One step forward, one step back.
That's basically been the pattern for the Lakers over the second half of the season. So stands to reason they'd follow a strong effort Friday against a hot Utah team with a clunker Sunday afternoon at Staples. Final score, 100-81. It was bad enough fans- those precious few staying until the final buzzer, that is- rained boos down on the team. And why not? They gave away a healthy portion of their Easter Sundays to watch the Lakers lay an egg (and not of the delightfully decorated variety- hi-yo!).
Someone probably lost out on ham. Ham!
The fans weren't the only ones irritated by the game, either. When it was over, the so disturbed were the basketball gods they decided to unleash an earthquake on southern California. It wasn't a coincidence, but a warning: Keep this up, and we'll open up the ground underneath the arena and swallow the team whole.
(As a side note, we could really feel the thing in the locker room. Serious swaying.)
Worse, the way the Lakers went down was formulaic nearly to the point of cliche, an almost perfect reflection of season long struggles, including:
* Terrible outside shooting.
* A total lack of bench production.
* A sputtering offense too often working in isolation rather than utilizing crisp ball movement.
* Inconsistent defense against the pick and roll.
Am I forgetting anything?
The jockeying for the Western Conference seeds 6-8 remains a tight race between the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs. Whichever team finishes last among the three will almost certainly face the Lakers, and none represent a walk through the daisies for the defending champs. Particularly when you consider the Lakers are hardly playing their best roundball at the moment.
Brian and I recently conducted a poll of local media brethren asking who the Lakers should face in mid-April, given their druthers. Before the results arrived, we figured San Antonio would be the consensus "ideal." Conventional wisdom, should you subscribe to it, says a combination of depleted roster (most notably Tony Parker, shelved with a hand injury) and age (most notably a still-effective-but-not-the-same Tim Duncan) makes San Antonio vulnerable. Yes, they still have the dynamic Manu Ginobili and a lot of veteran smarts, but their overall punch isn't potent enough to make shutting them down as comparatively difficult.
Well, Brian and I apparently have no second career as soothsayers. San Antonio was voted the least desirable foe in a landslide, taking top honors from eight of the fifteen writers we asked. With 8:39 remaining in the game, a case was presented the majority opinion should indeed rule.
Down eight to kick things off, the Lakers spent the early portion of the frame quarter slowly creating momentum. Luke Walton quickly got the party started with a long alley-oop pass to Jordan Farmar for layup. A little more than two minutes later, Pau Gasol's putback dunk of a missed jumper by Kobe got them within an old-fashioned bucket (71-69), and it appeared the Lakers were en route to giving their fans a festive Easter holiday.
'Fraid not. The Spurs, now even more shorthanded after Parker's replacement (George Hill) sprained his ankle during the second quarter, not only went to work, but their roll was fueled by two stars some doubt could carry a team over seven games. Over the next six minutes and thirty-six seconds, San Antonio busted a 21-8 run, with every single bucket either scored or assisted by Ginobili or Duncan.
Even more daunting, some shots felt like deja vu all over again, reminiscent of a time when the Spurs were a perennial contender.
Ginobili made good on a prayer attempt heaved while falling on his butt, the type of forced, impossible shot Manu is known to somehow convert. The Argentinian drained a trey to start the rally, hit another trey down the stretch and got to the line twice, shades of what we've come to refer to as "vintage Manu." (Lakers fans don't enjoy "vintage Manu.")
And speaking of vintage, Duncan suddenly looked like he entered the hot tub time machine. But instead of 1986, he landed somewhere between 1999 and 2007, when he was at the height of his title-winning powers. In particular, I was impressed by a pair of very difficult step-through sequences, one a reverse move and the other scoop shot. In both cases, the baskets came against some pretty solid defense by Pau. It was just that kind of afternoon for Timmy.
It should be noted, my one reservation in choosing San Antonio as the relatively easiest pickings was it being "easy to picture an erratically disciplined Lakers falling prey to a Spurs team smart enough to recognize mistakes and capitalize." Well, at least I got that part right. The Lakers often played dumb, and San Antonio's wisdom took them a long way.
Don't get me wrong. I still think the Lakers would win a seven-game series against San Antonio, should the draw shake out as such. But unlike the past two years, the Lakers aren't entering the postseason on a high note, and all three potential opponents, in my opinion, represent tougher first round competition than the 2008 Nuggets and 2009 Jazz. San Antonio didn't do anything tonight to make think "upset," but the ability to push a six or even seven-game series seems perfectly believable.
