The Los Angeles Lakers' one-step-forward, two-steps-back season returned to reverse on Tuesday night, as Mike D'Antoni's squad followed Friday night's comfortable 2012-ending win over the Portland Trail Blazers by opening 2013 with a sluggish 103-99 loss to the visiting Philadelphia 76ers. Philly controlled the action nearly from tip, blitzing L.A. with a 12-1 first-quarter run built off point guard Jrue Holiday's penetration and hot perimeter shooting. For most of the game, the Sixers — especially the 22-year-old Holiday (26 points and 10 assists, with five leading to buckets at the rim, plus stellar defense) and third-year wing Evan Turner (22 points on 14 shots, 13 rebounds and five assists) — seemed fresher, sharper and more active, helping them gain a measure of revenge for the 13-point home loss they'd suffered at the Lakers' hands two weeks prior.
And so, after another night that saw him carry the offensive load while his teammates struggled to get anything going, it was again left to Lakers star Kobe Bryant to explain why his Lakers seemed lethargic and steps behind, not only on Tuesday, but in so many games this season. According to ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin, he did so briefly, in a matter-of-fact fashion, and by deploying an important expletive:
"Cause we're old as s---," said the 34-year-old Bryant when asked why a lack of energy has been a problem for the Lakers all season. "What do you want? We just got to figure out how to play when we don't have that energy. We got to change things up a little bit defensively. We got to figure out what we want to do offensively, figure out what we want to do on nights when we don't have those legs or have that energy." [...]
"You just saw an old damn team," Bryant continued. "I don't know how else to put it to you. We're just slow. You saw a team over there that was just younger and just had fresher legs and just played with more energy, and we were just stuck in the mud. I think individually we all have to figure out how to get ourselves ready each and every game to have a high level of energy. That's all that is."
The colorful comments echo remarks made by Bryant following the Lakers' loss last Wednesday to the Denver Nuggets, who ratcheted up the pace and hung 126 points on L.A. one night after the Lakers beat the New York Knicks in a Christmas Day showdown.
"Tonight it seemed like we were just a step slow, seemed like we were stuck in mud," Bryant said following the Nuggets loss, according to Dennis Georgatos of The Associated Press. "We played old. They played with a lot of energy, a lot of youth, got up and down. It just seemed we were in a lower gear."
For his part, the 34-year-old Bryant didn't appear to be in a lower gear on Tuesday, scoring a game-high 36 points on 14 for 29 shooting and grabbing six rebounds, including four on the offensive glass, in 42-plus minutes. Even Bryant, though, didn't seem to have his legs under him on his jumpers, shooting just 2 for 12 (16.7 percent) on shots taken further than 16 feet away from the basket; his teammates didn't fare much better, going just 7 for 29 (24.1 percent) on outside shots, according to Hoopdata's shot location statistics. To the extent the Lakers were "stuck in the mud" and showing their age, the lack of lift mitigating some good looks might've been the clearest indicator.
Interestingly enough, though, the sluggishness didn't bear out in a major advantage for Philly in transition or fast-break points; in fact, the Sixers scored just 0.73 points per transition possession on Tuesday, according to Synergy Sports Technology, and were outscored on the break by the Lakers 25-10. Instead, Doug Collins' team did the lion's share of its damage in the half-court, on isolation possessions (where the Sixers shot 8 for 11), on cuts to the basket (7 for 9) and on spot-up attempts (10 for 20, including 6 for 10 from 3-point range).
Time and again on Tuesday, Sixers ball-handlers (mostly Holiday and Turner) worked off the dribble against Lakers defenders whom they did not fear (mostly Steve Nash, Darius Morris and Bryant), beating them off the bounce to get into the teeth of the Laker defense and, once it was compromised, either went up with a shot, found a teammate who'd cut to the basket behind a sleeping L.A. off-ball help defender (Thaddeus Young got Pau Gasol a few times), tossed it to an open teammate for a clean look because the L.A. D's rotation was slow (this is how Lavoy Allen and Spencer Hawes combine to go 8 for 11 from midrange) or pressed to the rim to attack a big man whom they did not fear (mostly Dwight Howard and Jordan Hill). That last part, as we've noted, continues to be the concern for the Lakers — while Howard himself wasn't bad defensively on Tuesday, grabbing 10 defensive boards and blocking five shots, if A) teams are willing to continue to drive straight at him and B) he can't consistently protect the rim and cover up for the perimeter lapses sure to come with the Lakers' aged wing defenders, then offenses with quick guards — even unremarkable units like Philly's, which ranks 19th in offensive efficiency, according to NBA.com's stat tool — will continue to break the Lakers down in the half-court.
As SB Nation's Tom Ziller notes, though, the larger problem on Tuesday was Howard's offense, his on-again-off-again lack of lift and the fact that on a night where he was matched up primarily against the likes of Allen, Hawes and Kwame Brown, he managed just seven points on 1 for 7 shooting:
The Lakers just cannot survive games like this from Howard. L.A. is 1-3 when Dwight scores fewer than 10 points, 8-9 when he scores 10-19 points and 6-4 when he scores 20 or more. There's a pretty straightforward lesson here: the Lakers must get more from Howard on offense.
If they don't, that age issue will pop up in the playoffs when Kobe, Pau and Nash are asked to do too much on both ends because Howard can't score on Kendrick Perkins or Kosta Koufos or DeAndre Jordan.
On both ends of the floor, the Lakers expected their 27-year-old center to be able to use his previously dominant athleticism to propel an older side back to title contention, but through 31 games, there've been a surprising number of nights where the ongoing recovery from offseason back surgery has made Howard look like he's 37. If he doesn't gain more consistency in the level of athletic performance he's able to turn in as the season progresses, an L.A. team that's old as [expletive] could find itself [expletive] out of luck.
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