The Los Angeles Lakers walked into Phoenix to take on the Suns knowing they'd be only seven players deep during playing time that mattered. With Kobe Bryant out with an ankle sprain, Pau Gasol's return being pushed back until Friday at the earliest, Jordan Hill missing the remainder of the season unless his "longshot" of a chance to play in late-April comes to fruition, and the bench scraps collecting dust since Mike D'Antoni settled on a rotation, there wasn't much wiggle room for the Lakers both Sunday and Monday night.
Or was there?
Devin Ebanks, Robert Sacre, Darius Morris, and Chris Duhon sat and watched their teammates get completely outworked by the Suns Monday night, just a day removed from another heavy night of minutes against the Sacramento Kings. They watched, and they watched, and then watched some more. When they finally had their numbers called, D'Antoni and the purple and gold had thrown the white flag of surrender up.
We give up. You win.
The seven players that were out on the floor throughout the majority of the night had the zip of a jar of spice-less jalapenos (yes they make those, no I don't get it). Dwight Howard went only 6-of-18 from the field and often looked too tired to fight for loose balls while also turning the ball over four of the 18 times the Lakers gave up a possession throughout the night. Howard had his post All-Star break 12+ rebound streak snapped, in fact. Antawn Jamison, he of the monster 27 point game against the Kings, pulled up for a wide-open three point field goal turned air-ball in the first quarter. Steve Nash went 6-of-17 and saw his field goal percentage on the season drop below 50 percent, taking him out of the 50/40/90 club for the time being.
There are plenty of signs to point to that indicate this team was exhausted in the back-to-back Monday night, but the fact remains that it wasn't just a "Monday night" thing. The Lakers have, all season, struggled playing on zero days rest. In the 14 games they've played under such circumstances they have won only five of the 14 contests, a .357 winning percentage.
Fun fact: all of the Lakers' back-to-backs have ended on the road this season.
Old legs, a team that struggles on the road, and a seven-man rotation. This two-step had disaster written all over it once both Kobe and Pau were out of the lineup officially, yet the Lakers drove into the storm without any changes to their strategy.
Was Mike D'Antoni wrong in keeping his rotation exclusive to seven players, or was it the lesser of two evils for a team that is in desperate need to win as many games as possible until the gates close on April 17?
A quick look over the minute allotments over the last two games doesn't reveal anything out of the ordinary. In fact, it reveals that by and large the minutes divvied out were all within reason. Outside of Howard's 40 minutes against the Kings, the minute counts don't look atrocious. The majority of the team (you know, the seven players who had been on the court) were within their minute zone. Guys like Metta World Peace and Howard were roughly five minutes over their season average minutes, while Jodie Meeks saw a hike in his minutes as he filled in as a starter.
What could D'Antoni have done?
Sometimes it goes beyond just inserting X player, and in this case, the Lakers could have tweaked what their offense was doing in order to account for their obvious inability to play with the necessary energy in back-to-backs. They still played far too fast-paced of a game Monday night, putting up a pace of 94.8, which actually is .1 higher than their season average(which is ranked fourth fastest in the league). Not to say the .1 matters all that much, but trying to push their pace shorthanded, with all the other circumstances listed repeatedly, wasn't necessarily the greatest approach.
Then, there's the benches bench, which only hit the floor with 2:48 remaining in the fourth quarter. Could five to ten minutes of extra rest in each of the last two games have served as the extra fuel D'Antoni and the Seven Lakers needed in their quest to make the best out of missing a few dwarves? It's hard to say, the Lakers were so flat that perhaps no small fraction of time on the bench could have helped the starters get their legs back under them.
The Kings kept fighting back the Lakers lead, keeping D'Antoni's collar tight through a game the Lakers certainly had circled as a "must-win" on the calendar. In Phoenix, even with a first quarter lead of two points, the Suns were already shooting close to 50 percent through the first frame while the Lakers were in their 30 percent zone. It's extremely difficult to make up for a 20 percent field goal success differential.
By the second quarter the Lakers fell behind the Suns, which wound up being the story for the remainder of the game. The Lakers, who needed to cruise downhill, began free-falling backward downhill while trying to climb uphill instead, and eventually were only able to put up ten points in the fourth quarter as the final drip of gasoline was gobbled up.
The last time Ebanks played more than five minutes and change was back on December 16. Morris has played minimal minutes since January. Sacre played ten minutes in Brooklyn after Gasol tore his plantar fascia, but much like Morris has only seen sprinkled minutes in pinch situations. Duhon has been relegated to guy who does a lunge and swinging fist action after every three on the bench since Steve Blake made his return.
Those are the players MIke D'Antoni chose to ice-out over this two-game stretch. Is that a fault, or a wise move to try and maximize the talent on the floor in the absence of both Kobe and Pau? The Lakers won one of the two games, after all. They are a full-game ahead of the Utah Jazz, they are just a game behind the Houston Rockets, and will be receiving a care package that has two integral players of their core within very soon.
At the end of the day the Lakers did exactly what their trends through the season projected -- they lost on the second half of a back-to-back on the road -- and life goes on. Could Mike D'Antoni prepared better for this scenario? Sure, he could have cut down minutes, played guys like Ebanks or Morris, and directed his team to slow the pace down in Phoenix as they struggled to shoot from the floor and the Suns were taking whatever they wanted offensively. Those are all things to keep note of going forward, but being cut down to a seven-man rotation exposes a flaw that is obvious with the Lakers. They don't have talent to trust in the 10th, 11th, or 12th man slots. If anything, the fact that the Lakers coaching staff doesn't feel comfortable playing those players even when in dire need of fresh bodies is what is being aired out more-so than the over-reliance on the rotation itself.
Is that an exposure of D'Antoni's coaching flaws, the teams management of talent, or something more? It's a circular, hypothetical debate that has plenty of angles to take. None which are completely wrong, none which are completely right. D'Antoni could have gone a different route. If he tried to run the deep bench reserves in Sacramento and the Lakers lost, the conversation would be painted quite different. What if they won both games while rotating in those players, or even more juxtaposing, what if they won both games while burning through just the seven players D'Antoni had minutes for?
The thing is, we'll never know what would have happened, nor will D'Antoni and the rest of the Lakers.
In the world of small sample size theater, this is an interesting topic to discuss, but in the bigger picture the Lakers just have to keep on trucking. In the bigger picture, the Lakers were playing their fifth game in seven nights, indicating this was much more than a back-to-back situation to consider. D'Antoni went into the game committed, or stubborn depending on the perspective, to push the stock-car around the track a few more laps before being able to take an extended pit-stop and it backfired.
Or, the Lakers split their back-to-back -- mind you they haven't swept a back-to-back series all season -- and wound up calling these last two games a wash. Either way, the Lakers took another ugly spill in Phoenix and the aftertaste is just as bitter as the last time.
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