Given the playoffs' taxing nature, it's not just about winning a series. It's about wrapping them up as quickly as possible. That aspect of the overall goal is looking less and less doable by the game.
PHIL JACKSON COULD HAVE TO BUST OUT HIS CHECKBOOK
Looking at the final box, it appears Manu Ginobili had his way with the Lakers all afternoon. 32 points, including 11 trips to the line, plus five dimes and five rebounds. But early, the Lakers did a pretty decent job bottling him up forcing five turnovers from the Argentinian. Things changed with 59 seconds remaining in the half, when Ginobili and Ron Artest were jostling for position as the Spurs tried to inbound the ball after a Derek Fisher foul. There was pushing, there was shoving... there were double-technicals assessed. Artest was obviously upset, and compounded the problem by putting a body Manu after the ensuing the inbound, drawing a whistle only seconds after play re-started.
It was a pretty ticky-tack call, I thought, and set off a chain reaction. Kobe picked up a T of his own, trying to defend Artest. It was a three-point swing for the Spurs (one on the T, two more because Artest's personal put them in the bonus), and also seemed to change the tenor of the game. Manu hit his freebies, then stole the ball from Kobe as 24 tried to penetrate, finishing with a dunk at the other end, and assisted on a Keith Bogans triple before the end of the half.
Add in his 18 second half points, and Manu scored 23 of his 32 points over the final 25 minutes. Jackson said the sequence impacted the remainder of the game. "They just wouldn't let Ron play the way he played prior to that. He could hook Ron, and (Ron) didn't realize what was going on [in terms of recognizing how the game was being called] and ended up getting too many fouls on him. I thought the first half, we forced (Ginobili) into five turnovers, we did some things that were pretty good, but the way we ended up the half it turned the referees against us. When you do that, that's an unfortunate thing," he said. "Ron didn't back off, he didn't read that official well enough to know you've got to back off, you've got to let him alone, he's not going to take any more of that. Ginobili forced the issues and got the calls."
He seemed even more confused about the technical on Kobe. "I don't know. You never know with a referee. You go over and to to him, and he may not have wanted anyone to talk to him at that point. It didn't look like Kobe berated him at all, but you guys probably had a better television view than I had at that end of the court," he said. "Maybe you guys know more than I do. What happened? It didn't look like he was berating him or anything."
"But with (referee) Bennett (Salvatore) you don't know what you're going to get."
And with that, Jackson likely made himself a little less rich. Calling an official out by name is a risky proposition (at least for those not making $12 million a year). I'd be surprised if a fine didn't come down from the league office.
Jackson was criticizing his own guys, too, but the message at the officials was pretty clear, too.
33%: Shooting percentage of Lakers of non-Spanish lineage. The carnage was widespread. Kobe was eight-for-24, the bench a combined two-for-15, Ron Artest two-for-nine from beyond the arc, part of a five-for-21 effort overall from three-point land. The Lakers were made into a jump shooting team today, and while I'd love to say the results were an aberration, I'm not allowed to lie on major holidays.
13-49 (26.5%): Kobe's shooting mark from the floor over L.A.'s last two games.
2: The number of offensive rebounds snared by the Lakers through the 6:30 mark of the third quarter, despite piling up 28 misses from the floor. The Lakers came into the game a top 10 team in offensive rebound rate, grabbing 27.43 percent of their misses, a far cry from the seven percent they managed to that point. Jackson saw it as a function of offensive execution. "It's how you run your offense. A lot of today was standing around and getting shots in isolation and there are not a whole lot of second chance opportunities from that. Some of the rhythm shots are opportunities, but we didn't make them, we did not make the opportunities for ourselves."
6:30: Playing time for Sasha Vujacic, much of it coming in the first half. It's not a ton of burn, but it looks like Sasha has officially been brought back from exile.
Phil Jackson on the loss of momentum and the bench play
Phil Jackson, on the lack of offensive rebounding and shooting
Luke Walton, on the loss, the second unit and his return to action
Pau Gasol, on the Spurs and the Lakers' goals heading into the playoffs
Pau Gasol, on the bench and his scoring during the game