D.J. Foster

The Extra Pass: Three players who are ready to start

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Let’s take a look at three players who were in action Tuesday night who deserve starting jobs sooner rather than later.

Jeremy Lamb, Oklahoma City Thunder

Reggie Jackson has understandably received plenty of praise in Russell Westbrook’s absence, but don’t sleep on Lamb’s emergence as a reliable scorer. With Thabo Sefolosha struggling to find his shot and Kevin Martin out of the picture, Lamb has stepped into a bigger role (22 minutes a night) and has provided OKC with a real spot-up shooting threat on the perimeter. Unlike Sefolosha, Lamb has the ability to score off the bounce and his much quicker release allows him to more effectively spread the floor.

Are the offensive upgrades enough reason to insert Lamb in the starting lineup over Sefolosha, who has familiarity and stronger defensive instincts on his side? Thunder head coach Scott Brooks catches a lot of flak, but he’s been more open to toying with different lineups and letting hot players stay on the floor. There’s still a lot of loyalty to guys like Kendrick Perkins, but not nearly as much as in years past. With that in mind, Lamb playing more than Sefolosha might not be so out of the question.

Sefolosha is on an expiring contract, so don’t be surprised if the Thunder start to work in Lamb as much as possible, even with Westbrook’s eventual return. He’s just a much more dynamic offensive player than Sefolosha is.

James Johnson, Memphis Grizzlies

It’s pretty incredible that a player who wasn’t on an NBA roster to start the season could swing the Memphis Grizzlies’ season, but here we are.

Johnson has been incredible in his 22 games with Memphis, averaging roughly 14 points, 7 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2 steals and 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes. Andrei Kirilenko is the only wing player to ever actually average those numbers over a full season, so you know Johnson is in good company.

Those numbers alone should warrant more than 22 minutes a night, especially when you consider who is blocking Johnson’s path to more playing time. At age 33, Tayshaun Prince is a shell of his former self on the defensive end, and his true shooting percentage of 41.7 is unpalatable for a team already starved for space.

Prince has had a storied career and deserves a lot of respect, but rookie head coach Dave Joerger might have to make the tough call and cut his playing time considerably in order to get Johnson some more burn. If the Grizzlies sneak into the playoffs and go against the likes of Kevin Durant or Nicolas Batum in the first round, Johnson’s 6-foot-9 frame and playmaking ability on both ends will be desperately needed. Prince just isn’t going to cut it anymore.

Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls

You can understand why Gibson comes off the bench for Tom Thibodeau. Protecting Carlos Boozer’s ego by keeping him as a starter makes sense, and Gibson’s defensive versatility allows him to play either the 4 or 5, which makes him perfectly suited to be a third big man.

Here’s the issue, though. Even if Gibson is the one finishing games in the fourth quarter, it’s still a shame to see him play less than 30 minutes a night on average. When you see Gibson’s chemistry with Joakim Noah and his vastly superior defense, you have to wonder if Chicago would be much better off playing Gibson as much as he can handle and giving whatever is left over to Boozer.

If the Bulls are going to amnesty Boozer this offseason anyway, it might be less of a priority to treat Boozer with kid gloves. Gibson is the superior player and he’s part of Chicago’s future where Boozer probably isn’t. Once he returns to the lineup, there’s no reason why Boozer should be playing more than Gibson going forward.

The Extra Pass: The Minnesota Timberwolves are on the clock

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10 days before the trade deadline. 30 games left in the season. One contract year remaining.

To say this is one of the most important time frames in the history of the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise isn’t overly dramatic or hyperbolic. It’s reality.

Minnesota has never won a championship. 25 years, no rings, and an overall winning percentage below 40 percent. There isn’t much of a history to be forgotten when making statements like the one above.

In fact, very few transcendent talents have ever even suited up for the Wolves. When you think back of all the players over the years, only the two Kevins really spring to mind.

The first Kevin, of course, showed tremendous loyalty and stayed with the team for 12 years. At the peak of his powers, Garnett was able to turn Minnesota into a consistent winner, but he wasted his prime on bad rosters that were mangled by management. Wally Szczerbiak was genuinely one of the best players Garnett got to play with. Yes, it was that bad.

The second Kevin has dealt with worse, though. Whether it was a coach who wouldn’t play him early in his career, management that wouldn’t pay him coming off his rookie deal, or the same failure to put enough talent around him, Love hasn’t even felt the small success of a playoff series to tide him over halfway through the same amount of time KG spent in Minnesota.

Garnett was loyal to a fault, sure, but at least he had some semblance of hope that the Wolves could reach the next level with him on board. He had reason for his faith.

The same can’t be said for Love, and so the Wolves are essentially on the clock to somehow change that.

That means there’s 10 days to make a franchise-altering trade, 30 games to make up a seven-game deficit in the standings, and just one contract year left before Love can bolt in free agency.

History won’t be kind to Minnesota if they fail again with such a talented power forward in tow. We may remember the details of why Minnesota has struggled now with perfect clarity — David Kahn, all the injuries and bad luck, all the losses that should have been wins — but if Minnesota loses such a tremendously talented player after just six seasons? It will be a complete failure on every level.

So what should Minnesota do? Each potential course of action comes with great risk. Trade future draft picks for an impact player now, and maybe that handicaps the rebuilding period if Love ends up leaving anyway. Trade Love now before he can leave for nothing, and maybe it’s the Al Jefferson era all over again.

That being said, doing nothing at all might be the most indefensible decision available. Without Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic in the lineup, the Wolves lost by 18 at home to the Houston Rockets, a team that didn’t seem that far off in the distance just a few weeks ago. But the game illustrated a point: the Wolves are getting weaker, the West is getting stronger, and Love’s big games aren’t making much of a difference anymore.

It begs the question: how much longer will Love accept this as his fate? One more full season? Less?

We’ve seen in the past that superstars can get out of situations they don’t want to be in. Carmelo Anthony did. Deron Williams and Chris Paul did, too. Love wasn’t always on that level, but he is now, even if he’s still a flawed defender and a generally high maintenance player. Regardless, he’s good enough to have every team want him at any price. He holds all the cards here.

Flip Saunders and the rest of Minnesota’s front office know this. They are at the mercy of his pending decision. At this pace, though, Love’s patience is going to run out well before his contract does. There are excuses available for Minnesota’s lack of success, but none are going to be good enough to keep Love around. He needs real reasons to want to stay.

Love may be short on those right now, just as the Wolves are short on time.

10 days, 30 games, one more year. Minnesota, you’re on the clock.

The Extra Pass: Three guys that deserve more playing time, plus Monday’s recaps

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With the first half of the season in the books, let’s look at five players who deserve to get a little more burn the rest of the way.

John Henson, F/C, Milwaukee Bucks

Before we get to Henson, let’s travel in the way back machine to the 2009-10 season. If you’ll remember, Kurt Rambis was the head coach of a dreadful Minnesota Timberwolves team, and for some reason, Rambis decided to play his best player, Kevin Love, only 28 minutes a night.

It was criminally stupid. Not surprisingly, the Wolves went 15-67 and Rambis was fired.

This isn’t to compare Henson to Love, but rather to serve as fair warning to Bucks head coach Larry Drew: for your own sake, you should probably play your best player more than 28 minutes a night.

Henson is an incredible shot blocker with arms that go on forever, and he’s a glass eater despite his thin frame. He’s limited offensively, but he has a nice lefty hook that’s impossible to block. He’s the one guy Milwaukee can post up consistently and expect a decent output from.

Plain and simple, Henson deserves starter’s minutes. I’m just going to leave this per 36 minute comparison to Anthony Davis right here, and let you decide if Henson should be playing less than 30 minutes on the league’s worst team.

Kyle O’Quinn, C, Orlando Magic

Typically this is where I’d take up for Andrew Nicholson, another Magic big man who is glued to the bench far too often. At least you can sort of understand why Jacque Vaughn is playing Nicholson only 17 minutes a night, as he’s limited defensively, despite being a great scorer.

It’s hard to make that argument with O’Quinn, though. With Nikola Vucevic sidelined with a concussion, O’Quinn’s minutes haven’t spiked nearly as much as you’d think, as Glen Davis has played an uncomfortable amount of 5 for Orlando.

It makes sense that Orlando would try to showcase Davis in advance of the trade deadline, but something has to give here. O’Quinn is averaging just 12.4 minutes a night despite being one of the most unique talents in the league, and his playing time could decrease to zero once Vucevic gets back.

Honestly, how many 6-foot-10, 240 pound big men with 7-foot-5 wingspans shoot nearly 42 percent from behind 16 feet, average 11.4 rebounds per 36 on their career and block nearly two shots a game? O’Quinn can play, and it’s time for Rob Hennigan to create playing time for him.

Draymond Green, F, Golden State Warriors

Rarely do contenders like Golden State need to make rotational changes, and rarely do players who shoot 35 percent from the field on their career demand more time. Draymond Green bucks conventional wisdom pretty frequently, though.

Green’s biggest asset is his ability to legitimately cover four positions and do it incredibly well. If Green was ever paired with Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut, opponents would have a whale of a time trying to score at all.

Unfortunately, according to NBA.com’s stats site, that three-man lineup has only played 39 minutes together this year. In their short time together, though, they do have a net efficiency rating of +25.2 and have held opponents to a stingy 85.1 points per 100 possessions. It’s a small sample size, but that’s sort of the point.

Despite Green’s limitations as a scorer, he’s a 38.8 percent career three-point shooter, which means he can offer space for Stephen Curry to operate while also playing much, much better defense than a player like David Lee does.

Green currently plays 19 minutes a game, but that number should probably increase. Green is the rare 3 and D guy who can play smallball 4, and Mark Jackson would be wise to try him in more and more lineups as the Warriors prepare for a deep playoff run. He’s the type of specialist that can swing a game if he’s given enough burn.

D.J. Foster

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Raptors 104, Nets 103: This was a brutal loss for Brooklyn, considering they had control of this game in the waning seconds, only to see it all slip away. Brooklyn had erased a nine-point deficit with just under 7:30 remaining, with a 9-0 run to tie the game at the 3:48 mark of the final period. It was close from then on, but it appeared the Nets were in control, leading by one with possession and 12 seconds remaining. A poor decision by Deron Williams to try a pass to the backcourt was intercepted by Patrick Patterson, who calmly drained a pull-up jumper that sealed the win for the Raptors and stole it from the Nets. Kyle Lowry continued to stunt for a spot on the All-Star team with a performance that included 31 points, seven assists, five rebounds and five steals, and Paul Pierce finished with 33 points on 16 shots to lead the Nets in the losing effort. — Brett Pollakoff

Thunder 111, Hawks 109: Kevin Durant scored at least 30 points for the 11th consecutive game, the longest streak by any player in the league over the last 10 seasons. One shot in particular stood out in his 41 point performance against the Hawks, however, and it was the game-winner he hit against what seemed like all five Hawks defenders. As long as Durant keeps essentially dragging his team to victories all by himself (and this was the team’s eighth straight), the MVP will be his despite the fact that LeBron James is still considered to be the game’s best player almost unanimously. — BP

Suns 124, Sixers 113: A 40-point first quarter set the tone for Phoenix in what would become an unstoppable night for them offensively. Gerald Green led everyone with 30 points on just 12 shots, and hit six of his seven three-point attempts to help the Suns to their fourth victory in their last five games. Goran Dragic was similarly efficient with 24 points on 13 shots, to go along with seven assists and three steals. — BP

Timberwolves 95, Bulls 86: In a game defined by who wasn’t playing, the star who did show up was able to dominate. Kevin Love finished with 31 points to lead his team to victory, and while the Bulls had five players end up in double figures scoring, none were important enough to pose a legitimate challenge. Carlos Boozer, for example, finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds, but shot just 9-of-24 from the field. The Bulls were without Joakim Noah due to illness, and Minnesota lost Nikola Pekovic in the first quarter due to a sore right Achilles. — BP

Clippers 114, Bucks 86: Not much to say here other than the Bucks are unquestionably one of the league’s worst teams. Yes, they were without Larry Sanders and O.J. Mayo in this one due to illness, but the season in Milwaukee has been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster, and the presence of even the team’s best players wouldn’t have made that much of a difference. Blake Griffin scored with ease, and finished with 20 points on 13 shots in just 28 minutes of action. Jamal Crawford ld all scorers with 25 points in 24 minutes off the bench, and the Clippers finished their Grammy road trip with a 5-2 record, the best in franchise history. — BP

Jazz 106, Kings 99: And with this, the Kings now have the worst record in the West, not the Jazz. For the second straight night the Kings fought hard without Rudy Gay or DeMarcus Cousins — then after playing 7:41 of the third quarter Isaiah Thomas left with “stomach issues. And for the second straight night all those injuries meant they couldn’t sustain the level they needed for 48 minutes. Utah went on an 11-2 run early in the third quarter sparked by Marvin Williams who had 12 in the frame. Derrick Favors led the Jazz with 17 points. Utah led by 20 in the fourth but the game dragged out, got ugly and got close thanks to a  “hack-a-everyone” strategy by the Kings on a Jazz team that could not knock down free throws in that stretch (10-of-19) nor could they get stops on the other end. But the Jazz hung on. —Kurt Helin

The Extra Pass: 2013-14 Eastern Conference All-Star reserve picks; plus Thursday’s recaps

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The 2013-14 All-Star game in New Orleans is still 30 days away, but the starters will be announced January 23rd and the reserves will follow on January 30th. There’s only a few days of voting left, and since I’m not good with hashtags or 140 character limits or following directions, I thought I’d put my ballot here instead.

For the sake of this particular exercise, we’ll defer to the last balloting returns for the starting lineup in the Eastern Conference. There’s no use fighting the machine, y’all — we have to roll with the fan vote. Here’s how the last results looked:

East Starters (Fan Vote)

Backcourt: Dwyane Wade, Kyrie Irving

Frontcourt: LeBron James, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony

With those players as the starters (not the worst you’ve done, fans), let’s get to the reserves. In case you’re unfamiliar with the format, the reserves include two backcourt, three frontcourt and two wildcards to fill the 12-man roster.

East Reserves

Backcourt: John Wall and Lance Stephenson

This is a surprisingly loaded position given the general ickyness of the Eastern Confernece.

Wall should be a shoe-in, as he’s averaged career-highs in points (19.7) and steals (2.0) while leading the conference in assists (8.6). It doesn’t hurt that his biggest flaw is finally being covered up a bit, either, as he’s shooting a halfway respectable 32 percent from behind the arc. The Wizards have been truly awful when he’s off the court this year, for what that’s worth. He deserves his first appearance.

Stephenson, meanwhile, has been an absolutely electric playmaker for the Pacers (5.3 assists) and a constant triple-double threat. Considering there are only two elite teams in the conference, it would be awfully tough to ignore Stephenson during his dynamic campaign, even if the reputation hasn’t come with the improved production quite yet. His flashy style of play is perfect for this setting.

Frontcourt: Roy Hibbert, Chris Bosh, Andre Drummond

You could probably just mash the rosters of the Heat and Pacers together and roll the ball out there, right?

Hibbert doesn’t put up big lines every night, but he leads the conference in blocks per game (2.6) and he’s the anchor of the best defensive team we’ve seen in quite some time. It would be a crime if he’s left off because he’s not a big scorer. Very few players make as big of an impact on the game as he does.

Bosh is absurdly consistent — just look at his per 36 minute scoring numbers in his last four seasons in Miami:

2010-11: 18.5 PPG
2011-12: 18.4 PPG
2012-13: 18.1 PPG
2013-14: 18.4 PPG

Point being, not much has changed. He’s solid, if unspectacular, but he’s crucial to everything Miami does. Bosh’s All-Star appearance streak (eight straight going into this year) isn’t going to be interrupted, especially without anyone really knocking down the door for his spot.

Drummond may be the surprise pick of the bunch, but he’s just been so dang productive. The second-year big man leads the league in offensive and total rebounding percentage, he’s first in the East in field goal percentage, third in blocks and behind only James, Anthony and George in PER in the East. It’s early, of course, but he’s more than earned his spot.

