A disturbing trend is starting to take shape with the Los Angeles Lakers. Losers of two in a row, this time 118-111 to the Phoenix Suns at the U.S. Airways Center, the Lakers again appeared weary, vulnerable and incapable of sustaining any momentum. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol carried the load but were unable to get sufficient help from anyone else. Kobe finished with a game high 49 points and 11 rebounds with Pau adding 30 points. No other Lakers player scored in double figures, the most visible Lamar Odom, who finished with only 4 points and 6 rebounds before fouling out with 8:31 to play. The combined contribution from the rest of the team amounted to only 32 points on 31% shooting. Derek Fisher was 1-7, Luke Walton 2-6, Odom 2-5, Jordan Farmer 0-3, Trevor Ariza 3-8 and Sasha Vujacic 2-6.
The Suns were led by Shaquille O’Neal with 33 points, Matt Barnes adding 26 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, Leandro Barbosa, 22 points and Grant Hill, 17 points. Phoenix also benefited from 32 free throw attempts to the Lakers 20. But it was the aggression Phoenix displayed that was the key to their victory. Led by Shaq and his newfound vitality, the Suns repeatedly pounded the ball into the middle, punishing the weaker, Lakers post players. Phil Jackson chose to guard Shaq with single coverage defense in the first half and he responded with 19 points. In the second half, the double team often came too late and too soft. Luke and Trevor were guilty of love taps, allowing Shaq to score plus go to the line. Back-up center DJ Mbenga was caught out of position numerous times allowing Shaq to easily glide to the hoop with little resistance. And the officials also allowed Shaq to plow his way through the lane, methodically pounding the ball and his body into the smaller defenders. This led to buckets directly under the basket or awarded him free throws, which he converted on a better than normal 7 of 12. With Shaq commanding the double and triple team inside, it was Matt Barnes who was left uncontested, connecting on 5-7 treys and Grant Hill slashing his way inside for easy scores.
dEDGE Post Scriptum
The body language of some of the Lakers players showed the dizzying effects of an 82-game regular season. Tempers were a little short, and flare-ups commonplace as dejected players headed to the bench to take a seat. Shortening his leash, Phil Jackson has been less and less patient with the botched playmaking of Farmer and the continued shooting slump of Vujacic. Even Lamar Odom seems to have slipped back to his original self, devoid of the aggressiveness and consistent play that he had displayed following his match-up with Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics. The sheer volume of games leaves players with little time to enjoy the fruits of victory, or the chance to catch up and work on one’s deficiencies. Rest and recuperation take a back seat to one-and-dones and back-to-backs. But it is here where champions are formed, winners are ingrained, and teams determine their playoff identity. This was a game that the Lakers needed. Not to increase their league leading record, but to give notice to the rest of the league that the Los Angeles Lakers were unified, cohesive, and on a mission. Instead, they provided doubters with more hope, planted a foot into the door of uncertainty, and left more than this one fan, scratching his head in disbelief.