Lakers 84, Bulls 88: A Winter's Fail

That the Lakers fell to the Bulls tonight isn't an enormous shock. For weeks now the champs have looked increasingly sluggish and mediocre. The four-game losing streak at the end of November exposed a few cracks in the foundation, and none of us were all that reassured by home wins over the Kings, Wizards and Clippers. The bench recently crashed to earth after a brilliant start, Pau Gasol has been running on fumes, and the interminable wait for Andrew Bynum to rejoin the battle seems to have drained the team's spirit. A road victory over a strong opponent like the Bulls would've been a nice way to reclaim forward momentum, but under the circumstances it felt unlikely. And sure enough, the Lakers kicked off the road trip with an 84 to 88 loss in the City of Much Wind.

Even an anticipated loss has the capacity to dishearten. Tonight's game followed a pattern with which we've become all too familiar: the Lakers came out of the locker room looking sharp and built a big first-quarter lead, only to give it all back and then some in the middle periods and tease us at the end with a too-little-too-late comeback charge. In the process Kobe Bryant passed John Havlicek to reach 11th on the NBA's all-time scoring list, but I doubt he or any of us will be raising a glass in celebration this evening. There's just no denying it anymore. The purp and yellow are in a slump.

We couldn't have hoped for a more promising first quarter. Gasol, who's been a main focus of our discontent and who faced a difficult matchup in Joakim Noah, scored 10 quick points to spark a 16-4 run to open the game. Kobe had a pair of swooping jams. The Laker offense was flowing, and the D was even better. Hands and arms were flying everywhere. Defenders were jumping passing lanes and sowing confusion in Chicago's halfcourt sets. The Bulls scored only half a point per possession in the first period, by far the Lakers' best defensive quarter of the season.

Many of us, though, were already bracing for the letdown. We didn't have to wait long. The Lakers followed up their best defensive quarter of the season with easily their worst offensive quarter. This was the Laker "attack" in the second period: 22 possessions, eight turnovers, 4 for 15 shooting and zero second-chance points, all adding up to 0.45 points per trip. I mean, really. It was a festival of clownish ineptitude. The bench was straight-up awful, finishing the first half with a combined stat line of three points on 1-for-7 shooting and four turnovers.

Meanwhile the Bulls' offense started to regain its footing. Derrick Rose, who was brilliant, began driving aggressively into the lane and kicking out to shooters. Or he'd just knock down threes on his own. This season the Lakers have shown a maddening tendency to double down on post players who don't deserve it, thus leaving opponents wideass open around the arc. It happened again over and over tonight as Kobe, Derek Fisher and Steve Blake doubled Noah and Carlos Boozer unnecessarily. After missing their first three attempts from long distance in the first quarter, the Bulls made 8 of 15 the rest of the way. Most of those looks were not what you would call "contested." By halftime the lead was not only gone but had actually swung in Chicago's favor.

In the third the game settled down into a slower-paced affair. The Lakers got their turnovers briefly under control and started getting to the line. They hit 8 of 10 free throws in the third to keep it close, but on D they still couldn't contain Rose, who created excellent shots for both his big men and backcourt running mates. The likes of Ronnie Brewer and Luol Deng were left unharassed around the perimeter and punished the Lake Show accordingly. By the end of the third the lead had grown to eight.

With about five minutes left in the fourth, a Kyle Korver three pushed the margin to 13. It was then that the Lakers elected to commence their customary endgame scramble. They forced a bunch of turnovers and started crashing the offensive glass. With 11 seconds left Kobe went to the line with a chance to cut the lead from four to two but missed the second free throw. He got whistled for a loose-ball foul on the rebound, and that pretty much iced it for the bad guys.

The Lakers never had a convincing answer for Rose, who finished with 29 points on nine assists. Fish's defense against him was predictably hopeless. Some of the shots Rose hit, though, no one could've done anything about. When the Bulls needed him to create points tonight, he came through again and again.

The bigger problem was the altogether terrible Laker offense. They committed turnovers on 18% of their plays, a season high. They missed five free throws in 18 attempts. And there was no outside threat whatsoever. The three-point shooting that was so deadly early in the year has gone completely into the tank. Here, by way of illustration, are the Lakers' three-point stats for tonight:

Three-Point Makes

Three-Point Attempts

Quarters 1 - 3

1

3

4th Quarter

2

10

In the first three quarters they just couldn't generate any good looks from outside. In the final quarter they jacked up threes whether the look was good or not. I don't care who it is - Kobe, Fish, Shannon, Brian Shaw - but someone has to start making their longballs again, or the offense will continue to sputter.

It's a shame the Lakers wasted such a strong performance by Gasol. Contrary to our expectations, he whipped Noah something fierce. Pau scored 21 points, pulled in eight boards, dished four assists, blocked four shots and challenged many other of Chicago's shot attempts in the paint. He battled hard for the full 45 minutes he was on the court. Reached for comment, Andrew Bynum responded, "South Africa was a lot of fun!"

The Lakers are now 16-7.

 

Poss.

TO%

FTA/
FGA

FT%

3FGA/FGA

2PT%

3PT%

EFG

TS%

OReb Rate

DReb Rate

PPP

L.A.

93

18

0.23

72

0.17

48

23

46

49

24

74

0.90

Chi.

92

20

0.21

82

0.21

40

47

46

48

26

76

0.96

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.

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