Wildcards: Arron Afflalo and Joakim Noah

Afflalo is still my pick for Most Improved Player in the league, even if he’s slowed down a bit as of late due to injury. Orlando’s ineptitude may hurt his chances, but virtually no one scores nearly 21 points per game as efficiently as Afflalo has this season. He’s never been an All-Star before, but with career-highs in nearly every statistical category, this is definitely his best shot.

I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself for leaving Noah off my ballot. Somehow, despite everything, the Bulls still have the second best defense in the league in terms of efficiency, and it’s Noah making that happen. With overall numbers very similar to his All-Star campaign last year, Noah should just squeeze in as a hat-tip to his undying effort, even in a clearly lost season.

Just Missed The Cut

Michael Carter-Williams is facing an uphill battle, as he’s on a bad team and he’s a rookie. Still, 17.6 points, 7 assists, 5.9 rebounds and a conference-leading 2.7 steals a night is no joke. Yes, the pace helps the raw numbers, but the degree of difficulty MCW is facing as a top-option for opponents to key in on in a point guard heavy league should be factored in as well. It’s unlikely he gets named, but he’s played well enough to be a reserve.

It was awfully hard to leave DeMar DeRozan off my ballot, especially since he’s come on so strong as of late with Rudy Gay out of the picture. DeRozan’s raw numbers (20.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 3.5 APG) aren’t all that dissimilar to Afflalo’s (20.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 3.9 APG), but DeRozan’s true shooting percentage of 51.3 percent can’t touch Afflalo’s 58.6 percent mark. Is Afflalo’s efficiency enough to account for the fact that DeRozan plays for a team with a winning record (!) in the East? Maybe, maybe not. I won’t be too upset either way — it’s a tossup between those two.

A lot of the air went out of the Hawks’ balloon when Al Horford went down for the season, but Paul Millsap is undoubtedly one of the best active players to never be named to an All-Star game. With a career high in points (17.4) and some surprising three-point range added to his already varied arsenal (1.1 3PM, 39.4 percent), Millsap might get some of that same “last man standing” and veteran love that Noah will, even if Drummond is the superior choice statistically.

Al Jefferson deserves some sort of reward for being a part of the 7th ranked defense and keeping the Bobcats in the playoff picture, but it’s probably not an All-Star selection. Watch out though — he’s a big name that opposing coaches plan for heavily, which will at least put him the conversation.

—DJ Foster

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Nets 127, Hawks 110: Joe Johnson put up 26 points in the first half to carry the Nets, then Brooklyn started the second half on an 11-2 run and Bob’s your uncle they had an easy win. Credit Paul Pierce who was making the right pass with the ball in the first half then put up 10 points in the third as the Hawks tried to crack down on Johnson (who also moved the ball well when the defense focused on him). Jeff Teague led the Hawks with 16 points but on 4-of-13 shooting. Basically the Nets dominated the NBA’s annual game in London, which Sir Paul McCartney was at — that’s his second Nets game this season, I hope someone got him a T-shirt.

Pacers 117, Knicks 89: Carmelo Anthony kept the Knicks close for the first quarter with his 18 points (he finished with 28) plus the Knicks did a good job of getting out in transition and getting their shots up before the Pacers set their defense. Then in the second quarter it all changed — the Pacers started attacking rather than settling for jumpers, their made shots let them get back and set their defense, and the Knicks didn’t shoot above 39 percent in any quarter the rest of the way. Plus, Lance Stephenson happened — he had 13 points in the second quarter on his way to 28 in the game

Thunder 104, Rockets 92: Houston put up 73 points, hit 12 threes and seemed to do no wrong in the first half, led by James Harden’s 16. Mostly it worked because of the threes. I’m not sure what team came out of the locker room after the break, but it wasn’t the same one — Houston shot 19.4 percent overall and scored just 19 points. Houston is a roller coaster, where Kevin Durant is a steady rock and poured in 36. Serge Ibaka was key with 21 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks.

