Lakers' 100-81 loss to San Antonio latest example of team's up-and-down play
There had been many interesting turn of events, what with the Lakers' strong start Sunday against San Antonio, a second-quarter lapse, some chippy play and then some more offensive and defensive inconsistency.
But the Lakers managed to cut the Spurs' lead to two points with 8:39 remaining, and appeared well on their way to capitalizing off the momentum. Perhaps illustrative of the Lakers' season at large, the execution came to a screeching halt. San Antonio walked away with a 100-81 victory over the Lakers, preventing the team from officially clinching the top spot in the Western Conference.
With five games remaining, the Lakers' (55-22) position in the West is far from in danger, with the team holding a five-game edge over Dallas (50-27), Denver (50-27), Utah (50-27) and Phoenix (50-27) for the top spot. But the Lakers have put put more stock this past month in playing their best basketball rather than just compiling wins.
Aside from the Lakers losing three out of their past four games, they have continued a season-long trend in failing to capitalize after big wins. Case in point, the Lakers' followed their impressive win Friday against Utah with a clunker Sunday against the Spurs. Just last week, the Lakers won at San Antonio and responded with a 1-3 mark on the rest of their five-game trip. Meanwhile, the Spurs (47-29) answered their previous loss to the Lakers with four victories in the last five games, including marquee wins against Cleveland, Boston and Orlando, an effort good enough to secure a 13th consecutive postseason berth. And to think, it was San Antonio who wanted to avoid the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.
"I’m always concerned," Lakers guard Kobe Bryant after scoring 22 points on only eight of 24 shooting and committing four turnovers. "Now more than ever. We should be. This is an important stretch."
Yet, the issue the Lakers currently have right now isn't the lack of urgency theme, a poor habit the Lakers finally got out of their system entering last week's game against Atlanta. But what's perhaps more troubling is that the Lakers are indeed trying right now, but the inconsistency on offense and defense still remains. That was on full display during the Spurs' 29-12 run to close out the game.
Lakers guard Shannon Brown and Lakers forward Pau Gasol had left Manu Ginobili two separate times, allowing him to make two uncontested three-pointers, which was part of a team-high 32-point performance on 10 of 22 shooting. Antonio McDyess scored a layup because of shoddy defensive rotations and made a jumper because Lamar Odom and Brown didn't properly switch on a pick-and-roll. Tim Duncan made his way past Gasol for a layup and shot over him with a 14-foot jumper, part of a 24-point effort on 10 of 14 shooting that Coach Phil Jackson said illustrated how Duncan "backed him down." That was unlike last week's game where Gasol held Duncan to six points on a two of 11 clip. And then there was San Antonio scoring its final eight points off of free throws because of drives to the basket and an Odom technical.
"No," Gasol said when asked if the team should feel concerned. "This kind of game, you always have to take a positive out of it. Some nights it’s going to happen this way. A good quality team comes in and plays better than you and gets away with a win. I think we should just be aware of what the possibilities are when we don’t play as well and when we have a couple mistakes we shouldn’t have made."
Well, there were plenty of mistakes, that's for sure. Gasol led the team with 32 points on 13 of 20 shooting, but 10 of those came in the first quarter when the Lakers correctly utilized their inside game. Instead, the Lakers spent much of the game settling for outside shots. Aside from Gasol's clip, the team finished 20 of 61 (32.7%) from the field. They also shot five of 21 from three-point range, something Jackson correctly noted, "They took too many."
That included Bryant's eight of 24 clip, which he said had nothing to do with his fractured right index finger. "I just missed some opportunities," said Bryant, who also had gone five of 23 from the field against Utah. "I can make those. I’m going to get those looks in the playoff series and I’ll take my chance."
That included Ron Artest's three of 10 shooting, including a 2 of 9 clip from three-point range. Artest has shot below .500 in six of the last seven games yet continues to settle for outside shots partly because defenses are giving him the space knowing his ineffectiveness from the outside. Yet, Artest remained unapologetic about his shooting. "That’s not the main issue with shots going down," he said. "There were probably other things also. We’ll adjust and we’ll play better."
OK, fair enough. There were other issues as well. Odom's nine points was a far cry from his 26 points against Utah, a necessity given Andrew Bynum missed his eighth consecutive game because of a strained left Achilles' tendon. Though Odom had 13 rebounds, the Spurs outrebounded the Lakers 41-34, an effort Jackson lumped together with the team's shoddy chemistry. "It's how you run your offense," he said.
The Lakers' bench did little of that, with the unit combining for only four points on 2 of 15 shooting. The Lakers had only expected a marginal statistical impact with Luke Walton playing for the first time since Feb. 10 because of a pinched nerve in his lower back. But they had hoped his passing abilities and mastery of the triangle offense would ensure better ball movement and offensive chemistry. Instead, his seven minutes and 56 seconds on the floor was described by Jackson as "he still looks like he's a step behind," before noting "he made some passes that led to assists and that's something we need."
In fact, the Lakers have sorely needed that for a while.
"We’re working our offense and everyone knows what needs to be done," Walton said. "But for some reason, we didn’t do it consistently. We did do it. We played Utah, one of the hottest teams in the league two nights ago and beat them up all day long except for a letdown in the late third and early fourth. When we execute our offense and play better defense, that’s what we can count on."
The Lakers couldn't count on the team maintaining its composure either, most notably in the final minute of the second quarter. Artest and Ginobili drew offsetting technicals after the two tangled with each other before an inbounds pass. After Artest was called for a foul on Ginobili, Bryant was whistled for his own technical for arguing the call. That stretch entailed the Spurs closing out the second quarter with a 7-3 run en route to a 48-40 half-time lead. And unsurprisingly, Jackson and Artest shared different takes on what happened.
"On both the replays we looked at, Ginobili hooks him and does the up and under move with the hook. Obviously the referees didn’t want the contact at that time," Jackson said. "I just told Ron at halftime you got to back off when it’s time to back off. You can’t keep being persistent about it. They sent you a warning signal and that signal was back off. We ended up giving them some monentum at the end of the half and probably got the referees on the back end of our game."
When Artest was asked about the situation, he said his memory went blank. "I don’t really even remember," he said. "It was just basketball. I can’t remember what happened."
The Lakers remember most of everything else that transpired against the San Antonio, and it was far from pretty. When asked about what stood out the most, players ticked off a number of things.
"They controlled the tempo of the game," Bryant said.
"We could've contained the pick-and-roll better," Gasol said.
"The difference today is we didn't score the ball, Artest said.
That leave the Lakers with a wide litany of issues to consistently matter before the playoffs begin. And with only five regular season games, there's not a lot of time.
"It doesn’t bode well for the playoffs," Jackson said. "You want to get some momentum. We can't seem to put that together from one point to the next. Maybe if we have one single opponent for seven games, we’ll be able to do that."
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant makes a pass after driving around San Antonio power forward Tim Duncan in the first half Sunday. Credit: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times.