Plague – noun: an epidemic disease causing a high rate of mortality.
The 2013-14 Los Angeles Lakers can now be recognized for giving “plague” a new definition.
Let’s try this again.
Plague – noun: an obliteration of Mike D’Antoni‘s roster from players dropping left and right.
On numerous occasions, I’ve written that the Lakers have reached rock bottom due to injuries. Then, once you begin to give up, three guys (Steve Nash, Steve Blake, and Jordan Farmar) all return to action within a two day period.
After the uncanny situation that unfolded in Wednesday’s meeting with the Cleveland Cavaliers, it’s tough to grasp just how to react.
The Lakers set out to avenge their Jan. 14 home loss to Mike Brown‘s Cavaliers, and they battled through tons of obstacles to get the job done.
From the opening tip, the Cleveland fans in Quicken Loans Arena were shell-shocked as D’Antoni’s high-octane offense swung the first haymaker. The first quarter belonged to Lakers’ starting forward, Wesley Johnson, who didn’t back down from any open look Cleveland’s defense gave him. Johnson ignited for 15 points in the opening stanza, knocking down his first five field goals before finally misfiring. The 6’7″ Syracuse product isn’t always efficient from 3-point range, but he came out of the gate connecting on 3-of-3 from deep. If you asked Johnson, however, his favorite part of the first quarter had to be his fierce fast break dunk on a perfect pass from Nick Young with 2:21 remaining. Johnson finished the night with 20 points and nine rebounds, but was the force behind Los Angeles’ commanding 36-17 lead after the first 12 minutes.
With the second quarter of action, came the ultimate bag of mixed emotions.
Returning to play in his first game since New Years Eve, Jordan Farmar had his turn to lead the attack on another sub-par defense. Farmar put on a show similar to what we witnessed from him in Brooklyn, as he poured in 13 second quarter points to propel the Lakers to a 29-point lead on the road. That’s something Los Angeles has only been able to dream about this season. Allowing Cleveland to put together their own little scoring barrage, the Lakers headed into halftime with a convincing 70-49 lead, which likely had some Cavaliers’ fans screaming “Fire Mike Brown” at their television sets. Give it a try …. the Buss family sure did. Los Angeles’ 70 first half points marked the highest total D’Antoni’s unit has scored in any half, all season long.
The downfall to the second quarter set up the disaster. Nick Young, leading a transition opportunity, suffered a twisted knee that had him laying on the floor in pain. After timeout was called to attend to Swaggy P, he elected to stay in the game for the remainder of the first half. After getting looked at in the locker room, however, Young was ruled out for the remainder of the game. He will receive an MRI on Thursday (today) in Philadelphia. With it being a tweak to the knee, everyone is obviously concerned since Kobe Bryant and Xavier Henry still remain out with their knee issues. There’s only so much a roster can take.
Young’s absence limited the Lakers to just seven active players for the remainder of the night. And another was about to be in danger.
Early in the second quarter, Chris Kaman (who must be ecstatic to just be on the floor) picked up his fourth personal foul as he continued to get picked on by the refs. This wouldn’t have been a huge deal if it happened later in the game, but it was within the first 20 minutes of the ballgame.
Just like that, Los Angeles entered the first stage of panic mode …. fearing they would soon drop to just six available players.
The third quarter didn’t heavily favor either team, but there were positive signs for both the Lakers and Cavaliers.
For Cleveland, the team received an unexpected push from rookie Anthony Bennett, who has been on pace to becoming one of the worst No. 1 draft picks of All-time. Bennett scored 10 of his 14 points in the third, and the Cavaliers shared the wealth as a team to drop 31 in the quarter. For Los Angeles, it was another story. A rookie showdown, perhaps?
Lakers’ rookie Ryan Kelly and veteran Steve Blake made the most of the third period, answering the call when the Cavaliers tried to bite into the deficit. Kelly joined Kendall Marshall with two 3-pointers in the period, and the Duke product scored nine of the Lakers’ 28 points, maintaining a 18-point advantage (98-80) heading into the fourth quarter. Kelly finished the game with a career-high 26 points — 22 in the first half — on 50 percent efficiency, while also grabbing six rebounds.
Blake, on the other hand, carried over his floor general skills into the second half. After dishing eight assists in the first quarter alone, Blake orchestrated the offense well in the third as well, hitting his teammates for five more dimes. Blake’s magnificent play didn’t stop there, as the heroics were yet to transpire.
More foul drama arose in the third quarter, as Lakers’ center Robert Sacre joined Kaman with four personal fouls. Being a coach that understands the game to a full degree, Mike Brown had to be stressing to his men that Los Angeles’ frontcourt was vulnerable.
Picture your typical NBA fourth quarter …. one full of stardom and a fan’s clear understanding of what’s taking place.
That’s exactly the opposite of the fourth quarter events that took place with these two draft lottery locks.
Kaman was called for his sixth and final foul within the first two minutes of the period, as he headed to bench and left the Lakers with a six-man rotation the rest of the game.
It wouldn’t have been a proper quarter without another Lakers injury.
