Suns Eclipse Lakers Despite Bryant's 49 PointsShaquille O'Neal seems to have found the Fountain of Youth in the Arizona desert. He followed up his 45 point performance in a 133-113 Phoenix win over Toronto on Friday with 33 points on 13-18 field goal shooting in a 118-111 victory over the league-leading L.A. Lakers. That is the most points that O'Neal has scored against his former team and the two game total of 78 points is his best output since he and Kobe Bryant were teammates; Bryant countered with 49 points on 18-38 field goal shooting while also grabbing a game-high 11 rebounds. Matt Barnes (26 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists), Leandro Barbosa (22 points, seven assists) and Grant Hill (17 points, six rebounds) provided O'Neal with plenty of help but the only Laker besides Bryant who made a significant contribution was Pau Gasol, who had 30 points on 12-18 field goal shooting; the other Lakers combined to shoot 12-38 from the field, including 2-9 by reserve guards Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar.
The Lakers lost their previous game 90-79 in Denver on Friday but they still own the best record in the NBA (48-12) and are eight games ahead of the San Antonio Spurs in the race for the number one seed in the Western Conference, so it is not like the sky is falling for them. This is only the third time this season that the Lakers have lost two games in a row and they have not lost three games in a row since January 23-27, 2008.
Still, it should be noted that even though commentators often lavish praise on the Lakers' depth, the struggles of their bench players are not a new development. I wrote about this on December 21 after the Lakers lost back to back games in Miami and Orlando; even at that relatively early stage of the season, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson was already shifting his rotations and increasing Bryant's minutes because the Lakers' bench players simply were not productive enough.
Vujacic averaged 8.8 ppg while shooting .454 from the field and .437 from three point range last year; this year, those numbers have dropped to 5.6 ppg, .372 and .349. Farmar averaged 9.1 ppg while shooting .461 from the field and .371 from three point range last year; this year, he is averaging 7.3 ppg with shooting percentages of .418 and .350 respectively.
On Thursday, Coach Jackson said, "I haven't been happy with our younger guys out there. I don't think they're really feeding the system the way they have got to feed the system for everybody to stay happy. We really have to get that group stabilized."
The Lakers play two sub-.500 teams at home (Memphis and Minnesota) before a three game road trip takes them to Portland, Houston and San Antonio. Then the Lakers play three more home games before their last big road trip of the season, seven games in nine days to close out March and begin April. It would take a total collapse for them not to secure the top seed in the West but the Lakers' stated goal this season was to obtain homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs, so every upcoming game is huge because the Lakers, Cavs and Celtics are only separated by 1.5 games in the standings.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:26 AM