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Lakers inconsistent in closing out games

Kobe Bryant

Once the ball dropped into the net, Kobe Bryant wore a bored expression.

The Lakers' star surely has become used to nailing game-winners, so the one that secured a 94-92 victory Sunday over the Toronto Raptors  hardly would have excited him. But it also illustrated another example of a game-winning shot masking an otherwise horrific fourth quarter for the Lakers. 

As if they didn't face enough issues with Bryant's high-volume shooting, the frontcourt's inconsistency, the point guard woes and an unreliable bench, the Lakers (16-12) have provided a mixed bag in closing out games. They are 10-8 this season in games decided in the final period and rank 23rd overall in fourth-quarter points per game. Those are damning statistics considering the Lakers' veteran experience. 

Lakers Coach Mike Brown joked with his staff that the team's 3-3 trip could've been 5-1 or 1-5 because of the small margins of victory. The close games are traceable in part to the Lakers' flimsy foundation. But even with their limited roster, the Lakers could've provided more comfort in the standings had they simply executed better.

But based on how the team has played, the prospects of improved fourth-quarter execution remain dicey for a variety of reasons. 

1. Bryant's usage rate. This debate often falls into two categories -- Bryant's taking way too many shots, and his teammates' not doing enough to help him. But in the Lakers' losses to Denver on New Year's Day and last week in Philadelphia, Bryant almost single-handedly cost them the game because of his high-volume shooting. In both instances, Andrew Bynum's efficiency went untapped. In the last six games, Bryant has shot 14 for 47 (29.8%) in fourth quarters, 34 for 141 (24.1%) overall. 

Don't get it twisted. Bryant's league-leading average of 29.3 points per game has prevented the Lakers from falling into an even deeper hole.  But Bynum and Pau Gasol in most cases have proven to be viable (if too often unexplored) options. 

2. Hustle plays. Numerous examples highlight how the Lakers secured ugly wins simply through hustle plays -- Derek Fisher diving for a loose ball and Steve Blake hustling back to rattle Danilo Gallinari on an open layup, which secured the Lakers' 92-89 New Year's Eve win over Denver. Bynum's block on Al Jefferson secured a 90-87 win Jan. 11 at Utah. Fisher's game-winner and two fourth-quarter steals secured a 73-70 win Jan. 16 over Dallas. Metta World Peace's defense and late-game three-pointer cemented a 96-91 victory Jan. 25 over the Clippers. Gasol's block last week in Boston salvaged a win over the Celtics.

But these plays haven't happened consistently. Instead, the Lakers lost to Portland last month when they shot 0 for 11 from three-point range and provided little defense on Gerald Wallace and LaMarcus Aldridge, who combined for 59 points. The Lakers lost to the Clippers after conceding 17 offensive rebounds, and squandered a double-digit lead to Indiana after Gasol, Fisher, Bryant and Matt Barnes missed open shots. 

3. Coaching decisions. Brown earned an ejection last week against Utah after storming at the officials for not calling a foul on Earl Watson after he mauled Gasol to force a turnover. Utah then completed a 14-0 run. As many shots as the Lakers missed against Indiana, Brown didn't call a timeout to run a final play, leading to confusion. 

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--Mark Medina

E-mail the Lakers blog at mgmedin@gmail.com

Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant elevates for what proved to be the game-winning shot over Raptors forward James Johnson with 4.2 seconds left in the game Sunday at Toronto. Credit: Nathan Denette / Associated Press / February 12, 2012

 
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