Jordan Farmar went down in the fourth with what appeared to be leg-related pain. Leaving the game with “leg cramps” after playing just the first 3:12 of the period, Farmar ended his night with 21 points and eight assists on 8-of-15 field goals and 5-of-8 from 3-point territory.
On a more significant level, Farmar’s injury left the Lakers with just FIVE remaining players, leaving D’Antoni praying on the sidelines that Sacre wouldn’t foul out anytime soon.
Cleveland had began making their way back into the game, thanks to the bench production from C.J. Miles, Matthew Dellavedova, and Dion Waiters. Only one Cavaliers’ starter saw the floor in the fourth quarter. Was it the Eastern Conference’s starting point guard for the All-Star team, Kyrie Irving?
No. It happened to be Anderson Varejao. Cleveland’s bench scored 26 of the team’s 28 fourth quarter points, and was the only reason the Cavaliers found themselves cutting the Lakers’ lead down to six late in the closing minutes.
The confusion was sparked with 3:32 remaining in the game, as Sacre was whistled for his sixth foul, which would normally indicate disqualification and the big man taking a seat on the bench. Although, the Lakers would have only had four eligible players at the time. Farmar was initially trying to get back into the game despite the leg cramps, but wasn’t able to. Young was ruled out after the knee injury, ineligible to return.
It came down to two possibilities. Steve Nash quickly changed out of his suit and tie and joined the empty bench wearing his gold uniform. Or, the refs could allow Sacre to stay in the game at the center position, and let the game continue based on NBA regulations.
Per NBA rules, each team must occupy five players on the court at all times. With the referees consulting with D’Antoni about the issue (which took nearly as long as the fourth quarter out-of-bounds reviews), it was concluded that Sacre could remain in the game. The catch, however, was that for each additional foul Sacre was called for, the Lakers would also be hit with a technical foul.
Steve Blake wasn’t about to let free throws decide this game.
The late-game heroics from Blake re-appeared on Wednesday, with the 33-year-old nailing two huge 3-pointers in the final three minutes of action to seal the victory. Blake’s first triple of the fourth quarter found the net with 3:01 left in the game to put Los Angeles up 114-103, and was followed by ear-to-ear grins and chuckles in the Lakers’ huddle during the ensuing timeout. Two minutes later, Blake received a pass from Marshall and buried another long ball to push the margin to 117-108 with only 56.9 seconds left. Los Angeles held on, claiming a 119-108 victory to secure their 17th win of their dreaded season.
Blake’s individual accomplishment flew under the radar due to all the madness that broke out in Cleveland. He logged a triple double, scoring 11 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, and finding his teammates for 15 assists. It marked Blake’s first career triple double.
Los Angeles broke a franchise record on Wednesday for 3-point field goals made in a regulation game, as the Lakers shot an incredible 18-of-37 (48.6 percent) from beyond the arc. Those triples were the obvious difference makers, since they were good for 54 of the Lakers’ 119 points. Cleveland shot poorly all game long, attempting 33 perimeter shots and connecting on just five. Overall, the Cavaliers shot 38-of-101, and that’s rarely going to win you a basketball game, regardless if it’s in front of your home crowd or not.
After the game, D’Antoni revealed that his decision to keep Sacre in the game outweighed other options:
“I was not going to go to Nash, it was not an option to us,” D’Antoni stated. But the other thing we talked about was having Jordan (Hill) go out there and just stand in the corner. When the officials came over to explain the options to me, we decided to keep Robert out there. I knew he would be smart and not commit too many more fouls.”
Jordan Hill did not play in Wednesday’s game due to experiencing a strained neck, and Pau Gasol (groin) won’t be available for the rest of the road trip, which concludes in Philadelphia on Friday night against the 76ers. Jodie Meeks (sprained ankle) will also miss Friday’s game, which will give the starting shooting guard spot to either Farmar or Blake. It’s widely believed that Nash is D’Antoni’s starting option at point guard when he isn’t sitting out for rest.
Sacre even admitted how surprised he was with staying in the game:
“That was just crazy,” Sacre stated. “When I got my sixth foul, I was just like, ‘Oh, dang!’ Then I got to come back in, so I thought it was something special. I didn’t know what was going on.”
You have to feel poorly for this Cavaliers unit. Not only did they allow the Lakers to snap a seven-game losing streak, but they fell deeper out of the Eastern Conference playoff hunt (5.5 games behind Charlotte) and made a head-scratching decision to bench their superstar during the entire fourth quarter.
It turned out to be a quality move by Mike Brown, considering Miles and Dellavedova were orchestrating a comeback and getting the crowd believing in the team. However, clutch fourth quarter moments are Irving’s specialty. While he hasn’t been the most efficient point guard this season, he still has a gene that could’ve allowed him to make a difference. The zero minutes in the period, along with the film of this epic defeat, will probably be enough for fans when they utter the question: “Why did Kyrie abandon us?”
The Lakers must now focus on the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that knocked off Los Angeles in December with a 111-104 Staples Center victory.