Lakers consistently demonstrate inability to capitalize off momentum
For far too long the Lakers have battled inconsistency. Forward Pau Gasol observed that there's "been too many ups and downs at this point of the year." Coach Phil Jackson acknowledged that some of the games the Lakers won haven't always been pretty. And guard Derek Fisher remembered how the team's seven-game winning streak this month was still met with questions about the team's execution.
"Even, as you guys so gracefully pointed out, even when we were winning games, we still just weren't playing very well in terms of our overall consistency," Fisher said. "There wasn't a feel that this team was going to get better."
Yet, Jackson and Lakers forward Lamar Odom didn't express as much concern as before about the team's lapses in play, debating with reporters what the term "struggling" meant. "Struggling to you might be different to us," Odom said. Added Jackson: "Struggling is when you don't win ballgames. Some of it you win ballgames and you don't look good and you still struggle, so that's basically it." Or as Frederick Douglas once said, "Without struggle, there is no progress."
It's an interesting dichotomy the team currently faces. The Lakers (55-22) can officially clinch the top spot in the West with a win Thursday against the Denver Nuggets, but are losers in four of their last six games. Though the Lakers recently put together a seven-game winning streak, only one of those victories came against a .500 opponent, with the rest featuring inconsistent play. Those fears proved to be legitimate after the team went on a 2-3 trip. After an impressive win last Friday against Utah thanks to team balance, the Lakers laid an Easter egg two days later against San Antonio because of poor team chemistry.
The Lakers may have improved their urgency, most notably in the past three games, but one thing still remains an issue: The team has largely failed to build momentum following signature wins all season. Sure, there have been numerous problems ailing the Lakers, such as injuries, poor pick-and-roll defense, poor offensive chemistry and an inconsistent bench. But the Lakers' inconsistency in building progress continues to cloud the big picture -- whether the Lakers can repeat as champions.
Consider a stretch of eight games in which the Lakers failed to build on a signature win. That includes the following contests:
--The Lakers' 121-103 victory Nov. 12 over the Phoenix Suns followed by the Lakers' 105-79 loss Nov. 13 to the Denver Nuggets
--The Lakers' 98-92 win Jan. 18 over the Orlando Magic preceding the Lakers' 93-87 loss Jan. 21 to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
--The Lakers' 90-89 victory over the Boston Celtics followed by the Lakers' 95-93 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies
--The Lakers' 92-83 win March 24 over the San Antonio Spurs preceding the Lakers' 91-75 loss March 26 to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Granted, this stretch only accounts for four of the Lakers' 22 losses. But because the Lakers had entered those contests with strong momentum, it's hard not to wonder how much of an after-effect a win or least a quality performance would have had on the team's development. Nonetheless, there are a few trends that stick out during these stretches of games.
The following two games couldn't have been any more different. After a 121-103 victory Nov. 12 against the Phoenix Suns, the Lakers flew overnight to Denver and didn't arrive until 5 a.m. the following day. The Lakers appeared sluggish against the Nuggets, losing 105-79, shooting 35.2% and scoring only 23 points in the second half. The Lakers also struggled on another back-to-back in late January-early February. After the team's 90-89 victory at Boston, the team quickly traveled to Memphis the next day and lost 95-93. Although these following two games weren't played on consecutive days, the Lakers followed up an inspiring 92-83 victory March 24 over the San Antonio Spurs with a fairly unimpressive 91-75 loss March 26 to the Oklahoma City Thunder. This points to an even bigger issue: The Lakers are 12-6 on the second night of a back-to-back, something that the team should keep in mind when it plays at Denver on Thursday followed by a game Friday at Minnesota.
Still, the back-to-backs don't fully explain the Lakers' failure to build off signature wins. After all, this is just part of the grinding NBA schedule. There have also been games in which the difference involved the Lakers making key plays down the stretch.
In the Lakers' 90-89 victory Jan. 31 over the Boston Celtics, forward Ron Artest made a four-foot runner to make it a one-point deficit with 45 seconds remaining. He drew an offensive foul on Paul Pierce on the next possession. And Kobe Bryant nailed a game-winning shot with 7.3 seconds remaining. The Lakers weren't as fortunate the following day in a 95-93 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. The final minutes accurately reflected the Lakers' overall sluggish play. Odom missed a layup, Bryant missed a three-pointer and Odom was called for a foul on Zach Randolph. Bryant answered Randolph's two free throws with a trey. He answered Rudy Gay's three with a three of his own to make it 95-93. But he didn't answer on the final play, passing the ball to Artest in the corner, resulting in a missed three-pointer.
A similar scenario played out nearly a week earlier. In the Lakers' 98-92 victory Jan. 18 over Orlando, reserves Shannon Brown (22 points) and Jordan Farmar (11 points) helped the Lakers put together a 98-92 victory on a night Bryant didn't shoot well (four of 19 shooting) and Bynum didn't feel well (flu-like symptoms). But in the Lakers' 93-87 loss Jan. 21 to the Cavaliers, Gasol's two missed free throws that could've tied the game with 24 seconds remaining proved costly.
Even with quick-turnarounds and close contests that can come down to a few plays, the Lakers mostly just leave themselves and fans guessing what kind of team will show up on a particular night. How else to explain the difference between the Lakers' 121-103 victory Nov. 12 against Phoenix followed by the 105-79 loss the next night to Denver? Against the Suns, the Lakers led by as many as 27 points, Andrew Bynum scored his fifth double double of the season after not playing the past eight days and the team played as if it didn't matter Gasol missed his eighth consecutive game because of an injured right hamstring. Against Denver, Bryant remained scoreless in the second half, Fisher didn't score at all in 23 minutes and Artest had trouble guarding Denver forward Carmelo Anthony (25 points).
Inconsistency also proved to be the case between the Lakers' 92-83 victory March 24 over San Antonio Spurs followed by their 91-75 loss March 26 to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Instead of Bryant overcoming double teams and leading a fourth-quarter charge, he sat on the bench in the fourth quarter after a listless 11-point performance on four of 11 shooting and committing nine of the team's 18 turnovers. Instead of Gasol overcoming a poor offensive night with suffocating defense inside, he ended with just a poor offensive night, scoring only nine points on three of 10 shooting. Instead of grabbing five steals and proving his worth as a lock-down defender, Artest allowed Kevin Durant to score 26 points on a nine of 19 clip. Instead of Odom complementing the Lakers with an impressive double double in points (19) and rebounds (13), he was the only dependable option in leading the team with 15 points and seven rebounds. Instead of limiting the opposition to one scoring option, the Lakers also allowed former UCLA standout Russell Westbrook to score 23 points on 10 of 13 shooting. Instead of featuring five players in double figures, the Lakers mustered up only seven assists, their lowest since the team had six against Cincinnati in a 104-90 loss in December 1964.
Nonetheless, Odom appeared to be the least worried about the Lakers' continuous inconsistency. Call it part of his laid-back demeanor. But also chalk it up to Odom's wanting to cling on what the Lakers are doing well, and build off it. With five games remaining, however, the opportunities to do that continues to dwindle.
-- Mark Medina