Five things to take away from Lakers' 109-99 loss to Houston Rockets
There are so many reasons and just so no stone is left unturned, I'll list them all: The Lakers (13-6) lost their fourth consecutive game for the first time since the team acquired Pau Gasol in February 2008, the last time was in April 2007. They had trouble putting a game away against the undermanned Rockets (6-12), who have been without their premier players in Yao Ming (bruised left ankle) and Aaron Brooks (sprained left ankle). And the same issues involving the Lakers' offensive chemistry, poor defense and complacency have remained mostly the same for an entire week.
While it's healthy to point out this is the first month of the season, there's a reason why Phil Jackson's previous teams have only lost four or more consecutive games 11 times in eight different seasons, none of which were part of his 11 championship runs, six with the Chicago Bulls and five with the Lakers. The Lakers' 8-0 mark to start the season wasn't necessarily misleading as the team had showed good habits. But it seems like it gave them false comfort into thinking those outcomes would simply become automatic.
The Lakers shouldn't be happy about their recent struggles one bit, but they should use this as a teachable moment. But it's up to them on how they handle this adversity.
2. The Lakers folded in the final moments
The Lakers could've secured either of these four losses had they executed late in the game. It may have only masked all the fundamental offensive and defensive lapses they've showcased, but at least the Lakers would be able to work on improvements while piling up the wins. Instead, the Lakers set themselves up to have to grind out a win, but they failed miserably. Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom were scoreless in the fourth quarter. The Lakers went scoreless in the final 2:15 because it featured all of their shots coming from long distance, including three from Kobe Bryant, and others from Odom, Derek Fisher and Matt Barnes.
Meanwhile, the Rockets went on a 15-2 run and stole a game they had no business winning. On one play, Houston forward Luis Scola kicked the ball out of a double team to Kyle Lowry. Because Bryant was consumed with manning the free-safety position to deny Lowry penertration inside, Rockets forward Shane Battier remained open on the near-side corner. That resulted in Battier converting on an uncontested three-pointer, tying the score at 97-97 with 2:52 remaining in the game. The Rockets nearly duplicated the same sequence on the next possession. After grabbing the rebound off Bryant's missed jumper, Lowry pushed the ball up the floor and the Lakers had no speed to match him. With Lowry about to drive past Derek Fisher toward the rack, Barnes remained just outside the paint along the baseline in case he needed to help defend the driving Lowry. But that left Battier open again for another corner three-pointer, this one giving Houston a 100-97 lead with 2:27 left. Battier secured the win on the next possession, when he forced Bryant to fall and lose his balance before sinking a jumper for a 102-99 lead with 1:54 remaining. And then there was Fisher's foul on Battier that ballooned the Houston lead to six points.
The coaching staff became so frustrated with the Lakers' poor defense that KCAL's John Ireland reported the tone in the locker room at halftime sounded the most contentious he's heard all season. Surely, the coaching staff' felt frustrated that the Lakers held a 56-53 halftime lead and wondered whether the team would finally halt its losing streak. But the most significant source that fueled the frustration, Ireland reported, entailed the Lakers' effort on defense.
But it apparently didn't register. The Lakers allowed the Rockets to cash in on 17 fast-break points, allowed five players to score in double figures in Kevin Martin (22 points on six of 17 shooting and 10 of 10 mark from the free-throw line), Battier (17 points on five of 17 shooting), Scola (14 points on six of 11 shooting) and reserves Chase Budinger and Courtney Lee (10 points each).
I've noted before that the problems on defense partly points to effort and the team's overall attitude that their high-octane offense can offset the opposition's sharp shooting. That still remained prevalent against Houston, and it's an attitude the Lakers need to change fast. But here's the other scary thing: lots of the defensive miscues pointed to lapses on rotation where players either didn't communicate or remained confused where they should go. That's simply unacceptable that would remain an issue 19 games into the season.
4. The Lakers offensive production only came in spurts
It's comforting to see that Odom elevated his game (more on that later). It's also comforting that the bench reserves in Matt Barnes, Shannon Brown and Steve Blake combined for 28 points. But those efforts simply showcased snapshots of individual brilliance. The reality shows that the Lakers' offense hinges on Bryant's and Gasol's success. What they displayed wasn't pretty. Bryant's 27 points on 10-of-24 shooting and seven-of-seven mark from the free-throw line showcased for better and worse of his typical scoring mentality. His ability to make difficult shots left fans once again amazed, but his tendency to keep firing away even when they missed likely frustrated even the most ardent Bryant supporters. Gasol's eight points on two-of-eight shooting revealed continual fatigue is taxing him, the Lakers' failure to get the ball inside to him, the Rockets' aggressiveness on him and his hamstrings are acting up.
The Lakers maintained a well-oiled offense at the beginning of the season because it featured strong ball movement and promoted any player to have a quality showing. But with the Lakers' lackluster hustle and execution, they're showing neither.
5. Odom's increased presence could prove critical in helping Gasol have rest
In possibly the only sliver of good news to come out of this game, Odom's season-high 25 points on 11-of-16 shooting and 11 rebounds showed he responded to the call in relieving Gasol's burden. The strategy seems to be the equivalent of robbing Peter to pay Paul, considering both Gasol and Odom have led the team in minutes this season, while Andrew Bynum has undergone rehab to repair his surgically repaired right knee. But it seems to be the only practical short-term solution until Bynum expectedly returns at some point during the team's long trip in mid-December.
While commanding the offense with balanced pull-up jumpers, sharp cuts to the basket and even an impressive baseline drive after Bryant's behind-the-back pass, Odom showed he's capable of even increasing his presence. The result: Odom logged 45 minutes, while Gasol dropped to 39. The fatigue has gotten so bad for Gasol that he left the game in the third quarter because of concerns surrounding his hamstrings. If Odom can establish this type of role for the next few games, it very well may prove enough to help re-energize Gasol.
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Photos: (Top) Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has the ball knocked from his grasp by Rockets forward Shane Battier in the second half Wednesday night. (Middle) Rockets forward Chase Budinger drives past Lakers forward Matt Barnes in the second half Wednesday night. (Bottom) Lakers forward Lamar Odom scores against Houston's Shane Battier in the first half Wednesday night. Credits: Pat Sullivan / Associated Press