The Los Angeles Lakers' Jekyll and Hyde act continued apace over the weekend, with a Friday night blitzing (17 3-pointers, 54 percent shooting, a 28-and-20 performance by Dwight Howard and 122 points) of the Denver Nuggets giving way to a Sunday night stumble against an Orlando Magic team that entered Staples Center at 5-10, losers of three straight and five of its last seven. But in the two teams' first meeting following the four-team, 12-player offseason blockbuster that sent Howard from central Florida to Hollywood, the Magic hung with a Laker side that's experienced its share of turmoil this season, too, and pulled away with a 35-19 burst over the game's final seven minutes.
The loss drops the Lakers to 8-9, a below-.500 mark that seems stunning given both the collection of talent on hand and the statistical note that L.A.'s got a top-five offense and a top-10 defense in terms of points scored and allowed per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's stat tool. The win-loss-win-loss trading, the alternating progress and regression on display every night, has been somewhat understandable — after all, the team has had three different head coaches in the space of a month and has been without injured star point guard Steve Nash, expected to be the triggerman first for Mike Brown's new-look Princeton offense and now for the spread pick-and-roll system he ran under Mike D'Antoni for years in Phoenix, for all but 50 minutes this season. Still, explanations aside, this is hardly the way most figured the Lakers would look one-fifth of the way through the 2012-13 season.
As the losses mount — the Lakers would have to go 65-0 to fulfill Metta World Peace's preseason wish, which seems unlikely — patience is wearing thin, not only within the Lakers' fan base (which, as we've seen, can be pretty intense) but also within the ultra-competitive mind of L.A.'s top dog. From Joe McDonnell of FoxSports.com:
Kobe Bryant had seen enough.
Another humiliating loss to another bad team Sunday night had the Lakers co-captain ready to take on the whole team if his teammates don't start getting their games — and attitudes — together.
"I'll kick everybody's ass in this locker room if it doesn't happen," Bryant said after a 113-103 loss to the Orlando Magic at Staples Center. Yes, the 6-10 Orlando Magic. "It's the attitude you have to have. Metta is the same way. Dwight has it in him as well. Even though he smiles a lot, he cares a lot about this. Come hell or high water, this has to get done."
This seems to be the general consensus around the Lakers — all hands on deck, we're surrounded, wins need to be strung together like popcorn for a Christmas tree and whatever must transpire for those wins to start coming needs to happen, like, yesterday.
Lakers fans surely appreciate hearing those words from Bryant, but would probably much rather hear them from charity-averse center Howard (9 for 21 from the free-throw line against Orlando, including 7 for 14 during L.A.'s fourth-quarter collapse, a career-worst 46.5 percent on the season) or, even better, from out-of-sorts big man Pau Gasol (11 points on 4-for-11 shooting against the Magic, sadly stuffed at the rim by earthbound-and-down Orlando counterpart Glen Davis, playing the least productive basketball of his NBA life) than from a version of Kobe who's playing perhaps the most efficient ball of his career while serving as the Lakers' primary scorer and facilitator in Nash's absence.
In his postgame comments, Bryant discussed the 32-year-old Spaniard's need to restructure his offensive game to better fit into both the twin-towers lineups in which he finds himself with Howard and the uptempo spread screen-and-roll system D'Antoni favors. And when I say "discussed," I mean "spit some venom." More from McDonnell:
"Pau has to make some adjustments, obviously, to his game. He might not be posting up as much as he likes, but he just has to adjust.
"The reality is, I've adjusted. I've never run this many screen-and-rolls in my entire life. But I've worked on it. I've worked on handling the ball; worked on coming off screens and making plays. I'm used to being in the post much, much more. You have to adjust; you have to master what it is we're trying to do here. Pau's talented enough and good enough to be able to do that." [...]
