Five things to take away from Lakers' 98-96 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies
1. Each of the Lakers' three consecutive losses involves Ron Artest failing to help out on the final play. In the Lakers' 98-96 loss Tuesday to the Memphis Grizzlies, the latest error involved Artest hesitating on the potential game-winner and then allowing Rudy Gay to block it as time expired.
With 8.6 seconds remaining, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant brought the ball up the floor and, in appropriate fashion, found an opening to make a clutch shot. He dribbled left past O.J. Mayo, pulled up at the free-throw line and nearly attempted what could've been his second consecutive huge end-of-the game shot at FedEx Forum, the last one taking place Feb. 23, 2010 where he nailed the game-winning three-point shot in his first appearance since returning from a sprained left ankle. After noticing Zach Randolph raced nearly behind him to block the shot, Bryant passed the ball in mid-air to the far end toward Artest with 3.3 seconds remaining. Instead of throwing the ball back to Bryant at the top of the key, dumping the ball to Lamar Odom right behind him or swinging the ball on the near end to Derek Fisher, Artest held on to the ball. He pump-faked Rudy Gay, dribbled right and pulled up for a three-pointer. Gay blocked the shot. Game over.
The Lakers' latest loss stings harder than others because it marks only the second time the team lost three consecutive games since acquiring Pau Gasol in Feb. 2008 and it featured plenty of long-term problems the Lakers (13-5) haven't corrected. One of those includes Artest's mixed record on the final minute of the Lakers' past two losses.
In the Lakers' 102-96 loss Friday to the Utah Jazz, Artest drove the lane and pulled up for an off-balanced jumper that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson considering inappropriate, and then his missed a potential game-winning three-pointer that Jackson believed was warranted. In the Lakers' 95-92 loss Sunday to the Indiana Pacers, he grabbed an offensive rebound off Bryant's missed shot, dribbled out to the corner and wasted time off the clock before his pass to Odom led to Bryant's last-second attempt that airballed. Though Jackson instructed that Artest should've called timeout with 8.6 seconds remaining after grabbing the offensive rebound, he also hit a timely three-pointer that cut the Pacers' lead to 89-86 with 2:43 remaining. And against the Grizzlies, Artest's poor decision-making in the final play overshadowed his crucial three-pointer that closed the gap to 98-94 with 59 seconds left.
Artest made five of 11 shots for 12 points in 34 minutes and held Gay to 14 points, seven below his season average, though it came on seven-for-15 shooting. But his final-play decisions surely can't help his cause as he's adjusting to a decreased role because of Matt Barnes' resurgence, a sore back and discomfort level in the offense. Artest showed last season he can overcome these head-scratching decisions. The Lakers have shown they can rein him in without alienating him and making him feel appreciated. But there's no doubt Jackson and Bryant are frustrated with him right now, and it's very apparent Artest feels frustrated. The Lakers and Artest need to make sure this issue doesn't become more problematic than it should.
2. Credit the Lakers for the comeback, but criticize them for making a late-game charge necessary. When the Lakers simply aren't initially executing correctly, such as their 98-91 victory last week against Chicago, the Lakers deserve praise of managing to grind things out and find other ways to secure a victory. When the Lakers simply appear effortless and are refusing to make adjustments until it's too late, any late-game heroics point more to their belief they can simply flip the switch when it's required. So even had the Lakers won against the Grizzlies, there's little reason the team should feel proud of itself.
Sure, Lakers fans may have felt inspired to see Shannon Brown overcome an initial tough shooting night by hitting a deep three-pointer and a fast-break runner, cutting the Grizzlies' lead to 89-85 with 3:38 remaining. Lakers fans may have felt nerve-wracked and then comforted to see Artest hit a three-pointer, reducing the gap to 98-94 with 59 seconds left. Lakers fans may have felt entertained to see Bryant drive into the lane , trimming the deficit to 98-96 with 28 seconds remaining. And Lakers fan may have seen signs of hope when Gasol made a defensive stop on Mike Conley to give the team a chance to tie or win the game on the final play.
But none of these sequences could gloss over the poor play the Lakers demonstrated for most of the game.
3. The Lakers' poor offense contributed to their poor defense. Bryant recently vented the Lakers' problems point more to their defense and not their offense, even going so far as saying the media is "ignorant" for asking about the team's recent scoring struggles, poor shooting percentage and poor chemistry. In Lakers' loss to Memphis, however, the Lakers' failure to run the triangle directly correlated to their defensive struggles. Bryant for the third consecutive game felt compelled to take over the game, but in this case very little of it was appropriate. It's not just the 25 points on nine-for-25 shooting clip that's worrisome. It's that four of his misses led to Memphis scoring eight points in transition. It's that the team's lack of aggressiveness and ball movement compelled Bryant to take over. It's that Bryant's fixation with doing it all himself kept the team disengaged.
That sluggishness carried defensively where in predictable fashion the Lakers didn't cover the perimeter, they didn't rotate on screen and rolls and they allowed players to drive into the lane with ease. But as much as the team's poor offensive chemistry led to little energy on defense, the overall problem also points to the team's reverse mind-set of last season. The Lakers' 2009-10 team appeared intent on setting the tone with defensive stops and then controlling the tempo at a deliberate pace. The current Lakers team appears intent on scoring as much as possible and seeing defense as an annoyance. The losses will continue to pile up if that mind-set doesn't change.
The Lakers mostly remained in contention because of free-throw shooting (21 of 25) and rebounding (42-29), two ingredients that usually secure most victories. But not on nights when the offense and defense remains consistently stagnant.
4. Gasol and Odom log heavy minutes once again. For all the concern about them playing heavy minutes, they're surely receiving the message that they'll have to find ways to absorb it than to look forward to any immediate relief. Gasol played 45 minutes for the third consecutive night and his fatigued showed in a 15-points effort on five-for-13 shooting, despite matching up with his little brother, Marc, who had 10 points on four-for-eight shooting. The fatigue doesn't seem to affect Odom as much and he posted a respectable eight points on three-for-seven shooting with 11 rebounds in 40 minutes. But with Gasol visibly exhausted, Odom may have to provide even more. This isn't a knock on Odom, as he's played fairly consistent all season. But with Jackson showing little faith in rookie Derrick Caracter, who played three minutes and appeared lost on an inbounds play, it appears Odom may need to fill in for Gasol's exhaustion until Andrew Bynum returns.
5. The Lakers are fortunate they have a back-to-back. As much as the Lakers need the rest, it's good the team can immediately begin rectifying its problems Wednesday against Houston. Rare extended losing streaks can only create more anxiety and frustration with the team, as well as media scrutiny. But the team will likely be more inclined, if they haven't felt enough already, to play with a sharper edge. Surely, the Lakers had their own set of challenges in the season-opener against the Rockets, barely squeaking out a 112-110 victory. But the Rockets have since fared 5-12, and at the Lakers have dominated sub. 500 opponents fairly handily so far this season. The Lakers will surely need to experience one of those nights again.
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, center, is fouled by Memphis guard Tony Allen as he tries to shoot during the Lakers' 98-96 loss Tuesday. Credit: Jim Weber / Associated Press.
Photo: Memphis guard O.J. Mayo, left, knocks the ball away from Lakers guard Shannon Brown during the first half of the Lakers' 98-96 loss Tuesday. Credit: Jim Weber / Associated Press