Lakers' past two performances against San Antonio reveal split in how team absorbed injuries
The Lakers couldn't have presented the contrast any more clearer.
They already knew they'd be entering their matchup Jan. 12 at San Antonio shorthanded with forward Pau Gasol missing his fifth consecutive game because of a left hamstring injury. Ron Artest (right index finger) and Sasha Vujacic (right hamstring) suffered injuries during those contests, though they remained on the active roster. Meanwhile, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant wasn't so lucky. He missed the entire fourth quarter because of flaring back spasms.
The result: The Lakers lost 105-85, as the team committed 14 turnovers, allowed the Spurs to shoot 57.3% and yielded at least 100 points for the ninth time in 12 games. Fast forward to the Lakers' next contest with the Spurs on Feb. 9 and you see a team showcasing the ability to withstand injuries. Despite Bryant missing his second game because of a sprained left ankle and center Andrew Bynum missing his first complete game because of a right hip injury, the Lakers prevailed 101-89 because of team balance. That featured Gasol directing the offense with 21 points, 19 rebounds, a season-high eight assists and five blocked shots. There were forwards Artest and Lamar Odom combining for 34 points because of constant drives to the basket. Derek Fisher (13 points) provided stability as a starter, while Jordan Farmar (13 points) brought energy off the bench.
It appeared the Lakers had improving during that timespan in absorbing injuries. I looked over the season results wondering if the Lakers are enter their third meeting tonight against San Antonio as a team better prepared to handle injuries. Yet, I couldn't find a definitive pattern that actually suggested that was the case. That's why I posed the question to the team at Tuesday's practice for some insight.
When you sort out the cliches, it becomes apparent that the Lakers also don't see a definitive pattern with how they've tackled injuries. The approach has perhaps been as fleeting as numerous injuries that have popped up during the season. And it's an issue that still affects the team, ranging from Bryant's four-month long fractured index finger, Artest's left thumb, Shannon Brown's right thumb, Jordan Farmar's left pinkie and lately, Bynum's strained left Achilles' tendon Odom's injured left shoulder. Bynum travelled with the team as it begins a five-game trip today against San Antonio, but he is not expected to play. Meanwhile, Odom has played 15 games with lesion on the labrum in his left shoulder, something that wasn't publicly divulged until after the Lakers' 104-96 victory Friday over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Surely, these injuries aren't a legitimate excuse for Lakers' inconsistency in effort and execution. Even with the Lakers (52-18) owning the Western Conference's best record, the team has a mixed bag in overcoming the assorted injuries and preventing them from disrupting its continuity. That seemed to be the sentiment Odom shared Tuesday when he declined to go into much detail about how the shoulder has limited his play, though he did provide some light after Saturday's practice and after Sunday's game against Washington.
It's an issue the Lakers dealt with right from the beginning of the season, with Gasol missing the first 11 games because of a strained right hamstring. During his absence, the Lakers went 8-3, something that's pass-worthy but not entirely acceptable among the organization. The same issues propped up when he missed six games in January because of a strained left hamstring, with the team going 3-3 during his absence.
It wasn't just Gasol's injury in January that disrupted the continuity. Include Bryant, who aggravated in early January a month-long avulsion fracture to his right index finger. Though he shot only 41.2% that month, he increased the amount of shots, making it harder for the rest of the team to get involved while also exposing more vulnerability to his finger. There were games he played a distributing role in the team's trip in January against New York, Toronto, Washington and Indiana, but the large volume of shots that month often came at the expense of on-court chemistry.
Gasol enjoyed good health while Bryant played through his finger injury with relative ease a month before, but issues were present among some of their teammates. Bynum went through a December slump that featured 23 consecutive games where he didn't record a double double. Part of that had to do with his difficulty playing alongside Gasol, but part of it also had to do with sinus, asthma and knee issues.
Later in the month, Artest's Christmas night concussion, reduced his defensive presence, limited his court awareness and made the process to learn the triangle offense an even more time-consuming process. Before his injury, Artest had earned the league's second-highest plus/minus rating. During his five-game absence, the Lakers yielded more than 100 points in the four of those five contests.
It appeared the Lakers improved in their ability to absorb injuries most notably during Bryant's five-game absence in February. The Lakers held opponents during Bryant's five-game absence to 86.6 points, a mark that ranked second-best in the league and was a near 10-point improvement from their regular season average in yielding 96.2 points per game at the time. The team's individual performances also improved during Bryant's absence. Just look at the averages during those games compared to the regular season averages beforehand: Gasol (18.4 points and 13.4 rebounds, 17.2 points and 11 rebounds), Artest (14.4 points, 11.7 points), Odom (14.6 points and a league-leading 15 rebounds, 10.2 points and 10.1 rebounds), Brown (14.6 points in 37.7 minutes, 8.2 points in 20.4 minutes per game), Farmar (11 points in 21.5 minutes per game, 7.6 points in 18.4 minutes per game) Fisher (9.4 points, 7.3 points) and Sasha Vujacic (4.4 points in 14 minutes, 2.5 points in 7.9 minutes per game). Bynum (17.5 points and 8 rebounds, 15.2 points and 8.2 boards) also saw an increase, but it was in only two games since he was sidelined because of an injured right hip.
But other improvements appeared to have been disrupted by other injuries. Before Bynum strained his left Achilles' tendon last week against Minnesota, he had averaged 15.9 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks on 56.8% shooting this month. His scoring wasn't among his season averages in November (18) and January (16.9), but it still marked an improvement from his performances in February (12.1). Something similar happened to Sasha Vujacic, whose minutes had increased during Bryant's five-game absence. There was also a clear increase in production in the last five games during Bryant's absence compared to his season average, including points (2.5, 4.4), rebounds (1.1, 2.0) and assists (.6, 1.8). But that progress was offset after colliding with Boston center Kendrick Perkins and suffering a sprained right shoulder, which forced him to miss eight games.
Though Farmar and Brown hasn't missed games because of their injuries, there's no question Farmar's hurt left pinky and Brown's sprained right thumb have contributed to their worst month in 2010. And say what you will about forward Luke Walton, but Laker Noise's Roland Lazenby recently made a strong case for why Walton's 46-game absence because of a pinched nerve in his lower back has further hurt Artest's mastery in the triangle offense.
It's painfully clear these aforementioned injuries have ultimately disrupted the team's continuity. Nonetheless, the Lakers' standing in the West shows all these issues haven't become as detrimental as they could have been. Nor should they. With the talent and experience the Lakers have, they should be able to absorb most absences.
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