Lakers 'trust issues' will make it too hard to overcome Dallas
Their heads remained down because the team's 93-81 Game 2 loss Wednesday to the Dallas Mavericks put them in a dicey reality. Only three times in NBA history has a team won a seven-game series after losing the first two home games and only 14 times out of 238 seven-game series in NBA history has a team overcome a 2-0 deficit, something Lakers Coach Phil Jackson conceded is a "challenge." Their teeth remained clenched because the Lakers' frustration pointed to numerous long-rooted problems, such as a lacking inside game, Kobe Bryant's high volume of shots, Ron Artest's inconsistency, the bench's horrific play, the team's horrible defense and poor free-throw shooting, providing them a big list to correct. And their ears perked because the boos from the 18,997 fans at Staples Center remained loud throughout the game.
The Lakers' public unraveling took place in what could be their last game of the season at Staples Center and certainly their last playoff series of the season. There's plenty of lasting images to sum up the Lakers' demise. Artest clotheslined Dallas guard Jose Barea with 25 seconds remaining in the game, an act condemned by Jackson, an act that will likely draw a suspension for Game 3 on Friday and an act that looked uglier than both Artest's shot selection (four of 10) and his pushing on Dirk Nowitzki. Lakers forward Pau Gasol looked equally horrified, upset and emotional after Nowitzki threw the dagger with three-point play on a fadeaway jumper and foul that put the Mavericks up 85-73 with 2:51 left, a sequence so ugly that most of the Lakers fans at Staples Center then headed for the exits. And then in the locker room, Lakers center Andrew Bynum argued that the team has "trust issues," a reason why the Lakers won't be able to overcome their current adversity.
"It's obvious we have trust issues," Bynum said after becoming the only Laker to shoot above 50% with 18 points on eight-of-11 shooting and arguing the problem has been season-wide. "We have to come out and discuss them or things won't change."
Bynum, to his own admission, also put himself at fault, grading his performance a 'D' because of his poor effort on defensive rotations. He also expressed the optimism the Lakers will sort out these issues beginning with Friday's practice. And Lakers co-captains Derek Fisher and Bryant put on a calm public face, with Fisher insisting with an adamant "No" when asked if there are trust issues and Bryant believing "the trust [Bynum's] referring to is being able to help each other on the defensive end of the floor."
But despite all the championship experience, Bryant and Fisher have with five rings apiece, their plead for patience and calm has done little in striking a nerve in this team. Despite Lakers Coach Phil Jackson's insistence that the team act more "light-hearted," the only light-heartedness has come in the team's actual play. I'll immediately admit I'm wrong if the Lakers prove me otherwise, but they have given me no reason to believe they'll beat the Dallas Mavericks beyond their past accomplishments.
That proves to be the sobering reality, with Fisher admitting "we're making too many mistakes for this time of year." The Lakers have finally met their match in a team that has assembled enough size to neutralize the Lakers' inside presence, talent to make any Bryant scoring spree a non-threat and a deep bench that only exposes the Lakers' poor play by its reserves. Forget blaming this on complacency. The Lakers are well past that stage and simply aren't executing correctly on offense and defense. Forget invoking the Lakers-Boston series where they overcame a 3-2 deficit in the 2010 NBA Finals. That was a chess match as both teams were fighting tooth and nail for supremacy. This series shows the Lakers feeling overwhelmed. And forget invoking the Lakers would be tied 1-1 had Bryant made his three-point shot at the buzzer of Game 1. If I'm wrong about the Lakers being eliminated in the West semifinals, it's only a matter of time before the Lakers experience that fate. The Lakers have too many issues to fix, not enough time to correct them and only have themselves to blame for being in such a scenario.
"We've kept playing with fire for the last three years and dropping games on our home floor," Bryant said. "Now we finally got what we deserve." He then added, "This has to spark some energy or motivation to go up there and play, especially now. Everybody, I'm sure is against us, we're done and we're over and finished with. If you can't find motivation in that, then you shouldn't be playing."
"It's unfamiliar and not a great place to be," said Fisher, who scored four points on two of seven shooting. "We have a big uphill climb to make from here, but the opportunity is still there. We have to clean up a lot of things and get a lot better in 48 hours and give ourselves a chance to win that game on Friday night and see what happens then."
