“Inconsistency” doesn’t just describe the 2013-14 Los Angeles Lakers’ performance. It’s a perfect term that also characterizes their rotations since opening night.
In 57 games played since Oct. 29, coach Mike D’Antoni has been forced to change his lineups and strategies due to the most dreadful word in sports — injuries.
Taking newly-acquired Kent Bazemore out of the equation, guard/forward Nick Young has been the team’s second-leading scorer with an average of 16.8 points per game. Young, who has missed seven of the Lakers’ 10 games thus far in February, was ruled out for the Tuesday matchup with the Indiana Pacers. According to ESPN Los Angeles’ Dave McMenamin, Young will miss Wednesday’s game in Memphis as well, not taking any chances on re-injuring his left knee.
Since returning from the non-displaced patella fracture and bone bruise he suffered on Feb. 5, Young admits that the pain hasn’t completely vanished. Listed by the team as “day to day,” he acknowledged that it was best to sit out the two-game road trip.
Rookie Ryan Kelly, on the other hand, has been a victim of coaching alternatives and rotation experimenting. After starting 13 games this season and being the offensive catalyst in the Lakers’ Feb. 5 miracle win over the Cleveland Cavaliers (26 points), Kelly has averaged only nine minutes per contest in Los Angeles’ last three games (vs. Boston, Brooklyn, at Indiana). Being in his rookie contract and on a team that’s accumulated more injury absences than anyone else in the league, it’s safe to say Kelly didn’t expect this many opportunities heading into the season.
At the same time, however, a discrepancy in minutes can typically affect a player’s production and morale. Despite the lack of consistency within the Lakers’ organization since D’Antoni accepted the job in November 2012, the task at hand on Tuesday was something only three teams have been able to do; knock off the Eastern Conference leaders in their house.
Kicking off the action in the first, the Lakers succeeded with sticking to one of their season-long game plans, but experienced a slight backfire. Ranking second in the league in “pace,” which estimates a team’s number of possessions per 48 minutes, D’Antoni’s unit — along with any other team he’s led — believes in quick ball movements to generate shots at a fast tempo. This offensive strategy is known to keep defenses on their heels and, ultimately, create a game that’s based on runs. Although, the Lakers didn’t count on Indiana being able to adapt so perfectly.
Shooting 45.2 percent in the opening quarter, the Pacers jumped all over the depleted purple and gold by attempting 31 field goals and scoring 30 points in the first 12 minutes. This isn’t something Indiana is accustomed to, playing mediocre first halves all season long before flipping the switch after halftime.
In contrast to the Lakers’ 8-of-24 efficiency (33.3 percent) in the first quarter, Pau Gasol and newly-acquired Kent Bazemore became the only promising performers out of the gate. Gasol showed flashbacks of his 2010 championship self with an aggressive spin move around Pacers’ center, Roy Hibbert, topped off with a powerful slam with 3:52 remaining in the first. The eye-popping move drew a foul, as well as some intense remarks under the Spaniard’s breath. Bazemore’s confidence with his driving ability and 3-point shot helped Los Angeles stay remotely in the game. After one, they found themselves trailing Indiana 30-23, as the Gasol/Bazemore duo accounted for 16 points combined.
The second period featured the Lakers surging under the radar, considering the debut of Pacers’ Evan Turner absorbed majority of the attention. Turner appeared strong and ready to add to a title contending team, connecting on three of his first six attempts, and leading Indiana’s second unit with six points in the quarter. Starting the game and re-entering in the second quarter, Jodie Meeks played the entire period and was the fire behind the Lakers’ 31 points, scoring 10 himself on 4-of-6 shooting.
Kelly, who knew he would fill some of the void Young’s absence left, put his versatility on display in the second. Perhaps one misapprehension on Kelly’s game coming out of college was that he wouldn’t transform into anything other than a spot-up shooter as a stretch forward. It’s been his ability to put the ball on the floor and confidence to penetrate — which made up his seven second quarter points — that’s impressed many, including myself.
Protecting the interior with seven blocks in the second, the Lakers entered halftime down just 57-54, against a Pacers bunch that has developed a reputation for obliterating opponents in the third quarter.
That’s exactly how Los Angeles was victimized in Tuesday’s loss.
George Hill ignited the Pacers’ relentless third quarter with two quick scores in the paint, right before All-Star Paul George escaped his first half slump. Struggling to score from the field early in the game, George exploded for 10 points to blow the lead wide open in the third. Being the focal point of a 14-5 run Indiana strung together, he allowed the Pacers to make it a 14-point game, 80-66, in the blink of an eye. Turnovers became the death of the Lakers in the third, racking up seven and practically giving Indiana’s improved offense more ammunition to score.
