In these lean economic times, anyone looking to earn a little extra pocket money might consider the selling of torches and pitchforks to Los Angeles Lakers fans. Following Tuesday's 99-91 loss at Staples Center to the Dallas Mavericks in the season opener, there will be plenty of ire to exploit around town.
The Lakers started off strong, piling up 29 points in the first quarter, with 10 assists on 13 field goals. Dwight Howard had seven points, one of four Lakers with at least five. As the game went on, though, Dallas adjusted, closing off the middle of the floor to cutters and penetration while putting more pressure on the Lakers' ball handlers in an attempt to throw off the offensive rhythm. It worked. They scored 17 points in the second, 20 in the third, and only a couple of junk buckets late pushed L.A. to 25 in the fourth.
Of course, that wasn't all that went wrong. Here are four takeaways from a very disappointing first run for the new-look Lakers:
1. Second-half defense ... not so much
Over the first two quarters, the Lakers weren't in full lockdown mode, but the numbers weren't bad. Dallas shot a good-but-not-scorching 44.7 percent and was sent to the line only three times. The Lakers won the rebounding battle, as well. Save for Darren Collison (5-of-7) and Roddy Beaubois (3-of-5) -- more on this in a sec -- nobody in blue was doing much damage. Then the third quarter rolled around, and the Mavs started rolling, hitting nine of their first 13 shots and 12 for 19 (63.2 percent) in the quarter. Dallas, as it did most of the night, attacked Steve Nash hard. Collison hit a pair of easy jumpers over the Canadian's outstretched arm, then a third little floater coming over a screen. Generally speaking, both Dallas point guards picked on Nash, often putting him on an island away from help.
He wasn't alone, though. Eddy Curry hit a couple of buckets against Pau Gasol down low. Elton Brand had six points. In the fourth, Dallas wasn't quite as prolific but still did more than enough to maintain a comfortable lead, picking up easy buckets whenever it seemed like the Lakers might make a run. Overall, Dallas finished the game at better than 47 percent, despite missing eight of their final nine shots. Meanwhile, the Lakers went the wrong way in the third at the other end (38 percent shooting) and sputtered early in the fourth, as well.
2. Free throws
General rule of basketball: When a team's free throw percentage is substantially worse than its field goal percentage, that team probably isn't going to win. The Lakers finished the night at a robust 49.1 percent from the floor, but were a wretched 12-of-31 from the free throw line. Not surprisingly, Dwight Howard was the primary offender, missing 11 of his 14 attempts. Jordan Hill didn't help, finishing 1-of-6. On a more positive note, the team's best free throw shooters didn't miss … but that's because Kobe Bryant and Nash combined to shoot zero free throws between them.
Howard will have his off nights, but the Lakers must get their backcourt to the line with far more frequency.
3. Steve Nash looked incredibly uncomfortable
The Lakers are going to be a Princeton team, but the idea as explained repeatedly by head coach Mike Brown is for Nash to quarterback the group, choosing when to run high screen and rolls and when to get into their sets. Obviously, the former keeps the ball in his hands much more than the latter. During the preseason, Nash said he was particularly conscious of making sure the Lakers ran their offense, generally at the expense of his own freelancing. On Sunday night, it was more of the same, and he looked totally uncomfortable in the process.
Certainly seven points and four assists in 34 minutes drives home the notion.
There's a balance to be struck here: The Lakers rightly don't want Nash to carry the burden of greasing the Lakers' offense every time down the floor. Not at 38 years old and with so much offensive talent around him. But they can't do this, either. Over time, he'll get more comfortable calling his own number, so to speak. Once they know the offense as a team, Nash will likely feel more freedom to run it less often.
UPDATE: Nash addressed this point after the game. "I think that's definitely, maybe, I need to assert myself more in pick and roll situations. But you're right, I'm caught trying to get the ball moving in the Princeton and get us into different sets and opportunities. Tonight, we didn't do a good job getting into the Princeton, and we didn't get a lot of stuff in pick and roll action. It's growing pains, and it's a struggle. We're out of sync, and we're going to probably have some more moments in games like that."
4. The bench was a mixed bag
The great maxim for this season's group of reserves comes straight from the book of medical ethics: First, do no harm. In that regard, they did their job. When Brown went to the bench in the first half, the Lakers had a two-point lead. When the starters returned in the second quarter, the lead was three and, at one point, it was run up to as many as eight. Jodie Meeks hit a triple, Hill finished a couple of plays at the rim, and Steve Blake ran up four assists in only 7:13 of burn. At times, they looked like they were running the offense better than the starters. In the second half, the reserves gave up a few more points, unable to put the brakes on the turnstile defense demonstrated by the starters coming out of the half. Overall, Blake finished with six assists; Hill with nine points, five rebounds and plenty of energy; and Jamison was sneaky effective (on one end, at least) with five points, five rebounds and two assists in only 15 minutes.
Fans will look at the box and see Dallas' reserves outscoring them, but that's not necessarily the best way to judge the relative effectiveness of L.A.'s subs. Four Mavericks players, for example, played more than Jamison's 15:02, and Vince Carter was up near 27. Momentum went away from the Lakers with the starters on the floor, and they weren't much better coming back on the floor in the fourth.