Below are five things to take from the Lakers’ 99-86 loss Saturday over the Utah Jazz at Staples Center:
1. Kobe Bryant had a strong all-around game. Bryant’s between-the-legs pass that set up Pau Gasol’s dunk will make the broadcast highlights. But everything surrounding his 18-point, eight rebound, five assist and two steal performance in 24 minutes looked superb. Bryant remained aggressive both while attacking the basket and drawing fouls (12 of 14 from free-throw line) and moving off the ball. On the opening possession, Steve Nash set up Bryant for an elbow jumper that will likely become a staple play this season.
Meanwhile, Bryant went to great lengths to set up teammates, whether it was his pass to Gasol, his baseline pass to Antawn Jamison for an easy score or his jump pass to Gasol for an open dunk. Surprisingly, Bryant also appeared incredibly active on defense, communicating, double-teaming on rotations and marking his man, although his second half defensive effort wasn’t quite as strong. Bryant enters this season not having to shoulder the burden as leading scorer. With that dynamic, Bryant demonstrated perfectly how the less-is-more approach will enable him to focus on areas of the game beyond just putting points on the board.
2. Robert Sacre is making a good case for a roster spot. With Dwight Howard continuing to rehab his surgically repaired back, the second-round draft pick has impressed the Lakers so much that key figures are touting his future. Bryant said Sacre could make the final roster, while Coach Mike Brown believes the 60th overall pick has a strong NBA future. Even though Sacre’s role will inevitably change once Howard returns, he could be a key asset off the bench with Jordan Hill nursing a herniated disk in his back.
Against Utah, Sacre continued making a strong case on why he deserves a roster spot with his nine-point performance on three-of-five shooting and 10 rebounds in 27 minutes. Sacre grabbed one rebound with just his left hand. He hit two mid-range jumpers after spacing the floor well. Even if his defensive rotations weren’t always on point, Sacre provided consistent energy and hustle. What Sacre brings could go a long way toward ensuring the Lakers have enough frontcourt support for Howard and Gasol.
3. Darius Morris showed a mixed performance with increased minutes. In hopes to provide more clarity to the backup point guard spot, Brown played solely Morris at the expense of both Steve Blake and Chris Duhon. Morris’ stat line hardly looks eye-popping: two points on one-of-six shooting and four assists. But he looked more organized in running the offense than during his limited opportunities last season. Early in the first quarter, Morris drove into the lane and found Jamison open on the wing. Morris routinely directed teammates where to cut and set screens. On one play, Morris managed to drive baseline, absorb contact, make the shot and draw a foul.
Buit there were also some definite holes. Morris struggled to creat his own shot. He often dribbled into traffic. Relative to what he showed last season, it’s clear Morris showed he’s improved in most areas. But it’s clear that Morris is still going through some growing pains as he tries not to force the issue.
4. The Lakers’ transition defense remains an issue. Mere minutes into the third quarter,Brown called a timeout. Nash had just missed a running floater and none of the Lakers seemed inclined to get back on defense. That left Utah guard Gordon Hayward wide open for a dunk that cut the Lakers’ lead to 52-50 with 7:54 remaining. Once Howard and Hill return to the lineup, the Lakers will solve plenty of their defensive problems. But in the meantime, the Lakers at least need to show effort on transition defense.
So far in training camp, that’s been mostly non-existent. Against Utah, the majority of its () fast-break points came because the Lakers either looked confused on their defensive rotations or took its sweet time running back after a missed shot. Of course, preseason games don’t matter. But this is a fundamental issue the Lakers should easily correct, but haven’t.
5. Pau Gasol struggled. Despite Nash and Bryant continually setting him up, Gasol struggled in taking advantage of those opportunities. But his 11 points on four-of-10 shooting also reflected some other issues. Gasol struggled while absorbing contact. He routinely was beat on defensive rotations. Gasol seemed so frustrated over a non-call in the lane that he intentionally fouled Marvin Williams with a hip check.
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