DALLAS — It was only a week ago that a group of roaring Lakers reserves just trying to make it in this league cut down a lineup of Clippers All-Stars and I believed anything was possible.
It didn’t take long to return to my rightful senses. The Lakers, with or without Kobe Bryant, are in serious trouble. Of course, the longer Bryant attends games wearing a black suit as he did again in Monday’s 123-104 start-to-finish wipe out by the Dallas Mavericks, well, you thought sneaking into last season’s playoffs took a miracle?
(Cue Jim Mora:) Playoffs?! The Lakers better just hope to win another game, at least on the road, with the brand of matador defense they’ve waved since that mind-blowing opening win over their Staples Center co-tenant. In going 0-2 on the road, L.A. has allowed 125 points to Golden State and 123 to Dallas. They were outrebounded by a combined 98-74 and were down 30 in each game.
After Tuesday’s bloodletting that dropped the Lakers’ overall record to 2-3, coach Mike D’Antoni was asked if the rebounding and defensive deficiencies are an effort issue. His assessment: “It’s not that it’s a conscious, ‘I’m not going to play hard,’ it’s just sometimes we play little and slow, sometimes we’re big and slow and sometimes we’re slow. We’re going to have to turn it up a notch, defensively especially, and have a little bit more grit. I don’t know if they’ve ever been to the level they need to be, but we need to get them there.”
If not, Thursday’s roadie against lighthearted old pal Dwight Howard and his 4-1 Houston Rockets could end disastrously with a date in New Orleans fast approaching on Friday night.
“We’ve got to establish ourselves and understand that it’s going to take a higher effort than it is at home,” Pau Gasol said. “We just can’t make a habit out of this, out of getting our butts kicked on the road because otherwise teams, when we come to their house, they’re going to be like ‘Well, we got the Lakers, we’re going to kick their ass.'”
Beyond the struggling Steve Nash (28.1 percent from the floor) and Gasol, who continues to grapple with a respiratory issue, Howard might not even recognize this crew wearing the Lakers’ purple road uniforms. The Mavs’ Dirk Nowitzki, who’s had tremendous battles with Kobe throughout the past 15 years, was barely needed against these stripped-down Lakers.
He scored a season-low 11 points and didn’t get his first bucket until the three-minute mark of the second quarter. It was an uncontested, running baseline slam that was already icing on the cake, putting Dallas up 59-39. The Lakers’ unfamiliar rotation included starter Shawne Williams being benched after five minutes and Nick Young, Jordan Farmar and Jodie Meeks all coming off the bench and scoring more than any of the Lakers’ starters, a unit led by Gasol’s 10 points.
“It’s a little strange, the lineup,” Nowitzki quipped.
Realistically, it could pass for a small-market, low-rent set-up focused on lottery ping-pong balls. In reality, this is arguably the most expensive band-aid of all-time, a $79.2 million patchwork that even Kobe, as he puffs his cheeks and helplessly stares into the abyss from behind the Lakers’ bench, knows is outclassed.
Before the game he visited with NBA TV: “The most difficult part is the process I’m going through right now which is the patience.” He did not offer a timetable for his return from the Achilles injury.
Nash, 39 and battling multiple physical ailments, is doing everything he can to just to make through each day.
“I’m just on that verge of trying to get over the hump physically,” Nash said. “And if I can do that I’ll really enjoy it.”
The Lakers sure could use a healthy dose of that positive Nash vibe because the season promises to be as much of a mental strain as anything else. For now, D’Antoni will continue to tinker with lineups in search of any combination that offers spats of consistency. He’s gone big, he’s gone small. In Dallas he found either way, “that we get beat by 20 no matter what. Any combo was not good.”
The facts so far: The Lakers rank 27th out of 30 in defensive rating (106.9 — points allowed per 100 possessions), 21st in offensive rating and are in the bottom 10 in rebound percentage. With a tough November schedule and Kobe stuck in a black suit, the all-too-real fear is this gets bad fast.
“We know that this is a team that’s going to continue to improve, hopefully, and find an identity,” Nash said. “It’s going to take a long time. It’s not something that just happens overnight.”
That also applies to whenever Kobe returns.