Lakers' two latest three-game losing streaks reveal similar trends
It wasn't something chatted about in the locker room. But the Lakers were always quietly aware of any threat to their two-year streak without a three-game loss.
With each loss, Coach Phil Jackson would sense the mood shifting more and more serious.
"Every loss is a big deal to us," Jackson said in early January last season. "We don’t talk about numbers. One loss, stop the bleeding. Two, we have to make a definite stand here."
That two-year streak snapped when the Lakers went winless on a three-game trip last season in March. Then they suffered another setback with the Lakers' 98-96 loss Tuesday to the Memphis Grizzlies. It marked only the second time the Lakers (13-5) had lost three consecutive games since acquiring Pau Gasol in February 2008, and a loss Wednesday at Houston (5-12) would give the Lakers their first four-game losing streak since April 2007.
They can prevent that by doing the same things that kept their two-year streak alive. I explained in detail last season how the Lakers had the ability to respond in dominating fashion after consecutive losses and to close out games in a way that masked otherwise poor performances. Meanwhile, the Lakers' three-game losing streak last season, including losses to the Miami Heat, Charlotte Bobcats and the Orlando Magic, and the recent losing streak to Utah, Indiana and Memphis reveal trouble in various areas.
The Lakers could have shown in these match-ups just how clutch they can be late in the game. Instead, they couldn't produce on the final play. The Lakers' loss to Memphis had Kobe Bryant passing the ball in midair to Ron Artest, an appropriate reaction considering he met a double team but a delayed one at best since it caught the team off guard. 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 his shot, dribbled right and pulled up for a three-pointer only to be blocked by Rudy Gay. The Lakers' 95-92 loss to the Indiana Pacers had Roy Hibbert causing Pau Gasol to bite on a screen-and-roll, and the Lakers failed to help as he drove on for an easy dunk. In the next play, Bryant missed a top-of-the-key three-pointer, Artest grabbed the rebound but dribbled out and killed the clock and Bryant shot a contested long-range trey with little time left on the clock. And against Utah, the final minute consisted of Artest taking an ill-advised off-balanced jumper, Bryant meeting double teams and Artest missing a game-winning three-pointer.
Similar scenarios played out in last season's three-game losing streak. In the Lakers' 96-94 loss to Orlando, the final play appeared to mark another game winner for Bryant. Forward Pau Gasol set a screen on then-Orlando forward Matt Barnes up top. Magic center Dwight Howard temporarily doubled Bryant. He then went one on one against Barnes, crossed right and then pulled up for a 20-foot jumper on the right block. But the shot hit the back rim. In a 114-111 overtime loss to Miami, Bryant forced overtime, but he met constant double teams and was called for a late charge, denying the Lakers a chance to squeak out a win.
It wasn't hard to notice how Bryant's shots against Miami (28), Charlotte (21) and Orlando (20) contrasted with the number of attempts for Gasol (15), Brown (14.2), Artest (12.4) and Odom (10). It's also hard not to notice that the Lakers' victories have featured Bryant averaging 18.8 shots and the Lakers' losses have featured Bryant averaging 26.2. After last season's three-game losing streak, I mentioned in detail how the team's offensive inconsistency was rooted in the inability to elevate its game around Bryant and complement his skill set. In the present case, it's a mixed bag. Bryant went on a fourth-quarter scoring spree against Utah but didn't ride his hot hand completely through since the Jazz met him with double teams. Bryant went on a second-half scoring spree, but his poor first-half shooting resembled the Lakers' collectively stagnant offense. They simply rinsed and repeated against Memphis.
There are other elements that factor in, such as Gasol's fatigue, cold shooting from Derek Fisher and Shannon Brown and Artest's continual discomfort, showing that neither Bryant's scoring mentality nor his teammates' complementary roles are helping much in restoring balance the offense.
Lakers broke down defensively
There's too many nuggets that signified the Lakers' defensive breakdowns during the team's past two three-game losing streaks. Bryant stuck too close to his "free safety/center field" defense against the Heat, in which he gives shooters space on the perimeter, leaving Bryant the ability to cheat on defense and be open to help if needed. But that resulted in Quentin Richardson exploding for a team-high 25 points on eight-of-13 shooting. Against Charlotte, the entire team joined in on the defensive breakdowns, allowing the Bobcats to feature five players to reach double figures, shoot at 51.4% clip and score 18 fast-break points. And the ongoing trend this season has entailed poor perimeter defending, poor communication on screen and rolls, poor help defense.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant glances at the scoreboard during the final minute of the Lakers' 98-96 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday. Credit: Nikki Boertman / Reuters
Photo: Memphis forward Rudy Gay, right, shoots over Lakers forward Ron Artest during the Lakers' 98-96 loss Tuesday. Credit: Nikki Boertman / Reuters