Lakers' four-game losing streak features a few trends
Only a week ago, the Lakers appeared nearly invincible. They rattled off victory after victory. Andrew Bynum grabbed rebound after rebound. Ron Artest seemed more engaged. And Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom continued playing at a consistent rate, an ingredient surely needed once the postseason starts.
But that was last week. Since then, the Lakers have lost four consecutive games and have left fans scratching their heads how they could go from looking brilliant to overwhelmingly bad. The Lakers have a secure spot in the postseason, but that's not the barometer to measure the defending champions.
With the magnitude of trying to three-peat and appear in four consecutive NBA Finals, it's fair to question why the Lakers' effort has fallen so steeply, especially considering that the games significantly affect the playoff landscape. The Lakers (55-24) now have no chance to overtake San Antonio (60-19) for the top spot in the West and can't eclipse Eastern Conference leader Chicago (59-20). They are tied with the Boston Celtics (55-24) and Miami Heat (55-24), having the tie-breaker over the Celtics, while the Heat have the advantage over the Lakers.
They also have slim one-game and two-game leads, respectively, over the Dallas Mavericks (54-25) and Oklahoma City Thunder (53-26), meaning it's conceivable the Lakers could drop to a fourth seed if they don't get their act together.
The Lakers presumably would take that step in their remaining games Sunday against the Thunder, Tuesday against the Spurs and Wednesday against the Sacramento Kings. But many thought they already would have righted the ship after losing a few games. Below the jump are a few variables on what the Lakers can begin to fix.
Turnovers: When Lakers guard Kobe Bryant examined the team's 25 remaining games following the All-Star break, the main variable Bryant found that would determine the team's development would involve "minimizing mistakes." That area mostly points to turnovers, a statistic that reflects a team's mishandling of the ball, stagnant ball movement, over-dribbling and carelessness in recognizing the opposing team's defensive tendencies.
The Lakers' 17-1 mark after the All-Star break marked a 13-game stretch in which they committed fewer turnovers than their opponent, the team's longest streak since the NBA began officially tracking turnovers in 1970 and the longest by any NBA team since Cleveland had fewer turnovers than its opponent in 13 consecutive games in the 2008-09 season. But the Lakers have committed 73 turnovers in the past four games, an average of 18.25 per contest.
Poor shooting: The Lakers have shot 134 of 329 (40.7%) from the field and 24 of 72 from three-point range (33.3%) in those four games, but the latter statistic is a tad misleading because the Lakers shot 40% from three-point range against Portland. In the three losses to Denver, Utah and Golden State, the Lakers went four of 18, four of 20 and five of 19, respectively.
This is an obvious sign pointing to poor ball movement. The Lakers, with the exception of the first month of the season, haven't been a strong three-point shooting team, so there should be no reason why they'd be firing so many shots from the perimeter. You can point at Bryant, who has shot a combined 36 of 80, though his latter two performances featured a 50% clip against Golden State and come-from-behind efforts in the fourth quarter against the Warriors and in the second quarter against Portland.
Instead of boasting a talented team that can feature numerous offensive options, the Lakers instead have taken turns in certain players having bad shooting stretches. That includes Lakers forward Luke Walton going zero of four against Utah, Ron Artest shooting a combined five of 21 against Golden State and Portland, Derek Fisher shooting two of nine against Golden State, Steve Blake going zero of five against Golden State, Shannon Brown shooting a combined four of 16 against Golden State and Portland, and Pau Gasol going four of 11 against Portland. All of these players except for Gasol shoot perimeter shots, meaning this is further evidence that the Lakers are settling for long-range shots instead of working the ball inside.
The poor shooting has also extended to the free-throw line. For how poorly the Lakers played in all four games, the Lakers could’ve beaten the Jazz had Fisher gone better than zero of three from the line. As efficient as Gasol and Bynum were in the post against Golden State, shooting a combined 12 of 16 from the field, they combined for a seven of 15 mark from the free-throw line. And even though the Lakers still would’ve trailed, it would’ve been nice had Bryant shot better than zero of three from the stripe in the Lakers’ loss to Portland.
Late-game miscues: The Lakers could’ve secured victories against Denver and Utah at least if not for late-game miscues. Against Denver, Odom failed to box out and allowed Kenyon Martin to score a putback on a missed free throw; that bucket secured a 95-90 victory. Had Odom grabbed the rebound, the Lakers would’ve had a chance to tie the game and force overtime. Against Utah, Bryant had the ball in his hands on the final possession. He appeared ready to hit the game-winner, but the ball slipped out of his hands.
Unreliable bench: The reserves were outscored only by Utah, but the unit continues to look uncomfortable. Brown shot a combined six of 22, Blake was scoreless in two of the games and Odom shot below 50% in all four contests. Come playoff time, the reserves -- with exception to Odom -- won’t play as much. But these remaining regular-season games should be a grand opportunity to give the starters rest.
-- Mark Medina
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Top photo: Kobe Bryant attempts a left-handed layup against the challenge of the Blazers' LaMarcus Aldridge in the fourth quarter Friday night in Portland. Credit: Steve Dykes / EPA /
Second photo: Kobe Bryant brings the ball upcourt against the pressure defense of Blazers guard Wesley Matthews in the first half Friday night in Portland. Credit: Rick Bowmer / Associated Press