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Saturday, March 31, 2012
Rapid Reaction: Lakers 88, Hornets 85

By Andy Kamenetzky

This was ugly. Really ugly. Like, "the offspring of Medusa and Jabba The Hut" ugly. The important thing is the win, but the second most important thing is the way the win was manufactured. And in this game, a photo finish against a lousy Hornets team rolling out Jarrett Jack, Marco Belinelli, and a bunch of 9th-man/D-League-caliber players constitutes poor manufacturing. Nobody can feel particularly happy about this day.

Here are four takeaways.

1. Something is wrong with Kobe's shot right now.
Yes, Bryant hit the winning 3-pointer and he absolutely deserves credit for maintaining the focus necessary to ride out a brutal afternoon. As the saying goes, that's what makes Kobe the first-ballot Hall of Famer he is. But having acknowledged this, it's a good thing March comes to an end Sunday, because the month has been brutal to The Mamba's percentages from the field. Heading into this game, Bryant had shot 50 percent from the field only once in his past 10 games, and only three times in the entire month. (Truth be told, February was pretty rough, too.) This afternoon, his touch turned especially brutal. Fifteen shots were fired before one finally dropped with 7:30 remaining in the fourth quarter (!), and with his frustration on his sleeve, the Staples crowd began chanting "Kobe" late in the third quarter to get him rolling again. Not "MVP," but "Kobe," just like in 2010's Game 7 against Boston, when they rallied behind their struggling star. Even more disturbing than the misses was the variety of shots refusing to fall. Long jumpers. Catch-and-shoot opportunities from between the circles. Bunnies from nearly point blank. The Mamba couldn't toss a pea into the ocean.

The cause for this slump? Perhaps Kobe's heavy minutes are catching up to him. As of Friday, he led the league in total minutes (1968), and at age 33, 16 seasons into a career, that's got to take a toll. Especially during this compressed schedule, in which days to recover are as rare as a yeti sighting. Bryant even admitted after the game he's feeling tired, and he's as reliable a source as any. Mike Brown said Friday reducing Kobe's PT is a luxury he doesn't have at the moment, but he may need to bite the bullet and find the guy a few extra minutes on the bench, results be damned. Fatigue may also be exacerbated by Kobe's propensity for launching 3s. As of this writing, he's seventh in the league for 3-pointers taken, and has by far the worst percentage among league leaders. Whether that's a matter of too many plays drawn up placing him far from the basket, settling as the result of fatigue, or just Kobe taking advantage of his green light, dialing this back is a must.

Or maybe this is just your garden variety brutal drought.

But whatever the case may be, the Lakers can't continue to survive against mediocre opponents (much less contenders) with Bryant continuing to create so many empty possessions. Hopefully, his touch can be rediscovered, and ASAP.

2. When the Lakers move the ball, they often look exceptionally good
In the first quarter, when the Lakers were in complete control of the contest, the rock was shuttled around the court with a masterful touch. Their first six baskets were assisted, setting a tone that should have been maintained throughout the game. In the first quarter, Ramon Sessions threaded a bounce pass inside to Pau Gasol, who wrapped the ball around a defender in the lane to Andrew Bynum, who threw down an uncontested dunk. On the very next possession, Pau and Sessions ran pick and roll, with Gasol slipping a screen, then fed on the run by Sessions for an easy score at the rim. In transition, Kobe set up Sessions at the rim with a slick bounce feed, then later tossed a gorgeous lefty no-look on the run to create a dunk for Matt Barnes. Josh McRoberts (who played a very nice game off the bench) did good work moving offensive rebounds to the right spot, and later in the game created a dunk for Bynum off a no-look of his own. At the end of the game, their 32 total buckets came off 28 assists, an exceptionally good clip that speaks to this team's collective passing skills.

When, however, the Lakers grew either frustrated by a Hornets zone (or, frankly, became lazy), stagnation occurred, along with the predictable bad results. That Sessions is now in the fold doesn't change the fact this team is desperately low on players capable of creating their own shot or breaking down a defense from the perimeter, and Bynum is still in the learning stage of conducting an offense. More often than not, they'll have to create for each other. The good news is when they adhere to this principle, the Lakers can be a hard team to stop. But when this reality goes ignored, the Lakers look as ordinary as this Hornets team they barely beat today.

3. I still always don't get Mike Brown's rotations.
As mentioned earlier, I think Brown is hurting Kobe (and by extension, the Lakers) with his refusal to find the guy a few extra minutes of rest each game. (The same could probably be said about Gasol and Bynum, as well.) But that's not the only area in which his decisions about how to use players can be frustrating. With the Hornets running zone, and the ensuing need to bust it up through penetration, the decision to sit Sessions for a long duration in the fourth quarter is perplexing. Then again, why Sessions doesn't play an automatic 35 minutes each night is a mystery to begin with. The fourth quarter was also kicked off with McRoberts, Bynum, Metta World Peace, Steve Blake and Barnes, which naturally didn't create the necessary spacing for Drew to operate with maximum efficiency. These are situations that scream for a shooter, again reflecting why I think even limited minutes for Andrew Goudelock could make a difference.  After a few minutes, Brown inserted Pau to play alongside McRoberts, creating the lineup he said during Friday's practice would create better movement. But that the change took as long, and the overall meshing of skill sets on display, feels problematic.

Brown says he'll keep tinkering, which could be reassuring or maddening. I'll let y'all decide.

4. The Lakers just can't be counted on for four quarter's worth of hard play.
Particularly on the defensive end. Doesn't matter if the opponent is the Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder or the Western Conference bottom dweller New Orleans Hornets. And guess what? They're just not good enough to pull that off.