Until Brown’s up to speed, they’ll concede too much middle ground
Kwame Brown acknowledged that he’d been told by an ankle specialist not to hurry back into the Lakers’ lineup, that he should invest in three more weeks of treatment on the sprain and bone bruise he had suffered on New Year’s Eve and gradually ease his way back onto the court.
One glance around the locker room Friday persuaded him otherwise.
Luke Walton still isn’t ready to return from his own sprained ankle, and Andrew Bynum has been weakened by flu. Then there’s Vladimir Radmanovic’s infamous snowboard accident, which has left the Lakers desperate for big bodies.
Factoring in that the playoffs are beginning to appear on the horizon, Brown decided Friday that after missing 27 games, he couldn’t wait any longer to return and still hope to be ready for postseason play.
“There was no way I was going to be in shape if I sat out another three weeks,” said Brown, who saw Dr. Dave Porter in Indianapolis on Feb. 7 and was told he might need six weeks for his left ankle to get back to normal.
“I just said, ‘Just try to give it a go.’ ”
His spirit was commendable, but his fitness and effectiveness simply weren’t there. Brown fizzled Friday, and so did the Lakers’ modest three-game winning streak, in a 116-108 loss to Sacramento at Staples Center.
Not that the loss was Brown’s fault alone.
All of his teammates were guilty of an uninspired effort that led to 19 turnovers and 65 first-half points by the Kings, the most scored by an opponent against the Lakers in the first 24 minutes of a game this season.
It was as lax a defensive performance as the defense-challenged Lakers have mustered all season, a repeat of the profuse and profound problems that threaten to undermine their playoff prospects. If the Lakers were expecting Brown to be a catalyst for changing that, he clearly wasn’t up to the task on Friday.
Coming off the bench for Bynum late in the first quarter, the 6-11 center got a warm reception from the crowd of 18,997. That was the last affirmation he got.
Wearing a brace and heavy tape on his ankle instead of the confining air cast he had been advised to strap on, Brown was tentative and reluctant to go near the basket, though his chief value to the Lakers is his defensive presence in the low post. He had three rebounds, three assists and one block in 19 minutes, and he took no shots.
“The first half, I felt pretty good. I was moving pretty good, pretty fluid,” he said. “The second half, it felt sore. I was able to do what I could do defensively, but offensively I had only a couple of touches.”
In discussing Brown and Bynum before the game, Coach Phil Jackson had said he expected Bynum to be “the less capable of the two” because the 19-year-old had been leveled by flu and had missed several days of practice. Bynum acquitted himself decently, with 11 points, six rebounds, two blocks and two assists in 28 minutes, but Brown is clearly a work in progress.
And the Lakers need him to progress. Quickly.
“Having him back definitely helps,” Bynum said. “We’ve been missing him.
“Having him there takes some pressure off me, and I was able to have some energy in the fourth quarter.”
Brown didn’t have much energy himself late in the game, but he expected that. The key for him is to build from here and turn around a season that has been a study in frustration.
He missed the first seven games because of a shoulder injury and didn’t make his season debut until Nov. 12. He regained a place in the starting lineup on Nov. 30 and averaged 8.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.21 blocks in 27.5 minutes per game.
He gave the Lakers a defensive presence, one that was missed after he landed awkwardly after blocking the shot of Philadelphia guard Andre Miller on Dec. 31.
While he was out, Jackson said, “We played some games we lost that were difficult games to lose. We had some good games that we played that we just missed that presence in the post, that confidence that we weren’t going to have to double-team and wouldn’t have to be that concerned about rebounding, or a deficit in rebounding. There’d be that space hewn out where we could get rebounds.”
The Lakers outrebounded the Kings, 44-25, on Friday, but that wasn’t nearly enough to beat a team they should have defeated. The Lakers had too many defensive lapses and allowed the Kings too many uncontested baskets to have any chance, even though they made a fourth-quarter push that gave their fans a few fleeting moments of hope.
“We came out kind of flat and played catch-up all game,” Bynum said. “We got close but then we made a couple of stupid mistakes.”
If there was anything good for the Lakers to take out of this, it’s that Brown got into a game and got a feel for the speed and intensity that can’t be simulated in practice.
“It was a little faster, and it only gets faster,” he said.
If the pace of his recovery gets faster too, there may be some hope for the Lakers. If not, they’ll only go nowhere, fast.