Thursday, February 21, 2013

Lakers Defeat Celtics, Dr. Buss Tribute (2.20.13)

Sometimes, a week is just different.

This past Valentine's Day, the Los Angeles Lakers were handily defeated by the Los Angeles Clippers. I attended the game, it was awful. The Clippers are championship contenders, and for true Lakers fans, that reality is quite jarring. It seems like that 2010 championship wasn't all that long ago, but a look at this team and the league nowadays, and it's beginning to look like a relic, a triangular one of sorts.

Following the disappointing Clippers' game, Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant headed out to Houston for All-Star weekend. According to various reports, these two didn't suddenly turn into buddies over the short break. Multiple rumors came out, who knows what is true? This led to all sorts of debate and speculation regarding who leaked what, what it all means, and what's going to happen at the trade deadline.

Then, Dr. Jerry Buss, the greatest owner of any franchise, regardless of sport, lost his battle with cancer, and passed away on February 18th at the age of 80. Dr. Buss hadn't attended a game all season, yet his condition was kept fairly quiet, thus making his passing all the more sudden for the general population. There will never be another Dr. Buss; his presence will be sorely missed.

With the sudden loss, the franchise mourned while also preparing to face the Boston Celtics, a team that handed the Lakers their biggest loss of the season just a couple of weeks ago, and was likely Dr. Buss's least favorite franchise in the NBA. As history would have it, I attended this game as well. With that odd feat, I will likely remember these games with a firm timeline. Namely, one was the final game Dr. Buss would oversee as owner of his beloved Lakers, and the other would mark the first Lakers game without Dr. Buss in over 30 years.

With such a heavy week, here is a quick, light rundown of my thoughts on the Celtics game.

Howard was exceptional against the Celtics. He came out strong with putbacks, dunks, screens, dives, rotations, shot alterations, just everything, even free throws! It was everything that Lakers fans have wanted to see all season long. With 12 points in the first quarter, Howard was a catalyst for the Lakers' impressive 36 point opening quarter.

Howard finished the game with 24 points on 10-13 shooting, along with 12 rebounds, one assist, one steal, and one block. It's these lines that make Howard so disappointing, because we all know he can dominate like this, but this season, it's been a struggle for him to play well consistently. After an awful game against the Clippers, and a rocky extended break, it was great to see Howard bounce back with a worthy performance. If Howard continues to do all the little things, the Lakers may just do some big things.

Along with Howard's impressive play, Bryant was excellent, in stretches. In the first quarter, Bryant supported Howard with 10 points and two assists. Watching each open with a strong performance was a surprising treat. In the third quarter, Bryant continued his strong play by dishing out four assists and helping the Lakers push the lead to nearly 20 points.

Overall, Bryant's line wasn't great, but in typical Bryant fashion, he was able to grind out the game while leaving a lasting imprint upon the win. For stretches, Bryant made every single right decision and he carried the Lakers. If Howard is able to become a consistent force, these two can go far as a formidable one-two punch.

Lakers win 113-99.
Furthermore, the collective whole of the Lakers really came through against the Celtics. Seven players reached double digits. The defense held the Celtics to just 99 points, a real feat considering Paul Pierce had 23 of the Celtics' 54 points at the half — Pierce finished with just 26 points overall. Also, role players like Earl Clark, Metta World Peace, Steve Blake, Antawn Jamison, and Jodie Meeks each produced solid minutes. World Peace opened with some corner threes, Clark notched a game high 16 rebounds, Blake made plays and hit some shots, Jamison scored at the rim with his keen sense for cutting, and Meeks just played hard and made sure that effort was never an issue.

One final impression. Comparing this game to the Clippers' game is essentially night and day. That performance was about as awful as they come, and it led to a dull crowd that had nothing to cheer for. Against the Celtics, with another national audience, the players responded well, and the crowd poured out support with far greater enthusiasm. "Boston sucks!" along with some "MVP!"'s and even a heartening "Jerry! Jerry!" all contributed to a wonderful Lakers game atmosphere, one that Dr. Buss would have enjoyed.