Following are a few areas from the Lakers' Game 2 loss to explain why even an uptick in play or a Game 3 victory won't be enough to win the series.
Even through any Lakers lapse this season, they coasted to a 17-1 mark following the All-Star break by adhering to these concepts: funneling drivers to the lane so that the Lakers could depend on their size to stop them. But the Lakers rarely played any semblance of defense in Game 2.
"We feel the defense was the problem out there tonight," Jackson said.
Their matchup strategy with Nowitzki proved to be awful once again as he scored 24 points on nine-of-16 shooting. The sliver of space Gasol and Lamar Odom gave on Nowitzki still resulted in fall-away jumpers. Gasol's fatigue seemed to wear on him as he struggled to stay with him. And Artest's constant pushing on Nowitzki late in the second quarter proved counterproductive.
But the Lakers' defense proves more deeply rooted than just stopping Nowitzki, a task that frankly prove to be impossible in this series. The Lakers' defense appeared more egregious on their pick-and-roll sequences, which Bryant described as "atrocious." Dallas' swing passes around the perimeter threw the Lakers' rotations off balance, resulting in the Mavericks' eight-of-25 shooting mark from three-point range. And Gasol's failure to close out in the lane mostly resulted in Shawn Marion scoring 14 points on five-of-10 shooting and Jose Barea finishing with 12 points on a four of nine clip. Soon enough, plenty of body language revealed that the Lakers didn't want to help out on rotations because of previously missed assignments.
"We need to be more communicative of the things that are happening defensively," Gasol said. We have to be confident, support each other and have a positive mindset out there."
Gasol's disappearing act
He can't blame the team for not getting him the ball this time around after he finished with 13 points on five-of-12 shooting. On one possession, Bryant fed Gasol the ball in the post twice before he settled for a pull-up jumper. Though Gasol made that shot, the sequence epitomized Gasol's passivity. With exception to one drive toward the lane past Nowitzki, Gasol mostly settled for outside jumpers, making the teammates high-five Gasol after nailing one. It's a rather strange sequence to be providing such positive reinforcement for a four-time All-Star, but even his post-game comments touting the Lakers resiliency sounded forced and insecure.
"I wish I could've been more productive," Gasol said. "I wish I could've been more effective. I had some good looks and plays I should've finished better, but I tried my best."
Gasol's playoff funk isn't an anomaly. Him settling for an outside jumper after Nowitzki pushed off of him in the third quarter, Gasol's visible frustration with officials tacking him for five fouls and his annoyance when Nowitzki nailed jumpers over him illustrates a postseason wide struggle where he's dealt with fatigue, aggressive and focus issues. His 13.5 points a game average on 41.8% shooting against New Orleans and his 14 points on 45.5% shooting against Dallas marks a huge dropoff from his regular-season average of 18.8 points on 52.9% shooting. The results are fairly obvious. But the reasons aren't so clear.
"There's some things that obviously didn't look good for Pau," Jackson said. "But he worked and was one of the kids who looked tired out there."
Teammates aren't giving Bynum enough looks
Despite being the only player who shot above 50%, the Lakers stubbornly didn't feed Bynum enough inside. In fact, three of his eight field goals came on offensive putbacks from teammates' misses, a good reason why Bynum should be frustrated. As much as Dallas' defense is swarming the paint, the Lakers weren't patient enough with finding better shots, including finding ones inside.
Interestingly enough, the Lakers proved remarkably patient with trying to increase Gasol's confidence while he struggled from the field. Yet, they proved remarkably stubborn in feeding Bynum when he had the hot hand. The Lakers' concept for having two seven-footers entails being able to rely on one when the other isn't playing well. As much as the Lakers want to boost Gasol's confidence, the coddling needs to end and Gasol simply needs to improve individually. Even if Bynum had a poor night on defense, he should be rewarded for being incredibly efficient in the post.
"We gave up a little too early and started chucking up shots," Bynum said. "We need to do our double teams from somewhere else on the court and move the ball."
