Lakers' late-game collapses prevalent in 91-88 loss to Portland Trail Blazers
The M-V-P chants permeated around Staples Center, as Lakers guard Kobe Bryant approached the free-throw line. The cheers serve as a constant backdrop during Lakers games, but this chant sounded louder. That's perhaps because in a game filled with shoddy execution and missed opportunities, Bryant still had the chance to secure the Lakers a victory by doing something so simple.
He didn't need to hit a top-of-the key three-pointer like he did with 49 seconds remaining to pull the Lakers within two points. He didn't need to drive in with a finger roll that tied the game up with 31.5 seconds remaining. He didn't need to hit a game-winner to secure a win, something he's already done seven times this season. He just needed to hit a free throw to tie the game, or two to win it.
There's a reason why Portland Coach Nate McMillan said "we definitely didn't want to foul in that situation," with Martell Webster hacking Bryant near the free-throw line even though the Trail Blazers didn't have a foul to give. Bryant stood at the stripe with his typical determined look, but the results weren't typical at all. Both shots rimmed out in what was just the beginning of a bizarre seven seconds eventually leading to the Lakers' 91-88 loss Sunday to Portland.
Lakers guard Derek Fisher most likely feels the same way. After Bryant's second missed free-throw, Lakers forward Pau Gasol grabbed the rebound, kicked the ball out to Fisher on the perimeter and drew a foul on Portland guard Andre Miller as the Lakers trailed 88-87 with 4.7 seconds remaining. After his first shot rimmed out, Fisher sank the second free-throw to tie the game at 88-88 and then quickly flashed a look at Bryant. After Portland called timeout, the two walked toward the sideline bearing smiles.
"Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying," said Fisher, who scored 14 points on six of 11 shooting and normally shoots 85.7% from the free-throw line. "We were ripping each other a little bit for each squandering that opportunity."
Fisher's intention to grab a steal ultimately resulted in three free throws for Webster, a sequence that resulted in three successful makes and something Fisher said "was a poor play on my part and I'll accept the responsibility."
Yet, with the Lakers trailing 91-88 with 3.3 seconds remaining, the team still had a shot. But Lakers Coach Phil Jackson drew up a play that involved Bryant setting a down screen for Gasol, while he flashed up for a three-pointer.
"I looked at him and smiled," Bryant said.
"It’s not a kind of shot I take on a regular basis," said Gasol, who scored 23 points on nine of 13 shooting. "It’s not a shot I practice either on a regular basis."
Nonetheless, Lakers forward Lamar Odom inbounded the ball at the top of the key to Gasol, whose three-pointer rimmed out as time expired. "For now on," Gasol said, "I’ll try to put some work in it and hopefully make the next one."
That goes for the entire team. The Lakers (56-24) have clinched the West's No. 1 seed, but they are one game behind Orlando (55-23) for the league's second best record. And the Lakers are far from playing with any type of consistency with only two games remaining in the regular season. Case in point, Portland's win marked the first time in six games they won at Staples Center and the Lakers' loss marked their third loss in five games.
The team's five of 22 mark leaves Jackson hoping the team can get some practices at Staples Center before the playoffs begin. The Lakers' up-and-down play leaves Bryant and Gasol concerned on whether the team will finally sharpen up. And the Trail Blazers' win left McMillan acknowledging to reporters that "I think we can play with these teams," referring to the Lakers' as a possible first-round opponent.
Said Fisher: "Let them keep hoping."
Meanwhile, the Lakers continued to display why teams aren't as scared in facing the defending champions. The Lakers managed only two field goals in the first 6:32 of the fourth quarter ("The ball wasn’t getting pushed in the direction it has to go to create shots," Jackson said.) Though he controlled Portland guard Brandon Roy to two points on one of three shooting before he missed the second half because of a sprained right knee, Lakers forward Ron Artest looked lost on offense and even sat in favor of reserve Sasha Vujacic ("I’m just looking forward to the next day," Artest said. "When I play great, you’ll get the same answer as when I play bad. It doesn’t matter to me."). The Lakers also could've held onto a one-point lead had Portland forward Marcus Camby not converted a putback over Odom with 12.7 seconds remaining. ("We just didn't make enough defensive plays throughout the game," said Odom, who scored 16 points on eight of 15 shooting. "I guess their defense was better than ours." And the bench continued to underperform, scoring only eight points.
With the playoffs vastly approaching, things aren't going to get any easier.
"From this Sunday to next Sunday, there is going to be an incredible amount of difference in intensity that's there in the games, Jackson said. "The critical nature of every play becomes very obvious. If we can match that, we'll be fine."
So far the Lakers haven't, and the results are far from pretty.--Mark Medina
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant gets past Blazers forward Nicolas Batum for a layup in the first quarter Sunday. Credit: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times.