Lakers end trip with balance due
On the cover of the Lakers’ media guide is a photo of Phil Jackson getting doused by champagne in a circle of smiling players, part of the joyous aftermath of the franchise’s 15th championship.
The minor slice of history that ended Sunday with their return to Orlando won’t be so cherished.
The Lakers hadn’t lost three consecutive games since Pau Gasol joined them on Feb. 1, 2008, but that streak was terminated in a 96-94 loss to the Orlando Magic at Amway Arena.
Kobe Bryant missed a 20-foot jumper with 1.2 seconds to play and the Lakers completed a reverse hat trick, losing to Miami, Charlotte and Orlando on a trip they’d just as soon forget.
They shot poorly (37.5%), were heavily outrebounded, 50-39, and had a glaring scoring imbalance when held up to the well-rounded Magic.
“I’m worried about what we can do to win ballgames. I’m not worried about streaks,” said Gasol, who had 20 points and 11 rebounds. “I’m worried about what we can do to win another championship as a team.”
The effort was substantially better than a pathetic offering two days earlier in Charlotte, but it didn’t stop the Lakers from getting swept on a three-game trip for the first time since 2004-05, the last time they failed to make the playoffs. Nor did it prevent them from incurring their 18th loss, one more than they had all last season.
Getting to the postseason is an obvious non-issue this season, but holding on to the top spot in the Western Conference suddenly isn’t such a given. The Lakers (46-18) are only three games ahead of hard-charging Dallas, which has won 11 consecutive games.
And yet, there wasn’t a hint of alarm after Sunday’s loss.
“We didn’t win the game, but I saw what I wanted to see,” said Kobe Bryant, who acknowledged he “cursed [teammates] out” in a Saturday practice session. “If we play with this kind of effort, it’s going to be hard for a team to beat us four times in a series.”
Bryant had 34 points on 12-for-30 shooting and ran into the kind of one-on-one rivalry he hadn’t seen since saying he had “bigger fish to fry” than former Phoenix guard Raja Bell a few years ago.
Bryant and Orlando forward Matt Barnes became a secondary theme in a testy game spiced with 53 fouls, 65 free throws, three technical fouls and a flagrant foul.
Bryant picked up his 12th technical this season after getting tangled up with Barnes under the basket while getting position for a rebound early in the third quarter. (Players are suspended for one game if they get 16 technical fouls in the regular season.)
In the fourth quarter, Barnes took an offensive rebound, was smacked on the arm by Bryant and exclaimed, “What are you doing?”
When asked about Barnes after the game, Bryant chuckled three times in a 10-second span before answering, “It’s entertaining.”
Bryant later said, “Matt Barnes was physical in terms of putting hands on you and things like that. But him bumping me and Kenyon Martin bumping me are two different things.”
As reporters asked Ron Artest what he thought of Barnes, Lamar Odom yelled out from across the room, calling Barnes a “monkey” who “picked the right game to act tough.”
Odom later called Barnes an “action figure” and compared him to pro wrestling legend Ric Flair, known for whipping up crowds with his antics.
Meanwhile, Orlando showed balance from inside and out, with all five starters scoring in double figures, led by Vince Carter’s 25 points. The Lakers had only three players in double figures, and Andrew Bynum, limited to 19 minutes because of five fouls, had five points on one-for-five shooting.
It led Gasol to question the team’s imbalance, as he has done periodically the last two months.
“Kobe’s a great player and probably the best offensive player out there and we understand that,” he said. “He’s aggressive and he’s competitive and we understand that that’s going to happen. But at the same time, we need to find that balance.
“We need to find balance with our interior game, developing it a little more and using it a little more and moving the ball and changing sides of the floor because the triangle [offense], that’s what it does. It gets open shots to guys no matter who they are. With the kind of guys we have, everybody can knock down shots.”
Bryant missed the team bus to the game and arrived 18 minutes late for pregame activities because of a “stomach issue,” he said.
After missing 10 of his first 15 shots, he almost cured the Lakers single-handedly, hitting an apparent three-pointer with 12.9 seconds to play and glaring at Magic fans as he did a small victory strut near the Lakers’ bench. But the call was changed to a two-pointer after referees saw his foot was on the line, turning a tie score into a 95-94 Lakers deficit.
“I knew I should have cut my toenails this morning,” Bryant said, smiling.
He got a clean look on his last-second attempt after driving past Barnes, but the shot strayed left and hit the rim. Bryant grimaced and never broke stride as he walked off the court.
Before the Lakers headed home Sunday night, they found one last issue confronting them.
Their charter plane was delayed because of mechanical problems. It seemed symbolic, in many ways.
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The Lakers lost a third consecutive game for the first time since 2008:
at Miami 114, Lakers 111
at Charlotte 98, Lakers 83
at Orlando 96, Lakers 94
at San Antonio 103, Lakers 91
at Dallas 112, Lakers 105
Cleveland 98, at Lakers 95