Los Angeles’ third quarter shot chart:
The Pacers rode the crowd’s excitement to a 34-16 third quarter, which turned out to be the primary turning point on Tuesday. When the Lakers are firing from the perimeter and develop a rhythm, giving up a horrible defensive quarter may not be the end of the world. However, connecting on just 4-of-16 3-pointers through the first three quarters spelled disaster on the road.
It’s truly no mystery …. Gasol and Chris Kaman are talented, versatile bigs, but not the type of players — in their 30’s — that will establish an inside-out style of basketball in an offensive system. Sure, they’ll have their highlight moments when the ball finds them in the post or in the mid-range area, but no longer are they the guys that will change an offensive psyche quite like Dwight Howard would …. especially in a system that’s small ball oriented, with a central focus on outside looks.
Indiana’s third quarter shot chart:
In the fourth quarter, “garbage time” was in full effect for the Pacers. But, as we know, it’s impossible for D’Antoni to unload a fresh bench into the game. At least not until mid-March. With Donald Sloan, Chris Copeland, Rasual Butler, and Lavoy Allen all making appearances during the runaway lead, Indiana closed out their 43rd win of the season and 27th at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Bazemore led the Lakers with a career-high 23 points on 8-of-19 field goals and 1-of-5 from beyond the arc. Los Angeles’ 34 bench points — 11 from MarShon Brooks — could have been escalated with Young in action, but health is the main concern with this team, as it’s been all season. If Young and General Manager Mitch Kupchak are both intrigued by the idea of reuniting for next season, obviously risking further injury wouldn’t be the best idea.
Kendall Marshall, who averaged 11.1 points and 10.1 assists during the Lakers’ first seven games of February, has suddenly hit a wall offensively. After coming up scoreless Tuesday at Indiana, Marshall has now averaged 2.3 points and 6.3 assists in the last three games. Bazemore and Brooks joined the team at the beginning of that tough stretch, against the Boston Celtics. Coincidence? It’s possible, but Marshall isn’t a fan of half-court execution on either end of the floor, and it seems that he’s been unhappy for longer than just the one night in Indianapolis.
“When you’re not moving the ball on offense and you’re giving up on defense, it’s kind of disheartening,” Marshall stated after Tuesday’s loss.
Gasol, who finished with 13 points and nine rebounds on 6-of-13 field goals, is also having a tough time adjusting to the unorganized offense.
“There’s just too many individual actions right now,” Gasol told the media. “It’s really not a good flow and rhythm out there. You get two guys that are just coming in brand new and they’re playing a lot of minutes, so, that’s going to take some time for the team and the units to kind of understand each other and be on the same page.”
George finished with a team-high 20 points for the Pacers, who received 50 points off the bench. Turner’s debut consisted of 13 points in 26 minutes, along with thousands of cheers that signify Indiana fans accept the trade deadline deal. Los Angeles couldn’t plummet any lower in the Western Conference Standings, as they remain in 15th (last) with a 19-38 record, 20 of those losses coming on the road. Losing six of their last seven, the Lakers are unintentionally contending for a top five draft pick.
The Difference Maker
It’s never easy for anyone to out-rebound the ferocious frontcourt Indiana possesses — especially for the Lakers. The Pacers’ two most impressive rebounding nights of the regular season have now come against D’Antoni, beginning with the Jan. 28 victory at Staples Center. In that meeting, Indiana grabbed 63 boards to the Lakers’ 50, and dominated second-chance opportunities by securing 17 rebounds on the offensive glass.
On Tuesday, Los Angeles was out-rebounded by 20 (62-42) and their effort on limiting second chances was even more abysmal. Giving up 21 offensive rebounds to Indiana, the Lakers could never gain momentum with their initial defensive stops. It’s too late into the season, but finishing defensive possessions has haunted this team for the past two seasons, in reality. D’Antoni issued the most questionable comments of the night, dismissing the fact that the lost rebounding war caused a lopsided game.
“It absolutely means nothing,” D’Antoni said. “We didn’t play well enough. We just didn’t move the ball. We tried to go one-on-one.”
Ensuring that you’re team retains possession after missed buckets does take into account athleticism on the front-line, but majority of it is based on effort, and how much energy the team creates. The Lakers couldn’t be proud of either aspect in Tuesday’s rebounding battle.
Los Angeles will take on the Memphis Grizzlies at FedFex Forum on Wednesday. Matching up with David Joerger’s Grizzlies on the second night of a back-to-back, the road gets no easier than the Lakers experienced Tuesday. Currently allowing just 94.4 points per game, Memphis has retained the third ranked defense throughout majority of the season, behind only Chicago and Indiana. The season series between Memphis and Los Angeles is split 1-1, but there’s only one problem with that information. The Lakers had Kobe Bryant to issue his heroics before injuring his knee in the Dec. 17 meeting.
Shane Young is an NBA credentialed writer for ESPN TrueHoops’ 8pt9secs and HoopsHabit.com. For all Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers, or general NBA coverage, follow @YoungNBA and @HoopsHabit on Twitter.