Lakers' two losses to Cleveland this season reveal same trends
The Lakers pledged they had learned their lesson Christmas Day in a 15-point letdown against Cleveland, a performance as disappointing as the fans throwing foam fingers onto the court when the pending result became inevitable.
Yet, the Lakers' rematch against the Cavaliers on Thursday yielded the same result, a 93-87 loss. The defeat itself may appear, at least statistically, to be an improvement. It could be, considering the Lakers were theoretically still in contention in the game's final minutes. But that isn't actually the case.
Aside from the fact that this loss gives Cleveland home-court advantage if the Lakers meet the Cavs in the NBA Finals with identical records (Nike has its fingers crossed), the trends that transpire from both losses appear just as troubling.
Lacking physical presence
Lakers fans are surely tired of this word.
What started out as a legitimate criticism of the Lakers during the 2008 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics quickly became an easy talking point to regurgitate without thought when breaking down the Lakers the following season (specifically Pau Gasol).
Well, that word is creeping back, and for good reason.
On Christmas Day, Gasol's streak of eight consecutive double-doubles came to an end with 11 points on four-of-11 shooting. Andrew Bynum didn't provide much help with four points and six rebounds in 26 minutes.
On Thursday, the Lakers allowed Cleveland to score 42 points in the paint while the Lakers scored only 26. Gasol had 13 points on five-of-14 shooting, while Bynum had only seven. That's a pretty small effort compared with that of the Cavs' front line, featuring Shaquille O'Neal (13 points), Anderson Varejao (11) and J.J. Hickson (11).
Gasol and Bynum got pushed around all night and fell into early foul trouble. The most egregious examples include, a) Hickson's 14 rebounds nearly matching the combined effort of Gasol and Bynum on the glass (16), b) Gasol missing two free throws with 24.1 seconds remaining after admitting he lacked the mental toughness to focus, and c) Varejao beating the Lakers for a loose ball after missing a free throw with 20 seconds remaining. Coach Phil Jackson thought Varejao fouled Ron Artest, but the play epitomized the Lakers' lack of hustle.
Kobe Bryant neutralized
Bryant's performance Thursday against Cleveland was both memorable and frustrating for Lakers fans.
His free throw with three minutes remaining in the second quarter made him the 15th NBA player -- and youngest -- to reach 25,000 career points. He had scored 20 points in the first half, including scoring the first five in the game.
By the second half, that was a distant memory. He finished with 31 points, demonstrated questionable shot selection with his 12-of-31 clip, and had only four points on one-of-six shooting in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, LeBron James, who carries a rivalry with Mamba only in Nike puppet commercials, had 37 points, shot 13 of 25 and dished out nine assists, including 12 points in the last stanza.
The first meeting played out in similar fashion, with Bryant scoring 31 points on 11-of-32 shooting and James dropping 26 points on a nine-of-19 clip.
-- Mark Medina
Photo: Kobe Bryant passes after Cleveland guards Delonte West (13) and Anthony Parker put on the defensive pressure in the second quarter Thursday night. Credit: Tony Dejak / Associated Press