Lakers Limp Toward the Finish LineThe Lakers' season started out like a soap opera, looked like it might have a storybook ending after the acquisition of Pau Gasol and is now looking like a soap opera again: call it "As the Injured List Turns." Gasol and Andrew Bynum are both out of the lineup due to leg injuries, Lamar Odom is battling a respiratory infection and Kobe Bryant has a sprained ankle in addition to a torn ligament/broken bone in his right pinkie finger, an injury that will eventually need to be surgically repaired.
Now Derek Fisher can be added to the list of the walking wounded. I mentioned recently that Fisher seems to be breaking down physically; his shooting percentage has declined from its early season levels and he is having trouble on defense. It turns out that he has a partially torn tendon in his right foot. Although the tear apparently happened during Wednesday's loss to Charlotte, Fisher said that the foot has been sore for a couple weeks: "There was definitely something going on that just kind of flew under the radar that ultimately led to the tendon kind of popping a little bit." This injury typically takes six to eight weeks of rest to heal but Fisher plans to try to keep playing, following the example set by Bryant, who has played very well--and without either complaint or excuses--since mangling his finger.
In addition to the team's offensive woes, preventing dribble penetration has become a serious issue for the Lakers' point guards. As a frustrated Bryant said after the game, "Staying in front of the ball has been a big problem for us. If we can't solve that problem, then we'll just have to continue to get penetrated on until we get the big guys back and then they can bail us out by blocking shots to the basket."
Odom and Fisher combined to shoot 3-14 from the field in the Lakers' 114-111 home loss to Memphis on Friday, while Vladimir Radmanovic (nine points on 3-8 shooting) and Ronny Turiaf (six points on 3-10 shooting) also struggled; those four starters scored 21 points on 9-32 field goal shooting but Bryant singlehandedly kept the Lakers in the game by pouring in a season-high 53 points on just 37 field goal attempts, including 9-17 accuracy from three point range. He also had 10 rebounds, three steals and just one turnover. Critics will no doubt mention that Bryant only had one assist but you cannot get assists if your teammates are missing shots (Odom had 11 assists but six of them came from passing to Bryant). Bryant played just under 42 minutes and had a +1 plus/minus rating; that means that in the roughly six minutes Bryant was not in the game the Lakers were outscored by four points.
The Lakers trailed by two points with less than 30 seconds remaining when Bryant drove to the hoop and the entire Memphis team collapsed into the paint to stop him; check out the highlight of this play if you get a chance: it looks like an elementary school soccer game when all of the players converge in a blob around the ball. Bryant dished to Odom, who bricked a three pointer from the right baseline. There are only three reasons that a player would ever be quintuple-teamed:
1) That player is playing really, really well.
2) His teammates are playing really, really poorly.
3) The defensive team is not that good and several players abandoned their assignments to trap the ballhandler.
Check, check and check in this case: Bryant is the best player in the NBA, his teammates could not throw the ball in the ocean from the pier even when he created wide open shots for them and the Grizzlies are not a good defensive team.
The game ended with Luke Walton committing a turnover on an inbounds pass instead of calling a timeout. That script--Bryant having a positive plus/minus rating, the Lakers blowing a lead when he is on the bench, Odom bricking a three pointer late in the game and Walton making a poor inbounds pass--contains many elements that are disturbingly familiar to Lakers' fans: in the Lakers' 94-90 loss in Cleveland this season Odom missed a late three pointer from exactly the same spot after Bryant drew a double-team and passed him the ball. Bryant had a plus/minus rating of +8 that night despite being hobbled by a pulled groin muscle. This is also not the first time that Walton made a poor inbounds pass instead of calling a timeout. Walton is an unselfish player who is a skilled passer in the Triangle Offense but I wonder if anyone has tracked his performance as an inbounds passer; he does not seem to have a good sense of when/where to throw the ball and when to call a timeout because the play is not working as designed.
The Lakers are not a great team and I am mystified why so many so many people think so highly of the Lakers' roster. Granted, if Gasol and Bynum were on the court together with Bryant--which has yet to happen once--then the Lakers would have a nice team but right now that is a purely theoretical concept; the reason that the Lakers have been competing for the top record in the West this season is that Bryant is the best player in the league and he needs less help than any other superstar to turn a team into a contender. It's so funny: twice this season the Lakers added one player who can consistently catch Bryant's passes and score--Bynum before he got hurt, then Gasol via trade--and the Lakers zoomed to the top of the standings because teams could no longer double, triple, quadruple or quintuple-team Bryant. That does not mean that the Lakers are a great team; it just means that they have a few guys who sometimes make open shots if the defense has to deal with both Bryant and Gasol (or Bynum). If Bryant had missed as many games as Gasol and Bynum have then the Lakers would not even be a playoff team in the tough Western Conference. Instead, Bryant has carried them to the point that all they need now to get the top seed are for him to produce a few more 40 point games, a few bench players to make some open shots and/or the healthy return of at least one of the big guys; the Lakers are one game behind both San Antonio and New Orleans but they have home games remaining versus both teams.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:06 PM