the offensive rebound while running full speed towards the rim. Henderson's layup just missed, Mullens was stripped in the lane, and the ball flew out to the top where Ben Gordon jacked up an ugly three pointer that came nowhere close. Game over.
The Lakers escaped with the win, 100-101, but it was nowhere near convincing. Yes, the Lakers overcame an 18 point deficit, but the Lakers should have never been there in the first place. Simply put, the Bobcats are awful. What does that say about the Lakers?
This win may indicate progress since the Lakers have routinely faced steep deficits this season, rallied, and then finished just short. But I can't believe in this victory. The Lakers escaped with a win, they clamped down, they finished strong, but they still failed to play hard for a full 48 minutes. They still allowed inferior players to turn in all-star performances. They still had to rely on 30 points from Bryant, with World Peace and Meeks hitting 17 apiece and outscoring Howard's 16. Overall, this game left a bad taste in my mouth, and I have to admit, against any other team in the league (excluding the Wizards), the Lakers would have lost. Entering the game with a 7-6 record at home, I expected them to play better than this.
Any sort of winning streak is appreciated, but three straight wins still has this team below .500, and the team is still sitting in 12th place in the Western Conference (exactly where it sat a week ago following the Cavaliers game). Sometimes building wins leads to confidence and ultimately better play, but these wins simply didn't seem to build anything. These wins came against bottom feeders. These wins relied on Bryant to drop 30-plus, marking his seventh straight game hitting that mark, and making him the only 34-year-old player to ever do such a thing.
Furthermore, the final win also marked a significant lineup change that raises more questions than it provides answers. Coach D'Antoni seems intent on playing World Peace at the power forward position, thus opting for a small ball lineup with one center. The lineup will feature Howard/Gasol at the five, World Peace at the four, Bryant at the three, Meeks at the two, and Duhon/Morris at the one. In doing this, D'Antoni will look to stagger the minutes of Howard and Gasol so that they play more often apart rather than together. We all know how much D'Antoni loves small ball, but I believe in the twin tower setup. Maybe I'm spoiled, but I saw Phil Jackson utilize Bynum/Odom and Gasol to the tune of three straight trips to the NBA Finals, and two straight championships.
Also, a casualty of this lineup setup will be Jordan Hill. Hill and D'Antoni clashed in New York, and despite his excellent play off the bench this season, Hill will be the odd man out in the rotation. Hill deserves minutes, and other than Meeks, he's the most consistent bench player the Lakers have. I love Hill's game, and I respect his energy and consistency off the bench. He's the ultimate hustle player, and he seems to be the best weak side rotating defender the Lakers have.
With three days of rest, the Lakers have some real competition coming up against the Golden State Warriors on December 22nd. Surprisingly, this game will be a litmus test, as the Warriors boast a 17-8 record, fifth in the West, and eight in the entire league.
Like much of Los Angeles, I want to see if the Lakers can play consistent ball and build on this win streak. Unfortunately, I have no reason to believe that the Lakers can beat the Warriors at this point in time. The Lakers have allowed 12 of their 16 opponents to produce at least one 30 point quarter during the D'Antoni era. In fact, four teams have hit at least 40! These poison pills are far too alarming, and if squads like the Wizards and Bobcats can produce poison pill quarters, I have a feeling Stephen Curry, David Lee, and Klay Thompson are chomping at the bit to light up the Lakers.
Maybe a couple more thirty minute defensive drills can help the Lakers in the days leading up to this game...
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