Lakers' 109-92 loss to Atlanta Hawks concludes a disappointing five-game trip
The Lakers were only minutes away from an eventual 109-92 loss Wednesday to the Atlanta Hawks, and Lakers guard Kobe Bryant sat on the bench with a towel draped over his shoulders.
He didn't let out an angry scowl. He didn't punch a chair. Bryant saved those reactions minutes before the Lakers' loss two days earlier at New Orleans. Instead, Bryant stared straight ahead with a faceless expression.
Bryant, in a stoic look, appeared to be reflecting about something. Perhaps it was about how little help he received from his supporting cast after scoring a team-leading 28 points on 12 of 21 shooting. Perhaps he wondered why the bench allowed Atlalnta's reserves to outscore them 44-22. Or perhaps he soaked in the team's entire 2-3 trip, and what it might mean for the Lakers with only seven games remaining in the regular season.
After initially assessing this trip would determine whether the Lakers would end with the West's top seed, Coach Phil Jackson changed his perspective after noticing the team's comfortable standing over Denver, Dallas and Utah. Despite the team's second consecutive loss, the Lakers (54-21) hold a 4-1/2-game lead over the Mavericks (49-25), a five-game advantage over the Jazz (49-26) and the Suns (49-26) as well as a six-game cushion over the Nuggets (48-27). But, really, with the Lakers far from Cleveland (59-16) for the league's best record, the last stretch of the regular season has never been about wins and losses. Sure, Jackson challenged the team to reach 60 wins, but that was merely a carrot he was dangling so the Lakers would at least be interested in playing before the playoffs. It's been about improving the team's play, something that was only on display in the Lakers' first game of the trip in a win over San Antonio.
The Lakers latest' performance didn't indicate a lack of urgency, a phrase I've been tired of typing and Lakers fans have been tired of reading. The Lakers actually came out with a full effort this time around, hoping to end their five-game trip on as good a note as a 3-2 record can bring. Instead, the Lakers' ineffectiveness resulted in discouragement, thus concluding the trip with a 2-3 mark, their worst loss at Atlanta since suffering a 106-89 defeat Dec. 28, 1974 and a sputtering 22-15 road record this season.
Atlanta simply outplayed the Lakers, what with the Hawks faring better against them in points in the paint (44-26), in field-goal percentage (54.2% to the Lakers' clip of 45.8%) and in team balance (Atlanta had seven players crack double figures while the Lakers had four in Bryant, Pau Gasol (16 points), Jordan Farmar (14) and Ron Artest (15 points).
Don't let the double figure lines fool you. The Lakers lacked an identity with Andrew Bynum missing his sixth consecutive game because of a strained left Achilles' tendon, the team settling for too many outside shots and the defense leaving itself vulnerable inside (Atlanta outscored the Lakers, 19-4, in second-chance points) and outside (the Hawks went nine of 22 from three-point range).
And then of course there was the news that Sasha Vujacic's recent argument with assistant Brian Shaw during the Oklahoma City game will cut his time in the bench's rotation. That's a severe blow to a unit that had already been decimated with inconsistency. With Lakers guard Derek Fisher going only one of six for 26 minutes, Farmar helped with 16 points on a five of nine clip in 26 minutes, but his lapses in the second quarter was more representative of the team's poor bench play, which otherwise combined for only six points on two of eight shooting.
The Lakers played with more effort against Atlanta (48-26), which holds a one-game lead for third place in the East over Boston (47-27), but the team's lack of urgency in previous games caught up to them. For too long the team had played with that mentality, which prevented them from at least improving the assorted problems the Lakers have faced all season, such as poor pick-and-roll defense, inconsistent bench play and offensive continuity. While those problems won't make-or-break a championship run and isn't something that realistically can be corrected in a short period of time, those areas combined with poor effort doesn't help the team's cause.
The biggest misnomer regarding the sorry excuses for the Lakers not playing hard had been that the team has just been waiting to turn it around once the postseason begins, sort of like how it did in last season's playoffs. Though the Lakers certainly sharpened their play after Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals en route to an NBA title, that didn't mean their lackadaisical play beforehand was a sound strategy. It simply showed that the Lakers finally fixed their problems before it was too late.
That concept should also apply to this year's team. No win or loss in the regular season is going to determine how the Lakers perform in the playoffs. But to think that the Lakers can suddenly flip a switch and solve their problems when the postseason begins is a huge mistake. After all, the Lakers played with a full effort against Atlanta. But with the team lacking that urgency in previous games, it allowed the team's inconsistent chemistry issues to still persist.
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