PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 19: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers adjusts his jersey during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center on February 19, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Lakers 102-90. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Twenty Three. That's how many points the Los Angeles Lakers were down to the Phoenix Suns after a terrible first half in which it was clear the Lakers had no intentions of being a competitive basketball team in a professional exhibition of the sport. Getting beat all over the court by a team playing with a much higher energy level, the Lakers left themselves a huge mountain to climb in order to achieve victory. The mountain was so big, in fact, that it might not have been all that wise to try. But try Mike Brown most certainly did.
Twenty Three. That's how many minutes Kobe Bryant played in the 2nd half as the Lakers tried, and failed, to climb back into the contest. Oh sure, they might have made the Suns sweat just a little bit, at one point cutting the deficit back down to single digits in the 4th quarter. But the game was never in doubt. The final score was a comfortable 12-point win. After the abomination of the first half, victory was never going to be in the cards for the purple and gold.
And yet Kobe played. And played. And played. He notched 40 minutes on the night. Pau Gasol played 36. In a game the Lakers had very, very little chance of winning, Gasol played his normal allotment, and Kobe went well above and beyond the call. And they need to be ready to do the same in less than 24 hours ... and again 48 hours after that ... and again 24 hours after that. Tonight's contest was the first of a four-games-in-five-nights stretch ... and the Lakers just had their best player burning the candle at both ends trying, and failing, to come back from an insurmountable deficit.
This isn't the first time this season we've seen big minutes in a blowout. The Lakers have won 4 games by a margin of more than 15 points. In those games, Pau Gasol averaged just under 36 minutes a game, just 1 minute less than he's averaged in all games this season. Kobe averages just under 33 minutes per game in those situations, which is well below his season average, but two of those blowout victories were in December, when Kobe was only playing 34 minutes per game on average anyways. Only as it has become clear that the team needs a lot more from Kobe have we seen his minutes skyrocket. Last season, in recognition of the limited amount of mileage Kobe has left on his legs, he played a starting career low (as in, career low since he became a starter) of 34 minutes per game. This season, he's back to playing 38 per, because the Lakers depth behind him is ... well ... nonexistent.
How about blowout losses? The Lakers haven't lost a game by more than 15 points this season, but tonight was the 5th contest they've lost by more than 10 points, and three of the five have seen the Lakers "win" the 4th quarter (meaning the game was a bigger blowout than it appeared to be). In those five contests, Kobe is averaging 40.6 minutes per game, Gasol 37, and Andrew Bynum 33 (assisted by two games in the high 20s, but otherwise Bynum too is averaging about 37 mpg in these contests). For Kobe, that's 2.5 minutes more than he averages in a normal game, while the Lakers getting killed has no effect on Pau Gasol's mpg (averaging 37 per contest) and only a mild effect on Bynum's (averaging 34 per contest). These three players are literally the only good things the Lakers have going for them in most contests, and yet the coaches refuse to save these players on nights when they aren't playing that well, or the team around them is failing them more than usual.
A team like the Los Angeles Lakers, filled with veterans, was always going to struggle somewhat with the compact nature of this season's games. Any success the team had was always going to be about catching fire at the right times and riding the wave as far as they could. But, with the high minutes being played by Kobe and Pau, there is significant risk that those players will wear down as the season goes on. There's nothing the coaches can do about that risk on a nightly basis. The schedule, and relative lack of talent and cohesion surrounding the Lakers stars means that big minutes are a must for all of the Lakers Big Three.
But on a night like tonight? With Kobe coughing the ball up every 3rd possession, the team facing a 20-point deficit in the 1st half, and with 3 more games in the next four nights, ALL OF WHICH APPEAR HARDER ON PAPER THAN TONIGHT'S CONTEST, sometimes you just have to know when to throw in the towel. If Mike Brown isn't careful, he might bust the Lakers out because he keeps on playing the wrong hands.