On a night where the Los Angeles Lakers and Charlotte Bobcats met without their best scoring guards, fans at Staples Center were treated with a massive statement made by Charlotte center, Al Jefferson.
Jefferson was snubbed from the All-Star reserves selection on Thursday evening, and nobody seems to be discussing it. The nine-year veteran absolutely deserved a spot on the roster, as he has performed in a very impressive manner all season long. When teammate Kemba Walker went down with a sprained ankle vs. Miami on Jan. 18, it marked a stretch that Jefferson would be asked to carry the load offensively.
Sure He Doesn’t Belong In New Orleans?
Entering Friday’s showdown with the Lakers, Jefferson had put together an imposing five-game stretch, averaging 27.6 points and 12.4 rebounds per contest on a ridiculous 54.5 percent field goal efficiency. Those standout games came against the likes of the Toronto Raptors, Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls, and Denver Nuggets, in which Charlotte survived with a 3-2 record without Walker. On the season, Jefferson has been magnificent as well, averaging 19.9 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game. Snub him all you want, NBA coaches, but he has been more consistent than Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, and is slightly more dangerous than Paul Milsap. I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps the coaches don’t even care about current season production, but just reputation. Case in point … Joe Johnson.
The Lakers were the next victims on Jefferson’s list, as he posted a jaw-dropping 40 points and 18 rebounds against the Western Conference’s worst defense. He tied his career-high in points, and shot an incredible 18-of-32 from the field. It wasn’t hard to pinpoint who the Bobcats were turning to nearly every trip up the floor. Charlotte, who ranks 28th in the league in points scored, shocked the Lakers by pouring in 62 first half points.
Owning From The Tip
Typically by the first month of the season, you are able to pick out trends with certain teams and analyze which time periods of the game they are at their best (and worst). After the Lakers started falling off the map miserably in December, the theory was that they always came out of the gates with high-powered energy and kept games close (sometimes in their favor) in the first half. Then, they found ways to blow leads in the third and fourth quarters and failed to execute on the defensive end in crunch time.
However, it’s now February, and the consensus is that this Los Angeles team has no true pattern. They are lousy defensively, to say the least, in both halves. Teams no longer wait until halftime to decide to embarrass them. The attack is now coming directly from the start.
That was in full effect on Friday, as Charlotte got off on the right foot. Despite Jefferson not finding his rhythm early in the first quarter, he was able to take advantage of the helpless defense Robert Sacre placed on him, posting up and scoring on a smooth finger roll with 1:37 left in the opening stanza. That easy bucket gave Charlotte the lead, one which they never lost, putting them ahead 26-25.
After the game, Jefferson addressed the career night, as well as the 32 shot attempts his teammates gave him:
“They kept running plays for me, and I kept scoring,” Jefferson stated. In the first quarter, they weren’t going down for me, but I just kept staying with it because I knew sooner or later it would start going down for me.”
One thing you can’t take away, however, is the fact that the Lakers still play with heart, intensity, and fight. I know, it’s hard to believe, but that’s the one consistent aspect these young guys bring to the table.
After trailing by 13 at halftime, the Lakers continued to find themselves searching for answers on both ends, but primarily the defensive side. Charlotte pushed the lead to a game-high 20 points during the final minutes of the third quarter.
It was finally time for the emotion to kick in, and for someone to step up and for Los Angeles to at least try the rare comeback.
The Lakers formed a 15-7 run to end the third, grinding their way to cut the deficit to just 12, 86-74, heading into the final period. The last minute surge in the third included a spectacular 4-point play from rookie Ryan Kelly, as another fellow rookie, Cody Zeller, hammered the Duke sensation on the arm as he nailed the corner triple.
Kelly started his seventh consecutive game for Los Angeles, and it’s apparent that Mike D’Antoni wants to stick with him in the starting unit, saving Jordan Hill‘s presence for the second unit. Kelly finished the game with 13 points on just 4-of-10 shooting, but it was his fifth game of the year with at least 13 points. He may be a horrible defensive option against the stronger small forwards and power forwards teams throw at him, but he continues to be the guy that stretches the floor with his shot, and D’Antoni simply falls in love with those type of players.
Robert Sacre did something we rarely see from the sophomore out of Gonzaga, as he contributed to the fourth quarter push the Lakers attempted to make.
In the first two minutes of the fourth, the crowd at Staples Center began to believe they could get the job done. The chants of “defense” became louder and louder, as the Lakers looked to be on a mission. We’re aware, unfortunately, that “believing” in their purple and gold (and Hollywood Night’s black) is a difficult task this year. Credit to the fans that still do root this injury plagued team on, and haven’t jumped ship on the Doc Rivers/Lob City bandwagon.
With just 11:01 to play in the game, Sacre hustled up the floor as the Lakers were in semi-transition, and found himself collecting a rebound off Manny Harris‘ botched layup attempt. Knowing he’s not on the rather long list of offensive options for Los Angeles, he looked borderline confused and clearly looked to dish off the ball to a teammate. Realizing he was directly near the rim with only Bismack Biyombo standing in his way, he wisely made a strong post maneuver to score on a reverse lay-in. The Lakers had crawled back into the game, and trailed by just eight, 86-78, with nearly a full quarter left to play.
Needless to say, it just wasn’t meant to be.
Jefferson didn’t come back down to Earth, as he kept up his scoring bombardment by scoring 16 points in the fourth quarter, including eight of Charlotte’s final points to close out the game.
