Lakers' 96-94 loss to Orlando Magic points more to execution than effort
With the final minutes winding down, the atmosphere at Orlando's Amway Arena featured all the elements of last season's Game 4 of the NBA Finals between the Lakers and Orlando Magic.
There were missed free throws, much like Dwight Howard's two late misses that would have virtually ensured a Game 4 victory. There were also big shots, such as the two big three-pointers Derek Fisher made to help the Lakers get on the winning end.
That's why when Vince Carter made only one of two free throws, giving Orlando a two-point lead with 9.7 seconds remaining, it would've been fitting for the Lakers to cap off a similar ending Sunday in a regular-season matchup. But the final sequence went like this: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant brought the ball up the floor. Forward Pau Gasol set a screen on tenacious defender Matt Barnes up top. Howard temporarily doubled Bryant. He then went one on-one against Barnes, crossed right and then pulled up for a 20-foot jumper on the right block.
Instead of marking Bryant's seventh game winner of the season, the shot instead hit the back rim. And the result, a 96-94 Lakers' loss to Orlando closed out a winless three-game trip.
Unlike last year's NBA Finals, the Lakers look far removed from that championship team. And with the Lakers (46-18) losing three consecutive games for the first time since Feb. 2008 when it acquired Gasol, questions are inevitably going to be raised about the current state of the team. The Lakers had that discussion Saturday coming off a 98-83 loss to the Charlotte Bobcats where players, most notably Bryant, aired out their concerns. Several writers, including myself, thought their latest effort served as a bad warning sign for the rest of the season unless the Lakers made the necessary changes.
I take away the Lakers' latest loss a little differently. The Lakers lost this time not because of a lack of effort, but because of poor execution. Surely that won't assuage the fact that they hold only a three-game edge against Dallas (43-21), a four-game advantage against Denver (41-21) and a five-game advantage against Utah (40-22) for the best conference in the Western Conference standings with 18 games remaining in the regular season. The loss also doesn't help the Lakers' chances in chasing Cleveland (49-15) for the league's best record. But I've maintained that the Lakers' pressing concern isn't how many games it wins in the rest of the regular season, but rather how sharp they look as the postseason begins.
One of the main topics the Lakers brought up in Saturday's meeting involved their defense. During Bryant's five-game absence because of a sprained left ankle, the team allowed only 86.6 points on defense, a mark that ranked second-best in the league at the time. Against the Magic on Sunday, they held Orlando to 15 of 38 shooting (39.5%) in the first half and Carter was the only player on the team to shoot. 500. Howard was also limited in the first half with three fouls. Yet, the Magic held a 52-48 halftime lead, namely because of Carter's trips to the free throw line (10 of 10). The Magic ultimately went 28 of 39 from the stripe, while the Lakers were 23 of 26. I didn't mention that to open up a debate on the officiating, which was closely monitored, but that the Lakers made a better effort on defense. But their poor execution in defending inside resulted in Orlando making frequent trips to the free-throw line.
The effort was also there offensively, as the Lakers had only seven turnovers, a far improvement from the 17.25 turnovers it averaged in the past four contests. But the Lakers didn't see the results, shooting only 37.5%.
Bryant, who arrived to the game late because of intestinal issues, scored a team-high 34 points and seven assists. Though he shot only 12 of 30, Bryant made several key plays down the stretch. He scored 16 fourth-quarter points, made a near impossible three pointer from the far corner to reduce the lead to 95-94 with 12 seconds remaining and wasn't afraid one bit of Barnes, both whom got technical fouls to open the second half. No doubt, Bryant's shooting percentage was far from desirable and he forced shots, such as following his steal against Carter with a 26-foot three pointer with 1:29 remaining with the Lakers down three. But he also kept the Lakers in the game.
Gasol's clip of 20 points on eight of 13 shooting and 11 rebounds marked a big improvement from the previous four games where he shot below 50%. Yet, he finished with a minus-9 rating on the floor and lost his composure when he was called for a flagrant foul on Howard after hitting his head on a dunk. That happened immediately after Howard had pushed and tugged on Gasol's jersey following Bryant's missed jumper with the Lakers trailing 79-74 with 6:12 remaining.
Bynum, though plagued with early fouls and only five points on one of five shooting, played an efficient 20 minutes by playing well on help defense and finishing with six rebounds and four blocks. Despite Derek Fisher's 11 points coming on only four of 12 shooting, his 22-foot jumper with 3:15 remaining in the third quarter came at a critical time, reducing the Magic's lead to 85-83 with 3:15 remaining. And even though Ron Artest's woeful two of 10 stat line suggests he should work more on his shooting than dying his hair purple and gold, all of his shots were open looks. That was epitomized perfectly when he missed two consecutive shots late in the first half despite Bryant and Lamar Odom each giving him an open look.
For every run the Lakers pulled together in the second half, the Magic answered back, but none of this happened without the Lakers putting up a fight. That was also the case on defense. After allowing the Magic to score 31 first-quarter points, the Lakers limited Orlando to 65 the rest of the way.
To their credit, the Lakers put on a better display than in their previous two games against Miami and Charlotte. But those wanting to pinpoint that changed attitude on the meeting should really just wait and see. It really could just become an anecdote the media will inevitably exaggerate in its importance. Regardless of the origin, the Lakers at least laid the foundation for the attitude they should bring every game. Now they just have to properly execute it.