Lakers' 98-96 loss to Denver Nuggets involve more than Kobe Bryant's absence
This would've never been chalked up as one of those games the Lakers left feeling better about their overall play. But they at least had the opportunity to defeat Denver without Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum. This effort would've never been chalked up as a stepping stone toward becoming playoff-ready. But the Lakers at least had a chance to officially clinch the top spot in the Western Conference. This performance would've never been chalked up as an example of good execution down the stretch, but the Lakers at least could've showed their capability of executing when it ultimately decided the difference in the game.
Instead, the Lakers fell apart on the final play, losing 98-96 Thursday to the Denver Nuggets. And the play that decided the outcome proved to be the most head-scratching.
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson didn't call a timeout for the final play, though the Lakers trailed by two with seven seconds remaining in the game. And the consequence of that decision quickly played out. Lakers guard Derek Fisher manned the point, while forward Lamar Odom attempted a high screen-and-roll on Denver forward Chauncey Billups and then cut toward the far post. Billups switched on Odom, denying him position in the post, while Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony switched and heavily guarded Fisher on the perimeter. Meanwhile, the rest of the Lakers appeared as if they didn't know what to do. Lakers forward Pau Gasol stood around in the paint. Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic remained idle on the near corner. And Lakers forward Ron Artest 's flash to the top of the key didn't create much of an opportunity. With 1.2 seconds remaining, the best look entailed Fisher attempting a contested three-pointer near the top of the key over Anthony, who blocked the shot and capped the night with 31 points on 10 of 20 shooting.
That final play served as just a microcosm of an inconsistent game that featured the absences of Bryant (officially resting a swelling right knee) and Bynum (missed his ninth consecutive game because of a strained left Achilles' tendon). Surely they could've used Bryant's presence, with his scoring and late-game heroics. They also could've used Bynum's presence with his inside dominance. The Lakers had plenty of chances to win an up-and-down game even without those two, but they didn't though they came close.
The loss means several things. The Lakers (55-23) have a 3-1/2 game lead over Denver (52-27) for the top spot in the West, meaning the Lakers will have to officially clinch another day with four games remaining. The Nuggets own a 3-1 season-series lead, meaning they'll have plenty of confidence if they face the Lakers in the postseason. The Lakers are tied with Orlando (55-23) for the league's second-best record, though the Lakers have the tiebreaker because of their 22-8 mark versus Eastern Conference teams compared to the Magic's 20-10 performance against West opponents. It also means the Lakers won't reach 60 wins, a benchmark Jackson challenged his team to reach perhaps just to keep the Lakers motivated for games that bear little consequence in the West standings. That original goal seemed to conflict with Jackson's recent intention to give Bryant some rest, raising questions on whether the team wants to feel energized once the playoffs start or play at their peak once the playoffs start. It's an understandable tradeoff, however, given Bryant's assortment of injuries (fractured right index finger, sprained left ankle and knee soreness) and his shooting mark of 13 of 47 (27.7%) the past two games, something Jackson thought was partly responsible for poor lift in Bryant's legs.
But against the Nuggets, the Lakers didn't look entirely sharp even if they came near victory through a comeback effort. They demonstrated more inconsistent play, an indicator that's understandable against a tough Denver team even without Kenyon Martin (left knee). Nonetheless, it didn't help the Lakers' effort in wanting to solidify their play before the postseason begins.
This performance served as a stark contrast to the Lakers' 95-89 victory Feb. 28 over Denver, a matchup that featured Artest locking down on Anthony (seven of 19 shooting and eight turnovers), a facilitating Bryant (season-high 12 assists) and a dependable Lamar Odom (20 points, 12 rebounds). Instead, the performance resembled the Lakers' 87-86 loss Feb. 19 to the Boston Celtics, a game that Bryant missed, came down to the last play and featured lots of shoddy execution from the Lakers.
Against Denver, the Lakers preceded their poorly designed final play with other bad plays. With the Lakers ahead 92-89, Fisher took an ill-advised jumper, J.R. Smith grabbed the rebound and pushed it to guard Anthony Carter. The Lakers' weren't fully ready on transition defense, with Anthony wide open on the far wing. He drilled an uncontested three-pointer to tie the game up at 92-92 with 2:40 remaining, prompting Jackson to call a timeout. It became a one possession game for the rest of the duration, and it appeared the Lakers had a quality late-game stand. With 21.3 seconds remaining, Denver led 97-96 and Smith beat Lakers guard Shannon Brown down the baseline before he recovered and swatted away his shot. Brown fired an outlet pass to Fisher, but Billups tipped the ball. Replays showed, however, that ball last went off Fisher's hands, giving possession to Denver.
After Smith made one of two free throws, the Lakers had the opportunity to tie or win the game with 12 seconds remaining. That didn't happen. Even if the Lakers didn't execute properly on the last play, it still doesn't overshadow the Lakers' ineffective play in the first half and their improving play in the second half.
Though Pau Gasol (eight points, three of six) and Artest (eight points three of four) proved to be dependable options in the first quarter, the Lakers trailed 22-20 because the entire team shot only 33.3%. In the second quarter, it didn't prove much better with Smith scoring 16 of his 26 points during that frame, Odom managing only one point on zero of four shooting and the entire backcourt including Brown (zero of six) Sasha Vujacic (one of six), Fisher (one of four) and Jordan Farmar (one of three) all having woeful first-half performances from the field.
In the third quarter, that all changed with Smith going scoreless, a unit featuring Fisher, Brown, Artest, Odom and Gasol going on a 27-11 run and Anthony making only one of his four field-goal attempts. With the Lakers outrebounding the Nuggets 52-39, Artest and Gasol combining for 48 points and holding an 89-82 lead with 6:24 remaining, it appeared the Lakers would briefly enjoy holding the top spot in the West. But their poor first-half play and shoddy execution late in the game prevented the Lakers from making another step forward, a problem that's played out for far too long.
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Photo: Lakers center Pau Gasol, center, controls the ball as Denver center Johan Petro, left, and forward Carmelo Anthony, right, defend during Thursday's game. Credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images.