HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — There’s been some talk of late that the Los Angeles Lakers, now that they’ve finally surged into the top eight of the Western Conference, can get as high as the No. 6 seed.
Well, the Lakers made the point on Friday night that just making the playoffs still isn’t guaranteed.
In Pau Gasol‘s first game back from a 20-game absence, L.A. blew an 18-point, second-half lead to the Washington Wizards, a team that was previously 6-26 on the road.
Afterward, Mike D’Antoni ripped into his team, and Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register basically joined in on the criticism…
Wizards speedy point guard John Wall gave a preview of what could await the Lakers in a possible first-round playoff series against Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, San Antonio’s Tony Parker or Denver’s Ty Lawson by rushing the ball into a backpedaling Lakers defense and establishing which team had the truer aggression.
Wall had 24 points and 16 assists, and his efforts held up with Bryant missing would-be tying shots from the open elbow with 5.9 seconds left and from a difficult 3-point circumstance at the buzzer. After a two-game layoff to heal a sprained left ankle, Bryant looked fatigued – and surely not from defensive diligence – but kept firing away late in the game.
Trevor Ariza, whom Bryant gave his summer shooting program to help the Lakers en route to their 2009 NBA title, had a dynamic second half – often against Bryant. Ariza had 25 points and hit a career-high seven 3-pointers; Bryant had 21 points on 8-of-18 shooting with 11 assists.
About Ariza’s open looks, D’Antoni said it was “inexcusable … lapses, gambling or ‘I’m not gonna play hard tonight.'”
To add injury to insult, Antawn Jamison sprained his right wrist in the third quarter. He’ll have an MRI on Saturday to determine the extent of the damage, but without him, the Lakers’ offense could be compromised. Gasol shot just 2-for-10 in his return and has shot just 42 percent when playing alongside Dwight Howard.
If the Lakers aren’t potent offensively, they may struggle down the stretch, because their defense hasn’t been reliable at all. Though they’re 11-5 since the All-Star break, they have just the 15th best post-break defense.
The good news for the Lakers is that the Jazz also lost on Friday, falling in overtime in San Antonio. Utah has now lost 11 of its last 14 games, and L.A. is still very much in control of its own destiny, up a game and a half for that eighth spot.
But the lead is just one game in the loss column and Utah does have the tiebreaker, having won the season series 2-1. And while the Lakers are about to embark on a four-game road trip, the Jazz have a little bit of a soft stretch of schedule coming up. They visit Dallas on Sunday and then play six of their next seven games at home. Overall, Utah has the easier remaining schedule.
Still, the Jazz will need to start playing better than they have over the last month if they’re going to really threaten L.A. Taking the Spurs to overtime in San Antonio is somewhat encouraging, but their offense has been held under a point per possession in seven of their last 10 games.
Lakers and Jazz, remaining schedules
|Team||Home||Away||B2B||Opp B2B||vs. .500+||Opp PCT|
B2B = Back-to-backs
Opp B2B = Opponents on the second night of a back-to-back
vs. .500+ = Games against teams with a .500 or better record
Opp PCT = Cumulative opponent winning percentage