Lakers' defense drops off upon Kobe Bryant's return
Though the Lakers unanimously welcomed Kobe Bryant's return from a five-game absence because of a sprained left ankle and injured tendon, Bryant's teammates anticipated that there would be an adjustment period. The point was and has never been made among the team that the Lakers were better off without Bryant in the lineup. It was just that any team changes, good or bad, require adjustments.
The Lakers immediately enjoyed some of the positive aspects Bryant typically brings. He netted his sixth game game-winner Tuesday against Memphis and he kept the Lakers in contention throughout the fourth quarter. Though Bryant had an overall sluggish shooting night Wednesday against Dallas possibly because of fatigue, the majority of the failed shots were rooted more in attempts falling short than him selfishly hogging the shooting pie. But there has been one negative consequence upon Bryant's return, and that's the team's defense.
Consider the numbers: the Lakers (43-15) held opponents during Bryant's five-game absence to 86.6 points, a mark that ranked second-best in the league and was a near 10-point improvement from their regular season average in yielding 96.2 points per game. In the Lakers' two games since Bryant's return, the Lakers allowed an average of 99.5 points per game.
This problem doesn't point to Bryant, but more the team's reaction to his return. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson and guard Derek Fisher had frequently mentioned one of the key factors that ensured a collective effort during Bryant's absence entailed sharpening up on defense. The theory was that if most of the team felt involved offensively, that energy would carry over on the defensive end and create synergy. The defensive philosophy also extended to the fact that without Bryant's scoring punch, there may be a chance points would be hard to come by, making it necessary to limit the opponent's production whenever possible.
There were some valid concerns that the team's effort and Bryant's scoring mentality would disrupt the offensive balance. But that actually hasn't been the case with four scoring in double figures against Memphis and six cracking double digits against Dallas. Lakers forward Pau Gasol had 22 points against Memphis, though he didn't make key plays late in the game. Forward Lamar Odom led the Lakers with 21 points against Dallas, a night after disappearing against Memphis with five points.
Instead, the difference squares mostly on the defense. Of course, even during Bryant's absence, the Lakers slugged through a 104-94 victory last week against Golden State, a game that featured not a lot of defense against a quick team. But the reason for that drop-off pointed more to the fact the Lakers were coming off the All-Star break. The Lakers' poor defense in both games against Memphis and Dallas seemed to solidify the notion that the team lacked urgency, a quality the Lakers have frequently displayed whenever Bryant's played partly because they feel his magic can solve anything.
Analyzing performances in only a two-game stretch inevitably brings incomplete snapshots. But with 24 games remaining in the regular season every performance bears stronger implications in the latest race with Cleveland (45-14) for the league's best record. Each remaining game also yields more significance on how sharp and prepared the Lakers ultimately be once the postseason begins. And that point, two games wouldn't be a snapshot. It would represent half the win total required to advance to the next round.
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Photo: Kobe Bryant goes for the steal against Mavericks guard DeShawn Stevenson during the Lakers' 101-96 loss Wednesday in Dallas. Credit: Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press.