Overall, the Lakers can do some real damage if they continue to match this effort for the remainder of the season. Maybe it took some grief for the guys to dig in deep. Or maybe it will be just another fluke game.

Whatever the case, I witnessed two polar opposite Lakers' games, and it's all a bit disorienting for just a week's time.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Live Reaction, Lakers Blown Out by Clippers (2.14.13)

What a grand way to celebrate Valentine's Day.

When I purchased tickets this past September to see the Lakers play the Clippers, I definitely thought I'd get a better show than that. I thought I would see marquee players deliver marquee games, instead, I was treated to a one-sided affair that was downright embarrassing from start to finish.

Without taking a look at any of the box score information, let me give you a quick rundown of my thoughts on the game.

First off, what an awful start. The Lakers got down 15-0 right off the bat. The Lakers missed a bunch of wide open three-pointers, and the Clippers seemed to sink just about everything. Blake Griffin was especially hot. I distinctly remember him dominating and finishing the opening quarter with 18 points. Griffin pulled out the full arsenal, with dunks, jumpers, hooks, up and unders, just about everything to make the Lakers' defenders look foolish.

With the Clippers dominating, the crowd was especially dormant in the first quarter. With nothing to cheer for other than a couple of nice plays from Kobe Bryant, I sat in my nosebleeds and wondered how tame we sounded on a national TNT telecast. Speaking of Bryant, he had some memorable moments. It was a joy watching him bully Jamal Crawford and Chauncey Billups in the post, and once Caron Butler was assigned to him, the shoulder chucks and arm locks were in full effect. After serving as the only scoring threat in the first quarter, one that the Lakers lost 31-17, Bryant was covered with a man, and a soft double for the rest of the game. Anytime he caught the ball, the entire defense focused on him, and he tried to make them pay. Bryant repeatedly swung the ball to the open man, yet time after time, the Lakers bricked open shots. Honestly, I don't know how he ended up with 11 assists, I don't recall any buckets going down other than the dunks he spoonfed.

In the second quarter, the bench came in and did a great job. Steve Blake pushed the tempo, and Antawn Jamison seemed to score at the rim whenever he cut. The efforts of those two got the deficit down to just three points with about three minutes remaining in the second quarter. However, once the starters came back in, the Clippers got going again, and they finished on a scorching run to close the quarter, finishing the half ahead 64-52.

Notably absent throughout the big run by the Lakers was Dwight Howard. Simply put, Howard was awful. I watched him gain inside position on numerous rebound attempts, yet he would fail to come up with the board as the ball would bobble off of his hand, or DeAndre Jordan would nudge him and reach over the top, or he would fail to chase it down. It was disheartening. I also watched him bobble passes on the pick and roll. I watched him get owned in the post by some sweet moves from Griffin. I watched him rotate on defense like he was stuck in quicksand. I watched him struggle to seal his man and get good position on the block for easy buckets. I saw him miss gimme buckets at the rim and get swatted by Lamar Odom. I saw it all, live. It's a lot different seeing it live than it is on television. I don't know how to explain it, it just seems more profound.

All I can say is, I hope he is still seriously feeling pain in his back or something, because, I just don't know how to explain his performance. Either he is broken down and his game is never going to be what it once was, or he is playing through some serious pain. It has to be one or the other, and for his sake, and the Lakers' sake, I hope it's the latter.

On a side note, when I first purchased these tickets, I purposely made sure not to even attempt to get any tickets before January. The rumors over the offseason were that Howard wouldn't be ready to play until December, so I figured I would give an extra month or two just in case. Looks like it didn't even matter. I witnessed Andrew Bynum drop his career high, 42 points, on the Clippers just a couple of years ago, and I also saw Bynum get a triple double in Game 1 of the playoffs against the Denver Nuggets last season with 10 blocks. Obviously, Bynum is hurt, so it's all for nil, but seeing each of these guys live, Howard sure has a lot of catching up to do.

In the third quarter, the game got out of hand. Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler took turns annihilating the Lakers with bombs from deep. It seemed like they couldn't miss if they tried. It's like that rebounding drill, where your coach shoots threes and attempts to miss on purpose as you battle your teammate for the rebound, except your coach keeps making the shot despite intentionally attempting to miss, and eventually you just have to laugh. It was a lot like that. With those two hitting everything from deep, the deficit reached 20 points, and from there, the game was lost. Actually, let me amend that statement, the game was lost when the Lakers allowed a "poison pill" (scroll to the last paragraph of the link to understand the Lakers' poison pill woes) to start the game, and then continued to allow the Clippers to pile up 30+ point quarters from there on out.

In the fourth quarter, I expected Bryant to get ejected. He got hacked on like three straight possessions, yet he only received the whistle once. He eventually picked up a technical, and once that happened, I figured he was pining to get tossed as the team trailed by over 20 points with six minutes remaining. Bryant eventually was subbed out, and the flag was waived as Robert Sacre and Darrius Morris entered the game.

Lakers lose 125-101.
Overall, the game was a dud, and it wasn't exactly the riveting date I had in mind to celebrate Valentine's Day with my boo. I thought we would be treated to an epic "Battle LA" experience, one that she would remember as a very exciting moment in her life, instead, she looked at me with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter and said, "Are we really going to stay and watch this?". I couldn't help but laugh and give her a kiss. I jokingly replied, "Hey, you know the Lakers are going to cut it down to like five with a minute left and then lose." We ended up staying, and the Lakers didn't get anywhere near pulling off that scenario.

On this Valentine's Day, the Lakers broke my heart. Fortunately, I still have a great girlfriend.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Lakers Crumble, End Grammy Trip with Loss to Heat (2.11.13)

5-2 just looks, and feels, a lot better than 4-3.

With the Lakers fighting for dear life just to gain entry into the postseason, any loss significantly hurts their chances to do so. Currently in 10th place in the Western Conference with a 24-28 record, the Lakers trail the Houston Rockets by three and a half games for the eighth seed, and the Utah Jazz are a full four games ahead for the seventh seed.

5-2 should have been manageable on this "Grammy trip," but coughing up a game against the lowly Phoenix Suns to start the road schedule pretty much ended any hope of that happening. Relative to the type of season the Lakers have had this season, this trip was successful, but in reality, this trip should have closed the gap on the eighth seed, and instead, the Lakers are exactly where they were before the strip started, three and a half games behind the eighth seed.

Playing eight games in 13 days, with seven consecutive games on the road, probably didn't help the Lakers' chances, but this is the hole they have dug themselves in, and now it is time for them to buck up and survive. Metta World Peace gave the best sound bite following the game against the Heat, stating, "Going 4-3 on a seven-game road trip is successful for losers, [a 4-3 record is] successful for people who think of us as a losing team. It's successful for losing minds, not successful for winning minds." I couldn't have said it better myself, the Lakers had a chance to make a real dent in the standings with a realistic opportunity to go 6-1, instead they barely came out ahead.

After starting the first of those seven road games with a collapsing loss to the Suns, the season defining stretch certainly got off on the wrong foot. The Lakers followed that up by building a 29-point lead against the Timberwolves, only to see it collapse to four points with five minutes remaining in regulation. The Lakers fought off the comeback, but for the second straight game, they collapsed in the fourth quarter. Then came an unnecessarily close game against the Pistons on Super Bowl Sunday. The Lakers scraped by for a one point win despite Earl Clark and Steve Nash missing four straight free throws in the final sixteen seconds, allowing the Pistons one final chance, and a darn good attempt at a game winning alley oop dunk.

Following this bumpy opening, the Lakers pulled out their finest victory of the trip, a win against the Nets sans Dwight Howard, Metta World Peace, and Pau Gasol (tore his plantar fascia with four minutes remaining in a close game). Following the injury to Gasol, Kobe Bryant shamed Howard into playing through his shoulder pain, and the Lakers were destroyed by the Celtics for their worst loss of the season, a 21-point drubbing. Howard was a tentative non-factor, and it was clear that he was not ready to play in that game. The Lakers followed that up the very next night with a pathetic performance against the Bobcats in which they got down by 20 points with 17 minutes remaining in the game before rallying and pulling out a seven point win. With such roller coaster performances, the Lakers hoped to close out the Grammy trip with a defining win against the Miami Heat.

