It's hard to learn too many lessons from Saturday's 102-94 loss to the Clippers in the first installment of this year's city rivalry games, at least in terms what it means about each team's long term future in the Pacific Division. But if Saturday was any indication, Los Angeles basketball fans will enjoy having two high-end NBA teams operating out of Staples Center.
Chris Paul was spectacular, and Kobe Bryant again hit the 40-point mark. Fans saw a good show and the LAC drew first blood. Here are four takeaways:
1. This has the potential to become an ugly rivalry.
You knew something might be up when the second preseason game between these teams looked a little like lost outtakes of prison hoops sequences from "Oz." A little chippy, to say the least. Saturday, there were more moments of tension. Darius Morris going to dunk on a dead ball, and getting a stiff arm from Blake Griffin underneath, a play nearly sending Mike Brown over the edge. He had to be restrained on the Lakers bench by John Kuester and Chuck Person, while earning himself a T. There was the play where Metta World Peace arm-barred Griffin in the third quarter when he thought Griffin was over his back, then tossed a couple elbows in Paul's unfortunately nearby face. Moments later, there was another scrap involving Paul, Josh McRoberts, DeAndre Jordan, and Morris.
Matt Barnes spent most of the evening looking as if he might take someone's head off. More than normal.
The Clippers did themselves a disservice getting all scraptastic, firing up a fatigued, sluggish Lakers team and turning a comfortable lead into a tight game. More important, they violated the cardinal rule of NBA basketball: Don't make Kobe angry. You won't like him when he's angry.
2. The team still has no offense not directly tied to Kobe's output.
In the first half, Bryant seemed to have the leaden legs of his teammates, missing 9-of-12 shots, most coming from the perimeter, generally fadeing away, generally pretty flat. The third was a different story. He opened the quarter with a 22 footer, then moments later finished at the rim with a nice reverse layup. He set up Andrew Bynum with a slick pass over the double on a pick and roll near the top of the key, drilled a couple 3s, and made seven of eight free throws en route to a spectacular 21-point quarter.
This, plus a few nice defensive plays helping fuel the Lakers in transition. The Lakers got back into the game, and gave themselves a shot in the fourth. Again, Kobe was rock solid with his point production despite Vinny Del Negro throwing the kitchen sink at him, knocking down five of his six shots for another 10 points, finishing with 42 overall on 14-for-28 from the floor.
For those keeping score, that's four straight 40-plus game for Bryant, a remarkable stretch of scoring made particularly so given the once-again high shooting percentage. As a team, though, the Lakers lacked any real rhythm.
Bynum and Pau Gasol saw relatively limited opportunities in the second half, taking 10 shots between them and generating eight points. The Morris/Derek Fisher combination chipped in with 14 points, something they'll take every night if given the chance. What's still missing is any sense of rhythm and predictability in the offense. Maybe this was the wrong night to make the assesment, given the aforementioned workload the Lakers have endured. To a large degree, they're in survival mode and Kobe could certainly be called the lifeboat. Regardless, it's been a problem through the team's opening slate of games. Brown and Co. are yet to establish a flow offensively not directly tied to Kobe making or missing shots, and the issue is getting worse, not better.
There are mitigating factors, for sure. The consistency of an inside-out game isn't there, and the lack of reliable perimeter shooting doesn't help, either. Nor the almost total lack of practice time and secondary ball handlers, inconsistencies in the rotation, and huge minutes piled up of late by L.A.'s stars (see below).
Down the stretch Saturday, they couldn't devise ways to get the ball out of Bryant's hands as the game went on, whether to create easier looks for Kobe or create something away from him entirely. It's something needing attention once the Lakers have a little time on their hands. Whenever that is.
3. Not to make excuses, but the Lakers looked awfully tired... found a burst... then tired out again.
The NBA season began on Christmas Day, with the Lakers and Clippers both taking the floor. Tonight, the Lakers played their 14th game, the LAC their ninth, meaning the purple and gold have played five more games over the course of 20 days. They've played four times in five nights, while the Clippers had two days off following their win over Miami on Wednesday evening. Over the course of the season all of this evens out, but in the moment doesn't do much to create a fair fight.
They made the third quarter push behind periodically stiff defense and Bryant's points, but faded in the fourth, particularly in their own end. All the signs -- defensive confusion, reaching instead of moving feet, poor choices offensively -- were there. Most of all, the energy deficit showed on the glass, where the Lakers were outrebounded by eight overall, and allowed a whopping 17 offensive rebounds leading to 25 second chance points.
In an eight point game, 25 says a lot.
Along those lines, Gasol's minutes are already a concern, 14 games in. In nine January games, he's averaged 37.9 minutes per game. In six games since playing a tidy 31 against the Grizzlies on January 5th, Gasol has piled up 240 minutes, or 40 a night. 40. That's too many. Too, too many. Particularly since we're talking six games in nine nights.
For that matter, Kobe has played 41 a night over his last five.
This can't continue.
4. Darius Morris acquitted himself well.
This was his third game as a pro, and the rook from Michigan stepped onto the floor against Paul and looked like he belonged. Sure, Paul had his way more often than not and I'm sure when the staff breaks down the tape they'll find many a teachable moment, but what exactly would you expect? He's Chris Freaking Paul. But while CP3 got his numbers, Morris never looked discouraged, never gave up on plays, and most importantly, didn't press offensively, taking trips away from the Lakers by overdribbling or forcing bad shots.
In the open floor, Morris gives the Lakers an element they don't otherwise have, namely an athlete at home running the break, comfortable distributing on the fly.
He's a rookie, and will play like one more often than not, but there are a lot of reasons to be encouraged, as much because of the attitude as the numbers.