LOS ANGELES — Well, that didn’t last long.
The Los Angeles Lakers enjoyed the glow of that Christmas Day win over the New York Knicks for all of what, 18 hours? All of that “clicking” they were doing during their five-game win streak went up in smoke in a matter of minutes Wednesday night in Denver.
That “desperate team” label Steve Nash said they needed to play with every night was nowhere in sight during their 126-114 loss to a Nuggets team that flew in after spending Christmas in Los Angeles, just like the Lakers. The 126 points is the most these Lakers have surrendered all season. The loss couldn’t have come at a worse time for a team trying to right itself and continue its recent run.
A younger, faster and surprisingly much more physical Nuggets team — the same one that was rocked by the Clippers in the Christmas nightcap at Staples Center — ran circles around a Lakers team that seemed frustrated from the start with their inability to keep up. And just like that, the Lakers are back in the crosshairs, raising questions not only about the validity of that five-game streak but also whether or not they’ll be able to deal with teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Clippers (as young, fast and physical as they get) come playoff time in the Western Conference.
The Lakers’ youngest and most physical specimen, Dwight Howard, certainly didn’t seem up to the task against the Nuggets. He exited in the third quarter after getting ejected for a flagrant-2 foul for a hand to the face on Kenneth Faried, who worked the Lakers’ bigs all night.
Howard’s finger-pointing after a game in which the Nuggets outrebounded their guests 48-38 and piled up 25 second-chance points should be of particular interest to teammates like Kobe Bryant and Nash as well as Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni.
“Guys got to be in the right spots and they have to be taught it and it has to be something that you practice on so guys can understand,” Howard said. “They have to go through it. You just can’t talk about defense or talk about where to go. You actually have to show guys where to go.”
Howard managed seven rebounds to go along with 12 points in the 27 minutes he played. But any signs of the three-time Defensive Player of the Year that fans had grown accustomed to seeing over the years were as faint as they’ve been all season. Howard hasn’t looked like his normal self after offseason back surgery.
And in the face of a non-stop rush from Faried, JaVale McGee and Kosta Koufos, the Lakers’ lack of effort and energy was glaring. That’s probably why D’Antoni didn’t hold his tongue when asked what effect Howard’s absence had on the Lakers’ comeback effort down the stretch. “Not a whole lot,” he said and then looked the other way.
“You can’t play a team on the road and time after time you stop them and they get the rebound and put it back in,” D’Antoni said. “You can’t do it … You can’t just keep coming back. You can’t just keep letting them score. For whatever reason they just had more legs. Whether they’re younger or faster, I don’t know, but we couldn’t keep them in front of us.”
The Nuggets didn’t show the slightest bit of restraint in attacking the Lakers where they felt they were weakest, in the middle. Faried assaulted the backboards and the rim at every opportunity, living up to his nickname of the “Manimal.”
“I think it was a little bit of frustration,” Faried told reporters after the game about Howard’s hard foul. “He saw my eyes. I wasn’t going to back down. I wasn’t going to try and float it, I was going to try to dunk on him. He saw it, that’s why he put his hand directly in my face. That’s when I say, ‘Dang, I wish I would have jumped higher.'”
Bryant might have said it best in his final locker room salvo on Christmas, when he politely explained that nothing the Lakers do, good or bad, during the regular season will end up on their final report card. He scored 40 points for the fourth time this season against the Nuggets, extending his streak of games with 30 or more to double digits (10).
No one but the die-hard Bryant fans cares about that this morning, though.
“People can be extremely positive of how you are performing and the job you are doing the entire regular season, the entire playoffs,” Bryant said. “But if you lose in the Finals, you are the [expletive] worst. If you suck for the entire season and win the Finals, people don’t give a [expletive] about what happened before then. It’s all about what you do in the Finals. It doesn’t matter what you do on Monday or Tuesday. It matters what you do in the Finals.”
The Lakers have a long way to go to get there … to The Finals, that is. In fact, they might want to spend more time worrying about what they do on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and every other day until they secure a playoff bid.
They can turn their attention to The Finals after taking care of that bit of business.