NEW YORK — Maybe Mike D’Antoni‘s return to Madison Square Garden wasn’t quite as disastrous as it seemed like it would be when his Lakers were down 58-32 early in the second quarter. Led by Kobe Bryant and benefiting from Carmelo Anthony‘s absence over the final 18:41, L.A. fought back somewhat and made the final score, 116-107, respectable on the surface. On this night, no one asked if D’Antoni felt embarrassed by his team’s performance.
But a loss is a loss, whether it comes in New York or Cleveland, and whether it comes by nine points or 90. And as they wait on Steve Nash, the Lakers are burying themselves in a deeper hole every day.
At 9-14, the Lakers are only 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot. Nash is slowly getting closer to making his long-awaited return, and with him, comes a more efficient offense.
ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin reports that Nash could even be back as soon as next week:
Nash, who has been sidelined the past 21 games with a fractured fibula in his left leg, told reporters after the game that he has worked some on-court running into his rehabilitation and plans to practice with the team in L.A. next week when the Lakers return from their four-game trip.
“Hopefully, I can practice next week,” Nash said. “We’ll see. I’m definitely getting better. We’ll see if I continue to improve and there’s no setbacks, then I should be able to practice next week.
“On the court, I’ve been running the last day and a half, and [my leg] has been responding pretty well. So, I haven’t done a really huge load, huge amount, but it’s something.”
Nash said he does not have a return game circled in his mind. The Lakers play the Charlotte Bobcats on Tuesday, followed by a road game at Golden State on Saturday and then another game against the Knicks at Staples Center on Christmas Day.
“I’m not really sure how it will respond,” Nash said. “I still can’t do certain things. I’m just knocking down hurdles, so the first one is to be able to run, and then you hop the next few hurdles and take some contact and see how my body responds.”
After Thursday’s loss to New York, both D’Antoni and Bryant spoke of offensive improvements that need to be made. D’Antoni wants to get Dwight Howard involved in more pick-and-rolls. Bryant feels he needs to be more of a point guard.
Sounds great. If only offense was the problem.
The Lakers gave up 116 points on Thursday. It took them over 17 minutes to get two consecutive stops. For most of the night, all it took was one pick-and-roll and one pass to compromise their defense to the point where at least one Knick was wide open in a position to score.
After getting scorched for 68 points in the first half, the Lakers made an adjustment on their pick-and-roll coverage, switching everything in the final 24 minutes. But the Knicks were still able to get the buckets they needed to stem the tide down the stretch, and switching on everything is never going to be a fruitful solution long-term.
No matter what defense the Lakers were playing on Thursday, breakdowns were abundant. Just ask Antawn Jamison, who didn’t feel the need to be within 15 feet of sniper Steve Novak in the corner when Raymond Felton dribbled across the midcourt line late in the third quarter. After Novak’s three splashed through the net, D’Antoni furiously called timeout and screamed at Jamison.
“There was a couple of plays in the second half that I thought killed our momentum,” D’Antoni said afterward, “that guys were just being not real attentive. Those things we have to solve to be able to win in the situation we’re in right now.”
Yes, the Knicks’ offense is playing at a historically efficient level right now. But they still scored an efficient 55 points on 47 points with Anthony off the floor on Thursday.
So Bryant can play more point guard until Nash gets back. And then Nash can take over and get the offense running more efficiently in another week or two. But the Lakers aren’t digging themselves out of this hole unless they figure things out defensively.
Maybe an efficient offense itself can turn a 9-14 team into a 48-34 team. But is that even good enough to make the playoffs in the Western Conference this season?
The Golden State Warriors are proving that they’re for real. The Minnesota Timberwolves have done a much better job (by playing great defense, by the way) of staying afloat without their starting point guard. And the Denver Nuggets have done the same despite a brutal, road-heavy schedule.
Beyond that, the East appears to be weaker than ever. Every West team has the ability to fatten their record by feasting on the terrible and mediocre teams in the other conference.
That means the Lakers can’t just wait and see what they’ve got once Nash and Pau Gasol are healthy. The time for change is right now.