Not only has it been extremely tough to accept that the Los Angeles Lakers are experiencing one of the worst seasons in franchise history, but it’s also difficult to get a grasp on this team’s tendencies.
For majority of November and December, Mike D’Antoni‘s team would get out to some sizzling starts, only to choke away games in the third and fourth quarters. That was the case last Wednesday, as the Cavaliers were exposed to huge first quarter barrage in which the Lakers posted 36 points to begin to game.
However, the past two matchups have been a much different story.
In Philadelphia on Friday, Los Angeles allowed the 76ers to shoot 55.6 percent in the opening quarter for 35 points, in what looked to become a home cooking at Wells Fargo Center. Nonetheless, birthday boy Steve Nash gave fans a glimpse of the flashy play he left in Phoenix. He propelled the Lakers to a lopsided victory, as the team outscored Philadelphia 86-63 in the final three quarters for a 112-98 win in the City of Brotherly Love.
It was almost a déjà vu moment in Sunday’s afternoon meeting with the Chicago Bulls, who walked in to Staples Center and completed a season sweep of the Lakers by securing a 92-86 victory.
From the tip, Bulls’ Taj Gibson made his presence known. Gibson was filling in for starting power forward Carlos Boozer, who sat out to rest a left calf injury. While Boozer is the veteran and is still a strong offensive option, it’s Gibson who has been the backbone of Chicago’s ability to stay in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt. He is a more athletic force in the in the frontcourt and plays far more aggressive defense. Coach Tom Thibodeau hasn’t kept Boozer on the bench in clutch minutes for no reason.
On Sunday, Gibson was on a mission early. In the first quarter, he took advantage of the loss of Pau Gasol (groin) from the Lakers’ lineup and connected on a variety of buckets to lead the way for Chicago in a 34-23 opening statement. It struck many Lakers’ fans by surprise, since the Bulls have been the worst offensive squad all season, scoring just 92.1 points per game (30th) and losing the 33.5 points per game that Luol Deng (trade) and Derrick Rose (knee injury) brought to the table. For that reason alone, all the credit has to go to the players for not surrendering and “tanking” the season.
The Bulls were charging, scoring the first 10 points of the game and forcing D’Antoni to call an early timeout. When the Lakers started off the game 0-of-6 from the field — along with sloppy passes and ball handling — the thought of concern was impossible to ignore. Even movie star Jack Nicholson didn’t want to witness the 14th home loss of the year, as he was not in his signature courtside seat. Although, I’m sure that wasn’t truly the reason.
Los Angeles made their adjustments accordingly and stayed with Chicago through the second quarter. In fact, they limited the Bulls to just 18 points and used Chris Kaman‘s post moves and mid-range jumpers to crawl back into the game and trim the deficit to just 52-46 heading into halftime. Twelve of the Lakers’ 23 second-quarter points were supplied by the frontcourt, as Kaman and Jordan Hill didn’t lay down to the Bull’s defense.
In the Jan. 20 meeting at Chicago, the two L.A. big men weren’t even featured in the offense, with Kaman still being in D’Antoni’s doghouse and recording another DNP and Hill scoring just seven points. In professional sports, it’s hard to live with inconsistent minutes and uncertainty if you’ll even see the court … but that’s why Kaman is exactly the type of backup center you want on your team. Say what you want about his defense (I’m sure everyone will), but he joined Los Angeles in hopes to see 15-20 minutes a night, not to sit the bench until the entire roster is receiving doctor’s appointments.
Opening the third quarter, the Lakers didn’t see their bad luck stopping.
With 9:19 remaining in the third, 40-year-old Nash got a quick step on Bulls’ Kirk Hinrich and drove to the rim looking to create a play. It was then that he bumped legs with Hinrich, who did a great job recovering. Nash’s left leg collided with Hinrich and he was slow to get back on defense. If you remember, it was Nash’s left leg that suffered the non-displacement fracture in November 2012, which kept him out 32 games last season. Nash remained in the game for a short while, but needed to come out with five minutes left in the quarter.
The Lakers’ offense completely died in the third, before and after Nash existed the game. Shooting just 6-of-20 (30 percent) in the quarter, Los Angeles only mustered 16 points and had all their momentum shot down. Chicago used three buckets from Hinrich to reach a 19-point lead, their largest of the game. It wasn’t until the final couple minutes of the quarter that it appeared to be realistic for a home comeback. After Kaman finished a layup inside, Kendall Marshall buried a corner 3-pointer to bring the crowd back to life. Shortly after, Steve Blake drew a charge on the defensive end and prevented the Bulls from doing any more damage. Los Angeles took a 77-62 deficit into the final 12 minutes.
To put into perspective how much the third hurt the Lakers:
LA has scored 7 points this quarter, and there’s just over 3 minutes remaining
— Shane Young (@YoungNBA) February 9, 2014
Video of Nash’s apparent nerve irritation in the third quarter:
Kobe Bryant must have been somewhat pleased, as the fourth quarter turned out to be completely in the Lakers’ favor.
