Lakers try to grind it out before the All-Star break
The Lakers have been banged up for quite a while now.
There was Pau Gasol's left hamstring injury, Ron Artest's plantar fasciitis and Lamar Odom's recent sprain to his right index finger. Of course, there's also Kobe Bryant's eight-week-long fractured right index finger and his recently aggravated left ankle, though he will still suit up tonight against Denver.
The Lakers are also tired, coming off an eight-game, 13-day East Coast trip that consisted of stops to Cleveland, New York, Toronto, Washington, Indiana, Philadelphia, Boston and Memphis. When asked whether the Lakers' fatigue is more mental or physical, Lakers forward Lamar Odom laughed and said, "It's both." Therefore, it's practically an understatement to say the Lakers look forward to some rest.
Said Coach Phil Jackson, "We see that All-Star break and think that will be real good for this team."
But the Lakers will have to wait. They have four games remaining before All-Star weekend, with contests all featuring playoff-caliber opponents including a back-to-back starting tonight against Denver and Saturday at Portland. The Lakers then return home for a game Monday against San Antonio before traveling for a Wednesday game against Utah. Forward Pau Gasol describes these contests as a "very tough stretch" for reasons beyond the team's health concerns. That's because the Lakers have all lost rather handily to the aforementioned opponents this season.
Said Gasol, "We have to prove what kind of team we are and if we want to be champions again."
Forward Ron Artest ticked off a number of items the team can do to overcome the low energy level, including "eating right, taking care of your body, working out." Obviously these are only four games and the Lakers have often taken pride on their big-picture approach in not getting overly consumed with just one game or a group of games in the 82-game season. But the big picture also says this: The Lakers are 17-11 against teams above .500 records and they went only 1-3 against those teams in their latest trip. Though the Lakers (38-12) have enjoyed the best record in the Western Conference all season, the Nuggets (33-16) aren't too far behind.
"Everybody is playing for a position," Artest said. "I’m sure everybody wants to try to get the first seed. We’re trying to hang on to the first seed. Every team is tough right now. Even us, the Lakers."
Of course, there are also areas in the Lakers' previous meetings with Denver, Portland, San Antonio and Utah that they can sharpen for the second time around.
1. Kobe Bryant's health
Bryant's health has always been an issue this season, what with his fractured right index finger, sprained elbow, back spasms and, most recently, his sprained left ankle. His severe injuries affected him significantly in games against Utah, Portland and San Antonio.
Bryant shot only seven of 24 for 16 points Dec. 12 in the Lakers' 102-94 loss to the Utah Jazz while battling a stomach ache, a day after initially injuring his index finger. A month later, his finger remained an issue, as Bryant scored 32 points on 14-of-37 shooting in a 107-98 loss at Portland. Four days later, back spasms forced him to miss the entire fourth quarter in the Lakers' 105-85 loss at San Antonio. And then there was a game where he was just shut down defensively, with Denver holding him scoreless in the second half of the Lakers' 105-79 loss to the Nuggets.
Bryant mustered only five points on two-of-12 shooting against Charlotte while nursing an injured left ankle, but was good in feeding the post inside. We'll soon find out whether that sprained ankle yields similar results tonight against Denver.
2. A game of runs
There were several moments of lapses that eventually made these Lakers defeats too large to overcome.
Denver changed a two-point halftime lead into a 87-64 advantage after going on a 29-8 run to end the third quarter. It was the lowest amount of points the Nuggets allowed in a quarter all season and it led to the Lakers' worst half of the organization's history. Though the Lakers never led after the first quarter against San Antonio, they erased a 22-point third-quarter deficit to six with 5:38 left in the fourth quarter. But all that offensive execution without Mamba's presence was wasted as the Spurs outscored the Lakers 25-5 the rest of the way.
Then there was Portland closing out the third quarter with a 7-0 run and a 81-71 advantage, a lead that never dipped lower than eight. And there was the Lakers opening the fourth quarter against the Jazz by missing their first seven shots.
While the Lakers missed those shots early in the fourth quarter against the Jazz, Utah's Deron Williams opened the fourth quarter with eight consecutive points en route to a 88-71 lead. Artest had a bad 30th birthday when Denver forward Carmelo Anthony burned him for 25 points, including 18 in the second half in the Lakers' last meeting with the Nuggets.
And the Lakers just had bad days all together against Portland and San Antonio. The Trail Blazers' backcourt including Brandon Roy (32 points), Andre Miller (17 points) and Jerryd Bayless (21 points) overwhelmed the Lakers' guards, the Blazers made 32 of 39 free-throw attempts, and they shot 50.7% from the field, including a 56% clip in the first three quarters. The Spurs also did not have to put up much of a fight, shooting 57.3% and marking the eighth time in the Lakers' last nine games they yielded at least 100 points.
Injuries and fatigue may be overwhelming, but the Lakers certainly are aware they don't want to replicate the same problems they had displayed against Denver, Portland, San Antonio and Utah. And with a strong showing before the All-Star break, Odom says in the video below that the team's attitude may change for the better.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Kobe Bryant tries to draw a foul against Charlotte's Stephen Jackson during Wednesday's game at Staples Center. Bryant made only two of 12 shots in the Lakers' 99-97 victory. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times