Lakers continue to lack urgency in 108-100 loss to New Orleans
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant raced down the other end of the court, bearing a determined look and chewing gum profusely. He had just made a putback off Jordan Farmar's missed free throw, which cut the Lakers' deficit to six points after trailing New Orleans most of the game by double-digit margins. The task was far from over, but with the Lakers scoring 11 unanswered points with 5:35 remaining in the game, Bryant's stoic demeanor gave the impression the team seemed well on its way to completing the comeback effort.
With 38.1 seconds left, Bryant's reaction changed altogether as it became apparent the Lakers' run wouldn't be able to camouflage the lapses that had put the team in this predicament in the first place. Those wondering how Bryant would react to the Lakers' eventual 108-100 loss Monday to the New Orleans Hornets were given a sneak peek after Coach Phil Jackson called timeout with the team trailing by five points. Bryant approached a chair on the Lakers' bench, punched it, and then sat down in disgust.
The reason why this scene stood out so vividly to me wasn't necessarily because it was Bryant. In fact, he contributed little to the problems that plagued the Lakers against the Hornets (35-40), what with his team-leading 31 points on 10 of 18 shooting, his 13 points in the fourth quarter and his tendency to direct the offense through everyone on the floor. But the imagery symbolized all too well an example of something the Lakers may continue to see if they don't fix their bad habits.
After trailing 50-42 at halftime to a team that was just mathematically eliminated from postseason contention, the Lakers opened the third quarter with a 14-6 run to reduce the deficit to 58-56 with 6:37 remaining in the third quarter. After New Orleans closed the third quarter with a 77-63 lead, the Lakers answered again, this time with that 11-0 run that cut the Hornets' lead to 87-81. But New Orleans' 12 free throws in the remaining 1:16 ultimately sealed the victory.
Clearly, the Lakers once again lacked a sense of urgency and appeared confident that they could make any necessary late-game heroics to offset the difference. But the plan backfired, leaving the team frustrated it couldn't bail themselves out. Clearly, fostering these type of bad habits lends the Lakers a huge risk that they'd bear huge consequences during postseason play. That in itself isn't guaranteed. But the Lakers' mindset that they think they can just turn the switch on whenever they need to isn't a sound strategy. And their loss to New Orleans proved why.
The Lakers (54-20) have a secure five-game lead over Dallas (49-25), a 5 1/2-game advantage over Utah (49-26) and a 6 1/2-game cushion over Phoenix (47-26) and Denver (48-27) for the top seed in the Western Conference standings. But they are no where near Cleveland (58-16) for the league's best record and in matching the team's play. Jackson had vowed the Lakers should aim to go 4-1 or 5-0 on its current trip. He also thought the team was capable of reaching 60 regular season wins with eight games remaining. The Lakers may say all the right things about playing with effort and sharpening up before the playoffs begin. But the team's effort for most of this past month, including its loss to New Orleans, suggests otherwise.
The Lakers' two losses in the past three games and many underwhelming performances this month masked the team's recent seven-game winning streak. And the Lakers' latest loss featured poor defense and a mostly ineffective offense. The Lakers left the perimeter untouched, enabling New Orleans to go 10 of 23 from three-point range, including Marcus Thornton's three of nine clip en route to 18 points. The Lakers left the interior exposed, allowing many of Chris Paul's 13 assists and David West's 20 points to come with relative ease. And the Lakers' typically poor screen-and-roll defense contributed to Paul's 15 points and Darren Collison's 17 points.
And just because the Hornets shot well from long distance didn't mean the Lakers should've tried the same approach. They went seven of 29 from behind the arc, including a one of eight clip from Ron Artest, whose 14 points came on many open looks, a tendency defenses give him because he doesn't usually hit his shots. Bryant and Gasol worked wonders together, with Gasol finishing with 26 points and 22 rebounds, including scoring the team's first 12 points. Meanwhile, the rest of the starters outside of Bryant and Gasol shot 11 of 38 and the bench went five of 14 from the field. That unit was again without Sasha Vujacic, who had argued with assistant coach Brian Shaw during the team's loss Friday to Oklahoma City.
The Lakers' day off on Sunday should've given the team the necessary rest and energy to easily put away New Orleans. Instead, the Lakers acted like they didn't have to report to work. Come playoff time, the Lakers shouldn't be surprised if those kind of habits ultimately doom them.
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant takes New Orleans guard Marcus Thornton off the dribble in the first half Monday night. Credit: Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire.