Lakers Give Disgraceful Effort and Collapse in Game 4

May 11, 2009

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

A Lakers team returns from the Finals with a sense of entitlement, playing down to the level of its competition throughout the year. Still, the team is more talented than the majority of their NBA brethren, and posts a respectable won-loss total on their way to the league's second best record overall.

In the playoffs, the team continues to sleepwalk through the first round, failing to elevate its level of play from the regular season. A talented big man, absent during the previous Finals, has been added to the frontline for this season's playoff run, causing the rest of the big men to slack off somewhat in certain areas, rather than improve. The team then meets up with a tough, but lesser-talented Houston squad in the later rounds, finding themselves in a dogfight.

Is the team the 2009 Lakers? Sorry, it's the 1985-1986 squad.

Is the new, added big man described above Andrew Bynum? Not even close. It's Maurice Lucas.

The final result of that lost 1986 season? No rings.

History can sometimes have a funny way of repeating itself.

Now let's flash forward to the present day.

On Sunday, the Lakers lost to a depleted Rockets squad in an embarrassing fashion, getting blown out 99-87, in a game that became non-competitive within the first 3 minutes. The Rockets' victory evened the series to two games apiece, with Game 5 scheduled for Tuesday in Los Angeles.

Prior to the game, both teams learned that Rockets' star Yao Ming would be out for the year with a foot injury. Yao's loss, coupled with an earlier injury to Tracy McGrady, gave an already inferior Houston team even less talent to work with going into Game 4. Nevertheless, the Rockets rose to the occasion, thanks to gritty efforts from Shane Battier and Aaron Brooks.

Houston set the tone in the first quarter, exploding to an early 17-4 lead. Battier scored 11 of those first 17 points, going 3-3 from three point land. He would finish the game with 23 points overall.

Meanwhile, Aaron Brooks wreaked havoc on the Lakers, breaking down the Los Angeles defense and finding open shooters, such as Battier, on the perimeter. Brooks tallied 34 points for the game on 12-20 shooting from the field.

Of course, Los Angeles' lack of defensive intensity contributed heavily to Houston's success, as the Lakers repeatedly failed to either contain penetration or close out on the spot-up shooters.

Kobe Bryant tried to stem the tide, nailing a few jumpers in an attempt to keep the game close. Still, at the end of one, Houston held a comfortable 29-16 lead.

In the second quarter, the Laker apathy continued, as Kyle Lowry, Carl Landry, and the rest of the Houston bench began to extend the Rocket lead. Because of some accommodating matador defense, Lowry was able to drive down the lane with ease and get good looks for his squad.

Other than a few Bryant jumpers, the Lakers offered little in response. Bryant wound up the game with an uneventful 17 points, failing to make a single trip to the free throw line. At halftime, Houston enjoyed a commanding 54-36 lead.

Apparently, the pathetic first half play did not anger Los Angeles into making a more concerted defensive effort, as Brooks opened the third quarter with yet another uncontested waltz and layup in the paint. For the remainder of the quarter LA was content to trade buckets, never putting forth a sincere effort to make defensive stops. The quarter would end in the same embarrassing manner it began - another uncontested Brooks layup, this time via a half-court lob with .7 seconds remaining.

Worse yet, Laker forward Lamar Odom injured his back during the quarter, potentially limiting his ability to contribute for the rest of the series.

By the start of the fourth quarter, garbage time was already in full swing. Other than a meaningless, stat-padding late run by Los Angeles, Houston was never truly threatened.

The final statistics failed to provide an accurate account of the contest, as both teams had similar shooting and turnover numbers. Houston did hold a rebounding edge, giving some indication that they simply wanted the game more.

However, a much better barometer of why Houston emerged victorious can be found beyond the numbers -- namely, Houston's style of play, and the Lakers lack of championship attitude.

