While the Los Angeles Lakers' offense has improved since Mike D'Antoni took over as coach, those strides seem to be coming at the cost of a defense which continues to struggle.
The Lakers are still searching for answers as they begin a four-game road trip Tuesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who hope Kyrie Irving's return will help them snap a five-game skid.
Los Angeles (9-12) has dropped two straight and four of five, and is 4-7 since D'Antoni took the reigns after Mike Brown was fired. Brown's termination was partially due to the Lakers' offensive struggles, which D'Antoni has seemingly helped. They're averaging 103.0 points with D'Antoni at the helm after putting up 97.8 per game under Brown.
The offense hasn't been the problem, though, as Los Angeles averaged 106.5 points in its last four losses. The Lakers allowed opponents to average 112.8 points and shoot 47.2 percent in those games.
Los Angeles limited opponents to 95.2 points per game under Brown but has given up at least 100 in seven of D'Antoni's 11 contests, including a 117-110 home loss to Utah on Sunday.
"I just don't think we've had a gut-check moment yet," D'Antoni said. "At some point we're going to draw a line in the sand and that's it, you have to fight. It seems like things happen on the court that get us down. Are there possessions we just throw away? Yeah. We have too many guys who will take a possession off."
Teams have especially exploited the Lakers' transition defense. Utah outscored them 19-4 on the fast break and they've been outscored 76-42 in transition over the last four games.
"Our half-court defense is OK, just giving up too many transition points," said Kobe Bryant, averaging a league-best 28.6 points.
The Cavaliers (4-17) will likely present a bigger challenge than initially expected, as Irving is expected to play after missing the last 11 games with a fractured finger. Without Irving and his team-leading 22.9 points per game, Cleveland lost nine times, the last four of which were also missed by second-leading scorer Dion Waiters (15.2 ppg).
Waiters is out because of a sprained left ankle and didn't practice Monday, but Irving's return should be a big boost for a team averaging 83.5 points over its last four.
"I think all the guys are looking forward to having Irving back out there because he does make most of our guys' job a lot easier because he creates so much for himself and for his teammates," coach Byron Scott said. "I'm sure the guys will be happy to have him back out there."
Cleveland got another scare in a 104-97 home loss to Detroit on Saturday. Anderson Varejao exited in the second quarter with a bruised left elbow, but X-rays were negative and he finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds while playing with the elbow wrapped.
Pau Gasol (knee) has missed the last four games for the Lakers, while Steve Nash has sat out 19 with a small fracture in his left leg. While D'Antoni said Nash is unlikely to return for the road trip, he would not speculate if Gasol could come back during this trek but said the 7-footer likely wouldn't play Monday.
Bryant scored 42 points in a 97-92 home win against the Cavaliers last season. Los Angeles, 2-6 on the road, has lost six of its last seven trips to Cleveland.