Winding down to just seven minutes to play, it took a near meltdown by Chicago and a Mamba-like fourth quarter from Kaman to give Los Angeles a chance in crunch time.
With 7:59 remaining, Kaman delivered a beautiful jump hook after posting up Bulls’ Joakim Noah, bringing the team with eight (79-71). The Bulls stayed persistent through the late push, however, and kept finding answers to match Kaman’s burst.
Finally, as Chicago had a 88-82 advantage with under a minute to play, Los Angeles made their defensive move.
Blake stripped the ball from Hinrich well beyond the perimeter and was off to the races. Coach Thibodeau couldn’t have been happy with his team’s hustle on the play, as Blake’s pass to Kaman in the middle set up an entry dish to Wesley Johnson under the rim. Johnson slammed it home, and the Lakers trailed just 88-84, with 48.3 seconds to play.
The problem that arose, however, came on the ensuing Lakers possession. In hopes to cut the lead to two, Blake and Kaman set up a pick-and-roll sequence that would have had Kaman slicing to the rim with the options of either a pull-up or layup attempt. The play was blown up after D.J. Augustin picked off the bounce pass from Blake, who was forced to foul with the shot clock turned off.
Augustin went to the line and drained both free throws, while also getting two more on the next Bulls’ possession. His four free throws sealed the Chicago victory, and gave the backup point guard 15 points on the night.
The Bulls were led by their defensive stalwart, Joakim Noah, who poured in 20 points and grabbed 13 critical rebounds, notching his 23rd double double of the season.
Kaman’s 27 points became a season-high for the 11-year veteran that publicly expressed his uncaring attitude with trade rumors. Kaman also collected 10 rebounds and shot 13-of-23 from the floor.
Before Sunday’s game, one of the keys for the Lakers to be successful was undoubtedly their ability to perform on the glass. They did just that, allowing Chicago to get just eight offensive rebounds to their seven, and finished the game tied in the total rebounding department at 43 a piece. In their previous January meeting, the Bulls out-hustled and pounded the Lakers with offensive rebounds, grabbing 19 in that overtime victory. Safe to say it was very solid improvement for Los Angeles’ defense, despite the loss.
Searching for a reason the Lakers couldn’t get the job done and complete the miracle, you run face first into a blatant answer. 18 turnovers is entirely too many, especially in front of your home crowd. Marshall and Blake both committed five a piece, and that’s not a typical performance from two great distributors.
No Lakers’ starters were in double figures, as rookie Ryan Kelly came up scoreless after putting together two straight games scoring at least 15 points. Hill contributed 15 points and nine rebounds, while Marshall used three 3-pointers to help him record 13 points off the bench.
What is Kaman’s Reputation?
Just due to Kaman not having the athletic ability of a dominant center such as Dwight Howard, he has been the punchline of many jokes. When Howard left the team, that left Pau Gasol as the frontcourt leader, the one that had to carry the load on both ends of the floor. Well I’m certainly willing to say that the gap between Kaman and Gasol’s defense isn’t that large.
In terms of their offense, you always want to see the Spaniard on the floor for Los Angeles, and it’s tough to watch him go through these nagging injuries. But Kaman is no slouch, and he showed flashes of his All-Star capabilities against Noah and Gibson.
Gibson (who scored 18 points in 45 minutes) gave excellent praise to Kaman and his offensive ability:
“He’s been in the league for a long time, and he’s one of the most skilled big men I’ve ever seen since I was in high school,” Gibson stated. “He has both left and right-hand hooks, a mid-range game – and once he’s in a rhythm like he was today, it’s really hard to stop him.”
Even it is was a compliment from a rather young guy without an All-Star bid, it’s still hardcore evidence that Kaman isn’t a nobody in this league. Most critics and even Lakers’ fans are upset he’s even on the team and I’m one that believes all that negativity would be shot down if he was given consistent minutes and not sent to the bench when Gasol returns.
Will Nash Be Fine?
After coming out of the game and not returning for the fourth quarter, Nash headed back to the locker room with the team’s physical therapist, Dr. Judy Seto. The labeled his pain as being “nerve irritation,” and that’s exactly what we’ve heard since he left in November with back problems.
Nash does not believe this is as big of deal, however, addressing the issue after the game:
“I hope tomorrow I can wake up and get right back to (practice),” Nash stated.
Considering he claimed his left leg was “on fire” after the collision with Hinrich, it’s not good news to settle with for the team and their fans.
Nash will rest the leg tonight, with no doctors appointments or exams currently scheduled. Pray for the best, it’s been an uphill battle since joining the purple and gold.
Los Angeles (18-33) will remain at home, as they are embracing this six-game homestand. The Utah Jazz will be in town on Tuesday, setting up the third meeting between D’Antoni and Tyrone Corbin‘s bottom-feeders. A silver lining for the Lakers is that Utah currently sits behind them in the Western Conference standings, just one game back in the win column (17-33).
Then again … the Lakers’ goal for this season may just be to allow Utah to pass them by, giving Hollywood a slightly better chance at landing any prospect they want in this loaded upcoming 2014 NBA Draft.