Below are some things to take away from the Lakers’ 113-96 Game 6 loss Thursday to the Denver Nuggets:
1. The Lakers should feel embarassed. I’ll break down in more detail in the items below, but the score should speak for itself. For the second consecutive game, the Lakers lacked energy, focus and any consistent production outside of Kobe Bryant in a closeout game. The Lakers still have a chance to secure this first-round series with a victory in Game 7, which is taking place at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Staples Center, but with how well they played at the beginning of the series, it should’ve never gotten to this point.
After appearing focused and motivated from last season’s early playoff exit, the Lakers have reverted to their old style where they believe they could just go through the motions. Meanwhile, Denver has steadily improved, leaned on nearly every player in its rotation and has continually gained confidence. The concerns go beyond losing rest and preparation for a second-round series against Oklahoma City. At this point, Denver has a really good shot to win this series. And, based on how the Lakers have played in the last two closeout games, it shouldn’t be surprising at all if they fall in the first round.
2. Kobe Bryant fought through his flu and provided more effort than his teammates. Moments before entering the court, Bryant sat on the bench with his eyes closed and a stoic expression. Despite receiving IV fluid before the game, Bryant hardly looked like he felt fully recovered from flu symptoms. But as Bryant always does, he showed up to work and performed. If not for his 31 points on 14-of-23 shooting, the Lakers would’ve walked out of Pepsi Center as a glorifiedD-League team.
Bryant received more IV bags (four) than Pau Gasol scored points (three). Bryant’s fatigue was obvious. At times, he overreached on defense. And his frustration may have boiled over when he committed a flagrant foul on Kenneth Faried. But Bryant provided more effort than his teammates in both closing out on shooters and preventing baseline drives. It’s hardly a coincidence that his 21-foot jumper with 8:25 left in the first quarter marked the Lakers’ first field goal after missing their eight consecutive shots.
This should enrage Bryant for many reasons. For the second consecutive game, Bryant was forced to bail out his teammates. They hardly even looked interested in trying to match his effort. He likely feels even worse because of his health. It proves that his will and talent aren’t going to be enough to carry the Lakers however far they actually get in the playoffs. And the Lakers will have to expend more energy in Game 7 when they should be preparing for Oklahoma City.
3. Pau Gasol had his worst game as a Laker. Think handling those trade rumors were tough? Try dealing with scrutiny after another playoff unraveling for the second consecutive year. Gasol’s three points on one-of-10 shooting and three rebounds harkened back images of a similar showing in last year’s playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks when he averaged a tepid 13.1 points on 42.9% shooting.
Gasol lacked aggression on offense. He immediately passed out of double teams even when he had room to operate. Gasol settled on too many mid-range jumpers. He didn’t record his first field goal until the 1:20 mark in the second quarter.
He also lacked aggression on defense. Gasol routinely sagged back in transition. He rarely put a body on anyone to get rebounds. And his lack of energy starkly contrasted the effort provided from Kenneth Faried (15 points, 12 rebounds). Gasol epitomized his lackluster play most notably when Faried beat him off a baseline cut in the third quarter for a basket while drawing a foul, prompting Gasol to turn his head to see who he’d consider responsible for the mishap. The only problem: Gasol was the one.
By going a combined five-of-14 from the field in the last two games, Gasol is evaporating the good will he earned by proving to be a reliable mid-range shooter and facilitator in the first four games of the series. Should the Lakers not win Game 7, the lasting image among fans will surely point to his Game 6 effort.
4. Andrew Bynum was unreliable once again. The opening possessions epitomized Bynum‘s lack of aggression. Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov and Nuggets guard Ty Lawson (??) blocked Bynum’s first two shots. His third attempt on a three-foot shot then fell short. His 11 points on four-of-11 shooting and 16 rebounds might have only looked bad on paper because of his shooting percentage. But his body language and demeanor suggested he hardly cared, especially when he continuously sat out of team huddles late in the game. The only hustle he provided was on the glass. But he lacked effort everywhere else, ranging from setting up in post position, getting back on defense and rotating on defense.
Sure, Bynum would have some help if the Lakers actually had some reliable outside shooters who could finish better than a combined four-of-14 from three-point range. It would obviously space the floor more and give Denver reason not to stick to Bynum in the post. But he’s hardly using any of his frame or footwork to fight back. Nor is he channeling much of anything defensively beyond grabbing rebounds that bounce toward him. The Lakers for now have publicly maintained patience with his maturation process. But Bynum is truly giving them reason to question whether they should extend the team option on him next season.
5. Ty Lawson lit up Ramon Sessions.The Lakers thought they solved all of their point guard problems when they acquired Sessions from Cleveland and then traded away Derek Fisher. Not so. Even if Sessions showed some aggressiveness attacking the basket (14 points) that hardly made up for his porous defense on Lawson, who scored a playoff career-high 32 points on 13-of-18 shooting, including five of six from three-point range, partly because of his hot shooting stroke. But Sessions left him wide open on nearly every possession.
The root of the problem traces back to both the Lakers’ transition and pick-and-roll defenses. In transition defense, Lakers Coach Mike Brown wants his backcourt players to sprint back the second a shot goes up and then flood up the strongside to prevent middle-drive penetration. The Lakers’ frontline is then supposed to sprint the weakside to counter any big men from driving into the lane. But with Bynum and Gasol trudging back on defense, Sessions often remained caught in clogging the paint while leaving Lawson open on the perimeter. That never-ending problem largely contributed to the Nuggets scoring 14 fastbreak points and Lawson getting clear looks from three-point range.
On pick-and-roll defense, Sessions often remained stuck in screens both when he played over and under them. Regardless of the approach, Lawson had plenty of time to fire away from long distance or drive to the basket. As much as he doesn’t provide much of a defensive upgrade over Fisher in defending point guards, Sessions deserves to have more frontcourt help in ensuring he’s not continuously playing a losing hand when he’s defending Lawson.
6. Mike Brown is getting outcoached. It’s not that big of a deal to leave Bryant in until the 7:52 mark in the fourth quarter. Bryant wanted to stay in anyway and any additional rest might not have really provided much of a difference. No need to really dissect Brown putting Matt Barnes in the second half for Devin Ebanks. Despite Barnes and Ebanks combining for 16 points, both of them made many mistakes in defensive transition. Big picture, though, it’s obvious Brown’s coaching is contributing to the Lakers regressing throughout the series. To Brown’s credit, he prepared the team tremendously by providing comprehensive scouting reports before the series started. Players unanimously attributed that effort to the Lakers’ sharp focus and energy in Games 1 and 2. But since that time, the Lakers have mad few adjustments to counter the Nuggets.
Despite blistering double teams on Bynum, it doesn’t appear the sets are changing to provide him with better looks. Despite Gasol’s tremendous talent, there’s very few sets that are drawn up for him in the low post. Despite Andre Miller presenting way too much size for Steve Blake to handle, Brown hasn’t put Bryant or Ebanks on him to counter that height advantage.
Sure, the players are at fault too. Bynum has stayed unpredictable. Gasol has showed passiveness the last two games. The Lakers’ supporting cast hasn’t hit outside shots the past two contests. But it’s also on Brown to ensure the team retains its collective focus. That hasn’t happened one bit.
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