With three minutes left in the first half, Kobe Bryant turned his back to Vince Carter high on the left wing and started the process of working him towards the bucket. Bryant's four teammates waited on the opposite side of the floor, a strategy that served the Lakers well in last Sunday's win over Denver.
After a few dribbles with his back to the basket, Kobe faced up, used a few dribbles to make is way closer to the right elbow, then attacked, moving hard through the lane and drawing the attention of three Magic defenders. Meanwhile, Ron Artest set up in a perfect spot on the right wing, directly in front of L.A.'s bench. Bryant brought the defense to him, then kicked to Artest, who rose and fired.
Clang. Back iron.
Good hustle from Lamar Odom earned the Lakers another try. He moved the ball back to Artest, now completely alone along the right wing above the arc. Again, Artest gathered, rose, and fired, holding his follow through as the ball made it's way towards the rim.
Clang. Front iron. At the other end, Jameer Nelson moved niftily through a trap high up the floor and found Matt Barnes slicing through the paint for a layup.
Call it a five point swing.
I note this sequence not to blame Artest for L.A.'s 96-94 loss to the Magic Sunday afternoon in Orlando- sure, Ron's hair had a lot more flair than his game (two of 10 shooting with some problems defensively, too)- but because it was perhaps the most day-glo obvious example of the way in which the Lakers squandered too many open opportunities along the perimeter. Orlando, like a lot of teams the Lakers see, were intent on gumming up the paint, sending bodies, hands, and arms after whomever and whatever L.A. put in the post.
Every team has to make choices defensively regarding the kind of shots they'll give up. Orlando gave the Lakers jumpers. With Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Odom and Bryant available to work the post, wouldn't you?
Artest was hardly alone. Derek Fisher was one-of-three from downtown, and four-for-12 overall. Jordan Farmar missed both of his threes, Artest four of his five. Kobe missed three of his first four (the fifth being a brutally tough make in the fourth helping keep the Lakers close). And so on, and so on.
I'm not in Orlando, but am willing to bet while I write this, Lakers players are talking to the media about dribble penetration and making defensive stands. About cranking things up defensively, and playing with a championship level intensity on that side of the ball. All well and good, except it ignores one basic issue:
The Lakers have an offense problem, not a defense problem.
Look at some numbers from Orlando's box score:
41.1 percent from the floor.
Individually, Rashard Lewis was four-of-13, Dwight Howard six-of-14, Nelson five-of-14.
Vince Carter finished with 25 points on five-of-10 from the floor and 13-of-14 from the stripe, but two of the field goals and 10 of the freebies came over the first 12 minutes.
The Lakers pressured the ball, blocked shots, and forced turnovers. After a bad first quarter, they held a red hot Orlando team to 65 points over the final three quarters. The defense was more than good enough to win.
Except the Lakers were held to 37.5 percent from the floor, 29.4 percent from beyond the arc. As has too often been the case of late, their offense devolved into a series of quick shots or one-on-one isolations. Ball and player movement were rarely to be found. In the fourth quarter, the Lakers were completely Kobe-centric. A loose count says 16 of 22 trips saw Kobe take the first shot. He made a lot of them, including some tough ones. Classic Kobe. But it wasn't enough, and put the Lakers in a position where he was either going to win it or not. The supporting cast can't be expected to support when so rarely made part of the process.
Good as Kobe is- and I think we all know he's really, really, good- most elite level teams will take their chances with what the Lakers did offensively in the fourth.
I don't just blame Bryant, either. It's not like the Lakers were lighting up Amway Arena like a purple and gold Christmas tree before Bryant tried to take over. 24 points in the first, 24 more in the second, 16 in the third. They weren't good before the game was put in Bryant's hands, and scored more points (30) when they did. But it's not a healthy way to run an offense, nor one that'll pay off over time.
The Lakers played a pretty good game against a very good team. They played hard, and took care of the ball. Mentally, they were engaged. There isn't any shame in losing to the Magic on their home floor. The real crimes for the Lakers came earlier on the trip. But while so much focus is placed on how the Lakers play defensively, not enough attention is given to what they're doing- not doing, really- on the other side of the ball. L.A. has been arguably the best defensive team in the NBA this season.
What's missing is the O.
And it starts with outside shooting, of which the Lakers have had very little all season. They entered Sunday's game 11th in possessions used on three pointers, but were 19th in 3-point percentage. For a while, they got by. As teams tighten up in the playoffs, they may not be so lucky.
More to come...