Lakers lack proper energy and execution in 95-90 loss to Denver Nuggets
Making his way toward the player's lounge, Lakers forward Lamar Odom stopped in midstep.
The images of Kenyon Martin's put-back of a missed free throw over Odom with 11 seconds left that cemented the Lakers' 95-90 loss Sunday to the Denver Nuggets couldn't escape him.
"Second time this year, right?" Odom said in disbelief. "What the ..."
This nightmare happened exactly two months ago when the San Antonio Spurs secured a one-point victory after forward Antonio McDyess boxed out Odom and tipped in Tim Duncan's missed 11-foot, fadeaway jumper before time expired. Even if the sequences seemed similar, Odom reacted differently. Following the Lakers' loss to San Antonio, Odom bounced the basketball once, held onto it and appeared in a reflective state of mind. Once the Lakers' loss to Denver became official, Odom punched the ball from one end of the court to the other, the ball hitting off a camera posted on top of the basket.
"I was so mad at myself because the same thing happened against San Antonio and we lost the game like that," said Odom, who blamed the miscue by failing to communicate with Ron Artest on boxing Martin out. "It was anyone's game to take and that's why they took the game."
Those images will stick with Lakers fans, particularly should they fall short in surpassing San Antonio in the Western Conference standings. The Lakers' loss to Denver makes that a stronger possibility, considering it drops the Lakers (55-21) to a 2 1/2-game deficit to the Spurs (58-19) and decreases the lead for second place over Dallas (53-23) to two games with six contests remaining. But team co-captains Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher kept an even keel, correctly pointing out that the Lakers' play and development boasts more importance than how they match up in the standings. The Lakers very well might not be having this conversation and instead could focus on their dominant performances since the All-Star break had Martin been called for a foul on his put-back, a play Lakers Coach Phil Jackson argued was a foul and Bryant said was a "no-call."
Odom will be the first to point out focusing solely on that play proves to be a fruitless exercise. Instead the Lakers' 17-1 start since the All-Star break and nine-game winning streak came to a halt because their inconsistent energy and execution set up the Lakers to be vulnerable to such late-game situations. On a day Jackson and Bryant equally lamented Tex Winter's prolonged induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and credited his willingness to offer honest critiques, the Lakers didn't exactly play the brand of basketball Winter envisioned as a key architect of the triangle offense.
"He would've had a few choice words for all of us," Bryant said of the team's performance, including his 28-point effort on 10-of-27 shooting. "To say the least."
Winter could've gone down the list. The Lakers shot 42.9% from the field and survived the poor shooting woes simply because Denver barely shot better (43.9%). Even so, the Lakers didn't adjust well to the Nuggets in the post-Carmelo Anthony era to both new personnel (Danilo Gallinari scored 22 points on seven-of-13 shooting and Raymond Felton scored 16 points after a zero-of-six start) and a familiar face (Kenyon Martin had 18 points and eight rebounds). Pau Gasol's 16 points on seven-of-10 shooting and 12 rebounds remains a misleading statline considering his tendency to settle on mid-range jumpers and his four turnovers, including two on consecutive possessions late in the fourth quarter, a lapse Gasol blamed on his own carelessness and the Nuggets reaching in.
If that wasn't enough, Gasol plans to get an MRI exam Monday after landing awkwardly when Nene fouled him on a hard challenge with 9:17 remaining in the third quarter, which prompted Gasol to go to the locker room for treatment. "It was just a little sore because he jammed my [right] knee pretty good," Gasol said. Bynum's eight points on four of seven shooting could've been better had the Lakers passed the ball more and he showed more aggressiveness, clouding a solid defensive effort that consisted of 16 rebounds and three blocked shots. Odom should've been credited for his 13-point performance on five-of-10 shooting in the second half, but it's overshadowed by his four points on two-of-seven shooting in the first half and, of course, Martin's put-back.
"I told the team that we beat ourselves," said Jackson, before crediting Denver's aggressiveness.
That play was just one of many that didn't go right for the Lakers late in the game. It would've been nice had Bynum played more than 4:45 in the fourth quarter, but he said afterward he stayed out for precautionary reasons after tweaking his right knee following a collision with Odom. He also revealed he "didn't have any nutrients in his body and that I felt kind of weak," but he didn't elaborate any further. Still, the Lakers' loss goes beyond that. "Turnovers," Bryant summed up. Surely, the Lakers' 20 turnovers served as a stark contrast to the nine they averaged during their 17-1 run following the All-Star break. Gasol committed two of them on consecutive possessions. But it still goes deeper.
After the Lakers called timeout with 3:23 remaining, the team suddenly showed the intensity it lacked for most of the game. But inconsistent stretches in the fourth quarter made them vulnerable. Two consecutive misses from Fisher and Odom, Martin's put-back, Bryant's drive for a dunk, Artest's steal, the Lakers' three consecutive missed field goals, Bryant's steal, Gasol's put-back off Bryant's miss, Artest holding Gallinari to a shot-clock violation, Bryant's missed jumper that hit the side of the basket, Odom's three-pointer and Martin's put-back over Odom all reflected the Lakers' inconsistency.
Had the energy been there at the beginning of the game, those late-game plays wouldn't have been an issue. Instead, the Lakers fell to 4-4 during Sunday afternoon games, with Jackson believing his players don't properly prepare for themselves, Bryant expressing uncertainty and Shannon Brown believing the issue is overblown. There's no use in overblowing this loss, either. The Lakers are 17-2 since the All-Star break, after all. But the loss provides a tangible reminder that sustaining excellence requires the same methodical preparation and focus that's been mostly present since the All-Star break.
Said Odom: "It's time to start another streak."
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Photos: (Top) Lakers forward Lamar Odom goes for a steal against Nuggets guard Raymond Felton, who got into trouble against the double-team defense of Odom and point guard Derek Fisher. (Bottom) Lakers guard Kobe Bryant tries to beat the engulfing defense of Nuggets power forward Kenyon Martin on a drive to the basket. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times