Squandering double digit leads late in games has become a disturbing trend for the Los Angeles Lakers, who nevertheless held on to defeat the Golden State Warriors, 114-106 last night at Staples Center. Unlike the Philadelphia contest on Tuesday, they managed to hang on this time, but again allowed an inferior Warriors squad to crawl within 3 points with 2:40 left in the game. But there’s a reason why Don Nelson’s Warriors are a horrible 24-44 this season. They appear a disjointed, unhappy group, and this is marked in their lackluster play. Stephen Jackson and Monta Ellis both appear to be biding their time, hopeful for an off-season trade out of Oaktown. Corey Maggette is back to being the underachieving and brooding sixth man. And the normally ultra-hyper and exuberant Ronny Turiaf is now just a shell of his former self. If you thought we had problems, Golden State just made ours pale in comparison. The game wasn’t a return to prior Lakers excellence, but it was rather a brief flash of what to hope for on their upcoming 7-game road trip. Kobe Bryant struggled again with his shot (9-25) and appeared fatigued, especially in the second half when he typically excels and shoulders the bulk of the load. Perhaps the weight of carrying the entire bench has finally caught up to him. He finished with a team tying 21 points with Pau Gasol (9-15), who also corralled 14 rebounds in a typical, efficient Pau performance. Lamar Odom contributed 16 points and 12 rebounds but was limited to 29 minutes after picking up his 4th foul early in the third quarter. Trevor Ariza added 13 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals to continue his acclimation into the starting line-up, and Derek Fisher rounded out the starters’ scoring with 11 points in a restful 18 minutes of action.
The Bench Mob made a reappearance of sorts after going weeks unnoticed. Sasha Vujacic located his shooting touch, connecting on all of his shots (4-4 from the field, 2-2 free throws) to finish with 11 points. Luke Walton added 9 points and an exclamation point slam dunk over his good buddy Turiaf. Josh Powell contributed 7 points and Jordan Farmer, who connected on only 1-4 of his shot attempts, dished off for 7 assists to lead the team in that category. More importantly, the bench appeared a little more animated in their play, and a little bit more fiery in their execution, perhaps finally heeding Phil Jackson’s warning and constant pleading. Hopefully, this will be just enough to propel the Lakers back into the swing of things as they head off onto their longest road trip of the season. In what should have been a much easier victory by a far greater margin, the Lakers managed to keep pace with the Cleveland Cavaliers, trailing them by one game for the best record in the league and home court advantage throughout the playoffs.
dEDGE Post Scriptum
Chicago, Oklahoma City, Detroit, New Jersey, Atlanta, Charlotte and Milwaukee. Not exactly Boston, Cleveland and Orlando. Nevertheless, the Los Angeles Lakers need to improve upon their latest string of weak performances against the likes of Portland, Dallas and Philadelphia. There is no better place to unite together as a team than on the road. And there is no better time than now. With a little less than a month left until the playoffs begin, the Lakers find themselves at a crossroad. Clearly one of the elite teams in the league, and still highly favored to make another appearance in the NBA Finals, their recent play has been categorized as uninspiring, lethargic and to some, troubling. Gone are the consistent play and fire that has driven them to their 54-14 record. Lacking is the killer instinct needed to punish other teams into submission. And wasted would be this season if the Lakers fail to win it all.
The confines of travel coupled with its unfamiliar surroundings offer a chance for the Lakers to regroup and come together as a team. They need to once again reassert themselves, reaffirm their united commitment, and reestablish their goal of winning the NBA championship. The road though, is not without its perils. Teams can come apart at the seams, quickly unraveling whatever success had been generated to that point. Hostile environments will surely test the team’s mental toughness and their ability to silence the crowd. And seemingly favorable bounces and calls will no longer point in their direction, further adding deadweight to weaken the foundation that was so carefully built. But it is with this glimmer of hope that all Lakers fans pray for, that they’ll come back hardened with absolute resolve and renewed dedication, and 7-0 on this 14-day excursion.