Anyone that has caught a glimpse of the Los Angeles Lakers during the past month could have pictured this start to the annual Grammy Road Trip. Entering U.S. Airways Center for the second time this season, Los Angeles sought to finally get a win over their division rival, Phoenix Suns.
After a scuffle between the NBA’s swag leader and a Ukrainian rookie, the Suns were able to hold off the Lakers 121-114, and send Mike D’Antoni‘s team out East with a 14-25 record.
As you might have guessed, the highlight of the evening became the second quarter skirmish between Lakers’ Nick Young and Suns’ rookie, Alex Len. Trailing 36-35, the Lakers got out on a fastbreak that featured Young attempting a contested layup over Len. When Len decided to foul him and prevent the bucket, he clobbered Young across the face, perhaps unintentionally, causing Young to take a hard fall to the floor. Fed up with the treatment he believes the Lakers have received lately, he quickly jumped up and charged after Len, who was being protected by Marcus and Markieff Morris, as well as Goran Dragic. With no assistance by his side, Young made the terrible decision to throw an open hand to the head of Dragic, merely an attempt to get the Slovenian away from him.
Both players were ejected, and many are already contemplating whether the league will hand down fines to both, and even a suspension to Young for the near punch to the head.
Once the action resumed, the Lakers looked to be playing inspired basketball, scoring with Phoenix at a steady pace and remaining energetic on defense. As the game entered halftime, it was Los Angeles that outscored Phoenix in both the first and second quarters, something we have rarely witnessed from this unit. What did carry over, however, was the horrific third quarter defense and execution. Phoenix scored 34 points in the third, to the Lakers’ 24. Nearly half of the Suns’ third quarter production came from Gerald Green, who caught fire from everywhere in the period and scored 16 points. Green finished with a game-high 28 points on 12-of-18 shooting. It became Green’s ninth 20+ point game of the 2013-14, a season that has been the best of his 6-year career, scoring wise.
For Los Angeles, it was Pau Gasol who came through with the quiet standout performance. I say “quiet” because most of the attention was focused on the Suns in the second half, and it was easy to get used to Wesley Johnson, Kendall Marshall, and Jodie Meeks making plays due to the three playing over 43 minutes a piece. Gasol scored 24 points to lead the Lakers, also grabbing nine rebounds and dishing five assists. He, Jordan Hill, and Chris Kaman made it tough for Miles Plumlee throughout the night, as Plumlee was coming off two straight 12-point games last week. They limited the Most Improved Player candidate to just six points and six rebounds.
The Lakers appeared poised to get back into the game during the fourth quarter, as a spark ignited by Wesley Johnson tied the score at 91-91 with 9:53 remaining. During the following couple minutes, however, Phoenix went on a 11-2 run to put the game out of reach. Whenever Suns’ Ish Smith is making the key plays in the fourth quarter, you’re probably well aware just how suspect the defense is this season. That’s exactly what these Lakers have attached to their name; a non-existent defense in the second half.
Not only did Los Angeles allow the Suns to score 67 points in the final two quarters, but it must not be forgotten that the third quarter has haunted them the past four matchups. After handing over another 30+ point quarter, the Lakers obviously aren’t too fond of executing halftime adjustments:
- Jan. 8 at Houston Rockets: Outscored 33-15 in third quarter
- Jan. 10 vs. Los Angeles Clippers: Outscored 31-8 in third quarter
- Jan. 14 vs. Cleveland Cavaliers: Outscored 31-22 in third quarter
Dissecting the issues in the loss to the Suns, the defensive problems occur on rotations, and allowing second chance opportunities. Goran Dragic was able to slither his way through the defense multiple times on Wednesday, simply because nobody feels the obligation to slide over and stop rim penetration. Once a quick, more athletic point guard beats Kendall Marshall or Jodie Meeks off the dribble, it has been all but over. Secondly, I’m surprised Kurt Rambis hasn’t completely flipped his lid by watching this Lakers team lack effectiveness on the defensive glass.
It’s once in a blue moon that this Los Angeles team can win a battle of offensive rebounds, and Wednesday was not one of those select nights. Phoenix grabbed 16 offensive boards to just the Lakers’ eight, allowing them to have more looks at the basket. Granted, every rebound that comes off the rim isn’t always going to be attainable. That’s one of the biggest misconceptions the game of basketball gives people that only look at box scores. Long rebounds are difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve if the bounce doesn’t go your way. On the other side of that though, more often than not it’s a matter of setting yourself up for a quality box out and wanting to secure the rebounds each and every time up the floor. It doesn’t seem as if the Lakers work their hardest on the glass, outside of Jordan Hill and Gasol. With most of the remaining personnel being undersized or simply just not players that succeed in the paint, it’s certainly understandable. It’s sure not going to get this team wins by allowing the opposition easy tip-ins or multiple opportunities at the rim, however.
After the game, D’Antoni addressed another reason he believes his Lakers have lost six in a row:
“We’re not winning and again, we gave up 30-some (37 points) in transition and about 60 or 70 (64) in the paint, and that’s where it’s been the last five or six games,” D’Antoni told the media. “We’ve got to be able to solve that problem somehow.”
The question that arises here is obviously “Can they stop offenses from feasting in the paint?”
Of course, Lakers fans would like to believe so, when “everyone is healthy.” But the truth is, four of the five players on the injured list aren’t necessarily dangerous defenders. Xavier Henry, Steve Blake, and Jordan Farmar all have their short spurts of quality on the defensive end, but opposing teams were still scoring loads in the paint with them on the floor. As for Steve Nash, he hasn’t even been able to stop mediocre guards since the 2008 or 2009 season, so what makes people think a switch will flip and everyone can be lock down defenders? Of all the players returning in the next month, Kobe Bryant is the only one capable of giving guards a tough time penetrating to the rim. When it comes to Los Angeles’ post talent on defense, what you see now is what you will always get with this group. Jordan Hill can be formidable when he wants to be, but D’Antoni only likes to play him for 20-25 minutes a night. Gasol may be the smartest defender on the court, but his athleticism (if he ever had any) left after beating the Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals. With the increasing number of athletic, strong, and versatile frontcourts in today’s NBA, D’Antoni must understand that it can only get so much better. Unfortunately, the 29th ranked defense is where they’ll remain most of the season.
The Lakers have now dropped three to the Phoenix Suns this season, two on the road and one at home. (This makes it embarrassing to discuss any type of basketball with Suns’ enthusiasts Gerald Bourguet and Michael Dunlap). Falling to the record of 14-25, Los Angeles is only 1.5 games ahead of the Utah Jazz, who are dead last in the Western Conference at 13-27.
In terms of the current stretch, it hurts to even examine. Losing 12 of their last 13 games, the Lakers are currently in the worst stretch they’ve experienced since the 2004-05 season. Under Head Coach Rudy Tomjanovich at the time, those Lakers tasted defeat on 19 of their final 21 games to end the season. Keep in mind, it was during the time period that included Shaquille O’Neal being dealt to the Miami Heat, leaving Bryant all alone. The scary thought?
These Lakers have the next six games on the road, all in the Eastern Conference. While it doesn’t seem believable that the Lakers could resurrect the worst year since the early 2000′s three-peat, it’s sure headed down that path. Starters are coming back within the next month, but the injury bug has been roaming Los Angeles since early last season.
Good Luck, Lakers.