D’Antoni was disgusted with the way his team got themselves in such a hole to start out the game, and realized it was too much to overcome:
“They just weren’t ready to play – for whatever reason,” D’Antoni said. “Lifeless in the first half. There’s no excuse for it.
Nick Young wasn’t himself on Friday, struggling from the field by connecting on just 8-of-22 field goals and 2-of-7 from beyond the arc. At one point in the loss, Young misfired on nine straight shots, one of which was a wide open left-handed layup that he wishes he could have back. It’s not hidden, however, that Swaggy P has been off his game lately. Since the marvelous clutch performance on Jan. 20 in Chicago, in which he scored a season-high 31 points, he has shot 32-of-85 overall (37.6 percent), and 6-of-25 from 3-point range (24 percent). It’s about time someone understands that high-volume shooters are going to hit rough stretches. We witnessed it from J.R. Smith in the playoffs, so don’t act as if it’s a newfound tragedy. He’ll get back in his groove, hopefully before the next meeting with the dismantling Chicago defense (Feb. 9).
Young’s displeasure isn’t just about how he’s affecting his team, however. For him, it reaches the city of Los Angeles:
“That’s what’s wearing on me … the fact that I feel like we’re letting the fans down. The city down. That’s what hurts.”
Gasol’s Streak Continues, But May Be Put On Hold
Ever since being included in trade rumors with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Pau Gasol has strung together some terrific games in the month of January. Sure, it could have been the lack of firepower this team has, especially in the paint. But nonetheless, Gasol came to play again on Friday.
Playing 33 minutes, the Spaniard collected 24 points on 9-of-17 shooting, and connected on all six of his free throw opportunities. He also added nine rebounds, and battled foul trouble trying to defend against the barrage Jefferson was bringing. Gasol’s 24-point outing marked his 10th straight game of scoring at least 20 points, and his field goal percentage through January was an impressive 51 percent. That was significantly better than his efficiency in November (43 percent) and December (46 percent).
There’s always a twist.
Gasol played on Friday with an aggravated groin, an injury he obtained in Tuesday’s loss to the Indiana Pacers. He continued to feel soreness, and is scheduled to undergo an MRI on Saturday to find out further information.
Gasol is considered “uncertain” for the upcoming three-game road trip the Lakers are about to begin, so his own version of the “Durant streak” may be put on hold.
Hill and Johnson: The Disappearing Roles
Jordan Hill has yet to play sufficient basketball coming off the bench (due to Ryan Kelly starting), and he was completely absent in Friday’s game. In the 12 minutes D’Antoni allowed him, Hill attempted three shots, and scored zero points, missing both his free throw tries. Since the Lakers lost half their bench due to injuries, the only option they’ve had in the second unit is Young, which has put tons of pressure on him. It’s understandable that Hill’s best asset is defense, but he didn’t chances (because of D’Antoni) to do anything about Al Jefferson’s statement game. That’s got to change.
Wesley Johnson has moved in and out of the starting lineup since becoming a Laker this season, but he actually does need to be in there. As Johnson occupies no true scoring attack, he’s the definition of a role player that is there to do pick his spots accordingly. Playing 20 minutes after starting the game Friday, Johnson took just five shots and scored a whopping three points. He does some of the dirty work, however, being active on defense and using his length to disrupt certain perimeter players. While his role doesn’t fit the starting lineup per say, you’d rather have a stronger offensive approach (Young) supplying the bench with points and keeping Johnson with the first five.
A Few Notes
Bobcats’ Head Coach Steve Clifford made his first trip back to the Lakers’ home floor since accepting the job in Charlotte. Once an assistant coach to Mike D’Antoni last season in Los Angeles, it had to feel great for Clifford to expose many of the weaknesses his former team possesses.
Charlotte snapped a five-game skid to the Lakers with Friday’s victory, and it is the last meeting of the two before the Bobcats are renamed, recolored, and rejuvenated with the “Hornets” look next season.
For the Lakers, Friday became the 13th time this season that an opposing player has buried at least 30 points on them. Once again, we’re talking about the 29th ranked defense, and one that doesn’t have a true rim protector anymore. Don’t even utter the words “We don’t miss Dwight.”
Friday marked the 18th loss in the last 21 games for the Lakers, who now continue to grimace when they look at the standings and realize the Utah Jazz finally surpassed them. Oh, the pain
Nash believes he could be available for Tuesday’s game in Minnesota, and is it also worth noting he turns 40 years old next week? On a serious note, let’s pray he can keep all injuries away for the final stages of his career.
Blake and Farmar could both follow Nash’s return and be back with the team shortly after, but not on Tuesday.
Blake revealed that he’s still dealing with pain in his elbow when he participates in shooting drills, and that’s perfectly fine. It would make no sense to rush back to the court when the team is certainly going nowhere right now. Health is the important factor, regardless if he wants to try to return with another contract next season.
Xavier Henry, the lost asset in all the injury news around Los Angeles, is still a couple of weeks from returning, according to ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin. Henry is still recovering from the bone bruise in his right knee, and will be the last of the bench to return from injury.
Kobe Bryant will again be re-evaluated by Dr. Steve Lombardo the week after the All-Star break to examine his left knee fracture. It’s a shame that Bryant can’t participate in his 16th consecutive All-Star game (not that he would have anyways), but it was just another disappointing setback in the lost season he’s experiencing. There really shouldn’t be doubt in anyone’s mind that he’ll return to Mamba form, as we started to see glimpses of it prior to the knee injury. Phil Jackson surely believes he’ll come back in attack mode, and the Zen Master is truly the only one that matters, right?