Have Lakers progressed since last matchup with Boston?
One loss to an elite opponent sparked Kobe Bryant to publicly criticize his team and vowed that he would hold his teammates accountable for any future lackluster performances.
Another loss to an elite team spurred Bryant to react with a calm demeanor, acknowledging disappointment to the loss but believing it provided a lesson on what the Lakers need to sharpen.
Bryant's differing reactions to the double-digit losses to Miami and Boston showcase a balancing act in leadership, trying to pick his spots to push the team and making sure they don't overreact to adversities. But it also showcases a difference in effort. The Christmas Day loss to the Heat yielded little intensity, a surprise given the hype surrounding it. The Lakers' loss to the Celtics showed increased focus but poor execution, giving Bryant an example to point to things the Lakers need to correct before facing Boston again.
"It's important to see how much we improve. From now until then, it's a good opportunity for us to work hard at it now," Bryant said at the time. "Then when we face them in Boston, we'll see how much they improved."
The Lakers will find out Thursday when they play the Celtics at TD Garden in the third contest of a seven-game trip. But until then, the Lakers only have the tape of their 109-96 loss Jan. 31 to the Celtics to fall back on to understand things they shouldn't be doing. The Lakers actually devoted a two-hour session completing that exercise, as detailed by The Times' Mike Bresnahan, and the game proved far from pretty. The Lakers earned an "F" on defense in Bryant's eyes, considering they allowed Boston to shoot 60.3% from the field, 52.9% from three-point range. Rajon Rondo distributed 15 of his 16 assists in the second half and Ron Artest couldn't contain Paul Pierce, who dropped 32 points on 11-for-18 shooting. The execution appeared equally bad on offense. Bryant proved to be the only dependable option, scoring 41 points on 16-for-29 shooting. Everyone else, ranging from Pau Gasol's passivity (five of 13 clip), Andrew Bynum's foul trouble and sore left knee and horrendous shooting from Artest (one of 10) and Derek Fisher (one of six), left the Lakers with only Bryant to carry the load.
Since then, the Lakers have won three out of their four games. But the lone loss came to San Antonio, furthering Los Angeles' poor mark against teams with better records than them to 1-6. Still, the Lakers have made considerable progress in a few areas that should make them more equipped for the Celtics this time around.
Bryant approached Gasol after the Lakers' double-digit loss to Boston with a simple message: Be more aggressive. I've already detailed most of the circumstances surrounding this conversation earlier this week, but the message was pretty clear. Gasol has lamented frequently about the team's inconsistent ball movement the past two seasons, an exercise that opens up conflicting details on whether Bryant's shooting mentality disrupts team chemistry or if Gasol is simply not being aggressive enough. Lately, it's been the latter approach. And Gasol's willingness to show more aggression won't necessarily transform him from a finesse player into a physical specimen, but the results speak for themselves when he's fighting harder to create open looks and not shy away from contact. In the past four games, Gasol has averaged 24 points on 63.7% shooting.
The Lakers appear more collectively involved Don't mistake this for believing Bryant's 41 points against Boston wasn't warranted. With everyone else playing so passively, Bryant had no other choice. But it's indisputable that the Lakers are a better team when Bryant doesn't have to assume all of the responsibility. In the past four games, Bryant's averaged 24.7 points, eight assists and 6.2 rebounds. He has more reason to create a more balanced offensive attack with everyone else elevating their play. In addition to Gasol's aggressiveness, there's been Lamar Odom's usual consistency (15 points, 10.5 rebounds), improved offensive movement and shooting from Artest (at least 50% in the past three games).
The Lakers displayed that team effort in various facets.
The 114-106 overtime victory last week over the Houston Rockets showcased an extra regulation session that involved clutch shots from Bryant and Gasol while Odom directed the offense. In their 101-95 victory Saturday over the New Orleans Hornets, Gasol and Bryant complemented each other with 34 and 32 points, respectively, Odom made a crucial putback for a five-point lead with less than three minutes remaining and Artest's three blocks and three steals and Derek Fisher's two steals and numerous charges helped spark energy on the other end. And the Lakers' 93-84 victory Monday over the Memphis Grizzlies showcased a resurgence on defense in which they held the Grizzlies to 16 second-quarter points and only three field goals in the final 5:46 of the fourth quarter.
The Lakers have had their lapses They exemplified this poor pattern perfectly in the team's 89-88 loss last Thursday to the Spurs. In that game, they allowed the Spurs to get three consecutive offensive rebounds on the final possession, which ended with San Antonio forward Antonio McDyess boxing out Odom for the game-winning putback off Tim Duncan's missed shot. Even though some of the other Lakers' mistakes didn't cost them wins, there were plenty of areas that made L.A.'s three victories more difficult than necessary. The Lakers could've avoided overtime against Houston if not for the team's front line leaving Luis Scola unmarked for an easy basket with 1:56 to play and if not for Bryant missing two consecutive jumpers to close the game despite Odom waving his hands while wide open at the top of the key. The Lakers didn't exactly play model defense against New Orleans, allowing the Hornets to go nine of 21 from three-point range, or shoot well from the outside, including a two-of-10 combined clip from Artest, Fisher and Steve Blake. And the Lakers made things unnecessarily close with Memphis because of poor ball handling (14 turnovers resulted in the Grizzlies scoring 15 points in transition) and poor free-throw shooting (21 of 35; 60%). Despite any areas of progress, mistakes similar to the ones described above won't cut it against the Celtics.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has his driving layup challenged by Celtics big men Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins during the 109-96 loss Jan. 31 to Boston at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers power forward Pau Gasol fouls Celtics guard Ray Allen as he drives the baseline during the loss to the Celtics. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers forward Ron Artest tries to catch his balance while center Andrew Bynum attempts to grab an offensive rebound versus Boston last month. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times