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Lakers 92, Pacers 95: This Simply Will Not Do

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Honestly, I thought we were done with games like this. The lack of energy, the refusal to buckle down and execute the offense, the inability to muster enthusiasm against a B-list opponent, the disappearance of the bench, the reckless hope that Kobe Bryant's greatness would allow an uninspired team to steal a victory where it didn't deserve one: tonight's disaster was lifted directly from the 2009 Laker family album. We sat through plenty of these depressing spectacles last year, but the roaring start to the new season that saw the defending champs flatten all who stood in their way had me convinced that this team was different. That it wasn't as vulnerable to lapses in effort and concentration. It seems I gave them too much credit, too early.

The Indiana Pacers are greatly improved this season. We knew that going in. But they're still several notches below the league's elite, and the Lakers shouldn't be finding themselves, at home, trailing a team like this by double digits. Just because the Heat do it doesn't make it OK.

Yet that's exactly where the Lakers found themselves tonight after digging a 15-point hole in the third quarter. Kobe's one-man heroics, combined with a long-overdue burst of hustle and vitality, whittled the lead down to a single point with 34 seconds to play. Just as in previous losses to Denver and Utah, however, end-game execution was terrible on both ends - a stunning pattern of FAIL on the part of a veteran squad with experience in every kind of pressure situation. Time ran out on the comeback bid that never should've been necessary, and the Pacers took their first-ever win at Staples, 95 to 92.

Indiana earned this W. They competed with hustle and smarts. They defended extremely well and with impressive discipline. The Lakers managed only a point per possession, their worst output of the year, and it felt like every point they scored was an uphill struggle. If you watched the game, how many Laker baskets do you remember that resulted from Pacer defensive breakdowns? For me, the answer is zero. These guys stuck to their assignments, stayed in front of their men, rotated when necessary and challenged seemingly every shot.

People will understandably focus on the last couple possessions of the fourth quarter - and we'll get to those in a second - but really, this game was lost earlier than that. It was lost in the second and third periods, when the Laker offense collapsed into a shambolic mess. Everybody was happy to fire up a quick shot instead of spreading the floor and finding the open man. Passes lacked zip and were easily tipped away. Nobody was scrapping for loose balls or offensive boards. The only reason this wasn't a massive Pacer rout is that midway through the third, Kobe said screw it and went Full Mamba. In the last five minutes of the third he scored 15 points to drag the Lakers back into it. This was one of those occasions when he was fully justified looking for his shot on every trip: the system had broken down, no one else was attacking and some Kobe haymakers were the only hope of avoiding a TKO.

Late in the fourth, a couple of his teammates graced us with their presence. Steve Blake hit a three, Shannon Brown made a driving layup, the Staples crowd troubled itself to make a little noise, and it seemed the Lakers might just escape. Unfortunately, it was then that the Lakers' greatest weakness - their defensive rebounding - flared up again like that infection your sister gave me. On three straight possessions the Pacers collected their own missed shot and scored off a second-chance look. For the game they rebounded 35% of their own misses for 19 second-chance points, and this from a team that ranked 25th in the league in offensive rebounding. The Lakers' work on the defensive glass is just bad bad bad at the moment, and it's starting to cost them some wins.

But back to the end-game. Two Pau Gasol free throws cut the lead to one with 34 seconds to play. On Indiana's next possession, the Pacers ran a high pick-and-roll with T.J. Ford handling the ball and Roy Hibbert as the dive man. Pau stepped out to hedge Ford's dribble, at which point Hibbert slipped toward the basket. Pau was too slow recovering, no one slid over to assist and Hibbert threw down an uncontested dunk to put Indy up three with 16 seconds on the clock. (Over at NBA Playbook, Sebastian Pruiti has a detailed breakdown of this play here.)

On the Lakers' final trip, Kobe had maybe his best look of the night. He dribbled off a pick at the top of the key and was unguarded when he took a three-pointer with 11 seconds remaining. He missed, Ron Artest pulled down the board - it was a really nice rebound by Ron, actually - and Kobe got the ball back with one last look from distance. By that point, however, the Pacer D had recovered nicely and there wasn't a clean three to be had. Kobe's final shot didn't come close, and that was that.

Other than Kobe, nobody on the Lakers played well. Lamar Odom had a nice first half but faded in the second. Derek Fisher took several poor shots and made only 2 of 8. Ron Artest wasn't bad defending Danny Granger, but the Pacer swingman had a much more productive night than he did last year against Ron-Ron. And for the second straight game, the Laker bench failed to have a positive influence.

Most troubling was the play of Gasol. He shot mucho poorly and was badly outplayed by Hibbert. It seems clear at this point that the heavy minutes he's been putting in - 46 tonight, bringing his per game season average over 39 - are taking their toll. He doesn't have the same footwork or energy that we were seeing a few weeks ago. His jumpshot has flattened out. He bears a lot of responsibility for his slump, but he also needs some help inside. Mitch Kupchak and Phil Jackson have to find a solution.

One final note from an otherwise disheartening night: the Lakers continue to shoot their free throws splendidly. They made 17 of 21 in this one and have made at least 75% of their freebies in every game this season and at least 80% in their last seven games. Um... yay?

The gold and purple are now 13-4, a game-and-a-half behind the Spurs and just a half-game ahead of the Mavericks, Jazz and Hornets. They're 5-4 since starting the season 8-0. Up next: a road back-to-back in Memphis and Houston starting Tuesday night.











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