Lakers feel conflicted after 89-88 loss to San Antonio Spurs
With the basketball in his hands, Lakers forward Lamar Odom bounced it once, held onto it and appeared in a reflective state of mind. In disgust, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant simply threw his hands down. In elation, Spurs forward Antonio McDyess waved his arms and yelled. And while bearing a wide smile, San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich clapped his hands repeatedly.
Those were all the instant reactions to the Lakers' 89-88 loss Thursday to the Spurs, an outcome determined by a play that involved McDyess boxing out Odom and tipping in Tim Duncan's missed 11-foot, fade-away jumper before time expired. The reactions among the Lakers in the locker room afterward appeared just as varied, not just on what happened in the final 22.7 seconds, but also on what to make of the Lakers' latest loss. The loss by the Lakers (34-16) widens the cushion of the Spurs (41-8) for first place in the Western Conference to 7 1/2 games, drops the Lakers into third place, one game behind the Dallas Mavericks (33-15), worsens their record at Staples Center to 19-8 and eclipses their 34-7 home record in the 2009-10 season. The defeat deepens their record to 1-7 against teams above them in the NBA standings and concludes a 2-3 homestand before beginning a seven-game trip Saturday that includes stops in New Orleans, Memphis, Boston, New York, Orlando, Charlotte and Cleveland before the NBA All-Star break.
"When you lose the game in the final seconds," Odom said, "it hurts a little bit more. But it happens."
This is what happened: With Lakers forward Pau Gasol guarding Duncan on the far post with 3.3 seconds remaining, McDyess set a back pick on Lakers forward Ron Artest to free up Spurs guard Manu Ginobili at the top of the key. Artest fought through the pick and covered Ginobili, but in turn, McDyess established better position in the lane against Odom, who never regained inside positioning once Duncan attempted his jumper, allowing McDyess to have full access to a left-handed tip-in despite Bryant's valiant attempt to swat the ball away.
The explanations proved wide-ranging. Odom accepted responsibility: "When Duncan took the shot, I took my eye off McDyess for a split second. That second, he got the possession. ... You battle back and you're in the position to win. You just didn't make the play. Sometimes it comes down to two people making the play or one person making the play. I didn't make it tonight." Bryant offered some defense: "Those are tough situations to get rebounds in because everybody's scrambling and everybody's getting to bodies." Lakers Coach Phil Jackson provided an X's and O's version: "Lamar was on the wrong side of [a screen.] He had to help out and Ginobili was cutting off a back pick and got caught in wrong side." And Gasol provided constructive criticism: "You have to find a body after a shot is released. It's very rare they call a foul in those situations."
But it wasn't just that play. In fact, the Lakers simply needed one defensive stop after Gasol made a pair of free throws to give the team an 88-87 lead with 22.7 seconds remaining. Ginobili's three-point attempt fell short, but McDyess cleaned the glass. Spurs guard Tony Parker then missed a seven-foot floater in traffic, Artest couldn't secure the rebound, and the ball went out of bounds to set up San Antonio's game-winning play.
"Too many opportunities at the end of the game," Jackson said, "Four attempts cost us."
It concluded an eerily conflicting night on a day that started with owner Jerry Buss visiting practice, offering both positive reinforcement and a subtle reminder the team needs to improve. It continued with Gasol learning he made his fifth consecutive All-Star team despite season-wide inconsistency and Odom learning he missed out on his first appearance despite season-long consistency. And it ended with a loss that left the Lakers in a conflicted state of being afterward.
"We really needed to win this game," said Lakers center Andrew Bynum, who scored 10 points on four-of-seven shooting with 10 rebounds and a career-high six assists.
Do the Lakers focus on nearly managing to overcome an eight-point deficit, something they couldn't manage Sunday against Boston? "We didn't give them as many open looks," Bryant said. "Boston got wide-open looks. They got great shots. You give Hall of Famers space to knock down shots, they're going to make them. Tonight we did a much better job contesting opportunities."
Do the Lakers focus on Artest's resurgence amid reports that he wanted to be traded as he held Ginobili to five-of-17 shooting while he scored 13 points on six-of-11 shooting? "He got a lot of support from his teammates," said Jackson, who played Artest for the entire fourth quarter.
Do the Lakers focus on a balanced offense that featured Bryant nearly recording a triple-double with 16 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists? "I do that all year," Bryant said. "If I'm doubled, I'll kick it to them."
Then there's Gasol's increased aggressiveness resulting in 19 points on an eight-of-10 clip ("We know we're a better team," Gasol said, "when we get the ball and get players involved.") and Bynum's return after sitting out Tuesday against Houston because of a bone bruise in his left knee ("It felt pretty good," he said).
Or does the team lament its 42.5% shooting (Bryant: "It was an ugly game."), its three-point perimeter defense (the Spurs were six of 16) or the team's offensive inconsistency ("We're not running sets together that we do in practice today," said Bynum, whom Jackson said still needs to work on his timing and argued the team didn't get him involved enough. "We're not doing it. We're not executing.").
The Lakers' conflicted feelings point to one unfortunate reality. The team's early-season malaise and inconsistency have caught up to them, where now they have to weigh the priorities between winning and improving. San Antonio's victory extends their season-series lead to 2-0 with two more matchups remaining, a scenario that prevents the Lakers from benefiting from head-to-head results should they finish with the same record.
Jackson remained reluctant to believe any good habits could extend to the Lakers' seven-game trip, because each team features different personnel. And Bryant reiterated they need to "win a couple games" as the sole goal during the trip even when I asked whether there's anything from a developmental standpoint he also needs to see.
"It's definitely better to have a chance to win a game than lose by 10-plus points," Gasol said. "It's tough we are struggling, and now we get on the road and have opportunity to get together and get back on right track."
The Lakers would like to believe Gasol's optimism that the team is beginning to build good habits. Unfortunately for the Lakers, that has become just as flitting and unpredictable as a last-second put-back.
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Photos: (Top) San Antonio forward Antonio McDyess, right, gets past Lakers forward Lamar Odom and scores the winning basket on a tip-in at the buzzer, lifting the Spurs to an 89-88 victory over the Lakers on Thursday at Staples Center. (Bottom) San Antonio forward Tim Duncan celebrates immediately after teammate Antonio McDyess scores the winning basket during the Lakers' 89-88 loss Thursday at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times