Lakers' 106-100 victory over Sacramento means little, but at least it gives role players a chance to play
This had long been touted as a meaningless exercise, with Lakers Coach Phil Jackson telling me point blank after the team's shootaround Tuesday that the upcoming games against Sacramento and the Clippers mean nothing.
That's of course stating the obvious. The Lakers have already clinched the Western Conference for the third consecutive season, already know they're playing eighth-seeded Oklahoma City in the first-round of the playoffs and are currently resting Kobe Bryant (fractured right index finger) and Andrew Bynum (strained left Achilles' tendon) until the postseason begins.
I knew matchups with the Sacramento Kings and the Clippers would serve as a recipe for a glorified scrimmage rather than a playoff test. But with the Lakers lamenting lack of practice time and clearly showing they're far from playing their best basketball, I wondered if there's anything at all the Lakers could do in their final two regular season games that would make Jackson at least feel a little bit more comfortable with his team entering the postseason.
Instead of hearing coach-speak, I received blunt honesty.
"I don’t know if I’m going to see anything out of these games," Jackson said. "I really don’t. It’s a whole different thing. The teams coming in here are not playing do-or-die basketball yet. Playoff basketball is an entirely different thing."That proved to be the case in the Lakers' 106-100 victory Tuesday against the Kings. The only significant storyline entailed Lakers guard Jordan Farmar straining his left hamstring in the second quarter, meaning Bryant and Bynum had company in the training room. Though the nature of hamstring injuries are unpredictable and can lead to long absences (remember Pau Gasol?), Jackson still plans to have Farmar suit up for Wednesday's game against the Clippers.
Even if the Lakers' (57-24) game against Kings (25-57) provided little significant implications, the Lakers' reserves enjoyed at least one game where they were given the opportunity to showcase everything they could provide. Lakers guard Shannon Brown started in place of Bryant and scored 24 points on 10 of 19 shooting, including three of seven from three-point range. Lakers reserve Sasha Vujacic scored a season-high 13 points on five of nine shooting in 26 minutes off the bench. And then there were players who were just happy to be a part of the action. That included Luke Walton (nine points in a season-high 24 minutes), D.J. Mbenga (seven points in 15 minutes), Josh Powell (5 points in nine minutes) and Adam Morrison (three points in six minutes).
Of course, that likely won't mean much for the Lakers' postseason. It'll be the Lakers starters as well as sixth-man Lamar Odom that will determine the team's championship run. The bench performance against Sacramento also doesn't mean Jackson should've given his reserves more opportunities this season. Case in point, the Lakers only led by four points with 1:16 remaining after leading most of the game with comfortable double-digit margins. The close affair forced Gasol, who had hoped to limit his time on the floor against the Kings, to play 32 minutes and provide a team-leading 28 points, marking the fifth consecutive game he's scored at least 20 points.
Meanwhile, Walton indicated he understood those circumstances, but it still didn't downplay the fact as he noted, that "guys on the bench are hungry to play."
"I don’t think this one game did anything," Walton said. "We know as a bench what we need to do. We know there’s times this year that we haven’t done it. We also know we’re capable of doing it. I think we’ll be ready come playoffs."
That's still to be determined, but the bench featured numerous plays that showed they're capable of shouldering minutes of a meaningless game.
Walton's passes ensured a much crisper run triangle offense, a presence he hadn't been able to provide for two months after suffering a pinched nerve in his lower back. Brown, despite nursing a sprained right thumb, performed highlight-worthy plays, including a left-handed block and a windmill dunk. "I've definitely dunked and had to put a smile on my face after tearing it up," said Brown, who had averaged 5.5 points in the Lakers' previous six losses. "It's one of those things we have to deal with. I appreciate my coaches and my teammates for letting me go out there and play my game.
Vujacic likely felt the same way. He made two buzzer beaters, provided two put backs, appeared in a position to dunk for the second consecutive game and grabbed four offensive boards, leading Jackson to joke Vujacic is an "offensive rebounding Machine." "It's got to make make him feel much better," Jackson said of Vujacic, who had recently been in his doghouse for arguing with assistant coaches. "He has an opportunity to play some minutes."
Sure there were some other developments. Gasol's team-leading 28 points marked the fifth consecutive game he's scored at least 20 points. A combined 10 turnovers among Gasol and Lakers forward Lamar Odom prompted Jackson to lecture the two about handling the ball better, a habit he says will be integral in the Lakers' series success against Oklahoma City. Lakers forward Ron Artest continues to look lost on offense, going one of seven from the field. And the .
These plot points are fleeting storylines, however. That might be the case for the bench too, but at least for one game the reserves enjoyed some run. It's something the unit plans to replicate in the season-finale Wednesday against the Clippers.
"It's fun," Walton said. "I haven't played all year."