Lakers' 91-75 loss to Oklahama City illustrates team's inconsistent focus
As the television camera panned across the Lakers' bench, the downtrodden expressions gave away the story to all the viewers just tuning in. Lakers forward Ron Artest masked his mouth with a towel. Lakers forward Pau Gasol covered his with his fist. Lakers forward Lamar Odom sat on the bench stoically, as did Lakers guards Derek Fisher and Sasha Vujacic. And then the camera locked in on Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, whose clenched jaw revealed his obvious frustration.
At this point, eight minutes remained in the fourth quarter in the Lakers' game Friday against Oklahoma City. But the result was already a foregone conclusion. The Lakers would lose 91-75 to the Thunder in the second game of a five-game trip. And the team's demeanor illustrated just how much of a contrast they showed two days earlier against San Antonio.
In that game, Bryant high-fived Lakers fans sitting courtside after hitting a jump shot, Artest blew kisses to fans after connecting on a putback and all of their teammates gathered along the bench smiling and laughing as the buzzer sounded. This isn't just a frivolous exercise in people-watching. After the Lakers earned their seventh consecutive win with a 92-83 victory Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs, the Lakers displayed a complete 180 against Oklahoma City.
Instead of Bryant overcoming double teams and leading a fourth-quarter charge, he sat on the bench in the fourth quarter after a listless 11-point performance on four of 11 shooting and committing nine of the team's 18 turnovers. Instead of Gasol overcoming a poor offensive night with suffocating defense inside, Gasol ended with just a poor offensive night, scoring only nine points on three of 10 shooting. Instead of grabbing five steals and proving his worth as a lock-down defender, Artest allowed Kevin Durant to score 26 points on a nine of 19 clip. Instead of Odom complementing the Lakers with an impressive double double in points (19) and rebounds (13), he was the only dependable option in leading the team with 15 points and seven rebounds. Instead of limiting the opposition to one scoring option, the Lakers also allowed former UCLA standout Russell Westbrook to score 23 points on 10 of 13 shooting. Instead of featuring five players in double figures, the Lakers mustered up only seven assists, their lowest since the team had six against Cincinnati in a 104-90 loss in December 1964.
The discrepancy between the the Lakers' numbers during their seven-game winning streak and their loss to Oklahoma City proves maddening. Consider the difference in points (105.1, 75), field-goal percentage (48.2%, 39.2%) and opponent's field-goal percentage (44.4%, 48.1%). The only consolation -- if you can call it that -- is the Thunders' 91 points fell below the 99.1 points per game the Lakers allowed in the previous seven contests. Meanwhile, the Lakers scored their lowest amount of points since finishing with 79 on Nov. 13 in a 105-79 loss to the Denver Nuggets.
From a pure numbers standpoint, the loss makes very little difference. The Lakers (53-19) still have a five-and-a-half game lead over Denver (48-25), a six-game advantage over Dallas (47-25) and a six-and-a-half game cushion over Utah (47-26) for first place in the Western Conference standings. Aside from the fact that the Lakers were supposedly chasing Cleveland (57-16) for the league's best record, however, the Lakers' latest loss provides the latest example of a team that lacks a consistent pattern in their performances.
How else to explain the following sequences two days after the Lakers featured five players reaching double figures and holding the San Antonio Spurs to 35-second half points, which was two points above their season-low 33 second-half points earlier this month to Miami.
First quarter 8:03 - 7:54
After Artest missed an open three-pointer, Thunder center Nenad Krstic grabbed the rebound over a non-aggressive Gasol. Westbrook then led the break, met a double team from Fisher and Bryant at the foul line and kicked the ball out to the far side of the perimeter to guard Thebo Sefolosha. He drove past Bryant with one dribble to the lane and averted the passive weakside help from Gasol with an easy left handed layup, giving Oklahoma City an 11-4 lead.
First quarter 7:42 - 7:31
Bryant looked to feed an entry pass on the right block, but Odom couldn't get positioning over Thunder forward Jeff Green. When Gasol flashed up toward the free-throw line, Bryant threw the pass near the direction of Westbrook up top. He tipped the pass to Sefolosha, who ran the break for the easy layin while Gasol and Artest slogged back. That left Bryant and Fisher alone on the 3-and-2 break, leading to the Thunder widening the lead to 13-4.
That effort was just the beginning. Oklahoma City ended the first half with a 53-34 lead and ended the third quarter on a 16-2 run with a 33-point lead largely by duplicating those aforementioned plays as if they were in a movie reel.
As I watched those kind of plays over and over again, I kept reflecting on the recent article from NBA.com that highlighted sentiments from Bryant, Gasol and Fisher that suggested the media has vastly exaggerated the team's poor play (as if we haven't heard that one before). Bryant said, "we don't worry about the drama. I think that's more entertainment, something for people to talk about, especially in L.A." Gasol added, "We have so many media around us, following us. Obviously, when there's something that is unusual they make a big deal out of it and they try to start looking for reasons just to start things up." And Fisher concluded, "So far, in the last year plus, we've won 118 games and lost 35. That's not too bad. It sure isn't anything to worry about."
I totally understand that the media, as a whole, has the tendency to overreact to whatever happens in a day's course of events, and we'll always lack the insight on the things we don't know going on behind closed doors. I also can imagine that being asked the same question from different people over and over again bodes similar to how Peter Gibbons felt in Office Space when three different bosses on three separate occasions reminded him to attach a cover sheet on his TPS report, a small problem that became overly magnified because of the repetitive chatter about it.
But the NBA.com story troubled me for two reasons. One, Jackson and most of his players, including Bryant, Gasol and Fisher, have acknowledged most of the criticism directed toward the Lakers to be valid, including the team's season-wide lack of urgency, inconsistent execution and poor screen-and-roll defense. They may have had different takes on issues, such as shot distribution, individual play and overall post-game analysis. But the Lakers have mostly agreed that they aren't satisfied with their play. Secondly, the issue here all season hasn't been whether the team wins or loses games. It's how they have lacked a definitive pattern in their overall development, one of the reasons why no one on the team expressed much excitement about its six-game winning streak entering the current trip.
And the Lakers' latest loss provides the latest example of that problem. They put together a solid effort against San Antonio that was deemed momentum building, only to see it come crashing down with an effortless performance against Oklahoma City. There's no doubt the Lakers have the ability to rebound from such games. Heck, they spent seven games in the Western Conference semifinals last season against Houston demonstrating the same maddening inconsistency. But with that type of approach, there's no guarantee the result will end up in the Lakers' favor during the postseason. It worked in last year's playoffs, and the Lakers eventually sharpened their focus midway through the Western Conference Finals against Denver. But in this postseason, the Lakers may or may not be so lucky.
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Photo: Lakers center Pau Gasol, left, and forward Ron Artest watch from the bench during the second half of Friday's game against Oklahoma City. Credit: Larry W. Smith/EPA.