Diagnosis of the Laker Problem

Without Yao Ming, Houston was forced to field a smaller lineup with a more perimeter-oriented attack. As a result, the Rockets spaced the floor with spot-up shooters, providing their guards with driving lanes to the hole. Despite an off night from Ron Artest, Rocket guards Brooks and Lowry were able to use their quickness to penetrate the Laker defense for easy layups. Although many of those drives came off pick-and-roll action, at other times they involved straight one-on-one takes.

Meanwhile, the lazy Laker defense put up little resistance, failing to execute in several key areas.

First, the Lakers demonstrated mediocre transition defense, as Houston was able to effectively push the ball in transition all night. Second, the Lakers failed to contain any dribble penetration, as not only were the guards incapable of staying in front of their men, but the bigs offered no physical deterrent to the dribbler once at the rim. Finally, the Laker perimeter rotations were either slow or non-existent, allowing Houston to shoot numerous jump shots without so much as a hand in their face.

But to pin the Laker loss simply on a lack of defensive execution would be to paint an incomplete picture. The problem is more system-wide and involves crucial intangibles that cannot be easily fixed.

In other words, there is an absence of a collective grit and toughness that cannot simply be ignored. That lack of toughness is especially glaring in the one area in which it is most needed -- the frontcourt.

It is quite revealing that at the same time that a feisty, undermanned, KG-deprived Celtics team is rallying to beat a solid Orlando club on the road, this Laker squad is getting blown out to a much worse Houston team. There is a reason for the difference in the play of both teams, and it comes down to heart.

For a team that has not won a thing, the Lakers' sense of entitlement and complacency is astonishing. This team had a chance to make this a 5 game series, only to waste it by coming out with zero intensity and fire. And the parties responsible for this lack of passion are numerous.

GM Mitch Kupchak

We can start with GM Mitch Kupchak, who failed to address the need for a proven front court bruiser this offseason. Instead, Kupchack picked up a quiet, hustling 4 in Josh Powell, and also counted on Andrew Bynum's development. But a veteran big with a nasty streak was not added.

One reason for this could have been due to Kupchak overpaying free agent Sasha Vujacic with a three-year $15 million deal. The deal limited the franchise's long-term roster flexibility in exchange for a one-dimensional streak shooter with minimal upside. Worse yet, Vujacic's signing might prevent LA from retaining both Trevor Ariza and Lamar Odom down the road.

In fairness, Kupchak guessed right on Bynum. Prior to his injury, Bynum was not only posting big numbers, but also closing down the paint with ferocity. He dished out two memorable tough fouls on LeBron James and Gerald Wallace, the latter foul putting Wallace in a hospital for several days.

So why isn't Bynum bringing that nastiness like before? Enter the confidence-killing Phil Jackson.

Head Coach Phil Jackson

Assuming Bynum's low production is not caused by knee trouble, then Jackson's use of Bynum in the rotation must be viewed as a huge contributor to his struggles.

Bynum started the Lakers' first playoff game against Utah and had a productive first quarter. However, after some so-so play, Jackson made an in-series adjustment by placing Lamar Odom into the starting lineup. The change would not have been so significant had Bynum continued to receive a substantial amount of minutes. Unfortunately, Bynum's minutes dropped severely, and as a result, he has failed to find his comfort level in the playoffs.

On Sunday, Jackson wasted a golden opportunity to get Bynum some quality work, as Bynum saw almost no action during the extended garbage time of the second half. Had Bynum played and enjoyed some success, he might have taken some confidence into Game 5.

At some point Jackson must realize that a physical interior presence will be needed for a title run. Somebody on his team eventually must put a guard like Brooks on his back when he ventures in among the trees. Other than perhaps reserve DJ Mbenga, Bynum is the sole frontcourt player with the will to play such a role. Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom simply are not hardwired for physicality, and cannot be expected to suddenly change their style of play. Both are giving effort in other phases, but Jackson is deluding himself if he thinks he can expect a message-sending foul from either of these two.

If it takes some early unproductive minutes from the kid in order for him to be comfortable later, then Jackson needs to increase Bynum's minutes immediately. By continuing to use Bynum for only "spot duty," Jackson will only ensure Bynum's continued struggles this postseason.

