Lakers left searching for answers after fourth straight loss
NEW YORK -- The Lakers arrived here in need of a psychiatrist as much as a victory.
After dropping a 116-107 decision to the Knicks on Thursday night, it's back to the doctor's couch.
The Lakers spent the hours leading up to their fourth straight loss, and sixth in their last seven games, trying to uncover why a team many ticketed for the NBA Finals sat behind 11 teams in the Western Conference standings.
Are you talented enough? Do you practice defense? Can you find a serviceable point guard? Is Kobe angry? What would Magic Johnson do?
Question after question after question; all aimed at deconstructing what's wrong with the Lakers. And just to add a little holiday spice, the duel with Carmelo Anthony opened up a new line of inquiry about Mike D'Antoni's reunion with the team he left last March, a team that has gone 35-11 in the regular season since his departure.
None of the hand-wringing that D'Antoni has revealed in testy interview exchanges with reporters, or private phone chats that Kobe Bryant has had with Magic, gets at what ails the Lakers. The problems are many, they are complicated and they were on display for all to see at Madison Square Garden.
• Execution: Much as they had in the three consecutive losses before Thursday, the Lakers sank themselves with a general listlessness. Slow-reacting defense, sloppy offense, an unwillingness to move the ball on offense -- all of those things have strangled Los Angeles in recent weeks.
On Thursday, Anthony, Raymond Felton, Tyson Chandler and J.R. Smith all found safe passage to the basket, no matter if it was Dwight Howard or Jordan Hill guarding the paint. Both Lakers big men regularly conceded shots at the free-throw line, which wasn't a good idea against a team that ranked second in the NBA in offensive efficiency. They weren't the only culprits. The Knicks moved the ball crisply and often, looking for whatever openings could be found. And when they were found, the Lakers were slow to react, racing past a shooter on a three-point attempt or flailing away at a player cutting through the lane.
L.A. was just as careless on offense, turning the ball over as many times (13) as it tallied assists. In the second quarter alone, the Lakers had two assists as the Knicks steamed into halftime with a 19-point lead.
"We have to come out and play with a certain energy every game and we haven't done that for a full 48 minutes yet," Lakers point guard Chris Duhon said. "Each game we dig ourselves a hole and then we turn it up and you see how good we are, but then we just run out of time. We have to exert so much energy coming back and during those times everything has to go your way -- [you have to get] calls and then you have to make shots and they have to miss shots. It's something that we have to figure out, that we have to play hard from the opening tip. We haven't done that consistently this year."
• Defense: Kobe Bryant's aging legs and Howard's incomplete return to health after back surgery have made what was an average defense under former coach Mike Brown into an abysmal unit now. The Lakers on Thursday gave up 100 points for the seventh time in their last eight games. Just as troubling, the defense put the game out of reach early, allowing New York to score 41 points in the first quarter and shoot 73.9 percent. Anthony scored 22 points in the period -- he finished with 30 points in only 23 minutes, leaving in the third quarter with a sprained ankle -- as the Lakers failed to heed D'Antoni's pregame message.
"A lot of [what we do] now has to center on our defense," D'Antoni said. "We have to win games defending; we can't win games offensively now. [But we've come] out flat for whatever reason, and we have to get over that real quick."
• Personnel: Without Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, the Lakers have had to make up (based on the most recent play of both) about 24 points, 12 rebounds and 14 assists per game. Additionally, the Lakers are without perhaps their best three-point shooter and an interior defender who excels at helping cover the mistakes of teammates. That kind of production isn't going to happen with Hill, Duhon and Antawn Jamison combining for six points, 10 rebounds and six fouls. True, Devin Ebanks scored 15, but considering the outburst was more than his last eight games combined, that's not something D'Antoni can rely on.
"Right now, we're a little lopsided on Kobe and Dwight sharing the burden on offense," D'Antoni said before the game. "We've got to get a little more balance."
That isn't happening with a bench so unreliable. The lack of attention opponents have paid the Lakers' stand-ins has amped up the defensive pressure on Bryant and Howard to carry the offense, which they have done pretty effectively. But it still leaves times when the likes of Duhon and Ebanks have to pitch in, and when Duhon spends a play dribbling through and around a defense only to miss a shot off the glass, and Ebanks misses a layup moments later (as both did Thursday), the Lakers won't be seeing any defensive balance from opponents anytime soon.
It's worth noting, of course, that some of what plagues the Lakers is the loss of their stars and the abrupt change of philosophy after a full training camp under a very different scheme under a very different coach. But every team adapts to injuries. The Bulls haven't had Derrick Rose, but they are 12-9. The Timberwolves have played much of the season without Kevin Love and all of it without Ricky Rubio, but they are three games ahead of Los Angeles. The Lakers can't keep waiting for Nash to come back and save the day. Thirty-eight-year-old players who haven't averaged 32 minutes a game in two seasons have their limits, especially when some of the playmaking that D'Antoni craves has to involve someone other than Kobe, Howard and Gasol.
The lack of depth might be excusable if the Lakers' top-four players were in their prime, much like the Heat's three stars were in Season 1 of the LeBron James era in Miami. But Howard is admittedly struggling to regain his rhythm more than a quarter of the way into the season. Bryant has lost more than a step or three on defense. Gasol cannot find a comfort level in D'Antoni's system. And Nash will be returning from a broken fibula. An impotent bench is sure to have D'Antoni, who has long operated with a short rotation, itchy to shuttle in his starters for more minutes than advisable. And while the starters alone should be able to turn the losses to Cleveland and Orlando into victories, a top-heavy roster will not help L.A. climb over the frisky teams cluttering the West's playoff ladder.
These aren't insurmountable issues if the Lakers take D'Antoni's words to heart and start playing defense. But given D'Antoni's track record, you have to wonder if they are only words. His teams have finished in the top half of the league in points allowed per possession only twice in 10 seasons. And his best mark (fifth in 2011-12) came with current Knicks coach Mike Woodson as his defensive assistant and eventual successor. The words sound appropriate for a team scuffling for every win it can get, but the results are the same they have almost always been under D'Antoni.
Right now, though, the only result the Lakers need is a win. But given their myriad issues, and the bull's-eye the Lakers always play with on their backs, no victory is assured.
"We need to have a little stability so that there's more of a sense of purpose in what we want to do," Bryant said. "I'll direct that a little bit more, playing more of a striker position. I'll take control of the ball a little bit more."
If only the answers were that simple.