Going back to Silver Screen and Roll's preseason predictions for the 2012-2013 season, most of us here were concerned with several different issues; a few of us pointed to team health, some asked questions about the coaching staff and a couple writers wondered aloud if the team's pieces were the right fit.
No one--not a single person on this blog, nor many fans out there--thought that the problem would be effort.
The Cavs played a modest game to say the least. On the offensive side of the ball, they only shot 44% and a Howard-ian 57% from the stripe. After throwing down a ridiculous 54 first half points, Cleveland was stunningly mediocre for most of the rest of the game, including an unbelievable seven minute stretch at the beginning of the third quarter in which they made exactly one field goal. Part of the reason was a totally impotent bench that without Tyler Zeller's six points, would have gotten completely skunked. Omri Casspi, Jeremy Pargo and Daniel Gibson bricked all nine of their combined shots in an effort that would have left last year's Lakers bench shaking their heads in disbelief.
Amazingly, the Cavaliers caught only eight offensive boards, which is two more than Anderson Varejao's season average. On the whole, the team was crushed by the Lakers' rebounding edge, ceding 11 more to LA, 15 of which were on the offensive end. Cleveland's defense wasn't sterling either, with the squad sending the Lakers to the stripe 40 times. In terms of field goals, the Cavs allowed 54 second-half points to the Show after just 39 in the first half. Finally, they did a terrible job coaxing Kobe Bryant into bad shots, as the Mamba hit 16 of 28 for 42 points.
The Cavs did have a couple of bright spots however, which came from predictable places. Kyrie Irving had a timely return tonight, coming back from injury to drop an amazing 28/6/11 on the Lakers in a seeming 1-on-1 duel with Kobe Bryant. C.J. Miles somehow dropped 28 points, looking like a genuine starter rather than a scrap heap pick-up. Anderson Varejao continued to make his case for the Eastern Conference All-Star team with a fantastic 20 points, 9 boards and 5 assists. However, the rest of the team was a virtual offensive wasteland, combining for 24 points split amongst seven players.
Looking at all those statistics, how could the Lakers have possibly lost this game?
By simply not caring.
My SS&R co-writer Drew Garrison summarized it well earlier last night in his absolute nuking of LA's effort:
The Lakers have been that exact six letter word thus far in the season. Frauds. It doesn't matter what last name is on the back of the jersey on any given night for the Lakers, this lack of effort is pitiful. Disgusting, lamentable, wretched, feeble. I can go on and on how poorly the Lakers are playing right now.
Where's the leadership from two of the top ten players in the league? Where is the pride in wearing the purple and gold; one of the most storied franchises in the history of the National Basketball Association? This is embarassing to everyone who has any stake in this. When it seems as if the beat writers, the bloggers, and the fans give more damns then the team actually playing on the basketball court?
The Cleveland Cavaliers played to their reputation tonight as one of the worst teams in the league. Amazingly, the Lakers matched that effort, and perhaps exceeded it.
The story is the same as it's been the past few weeks: the lack of effort on the defensive end has been atrocious, with help defenders routinely leaving oppositions with wide open jumpers. There's little audible communication on the defensive end of the court, with Lakers being caught unaware of back door cuts and runners coming off screens. The transition D remains a black hole of effort, with most purple and gold jerseys watching lay-ups from the half court line instead of running back and contesting.
All these faults that spelled doom to the Lakers at home against the Indiana Pacers, Utah Jazz and Orlando Magic followed them on the road. LA was unable to coax more than 12 turnovers out of the fourth most turnover-prone team in the league. They allowed over 40% 3-point shooting from a team that regularly slumps to a very average 34%. They couldn't stop ball movement when the Cavs assisted on 24 of their 37 field goals, when Cleveland has only averaged 19.4 all year long.
The reason for all these numbers? Effort, effort, effort. The Lakers couldn't coax the Cavs into more turnovers because they weren't active in the passing lanes or pressuring the ball in the half court. The Lakers couldn't stop a barrage of three-pointers because their defensive rotations were slow and ill prepared. The Lakers allowed 24 assists because of a staggeringly poor effort talking to each other on that side of the ball.
How can anyone fix this? The season's still relatively young, but at 9-13, the Lakers are staring at a season that's more than a quarter gone. But a lot of the Lakers's problems are more indicative of a team bound for the lottery in late March than a team with playoff aspirations. The energy is simply not there unless LA goes down by double digits in the second quarter, as was the tale of the previous two latter halves. It feels as though game to game, the team cannot make improvements on more than one facet; for example, tonight the Lakers were able to rebound extremely well, but weren't able to take care of the ball at an at least average rate.
The real question at this point is how can the Lakers not care? Saddled with championship aspirations by everyone (we're as guilty of it as any party), this team isn't just failing to live up to that lofty model--they're struggling to satisfy even the most baseline requirement of looking like they give a crap. For a team that has the requisite talent to be one of the greatest Lakers squads ever, they look like the polar opposite, and that's not an exaggeration. They simply look disinterested most times, whether it be a complacency of thinking that they'll be able to turn it on with a returning Pau Gasol and Steve Nash or a mystifying lack of urgency because it's still December. However, the Lakers are quickly becoming buried in a hyper competitive Western Conference and could potentially be kissing first round home court advantage goodbye.
Just to put this in perspective, with a current winning percentage of .409, the team is on pace to win just 33 games, which would tie their 2004-2005 campaign in which the starting center was Chris Mihm, their starting power forward was Lamar Odom and their bench consisted of Jumaine Jones and Slava Medvedenko. That's how terrible the Lakers are currently playing, if their actual game time performance wasn't metric enough.
The Lakers lost last night's game because they didn't play with enough heart and fire. They didn't lose because they missed 14 free throws or shot 41% from the field, though that certainly didn't help. They lost because if they had hustled back on defense, talked to each other during their rotations and closed out on shooters, then one of the worst teams in the league would have crumbled before their immense talent. I can't say the Lakers played down to their competition, because maybe it was Cleveland that played down to theirs. In a word, I'd call LA's performance "pathetic", an appropriately short response for an embarrassingly disgraceful effort.
LA isn't at rock bottom yet--that'd be a loss on Friday to the Washington Wizards. There's still a lot of time left in the season and two massive pieces sitting in suits on the bench. But it's close.
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