"Put your big-boy pants on," Kobe said with a trace of disgust in his voice. "C'mon ... just adjust. You can't whine about it or complain about it. Heck, I'm 34 years old, and I'm running screen-and-rolls out there because Steve is out, and my ass is running up and down the court more than I ever have in my entire career. But you have to adjust to it."
The "big-boy pants" will get the most attention, but the larger points — that, for one thing, if Bryant can alter his game, sacrifice shots (while Kobe's still leading the league in field-goal attempts, he's taking about 3 1/2 fewer per 36 minutes than he did last year, and firing less frequently than he has since the 2004-05 season) and roll with the punches, then everyone must, and for another, Bryant knows a Lakers team for which Gasol is an average-at-best offensive performer who's halfhearted and half-speed on the defensive end is a Lakers team not destined to go very far in a competitive Western Conference — are the ones that actually matter. Whether Gasol will hear the message Bryant conveyed beneath the abrasive tone remains to be seen, but if he doesn't, and if he doesn't get up to par in a hurry, knee tendinitis or not, L.A.'s struggles seem poised to continue.
The other, larger issue, though? That's the same as it was under Brown — the defense. They might own the league's ninth-best defensive efficiency this morning, but the Lakers allowed the Magic to score at rate of 111.9 points per 100 possessions on Sunday night. On the season, Orlando has been one of the NBA's three most offensively challenged teams; on Sunday, it scored at a clip that would make the New York Knicks, Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder jealous.
This was especially true during a 40-point fourth quarter in which the Magic tandem of Davis and second-year center Nikola Vucevic regularly roasted the interior defense of Howard, Gasol and Antawn Jamison, hitting 8 of 10 shots and combining for 20 points and eight rebounds in the quarter. Things weren't much better on the perimeter, where the Lakers' guards could not handle the penetration and distribution of Jameer Nelson and J.J. Redick, who combined for 12 assists and zero turnovers in the final frame; in all, the Magic shot 14 for 21 from the floor in the fourth, and 13 of those buckets came off dimes. Orlando just destroyed L.A. in that final quarter, and it had less to do with missed free throws or pouting about post-ups than a total inability to even get in the way of the opposition.
Yes, more familiarity with D'Antoni's system should help. Yes, the return of Nash from injury (which we learned Sunday is still 10 days to two weeks away) will help the Lakers get closer to establishing a cohesive offensive identity, ease Bryant's responsibilities a bit and (probably) help make both Howard and Gasol more dangerous and versatile offensive weapons. And yes, any roster move that reads, "Replace Darius Morris and Chris Duhon with Steve Nash and Steve Blake" is a pretty good move that will likely add more than a few wins over the coure of an 82-game schedule. But none of that solves the defensive problem, and that's what should concern Lakers fans most right now.
With Nash a relative sieve on the ball defensively, Bryant a step slower and less equipped to handle speedy opponents than he was in the post, World Peace an all-world defender more in reputation than in fact at this point and players like Gasol and Jamison not near the top of anybody's list of defensive frontcourt stalwarts, the onus for shaping the Lakers into a defensive team capable of slowing opponents enough to outscore them was always going to fall in the lap of a recovering-from-back-surgery Howard; the plan was always for him to be able to protect the rim, dominate opposing post scorers, gobble up pick-and-rolls up top and recover in time to clean up everybody else's messes. Even with Howard clearly still not 100 percent, the plan has, at times, worked. But it also, more often than not, has not, as it didn't on Sunday night.
Promises of locker-room ass-kickings, fun though they are, don't deter perimeter penetration or keep opposing big men from establishing post position and attacking the glass. In the absence of an alternative plan, until Howard starts moving like he did two years ago, it — and the Lakers writ large — will probably continue to be as hit-or-miss a proposition as they've been thus far. On the plus side, that'll offer plenty of opportunities for neat postgame quotes like this; on the minus side, it'll probably mean that we're having very similar conversations about the Lakers this time next month, too.
Hat-tip to Marcel Mutoni at SLAM.
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