Lakers have a missed opportunity in 126-113 loss to Denver Nuggets
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson isn't going to criticize the guards' defensive performance in a 126-113 loss Friday to the Denver Nuggets, despite allowing guard Chauncey Billups to shoot a career-high 39 points on 12 of 20 shooting.
Jackson declined to lament the fact the Nuggets pulled off their second win against the Lakers this season, despite playing without Carmelo Anthony, the league's leading scorer, because of a sprained left ankle.
Jackson refused to look ahead to Saturday's game against Portland, either, instead insisting he only wanted to talk about the Denver game. The exception is he wasn't about to offer much criticism.
"I'm not going to berate my team," Jackson said.
That doesn't take away the sting away, however. After all, there was a reason very few were present in the locker room after this one. The Lakers (38-13) suffered their second loss to Denver (34-16) this season, a loss more significant because the Nuggets trail the Lakers by only 3.5 games for first place in the Western Conference standings. Though both teams face each other two more times this season, the Nuggets have a cushion with tie-breaking scenarios for home-court advantage, something that certainly wasn't lost on either team.
"That’s something that we just can’t allow," said Lakers forward Pau Gasol, who finished with 17 points on eight of 17 shooting and 17 rebounds. "If we want to be the same team we were last year as far as being champions, we need to tighten up."
One immediate concern involves beating above .500 teams. The Lakers are only 17-12 against those teams, and recently came off an eight-game trip where they finished 1-3 against such opponents. And it doesn't get any easier. The Lakers' next remaining three games before the All-Star break are against Portland, San Antonio and Utah, all playoff caliber teams fighting for seeding in the Western Conference.
And if Denver serves as any indication, you can bet in Vegas that the upcoming opponents see their matchup against the Lakers a must-win game both for confidence and seeding purposes.
"I don’t think there’s any question that after last year we have a little extra focus on what the Lakers are doing every night," Denver Coach George Karl said. "We might be doing a little extra studying of how to beat the best teams in the west. Of course, the Lakers would be on that top of that list."
It turns out that extra scouting paid off. And it mainly tapped into the Lakers' inability to stop their hot shooting. Denver shot 57.1% from the field and 68.2% from downtown. They kept the Lakers on their toes in a game that featured nine lead changes and six ties. And their instance offense overshadowed the play of Kobe Bryant, who scored 33 points on 11 of 22 shooting despite having a left ankle sprain.
"I could still be effective and play," Bryant said. "Obviously, I'm not as explosive as I was, but I can still command double teams, things like that."
But when Bryant collected his fourth foul with 4:16 remaining, the game started going downhill. That's when Billups scored four consecutive three-pointers over an ineffective Sasha Vujacic, capping off 21 third-quarter points and falling just two shy of a Lakers opponent record for points in a quarter, originally set by Wilt Chamberlain in 1966. The hot shooting didn't stop. Reserve J.R. Smith scored 16 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter, which featured Denver enjoying a double-digit lead through most of that time.
The Lakers would like to quickly move on and forget about this loss. Even though they will have to with a game Saturday at Portland, they can't forget the lessons learned after losing to playoff-type opponents.
"All the teams are gunning for us, even the ones we beat," Lakers forward Lamar Odom said. "They’re hiding and triyng to come up with a plan to beat us. We have to be aware of that."
Against Denver, the Lakers weren't.
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant wonders why no foul was called on a drive against Denver during Friday night's game. Credit: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times