Kobe Bryant played an efficient, effective game Thursday while battling the aftereffects of a stomach ailment. But his teammates imploded around him, and the Nuggets played with a fury and polish that the Lakers could not match in Denver’s 113-96 victory. Bryant was understandably upset afterward. First, there was this on small forward Metta World Peace, who is set to return from his seven-game suspension for Game 7 on Saturday in Los Angeles:
“He’s the one guy that I can rely on night in and night out to compete and play hard and play with that sense of urgency and no fear,” Bryant said of World Peace. “I’m looking forward to having that by my side again.”
The Lakers obviously are missing World Peace, for reasons I outlined toward the end of this piece Wednesday. Small forwards Devin Ebanks and Matt Barnes have been mostly awful, and the Nuggets are ignoring them on offense to bottle up the Lakers’ post game. World Peace is an average NBA player at this point even at his best, but he’s a better three-point shooter, by a healthy margin, than Ebanks or Barnes, and he has a tough post game only one Denver wing player, Danilo Gallinari, is really equipped to defend. With Barnes and Ebanks failing, the Lakers have played a ton of minutes with point guards Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake sharing the floor. Both are subpar defenders whom the Nuggets have torched. The Lakers have allowed 104.4 points per 100 possessions when Blake and Sessions play together, a mark that would have ranked 25th in the regular season.
But in the most obvious sense, Bryant’s lionizing of World Peace is ridiculous. He is the one Laker whom Bryant has literally not been able to count on in these playoffs, having removed himself with an irresponsible elbow to James Harden’s head in the team’s second-to-last regular-season game. The NBA suspended World Peace for the first six games of the playoffs, and given the trickle-down effect of his absence, it’s fair to wonder if L.A. would have wrapped up this series by now had he been available. Some reliable teammate.
Bryant went on to call out center Andrew Bynum and challenge power forward Pau Gasol, as Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski reported after Game 6:
“I’m going to tell Andrew he needs to play with a sense of urgency, a sense of desperation,” Bryant told Yahoo! Sports late Thursday, later than he ever imagined he’d still be in this playoff series. “He’s got to put himself at a fever pitch and elevate his game.
“I’m going to tell him the truth.”
Bryant cornered Pau Gasol in a private moment before boarding the bus and told him, too: Enough of the drifting, enough of the timidity, enough of the entitlement. Bleeping play, man.
On the surface, Bynum is having a wonderful playoffs. He was right there with Bryant for “best player on the floor” status in each of the first two games. He’s shooting 57 percent. He ranks seventh overall in Player Efficiency Rating in the postseason, with a higher mark than his outstanding one from the regular season.
But Bynum’s individual PER does not account for his horrific transition defense, which has just killed the Lakers all series. He gets no statistical blame, outside of plus/minus data, for all of the times he has loafed back on defense, allowing a Kenneth Faried run-out and/or forcing one of the Lakers’ guards to sag into the paint to contain Bynum’s man. Nuggets players have come open on some transition three-pointers, especially shots Arron Afflalo and Gallinari hit in the last two games, because their defenders had to rush into the paint to guard Bynum’s man as the 7-footer jogged over mid-court.
Bynum’s half-court defense, on the pick-and-roll and otherwise, has been hit or miss. But that is usually the case for most big men, including Gasol in this series. Half-court defense is complicated, with varying schemes and reads, and constant personnel changes as players rotate in and out. Slip-ups happen, unless you’re Kevin Garnett or Dwight Howard or Tyson Chandler. But the transition stuff is more about effort, and Bynum has failed. The Lakers are basically starting every game behind 10-0 because of points the Nuggets will inevitably get by simply outrunning Bynum.
Gasol, meanwhile, has seen his numbers dip for the second straight postseason, a trend that reached its nadir on Thursday, when he went 1-of-10, bricked several mid-range jumpers and finished with three points and three rebounds. He is averaging 11.2 points and has taken 11 free throws in six games.
But here’s the thing: This is essentially the player Gasol is now, with Bynum emerging as the Lakers’ second option and full-time post-up presence. Gasol is a center trying his best to play the role of a stretch power forward, and the result has been more jumpers, more assists and fewer free throws. He took more long jumpers per minute this season than at any point in his Lakers career and attempted the fewest free throws per minute of his NBA career. This is the player the Lakers have asked him to become, and there will be games when jump-shooting big men miss a lot.
That said, Gasol is not taking advantage of opportunities for aggression. Denver forward Al Harrington has managed to push Gasol a step or two out on the block when Gasol has been the focus of L.A.’s post-up game. Harrington is a rugged interior defender when he’s engaged, but Gasol should be able to get better looks against him than he has. Also, Gasol’s pick-and-roll game could use the occasional roll in situations like this one from Thursday, when Harrington trapped Blake and let Gasol have an open driving lane:
Gasol settled for a jumper instead, and missed.
His defense has been inconsistent, and he looked slow Thursday attempting to help and then recover to Faried in contesting shots or jumping for rebounds. The Nuggets have also hurt Gasol at times by running him in two consecutive pick-and-rolls involving point guard Ty Lawson, forcing him to expend a lot of energy in trying to contain one of the league’s speediest players.
Gasol has always been a good defender but not a great one, and the larger story of this series is that the Lakers’ defense has collapsed against Denver, especially on the glass. Remember that stat about how the Lakers have allowed 104.4 points per 100 possessions with Sessions and Blake together? That’s actually about what they’ve permitted for the full series. In a related development, the Nuggets, a slightly above-average offensive-rebounding team this season, have brutalized the Lakers on the glass. Los Angeles has rebounded only 69.6 percent of Denver misses in this series after grabbing about 75 percent of available defensive rebounds during the season, one of the best marks in the league. The Lakers have managed to keep Denver, the NBA’s best team at getting to the stripe, off the foul line, but the Nuggets have made up for that lost production by hitting the glass and manufacturing transition points.
The shaky defense gets at the two related, overarching reasons the Lakers are in trouble: the thin roster and the resulting fatigue. Gasol ranked second in minutes played in the regular season, and Bryant finished 11th despite missing seven late-season games with a shin injury. Bynum was “only” 30th but still logged a career high in total minutes and blew away his previous high in minutes per game.
The three stars did this to prop up perhaps the worst 4-through-12 roster in the league. You have to wonder if they are paying the price now, in the thin air of Denver, against a younger, deeper team.
And that thin roster? It’s still thin, and still failing badly at a time when World Peace’s absence has made it even thinner. Barnes actually made a corner three-pointer Thursday (huzzah!) but is now 13-of-48 overall (27.1 percent) from the floor in this series. Blake is 12-of-33 (36.4 percent). Ebanks has failed to earn coach Mike Brown’s trust and turned into a token starter.
Sessions was supposed to be the antidote, but his game has also regressed. He’s shooting just 40.3 percent and looks unnerved in the half-court offense, pounding the ball without purpose as he decides whether to take the 19-footer that Denver is happily giving him. He hasn’t been bad by Barnes/Blake/Ebanks standards, but he has been below average on offense, and when you combine that with his usual subpar defense, the equation begins to tilt against L.A.
So while Bryant vents about Bynum and Gasol and fans scream for their heads, understand: The two big men are only a part of the problem here, and their issues are linked to the broader ones affecting the team. They still haven’t been good enough, though, and they have one game left to turn things around.