With three quarters of solid play behind them, it looked like the Lakers might actually sneak out of Miami with a win. Strong performances from Bryant, Nash, Howard, and Clark kept the Lakers within striking distance — of the four, only Clark failed to shoot above 50% from the field in the first three quarters — and the Lakers only trailed 73-78 entering the fourth quarter. In fact, that deficit should have been even less, but a costly mistake allowed LeBron James to end the third quarter with a free throw, a miss that led to a tap out by the wily Shane Battier, and a dagger three-pointer from James in the final seconds. Battier's tap out capped off a disappointing rebounding performance for the Lakers in the third quarter — the Heat were able to produce 10 points off of six offensive rebounds in the third quarter.

Despite the rebounding woes, things were looking good. As a whole, the Lakers only had six turnovers entering the fourth quarter — a phenomenal success considering the Heat's stellar defense, and the Lakers' high amount of turnovers this season (sixth highest average in the NBA). Back to back turnovers from Howard early in the fourth quarter foreshadowed things to come, but a Jodie Meeks three-pointer that put the Lakers down just one, 81-82, with 8:47 remaining in regulation, certainly inspired hope. From there, the Lakers crumbled with numerous mental lapses as the Heat turned up the defensive pressure.

In that final eight minute stretch, the Heat forced six steals. The Lakers, namely Bryant, had success in the first three quarters by attacking the baseline and either scoring, finding cutters in the lane, or kicking out for a three-pointer — Bryant entered the fourth quarter with seven assists. However, in the fourth quarter, the Heat began crashing the paint and cutting off those passing angles. Bryant especially struggled with this adjustment, and he was forced into consecutive turnovers on the baseline at the six minute mark. Bryant finished the game with four turnovers, and three of them came in that final eight minute stretch. Although Bryant finished the game with a stellar line of 28 points on 11-19 shooting, with six rebounds, nine assists, and a steal, I'm sure that he would like a redo on those consecutive possessions. Antawn Jamison, Clark, and Nash also gave away a possession in that eight minute stretch.

With the Lakers wasting possessions with turnovers, the Heat capitalized with buckets on three of the six steals, with each score coming in transition for a tally of six points. With LeBron James throwing down two vicious slams, and Dwyane Wade hitting a pull up jumper, the Heat gained all of the momentum as the Lakers came up empty.

The first slam started with Wade cutting off the baseline, stealing a skip pass from Bryant, tiptoeing the baseline, and saving the ball by tossing it back in play just before falling out of bounds. Chris Bosh caught the ball, sent the outlet to Norris Cole, and Cole let the ball fly into the air for James to throw down with two hands as Nash ran out of the way. This put the Heat up 84-91 at the 5:58 mark.

The next slam featured a lazy entry pass over the top from Nash to Bryant that James was able to intercept and take the distance without any resistance. With the Red Sea parting as neither Nash nor Clark wanted anything to do with the ensuing poster, James threw down a monster one handed dunk before scowling on his way back down the court. This put the Heat up 88-97 at the 3:25 mark.

With the sixth turnover of the eight minute stretch coming from Bryant at the 2:30 mark, the Heat were able to push the lead to 90-102, essentially sealing the game. In the end, the Heat won 97-107.

Similar to the last game the Lakers played against the Heat, the Lakers had their chances late in the ball game, and they came up short. That nine point loss was tied up with just over two minutes remaining in the game. This 10 point loss was within seven points from the 7:15 mark to the 3:03 mark in the fourth quarter, but the Lakers just couldn't close the gap. Strong games against the world champion Miami Heat are encouraging, but encouraging doesn't equal wins, and right now, that is what the Lakers need the most. With two more games before the All-Star break, the Lakers are guaranteed to be under .500 despite having Bryant and Howard start for the Western Conference squad.

