LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 08: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers smiles as he stands alongside Al Harrington #7 of the Denver Nuggets in the fourth quarter in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs on May 8, 2012 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. 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 Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
The effort deficit is nothing new. A viewer unfamiliar with the nuances of the Lakers for the previous few years would venture that blame lies at the feet of new coach Mike Brown, a calcifying core, or something similar, but when it really comes down to it, the Lakers are no strangers to not putting forth one hundred percent effort in the playoffs. If you still don't believe me, look at the 2009 matchup against Houston, during which the Lakers failed to put away arguably a worse team than this Denver squad in less than seven games. Whenever they felt like it, they could obliterate Houston and show the sheer difference in talent that existed between the two. Yet, the Lakers dropped Game 1 in L.A. and showed an embarrassing lack of effort in their two other losses in the series. This is not to say that this current iteration of the Lakers is the same as that '08-'09 team, which was for all intents and purposes, an elite squad -- third in offensive efficiency, sixth in defensive efficiency, 65-17 regular season record, and they really could have broken 70 if they cared to bring it on every night. The '11-'12 Lakers are nowhere near that rarefied level, but they are still a very, very good team and still think they can coast on their talent on most nights. It is something ingrained into the heads of the primary core players, transcends coach and system, and as such, is something that you simply have to accept with this team. A Game 5 loss in a closeout game is hardly the end of the world since the team still has two shots to right the ship, and as Chris noted in a piece six days ago, what ultimately matters in the end is that your team advances.
- Kobe Bryant -- Of course, don't tell any of this to Kobe, who nearly brought the Lakers back from the brink on his lonesome. He hit insane three after insane three down the stretch in the fourth quarter and it seemed practically inevitable that the Lakers were going to come back -- that Sessions three looked so good out of his hands -- particularly since the Nuggets halfcourt game devolved into utter stagnation. On a night when practically every other Lakers player was devoid of effort or passion, Kobe's aggressive chucking was not only acceptable, it was necessary to drag the Lakers out of their funk. There were still sequences earlier in the game during which he made things unnecessarily difficult on himself -- his first shot was an airball after he double pumped on a wide open three pointer after all -- and he proved during the course of the game that he could get his own through simple catch and shoot plays off screens rather than nutty footwork combinations. All that noted, Kobe was the only shot in the only shot in the arm for the Lakers the entire game, and he came within inches of giving us a storybook finish to the series.
- Steve Blake -- So that "Blake plays well and Lakers win" correlation looks a bit tenuous now, no? Blake shot decently, passed the rock without turning the ball over, and even nabbed a half-dozen rebounds, but the remainder of the team outside of Kobe was positively awful. There's really not more that you can ask from Blake than what he did last night. He's not making other players better since he can't break down the defense and create shots for others, but he didn't hurt the team through his play either. On a night like this, it didn't matter very much, unfortunately.
- Pau Gasol -- Lost in the narrative last night was how poorly Gasol did throughout the game. His defense was poor, he wasn't creating shots for others from the high post or the low block, and his offensive game in general was largely lackluster. With the team inexplicably refusing to use the pick-and-roll as a means through which to create offense, a lot of the impetus goes on Gasol to help the offense hum, and he was providing hardly anything for the Lakers in that regard. The Lakers' struggles in the first half were punctuated by Pau's 1-7 shooting and just because he has been "demoted" to third wheel status, that does not detract from his importance for the Lakers in what they do on offense. He has failed to take advantage of the fact that he has a man four inches shorter than him in the post in Kenneth Faried, and his reliable floor spacing ability was nowhere to be seen. Should the Lakers decide that they need to turn on the switch so to speak, Pau needs to be at the heart of it.
- Andrew Bynum -- The defensive effort was just unacceptable. The offense is understandable -- the inability of the Lakers' perimeter players to throw a simple entry pass when Bynum is calling for the ball right in front of them is almost comical at this point -- and when he got the rock, Bynum was producing. The refusal of anyone to set even one cross screen for Bynum on offense is to blame as well. This does not excuse the effort gap on the defensive end. Bynum's help was nonexistent, he allowed JaVale McGee, hardly more than an athletic jumping bean with a modicum of potential, to outwork him for easy points and rebounds, and he was a horrific liability in general. He is right to be frustrated if he's not getting the ball on offense, but as he showed in Game 1, he can control a game without getting his touches and he completely failed to do so. The paint should be his sacred domain and he needs to take a lot more pride in protecting it.
- Devin Ebanks -- At this point, the lack of polish on his game is showing. Ebanks' utility on offense primarily relies on him shooting from midrange, attacking the boards and scoring on cuts. When Denver adjusted to his presence, looked at the tape, and took away these options, Ebanks simply hasn't been able to adapt. On the defensive end, he is letting his Denver counterparts get the better of him -- although to be fair, the Lakers' pick-and-roll defense was so miserable that it is hard to find where the blame really lies -- and is hardly the disruptive, active defender he was at the beginning of the series. As such, the Lakers' loss might be a blessing in disguise, as the thought of Oklahoma City having a series of tape for Kevin Durant to break down Ebanks with is more than a little unnerving.
- Matt Barnes -- Can someone on the coaching staff fix that damned hitch in his shot? It must be noticeable. The obvious correlation between the hitch's disappearance in his shot and his 37% three point shooting in February and March must be visible to someone there, right? Time and time again, Barnes would get the ball on the release from drives or the post and just fail to convert. When he gets more shot attempts than every Laker starter not named Kobe, something is clearly wrong with the way the Lakers are doing things. Barnes had his share of timely cuts to save possessions as he always does, but he either needs to fix the problems with his shot or abandon it altogether as a primary means of offense. Barnes' consistency had previously been one of his calling cards, but right now, he and Ebanks are making the small forward position as bad of a liability as it was when the year started.
- Ramon Sessions -- Like Bynum, structural issues on offense are bothering him -- although Sessions is one of the primary culprits in not getting Bynum the ball -- in that there is a chronic lack of pick-and-roll play through which Sessions can thrive. With the paint clogged as it is without any shooting to space the floor, Sessions' can't break his man off the dribble and create things for everyone else since the lanes to do so simply don't exist. As such, Sessions is being reduced to a guy who throws entry passes to Kobe and acts as a floor spacer, the latter of which he should succeed at given his regular season numbers. Some more 1-2 pick-and-roll should benefit him, but like Barnes, he really needs to fix that outside shot that keyed his early effectiveness following his arrival in L.A. to regain a lot of his former mojo.
- (Dis)honorable mention goes to Jordan Hill, who might have been one of the few Lakers who actually gave two craps about the game last night, but couldn't break through in terms of production. His trademark effort-driven rebounding was there, but he failed to turn any of his three offensive boards into points. He also continues to show that he probably is the Lakers' best pick-and-roll defender and a decent one at the rim -- look at his sick block of Arron Afflalo in the fourth quarter. On a night on which Gasol was struggling and Bynum coasting along, Hill probably should have deserved some more minutes.