Last Friday, our own DexterFishmore commented that, following the win against the Clippers on Wednesday, the Lakers had three very winnable contests against the Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns, and New Orleans Hornets. Run that mini-table, and the Pacific Division crown would be all but locked up. Well, 2 out of three games have been completed and the Lakers are in danger of going the exact opposite direction. Instead of running the mini-table, the mini-table is in danger of running the Lakers, and instead of the Pac division crown being locked up, it is in danger of being already lost.
The Lakers and Clippers are now tied in the all-important loss column with 9 and 10 games left respectively, and the Lakers end of season schedule is a doozy ... three games against the now West leading San Antonio Spurs (two in San An), a game against the OKC Thunder, and two more contests (thankfully at home) against the fighting for their playoff lives Dallas Mavericks and Denver Nuggets all mean that, despite three road contests against really bad teams, the Lakers might be lucky to play above .500 ball down the stretch. The Clippers have an easier go of it, though they've got some above average road contests as well.
The bottom line in all this is that the Lakers can ill afford another loss to a team well below their stature, as tonight would almost certainly entail. Even with Kobe Bryant reportedly unlikely to play for the 2nd straight contest, this is a game the Lakers must win, but we've seen so very recently that even a team like NO can give the Lakers trouble. The Hornets were last seen nearly putting the crap cherry on top of the crap sundae of one of Kobe's worst shooting performances ever, but the Mamba Mamba'd his way out of that particular foxhole by draining a contested three at the end of the game to seal the victory, obscuring the fact that it took a game winning shot for the Lakers to defeat one of the worst teams in the league at home.
Kobe's heroics won't be available tonight, even if said heroics might not have been necessary at the time if not attached to his horrific shooting. Instead, it will be up to Ramon Sessions, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol to play like the important cogs that they are and lead the team to victory. Saturday night's efforts in that regard were alright (Gasol had 30 and 13, Drew had 23 and 18 .. on 27 shots), but some combination of a complete lack of Lakers defense and a red hot shooting performance from multiple unlikely sources meant the Lakers got waxed even with those efforts.
There's also the little matter of the complete lack of production coming off the Lakers' pine. The Laker bench managed a whopping 10 points, only 48 points less than their Phoenix counterparts. The Lakers production has been ridiculously awful since a brief four game respite where Ramon Sessions was their driving force. It doesn't actually matter that the production off the bench has been below 20 points just about every single game over the last two weeks, because there will always be 1-3 starters on the court that (rightfully) soak up much of the team's usage. What matters is that said bench unit do their jobs when the time comes, and the terrible shooting percentages (4-16 in their last contest, roughly 33% over many games the last time I checked) indicate that just isn't so. The unit plays hard, Matt Barnes and Josh McRoberts are capable of giving the team an energy boost, but the bottom line is that they just can't shoot straight, and with Kobe out, their production matters just a little bit more.
Will any of this matter against one of the league's worst teams? Can the Lakers break out of their defensive slump and actually show some chops at that end of the court? Will Darius Morris be randomly played 20+ minutes tonight as Mike Brown's Rotation Roulette continues? Tip off is at 5 PM PT, so we'll find out soon enough.