The Lakers are in a world of hurt, and there isn't a single easy way out. With a depleted front line that has Gasol out for at least six weeks, Jordan Hill out for the season, and Howard battling a torn labrum that will bother him until he undergoes surgery, the Lakers' biggest strength heading into the season, size, is now their biggest weakness. With Robert Sacre as the only big man available after Howard, the Lakers have been going small, deciding to keep Sacre on the bench, and instead rolling with a rotation of World Peace, Clark, and Jamison sharing minutes at power forward, and sometimes, the center position. Any time Howard goes out of the game, the opponent attacks the rim, and usually finds an easy bucket or an offensive rebound.

Despite this crazy season of instability, the Lakers have to keep grinding away, and if they keep at it, it looks like a down year for the Western Conference may give them a shot at the postseason. For the past five seasons, 48 wins has been the average amount of wins for the eighth seed in the West. There is no way the Lakers will win 48 games this season. Fortunately, this season, 43 wins may be the lucky number for that final playoff spot. The Jazz and Rockets each have 28 wins so far, but one of them is likely to slide — my pick is the Jazz, especially if they shake up their roster with a trade before the deadline. With 30 games remaining in the regular season, the Lakers would have to go 19-11 to finish with 43 wins, a .633 winning percentage.

Fortunately, the Lakers have a precedent for that type of winning percentage. In the D'Antoni era, the Lakers are 11-6 in games in which they don't give up a "poison pill," good for a .647 winning percentage. A poison pill occurs when Lakers allow the opponent to score thirty or more points in a single quarter. These quarters usually steamroll the Lakers, and they all but guarantee defeat, evidenced by the Lakers' 8-17 record in the D'Antoni era when they give up a poison pill. On the Grammy trip, the Lakers only allowed two of their seven opponents to produce a poison pill (the Bobcats and the Celtics), so there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. If the Lakers keep up their defensive efforts, they should be successful. If they don't, well, we already know what will happen if they don't.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Bryant Questions Howard, Leads Victory Over Nets (2.5.13)

My freshman year of college, I was introduced to a particular phrase that essentially shamed me into manning up and doing what was necessary.

That particular phrase was, "Don't be a bitch, do it right now!" Peer pressure at its finest. It was often yelled into my ear by my roommate, Matt. Even worse, once Matt uttered that phrase, the entire room would chant it until the desired action was completed. Similar to one Slayer fan yelling out, "Slayer!" followed by any Slayer fan within earshot also yelling out, "Slayer!" this phrase would induce a chain reaction. 10 people pounding on a table and yelling, "Don't be a bitch, do it right now!" was enough of a motivator for me, or anyone else. While playing games of land mines and pyramids, drinking games that would often make me regret my actions, that phrase would become a landmark.

My most memorable game of pyramids would be the first time I went on a road trip with Matt up to Lodi in Northern California. We decided to visit a friend of his about a week or so before our sophomore year at UCSB. While there, we eventually played a game of pyramids. I was informed the next day that soon after I left the room for a final bathroom break before the game started, Matt, a cunning individual, decided to inform the other four players to assign all of their drinks to me. Let's just say, I drank a copious amount of beer that night, and I felt absolutely horrible the following morning. What made me gut through it and not quit on the game? "Don't be a bitch, do it right now!" My pride was on the line, and I was not going to wimp out in front of four people I had never met before that night.

While my drinking tales from college certainly don't give me any right to question Dwight Howard's toughness, a certain quote from Kobe Bryant surely does. With Pau Gasol likely out for a month — or even the rest of the season — after possibly tearing his fascia against the Brooklyn Nets this past Tuesday, Bryant stated, "I'm very, very concerned to say the least." Bryant followed that statement with a challenge to Howard, stating, "He's probably worried about the damage in his shoulder. I don't think he's ever had to play through injuries in his career. I think it's a new experience for him."

Elaborating on the statement, Bryant continued, "When I was growing up, going through high school and middle school, unfortunately, but fortunately, I dealt with injuries. Not injuries that were debilitating, but injuries you have to play through where you have to manage the pain. When you go through those things, you learn your body and what you can push through." Sounds an awful lot like a certain mantra pointed at me, doesn't it? Different words, same message. Bryant wants Howard to gut through the pain. As NFL players always state, there's a difference between being hurt, and being injured.