Bryant can't carry the team on his own, nor should he expected to be. Each jab step, pump fake, pull-up jumper and fadeaway served a purpose in Bryant's half-hour pregame routine at 4:30 p.m. His workout solely consisted of mid-range jumpers that nowhere matched to game speed, a clear sign that Bryant was building rhythm where he'd be needed the most considering his sprained left ankle. But the approach still speaks to Bryant finding the way to ensure maximum effectiveness.
Considering the sensitivity regarding his ankle, however, the team's success can't hinge on his shooting. Surely, Bryant's presence still remains a threat. But the Lakers aren't going to win games when he feels inclinced to produce mostly on his own. In his 23-point performance on nine-of-20 shooting in Game 2, the large percentage of his shots were warranted even if he ended the first half missing the last three shots.
With Bryant's attempt to involve Gasol clearly not working and his surrounding teammates outside of Bynum offering very little, the Black Mamba had very little choice but to hope his shooting heroics might at least enable the Lakers to grind out a victory. Dallas has heeded RIck Carlisle's advice in not getting "discouraged" when Bryant goes on a shooting streak, knowing his supporting cast will need to produce. Surely, this strategy actually could've ensured a Game 1 victory had he nailed the game-winner, but the approach isn't sustainable.
"You can't just dump the ball off to [Pau] or me," Bryant said. "You expect us to be double or triple teamed all night, but at the same time we have to be aggressive and make shots when we have those opportunities. It's always a combination of the two."
The bench has offered very little. The most vivid example of the Lakers' trust issues involves the fact that Odom and Gasol began shutting them out of the offense late in the game, knowing Matt Barnes and Steve Blakes' combined shooting clip proved beyond horrendous (zero of seven). The Lakers' mistrust also points to Jackson's decision to end their rotation with 8:15 remaining in the fourth quarter, with the Lakers nursing a 75-67 deficit. The Lakers surely could've pulled the plug sooner with the bench's nine missed three-point field goals highlight contributing to the Lakers' two-of-20 mark from three-point range.
"We have to get to the ball to our strengths. We have to move it and understand where the mismatch is at," Odom said. "But we're going to take shots. We're stubborn. We're the defending champs so we're stubborn.We got to take shots that are there. I don't think anyone is forcing it."
Odom's justification that they're simply just taking open shots proves unfounded. They can't simply shoot themselves out of a slump during a playoff game. Many of those shots came either late in the shot clock or showed an impatience in finding a more high percentage shot. That's only fueled the mistrust between starters and reserves, as well as the big men and backcourt.
Artest's absence will create a trickle effect. Considering Artest actually proved to be the most consistent player in the first round of the playoffs, averaging 11.8 points on 50% shooting, I'm surprised his numbers have dropped in the past two games to 6.5 points on 27.8% shooting. So the Lakers aren't going to miss his presence much, considering he lacked consistent rhythm in Game 2 and made bone-headed plays on defense when guarding Nowitzki. But his likely suspension will create a trickle effect where Barnes and Luke Walton will log more minutes. Barnes used to be reliable, but his return to the lineup in March after a two-month rehab on his surgically repaired right knee has made him a more tentative and inconsistent presence. Walton, meanwhile, hasn't played a single minute in the playoffs. While he may provide more fluidity to the second unit in terms of passing, his 32.8% mark from the field isn't going to do much to jumpstart the offense.
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Photos:(First) Lakers power forward Pau Gasol beats Dallas center Tyson Chandler to a loose ball during Game 2 on Wednesday night at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times. (Second) Lakers forward Lamar Odom applies defensive pressure to Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki in the first half of Game 2 on Wednesday night at Staples Center. Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times. (Third) Lakers power forward Pau Gasol reacts after he was called for a foul on Dallas power forward Dirk Nowitzki during Game 2 on Wednesday night at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / May 4, 2011. (Fourth) Lakers center Andrew Bynum elevates to score over Dallas center Tyson Chandler in Game 2 on Wednesday night at Staples Center. Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / May 4, 2011. (Fifth) Lakers guard Kobe Bryant checks the scoreboard late in the 93-81 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in Game 2 on Wednesday night at Staples Center. Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / May 4, 2011