—Kurt Helin

The Extra Pass: The best possible nickname jerseys; plus Tuesday’s recaps

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If you missed it last week, the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets played with nicknames on the back of their jerseys instead of their last names. Once I was able to shush the crotchety old man that sometimes takes over my brain, I really enjoyed it. Ray Allen’s “J. Shuttlesworth” jersey, a nod to his role in He Got Game, was fantastic. Joe Johnson being “JJ” was very Joe Johnson and made me laugh.

Not everyone could come up with a great nickname, naturally, because some guys just don’t have nicknames. Or if they do, we don’t know about them.

But as per usual, basketball-reference.com comes to the rescue.

The following 25 nicknames are taken directly from the player pages on that site. They are not made up, as I am not nearly creative enough to do such a thing.

I’ve made a quiz that matches the nicknames to their players. It is impossible. If you like knowing the answers to quizzes you take, do not take this quiz.

Hopefully that scared you off, and now you can enjoy 25 of the best nicknames listed on the player pages at basketball-reference.com. I’ll post the names of the players in the comments section a little later today. Enjoy!

25 Nicknames

Death & Taxes

Big Classic

Armadillo Cowboy

Big Penguin

The Pterodactyl

Frodo

The Hobbit

Chief Lightning First Step

The Natural

Beans

Swamp Thang

The Hitman

The Drunken Dribbler

Grocery List

Dolla Billz

Bean Burrito

Switchblade

Buffet of Goodness

The Dread Pirate

The Definition

Yaowa

Meal Ticket

Two Time

La Tanquera

And last but not least…

Carl.

More nickname jerseys, please!

– D.J. Foster

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Best line of the day, from Barack Obama during the Heat’s trip to the White House.

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Bobcats 108, Knicks 98: The big story out of this will be J.R. Smith getting benched again — is his time with the Knicks over? He is eligible to be traded Wednesday but who wants him? — and the odd timing of that because Knicks, unable to find enough offensive spark with out him, saw their five-game win streak come to an end. Al Jefferson was a beast for Charlotte, with 35 points on 14-of-20 shooting, making Tyson Chandler look slow and getting other Knicks to bite on pump fakes like they’d never seen them before. The Knicks defense was terrible. Charlotte got Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back and he played good defense on Carmelo Anthony, who struggled when MKG was in (‘Melo had 20 points on 22 shots).

Pacers 116, Kings 92: Indiana took control of this game with a 23-5 run in the second quarter and the game never really felt in doubt after that. For a change the Pacers won this one with offense, scoring a season-high 116 points on 54.9 percent shooting. Paul George was a beast, attacking when he got the ball and scoring 24 of his 31 points in the second half. DeMarcus Cousins did his part to push back — 31 points on 12-of-21 shooting plus 13 rebounds — but he didn’t get much help.

Grizzlies 90, Thunder 87: Marc Gasol looked pretty good — 12 points, including a huge late three, plus he pulled down 7 rebounds. You might look at the 87 points and the fact the Thunder shot 40.7 percent and think that Memphis played amazing defense… not exactly. They played good defense but the Thunder just missed shots, which includes Serge Ibaka having a wide-open three o tie the game and missing. Kevin Durant had 37 points on 28 shots, remove him from the equation and the rest of the Thunder shot 32 percent. Courtney Lee had 24 points and Zach Randolph had 23.

Cavaliers 120, Lakers 118: Defense? We don’t need no stinkin’ defense. Nobody played much in this contest, but that made for fun offense. Luol Deng adds another dimension to the Cavaliers offense and he had his best game since the trade against the Lakers “defense” scoring 27 points and going 5-of-5 from three. Three point shooting was a theme for the Cavs all night as they hit 13-of-17 from deep. On the other side Kendall Marshall exposed the Lakers slow rotations all night on his way to 16 assists. This was a game of big runs but the key one was a 12-0 Cavaliers run in the fourth quarter, sparked by Dion Waiters 13 in that quarter. The Lakers answered with an 11-3 run of their own in the closing minutes, but they couldn’t make the shots they needed at the end. The Lakers have lost five in a row, 11-of-12, and now they head out for 12 days and 7 games on the road. So, no, this may well not be rock bottom.