Bryant continued, "But Dwight has never been hurt. The [back injury last season] was debilitating and he couldn't play. When you have an injury that hurts you, but you can play through it, that's something you have to balance out and manage, and he's never really had to do that."

Well, now, Howard has to do that. While on his recent ESPN crusade, Howard sounded an awful lot like someone with one foot out the door. While giving statements like, "There's no need for a circus," Howard wouldn't give a definitive statement regarding his offseason uncertainty. Listen, we all know it is best for Howard's sake to wait until the offseason and then sign with the Lakers in order to receive a maximum contract deal, however, it sure would be nice if Howard gave any sort of indication that he actually wants to play for a franchise that has the second most championships in NBA history. Instead, Howard gives statements such as, "Getting to the playoffs, and winning to the championship," as his goal for this season, yet he counters that sentiment with, "I don't want to have this happen every week or two to where I'm fine and then I take a hard hit and I reaggravate it."

Well, which is it? Are you committed to winning, or are you worried about getting injured and not landing that maximum contract? I think it's pretty clear. Howard is consumed with his own personal future. Howard's torn labrum injury is something that can be played with. It is an injury that will be a problem until he has surgery and recovers. What does he expect? Does he think he can rest a few games and then be healthy? Seriously, what is going through this guy's head? This torn labrum injury isn't going anywhere, and if the Lakers, winners of six of the last seven games, have any shot at the postseason, and a deep run from there, Howard needs to play, especially if Gasol is out for an extended period. Howard is going to get paid no matter what, so he might as well suck it up and play. With the Lakers three games under .500, and 3.5 games behind the 8th seed Houston Rockets, Howard's talent is a necessity for this team to avoid the label of "Biggest Failure in NBA History." 

For further proof, take a look at Bryant. Bryant led the Lakers to victory against the Nets on Tuesday despite playing with a sprained elbow on his shooting arm. Bryant spoke of numbness throughout his arm, especially after he turned back the clock and dunked over Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries with just just under three minutes remaining in the game to give the Lakers a two point lead. Despite the injury, Bryant gutted it out and led the Lakers to an impressive 92-83 victory on the road without Howard, a suspended Metta World Peace, and Gasol (in the final minutes). 

Even further, Bryant has played with Howard's injury! Howard certainly doesn't want to hear it, even scoffing at the notion with the statement, "Me and Kobe play two different positions, the position I play, I use a lot of force coming up." Howard continues his statement, but it's a bunch of excuses. Want to know what Bryant did with his torn labrum? He injured it on this ridiculous dunk in Game 5 against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the first round of the playoffs in 2003. For the next seven games, Bryant played with the injury, and he averaged 32.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 4.3 assists on 44.9% shooting from the field and 41.5% from deep. That postseason, the Lakers came within one Robert Horry three-point shot of possibly four-peating. Instead, the Lakers lost in six games to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in the second round, and Bryant sat on the bench in the closing minutes with tears in his eyes. 

While seven games is nowhere near the amount of games Howard will have to gut through, it's clear that Bryant was willing to give his all for a chance to win the title. Once the season ended, Bryant underwent surgery on his torn labrum. Obviously, Bryant feels that Howard should take the same route.

So what is Howard's plan? If he doesn't want to get hurt any further, then go under the knife and get it over with. Otherwise, play through the pain. Bryant did it, and if you are committed to this team, then you must do it. Bryant certainly expects so, as does all of Los Angeles. Howard is going to get paid a fat contract no matter what happens, so he might as well play. 

My tales of drinking certainly don't qualify my opinion, but the message sent from my friends mirrors the sentiment held inside the Lakers' locker room. Essentially, that message is a catch phase that has been attached to the greatest athletes of all-time, "Just do it." 

Howard has been told that he can't structurally injure the labrum any further, so pain tolerance is the only issue. Bryant spoke of playing with pain in his middle school days, Howard is unwilling to play with pain as a multi-millionaire in the NBA. What more can you say?

Play the role of returning hero, Dwight, it'd be a nice change. Los Angeles wants to embrace you, Kobe wants to hand the franchise to you, give us, give him, give the Lakers a chance.