Then there is the issue of the man's coaching style.

The laid-back zen master has always been an outstanding manager of veteran clubs. On his Jordan and Shaq squads, both rosters were populated by players who had been in the league for years and simply "got it." With those types of players, Jackson's low-maintenance style was a perfect fit.

However, now he has a team with Kobe, Fisher, and a then bunch of young guys who are still figuring things out on the fly. With that type of locker room, Jackson needs to be more of a constantly-prodding nag. Quite simply, without more micro-management from Jackson, this team's focus will tend to drift.

Which brings us to failings of Kobe Bryant.

Kobe Bryant

Kobe has had a number of playoff performances for which he has been unfairly criticized -- Game 7 against Phoenix and Game 6 against Boston stand as two examples. In both blowouts, reactionaries in the media tried to claim that he did not show up and perform, and hence, the Lakers lost.

Certainly, such criticism was absurd in both cases, as similar to yesterday's game, the Laker defense was a virtual layup line. Had he duplicated his 81 point career-best in all three of those playoff games, the results would have been the same due to LA's inability to generate stops.

So, if his on-court play was not the true cause of the problem, then where did Kobe come up short yesterday?

First, Kobe's leadership has been mediocre the past two postseasons. He has many of the intangibles of the all-time greats - clutchness, killer instinct, competitive drive, and maximum effort - yet, he comes up short in terms of the leadership needed to elevate this particular team.

In fairness, Bryant does have the ability to make others around him better. Most notably, the entire roster of USA Basketball, LeBron James included, took notes on Kobe's unrelenting preparation, and came back as more driven and improved players.

But there is a difference between leading a team of stars and veterans and leading a team of young players still learning along the way. In the first case, you can simply lead by example and the rest will follow. In the latter instance, the leadership must become more proactive.

For Kobe to elevate these kids, he needs to be more of a vocal, emotional leader. The silent assassin who merely jacks up dagger jumpers all day, simply is not inspiring the team to greater confidence.

Instead, Kobe must will the team to victory, similar to how Magic Johnson literally willed a raw, second-year center named Vlade Divac to a productive playoff stretch by constantly riding and encouraging him.

Without such a leadership change, this team will come up short, and make no mistake, much of their failing will fall on Bryant.

Second, Kobe must adopt a more aggressive style of play.

At this rate Kobe is transforming into Dell Curry before our eyes -- a streak jump shooter, taking plays off defensively, and good for only about two explosive games per series.

With Yao Ming out for the series, Kobe needs to impose his will on the game offensively by getting more looks in the paint. Too often, Bryant has been content to launch from deep, playing into Houston's hands when his shots have not fallen.

However, by forcing the issue and getting in the lane, Bryant can either get to the line or free up LA's perimeter gunners. Perhaps Jackson can assist in improving his shot selection by decreasing the iso's and 1-4 sets, and instead calling more screen-roll action or post touches for Bryant.

Can the Laker Season Still be Saved?

According to Pat Riley, no. In Riles' world, teams cannot turn things on like a light switch, as they will always fall back on their habits. In this case, the Lakers' habits consist of good offense, undermined by unfocused, sub-par defense.

Fortunately for the Lakers, today's Houston, Denver, and Cleveland squads are a cut below the Celtics and Bad Boys of Riley's 80's. Against such competition, the Lakers might just prevail anyway, bad habits and all.

Nevertheless, there is some history on LA's side, as the old Drexler-Olajuwon Rockets flipped the switch late, eventually earning themselves a title on the way. Theoretically then, for Laker fans, there is still time to right the ship.

For Jackson and Bryant, legacies are now on the line. Of course, not with the outcome of Game 5 alone, but certainly with the overall results of their playoff run.

Let's just hope there are no Ralph Sampson sightings in the Staples Center during Game 5.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for

1 comment:

  1. i predict a monster game for kobe, and a much better effort from bynum. he will get more minutes because of lamar's back. Lake Show in 6!


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