Sunday, February 12, 2012
Rapid Reaction: Lakers 94, Raptors 92
By Andy Kamenetzky
The Lakers won, and if my job didn't dictate otherwise, I'd insist we never speak of this game again. But that's not the case, so I'll relive this nonsense, and force you good people to do the same.
Here are five takeaways from the game.
This game shouldn't have required a Kobe Bryant bailout. And for most of the game, it appeared that brand of hero ball wasn't even in the cards if the situation presented itself. Throughout most of the game, Kobe couldn't get himself going. During the first half, the iron appeared to be protesting his visit to Canada. (Never forget "81," I guess.) Kobe concluded the first quarter with just two points, and his afternoon largely remained as rough. In the beginning, shots he typically drains with ease -- "bunnies," as he often calls them -- just couldn't find the net's bottom. As the fourth quarter turned inexplicably tight, the shots he missed turned increasingly forced, the degree of difficulty high even by his standards. At one point, he missed six consecutive shots down the stretch, and didn't appear to be even mildly interested in moving the ball. He finished with 27 points on 9-for-23 shooting, and it honestly felt like more misses. Save a third-quarter flurry, Kobe looked as frustrated as most fans presumably felt watching him.
However, Bryant did finally find a way to make some magic when the team absolutely, positively, indisputably needed to have it. With 56 seconds remaining, a stand-still triple from the left wing dropped, cutting Toronto's lead down to one. He then stripped Linas Kleiza, then led the break to set up Metta World Peace for a layup. And after Jose Calderon drilled a 17-footer, Kobe stepped up with 4.2 seconds left to put the game away for good. After getting the sideline inbound from MWP, Bryant lost DeMar DeRozan, then hit a 17-footer along the baseline past James Johnson's extended arms.
The entire picture for Kobe wasn't pretty, but bottom line, he came up very big with a W literally on the line. I wouldn't necessarily recommend replicating the path, but for the purposes of today, it is what it is.
Pau Gasol played one half as Dr. Jekyll and the other as Mr. Hyde. In the opening 24 minutes, and in particular, the first 12, Gasol was easily the best player on the floor for either team. As a scorer, he was pulling out the stops, whether on catch-and-shoot jumpers between the circles, tipped offensive rebounds or trips to the line after losing his man on a baseline spin. He was also on point creating opportunities for others, with the offense often run through him. Andrew Bynum flushed home an alley-oop pass from Gasol, which was essentially a touch pass after getting fed by Derek Fisher in the lane. High-low action from Gasol in the midpost to Bynum at the rim earned the center two chances at the stripe. Looking out for the littles as well, Gasol held the ball over his head while directing Fisher into the corner, setting up a wide-open 18-footer. When intermission commenced, Gasol was sitting on a 12/6/4 line, with five shots drained in seven attempts.
But once the third quarter rolled around, Gasol looked like a completely different player, which turned problematic for the Lakers. Jumpers and tip-in attempts suddenly refused to fall, and even worse, Gasol's focus appeared to wane, the most egregious example coming on consecutive possessions. First, Gasol wasn't ready for a sweet baseline wrap-around feed from Kobe, which led to a Calderon bucket. From there, he bobbled a routine pass at the left wing, then picked up a foul wrestling for the loose ball.
Gasol did make his presence felt continually on the boards (17 in all) and made a couple of nice plays down the stretch, but the overall failure to sustain an excellent foundation was disappointing. Fatigue may have been a factor between his 36:31 of run and the grueling nature of a trip. But that doesn't mean it's acceptable, especially for a team that's made or broken by the Big Three.
Then again, why should Gasol be any different than his entire team? The Lakers ended the first quarter shooting 70 percent from the field and 80 percent from behind the arc. Obviously, it would be unrealistic to expect such gaudy numbers for another three frames, but execution of the formula behind that quality showing shouldn't be too much to ask. During the first frame, the Lakers attacked Toronto's soft interior with relentless aggression, and the ball was moved around with precision. Defensively, Calderon was having his way, but he was also a one-man band. Thus, the Lakers finished the quarter up 15, which would have been even higher were it not for seven turnovers converted into seven Toronto points.
In hindsight, those gaffes were an omen of what lurked around the corner over the next three quarters.
Whether overly relaxed, overly confident, or overly just-not-a-team-capable-of-playing-four-good-quarters, the Lakers grew increasingly sloppy and discombobulated. Defensive rotations were sloppy and late. Toronto's zone defense completely befuddled their offense. (Stop me if you've heard this one before.) And the energy was often nonexistent. And to its credit, Toronto sensed a visiting squad letting off the gas, and pounced on the chance. A few luckier bounces (or Rasual Butler calling timeout in time) and they might have snuck away with a win.
Bench scoring makes a huge difference. Without a composition-altering trade, the Lakers' reserves will never make the second units from Denver, Philly, Dallas or the like look over their shoulders. They don't boast a scorer with the potential to explode for 15-20 at any given moment, nor a playmaker capable of bridging their varied skill sets. (Steve Blake tries his darndest, but simply isn't that guy.) However, the inability to morph into a top-shelf bench doesn't mean the Lakers can settle for being a wretched one. Too many paltry outings have played a direct result in losses, and created a visible burden for the Big Three.
This afternoon, however, demonstrated how much better the Lakers can look with every member of the second unit finding ways to contribute without any of them going crazy. Nobody scored more than seven, but every reserve who stepped on the floor brought something to the table. Had the cupboard remained typically bare, the road trip likely would have ended 2-4.
Fisher had four fouls in the third quarter. The perfect end to a trip that was anything but perfect.