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Lakers 88, Spurs 89: Sliced And McDyess'ed

This was not a happy day for Lamar Odom. First he gets passed over for an All-Star berth. Then, just as he was achingly close to basking in our adulation for his role in a fourth-quarter Laker comeback against the San Antonio Spurs - a comeback that found the Lakers battling to preserve a one-point lead with mere tenths of a second left on the clock - Lamar got caught staring at Tim Duncan as the latter missed a 17-foot J. As a result of Lamar's lapse of attention, Antonio McDyess, the man he was guarding, was able to nudge his way into rebounding position and tip in Duncan's miss at the buzzer. Tears ensued. The Lakers fell at Staples Center, 88 to 89, their fifth loss in their last nine games and yet another in a series of faceplants against the NBA's elite.

It's cruelly ironic that the enduring image of this game will be McDyess's tip-in, as up until that moment this was one of the Lakers' best defensive performances of the season. They held the high-octane Spurs to less than a point per possession thanks to the kind of ferocity and sustained energy on D that we've rarely seen this year. Ron Artest pressured Manu Ginobili into a low-efficiency shooting night, and a combination of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum did the same to Duncan. There were a few breakdowns on the perimeter that gave San Antonio too-open looks, but on the whole the Lakers played more than well enough at the defensive end.

The offense, to put it charitably, was not as successful. Against a San Antonio D that played a great game in its own right, the Lake Show strained all night to get scores, managing just 0.99 points per trip. As mysteries go, this one can be solved without the involvement of Scotland Yard: the culprit was a disastrous shooting performance by the Laker backcourt. Kobe Bryant, Shannon Brown, Steve Blake and Derek Fisher combined to shoot 11 for 41 from the field. Wow, let me check that again... yeah, 11 for 41. As a team the Lakers connected on only 2 of 14 attempts from long range, their worst three-point shooting night of the season. That's... that's not how this game was supposed to go.

A sustained defensive battle unfolded over the first three periods, without either team gaining a decisive edge. Early on, Richard Jefferson had the hot hand for the Spurs, scoring 10 points in the first. Turnover problems bedeviled the Lake Show for a while, but it wasn't so much outright sloppiness as a slight over-determination to force the ball into the paint, a strategy that soon paid dividends. With Kobe looking to set up his bros for inside looks, he racked up six assists in the first quarter. In the second, the Lakers enjoyed their only stretch of decent outside shooting as Artest, Brown and Blake knocked a few down. Meanwhile the Spurs struggled to find points in the key. In the first half Duncan, McDyess and DeJuan Blair shot just 4 for 13. Bynum altered numerous looks with aggressive challenges. Gasol and Odom did their parts as well. At halftime the teams were tied at 42.

The contest began tilting San Antonio's way at the beginning of the third. Tony Parker, who'd had a very quiet first half, began penetrating more effectively. He eventually scored 14 in the quarter. The Laker offense, meanwhile, continued to stumble. No one could make an outside shot, but did that discourage anyone from taking them? Don't be silly! Kobe, Ron, Fish, Lamar - all are hereby found guilty of launching poorly thought out jumpers when more productive options were available in the post. This was a quarter straight out of 2009: instead of patiently working the ball inside, the perimeter guys just couldn't say no to their own itchy trigger fingers. The Laker D, though, remained pretty stingy, so heading into the fourth the purp and yellow trailed by a manageable three.

And that's when Phil Jackson's always-controversial rotations demonstrated why they're always controversial. He began the period with both Kobe and Pau on the bench. That in itself is a little surprising. What's mucho surprising is that he stayed with that lineup - which comprised Blake, Brown, Artest, Odom and Bynum - until less than seven minutes remained the game. While Kobe and Pau were on the bench the Lakers scored only nine points in 10 possessions while the Spurs pushed their lead up to six. In a game decided by a tip-in with three-tenths of a second remaining, these decisions matter.

But everyone kept working, and with under a minute to go an Odom three and two Gasol free throws put the Lakers up one, every so briefly. The Spurs' final possession, which started with 22 seconds left, is heartbreaking to relive. Twice the Lakers got lucky when first Manu and then Parker missed open looks. Both times they failed to secure the rebound that would've likely ended the game. So San Antonio was able to run an out-of-bounds play with a few seconds remaining, which resulted in the Duncan jumper than Gasol successfully contested. But great teams play to the final buzzer, and that's exactly what McDyess did, slipping past Lamar for the game-winner. Replays showed that his tip was clearly good: he got it off before the final buzzer, and the ball was not in the cylinder at the time.

Much credit to the Spurs for a hard-fought W. They came up with an excellent defensive performance, and although they didn't have the best shooting night, their offense kept stressing the Laker D with constant ball movement. They probably had home-court advantage in the West wrapped up already, but tonight's win removes all doubt.

There are some good things that Laker fans can take from this one. Gasol continues to rediscover his offensive repertoire and deserves a lot of credit for his defense against Duncan. Bynum - with 10 points, 10 boards, six assists and three blocks - appears to have recovered from the bone bruise that kept him out of the Houston game. Although he missed all four of his three-point attempts, Artest still finished with 13 points thanks to strong work scoring in the paint.

But you can't beat a team as good as the Spurs shooting 2 for 14 from distance. It's not much more complicated than that. Though Kobe had 10 assists and did some really nice things when he was looking to distribute, his shooting was atrocious. As for Fish, Blake and Brown... no es bueno, dudes.

By the way, Phil is doing something different with his point-guard rotations these days. Both tonight and in the Sacramento loss on Friday, he kept Blake on the court and Fish on the bench in crunch time. What's that about exactly? It's super-weird to see Fish, the master of all things clutch, riding pine in the final possessions of close games. And it's not like Blake is playing so well as to commend those minutes, or even well at all. What's your strategy here, Zen Master? I'm keeping an eye on it.











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