There was a moment Sunday night’s game that seemed to sum up the Lakers’ season to this point.
With just over seven minutes left, Lakers ran a set that got sloppy and directionless, but with clock running down they got the ball in the post to Pau Gasol; then Kobe Bryant knifed through the lane and got a pass from Gasol. Kobe made a difficult shot over JaVale McGee, a shot that seemed flat but found its way through the net.
Denver quickly inbounded the ball, made a long pass to nearly half court to Ty Lawson and he raced down the floor, ahead of most every Laker. Steve Nash was back and tried, but Lawson went around him and went off the glass for a layup. Two quick points.
It was the story of the night. It has been the story of the season — the Lakers have to work hard for their basket, then the other team gets an easy one because they are not ready on defense.
In some ways they Lakers played their best offensive game in a while and outshot Denver on the night. But the Lakers had 18 turnovers (17.7 percent of their possessions) and allowed Denver 17 offensive rebounds (32.7 percent of their missed shots) and those 35 free possessions for Denver was enough to doom Los Angeles. Again.
Denver won 112-105 in exactly the kind of game the Lakers need to win — at home against a team on the second night of a back-to-back, an opponent that is one of the teams they are fighting for a playoffs spot in the bottom half of the West.
And while a lot of people — myself included — keep expecting the Lakers to figure it out enough to make the playoffs, it’s games like this that give me pause. And games like this that make it a lot harder for them.
Credit Denver — they know who they are. They are a team that wants to run and they did (the game had 102 possessions). They are a team that trusts their point guard to run the show, and Lawson did with 21 points and 10 assists as he outplayed Steve Nash. They have long players in the paint on defense to make it hard on you and challenge shots then grab rebounds. They hustle.
Those are all things the Lakers want to do, but Denver executes them better right now. The Nuggets have balance — six players in double figures scoring — and they can overcome a bad shooting night from a key scorer (Danilo Gallinari had 20 points but on 6-of-20 shooting).
The Lakers had Kobe with 29 points (but on 26 shots) and seven assists, Howard had 14 points and a career high in rebounds with 26. Nash had 10 points and 13 assists. The Lakers has six players in double figures as well.
But the Lakers defense was worse than Denvers (which wasn’t all that good). Defense continues to be what does the Lakers in — a defense that is hurt by those turnovers that can lead to fast break points the other way. A defense hurting itself by giving up offensive rebounds so the opponents get another look. The Lakers gave up 107.6 points per 100 possessions in this game, which is pretty much what they gave up in December and that was 26th in the league for the month.
With the boards and some defensive plays, this looked like a better, healthier Dwight Howard for the Lakers, but he was pitching into the night of mental errors. Inside two minutes in the game, down four, Howard severely altered a Lawson shot then grabbed the rebound — then threw it away, tipped by Gallinari. Then inside the final minute Howard blocked an Andre Miller shot — right to Gallinari who drained the dagger three.
Part of the problem is Gasol — he is thinking now, not just playing basketball. He’s unsure where to go in the offense, and it’s in his head. And in his shot, so he gets the ball and is thinking pass, not about being aggressive.
For Denver, they are now 20-16 with 12 of their next 14 games at home. This is a big road win for them, if they can have a hot home stand they can start to solidify a playoff spot in the West.
The Lakers are now 15-18 on the season, currently the 11 seed and three games back of the 8 seed Trail Blazers. It’s easy to say they will make that up, it’s not much, but it’s not going to be tough with Denver playing well, Houston playing better and good teams like Portland and Utah to climb over. The Lakers have the Spurs, Rockets and Thunder on the schedule for this week. They need wins. Now. Before the hole they are in becomes too deep to climb out of.