The Los Angeles Lakers have found themselves backed into a corner, winning only 8 of the 18 contests they've competed in thus far. Pau Gasol has had a difficult time adjusting to a new offense, with a new coach, with new teammates and is now out indefinitely as he tries to rehabilitate his tendinitis stricken knees. Steve Blake will be missing at least two months, leaving Chris Duhon and Darius Morris as the backup point guard squad. There have been no positive updates in regards to a Steve Nash return; the Lakers stringing everyone along a week at a time. And there's this singular damning stat that tells the story of these last two games: the Lakers have given up a combined 74 points in the 4th quarters alone over the last two games. Both losses.
74 points of offense allowed while they attempt to close out games.
74 points in the most critical juncture of the game.
The Houston Rockets starting lineup failed them. James Harden had a miserable game, shooting only 15% from the field (3-19), and was a ghost overall much like he was in the first meeting of the teams. It wasn't some profound defensive scheme from the Lakers, Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace weren't breathing in his beard, he simply missed shots. Again, and again, and again. The Rockets' best scorer by far, Harden went into the contest averaging 24.1 points per game, and ended with only 15 points. Despite the abysmal outing, Houston still put up 107 points.
The Rockets second leading scorer, Chandler Parsons? 13 points. Also under his season average. Also shooting a terrible percentage, going 5-16; a pathetic 31%. Their third leading scorer, Patrick Patterson, under his season average by 8 points. He had 6 on the night, and was as present as the Lakers defense overall. Omer Asik, their FOURTH leading scorer, ALSO under his average with only 10 points.
And, here's the kicker, Jeremy Lin, the fifth leading scorer on the Houston Rockets, scored under his season average. Lin had as many points (4) as he did fouls (4) and only 3 assists. And the Lakers lost. They fell flat on their faces as the game's final minutes ticked away.
Kobe Bryant sent off 31 shots on the night, with 14 of them finding the bottom of that silky, sweet, net. He made tough shots to keep the scoreboard in the Lakers favor, ending the night with 39 points. He drove the lane and finished at the rim. He made 9 of 12 from the charity stripe. Hey, he even kept his turnovers down, ending with 3. Yet, that defense of his is a nagging injury to the Lakers in and of itself. With the amount of energy he's burning on the offensive end in this shoot first ask questions last offense, it comes as no surprise. His ball hawking habit may die hard with the teams title hopes at this rate. And, on that same note, singling out Kobe's lackluster defense is a given, but it's more than just Kobe. The Lakers look like a disorganized mess defensively. Rotations are either wrong, late, or non-existent. There's a distinct lack of trust in one another; players attempt to over compensate or mitigate what they project will be a mistake from a teammate.
It's easy to talk about offense. The X's and O's are cut and dry and it's much easier to plan ways to assert dominance when the ball is actually in your possession. But the Lakers need to sit down and have a come to Jesus meeting about this defense. Greg Smith (21 points, 9 rebounds) and Toney Douglas (22 points) pushed the Houston Rockets to a win. If Harden went supernova and burned the Lakers alive, hitting tough, contested, jumpers this loss would be at the very least passable. Maybe an injection of Linsanity after the Lakers lost Pau Gasol for the contest (and until further notice) could have been an acceptable outcome. But losing to a team that dug out of a 17 point lead to the tune of Greg Smith and Toney Douglas?
It's difficult to project what happens if Pau Gasol is there, even with tendinitis knees attached to his body with rusty screws, but the Lakers suffered on the boards against the Rockets. Having a 7 foot tall giant wing-span of a front court player couldn't have hurt the chances of corralling a few of those misses. In the end, the Lakers gave up 21 offensive boards to the Houston Rockets. When the defense is having a hard enough time sticking to their assignments through a 20 second shot clock but still manages to get a stop, then the Rockets rebound and get a fresh slate to attack a flimsy defense again? That's a problem. And, for a team that's head coach preaches the importance of getting as many possessions as possible, they threw away 18 chances to put points on the board. Between the offensive boards allowed, and the turnovers coughed up, the Lakers swung 39 possession in the favor of the Rockets. This is a two point game we're talking about.
Then there's the Hack-A-Dwight gopher poking it's head out of the hole it was buried in. The Rockets utilized the strategy for five Lakers possessions in the 4th quarter, sending Dwight Howard to the line for 10 total free throws. Out of the 10, Howard made 5, which comes out to 1 point per possession. An expected outcome given the percentages. The issue, however, is giving the Rockets an extra possession to score 2-3 points on the other end without burning time to play defense against the Lakers.
Hack-a-Howard began at the 3:17 mark in the 4th quarter, with the Lakers up, 97-93.
3:17 | Dwight Howard fouled. (0-2 FT) 97-93
3:13 | James Harden fouled. (2-2 FT) 97-95
3:12 | Dwight Howard fouled. (1-2 FT) 98-95
2:59 | Greg Smith layup. 98-97
2:57 | Dwight Howard fouled (1-2 FT) 99-97
2:38 | Toney Douglas 3 point field goal 99-100
2:31 | Dwight Howard fouled (1-2 FT) 100-100
2:09 | Dwight Howard fouled. (2-2 FT) 102-100
The Lakers were still up 2 points when the sequence ended, but the Rockets cut the lead down by 2 points despite Dwight accounting for 1 point per possession. The game was decided by two points. This isn't to say that the free throw stretch is what decided the game, nor is it to dismiss the notion that it is in fact a problem. Basketball, as fast-paced it may be in comparison to baseball or football, is still a game of inches when you magnify it. With the defense being as suspect as it has been, settling for 1 point per possession while the opposing team is still reaching for a potential 3 points per possession can be disastrous. And it was. The Rockets survived a Kobe Bryant deep ball, and a few frantic tip-ins as the final buzzer sounded, and managed to pull out a victory that the Lakers had tied up in a neat little bow. 107-106, Rockets. 8-10, Lakers.
Yes, the Lakers are 18 games into the season and they look no more identifiable than they did when they began the preseason without Dwight Howard, a different head coach, and a healthy Steve Nash. Now, they have a .444 winning percentage, and it's deserved. They've had "break through" games, but what is it they've exactly broken through to? More mediocrity? More inconsistency? Mike D'Antoni is still kicking the wheels on this roster, which is understandable for a coach inserted when the season was already up and running. With each change it becomes clear how important a preseason, and training camp, could have been for him with this team. A game removed from letting Devin Ebanks get time out on the floor he was nowhere to be found. Instead, Earl Clark found his number called. Jordan Hill also found the floor and played well in his limited minutes as a pure backup center, registering 9 points and 9 boards in 14 minutes of play. With Pau Gasol out until otherwise announced as he tries to manage his achy breaky knees, Antawn Jamison played well with the starters. 15 points, 9 rebounds, and spreading the floor effectively going 3-4 from deep should be considered about as successful a night as can be anticipated from Jamison. Meanwhile, Jodie Meeks hot hand seems to have been taken by the Denver Nuggets, as he went 1-5 from deep.
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