LOS ANGELES -- Predictably, the third game of the Bernie Bickerstaff era didn't mimic the Los Angeles Lakers' effortless romps through the lillies witnessed against the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings.
The San Antonio Spurs represent a legitimate challenge, and reminded the world how much work still remains for the Lakers to operate like a true contender. The Lakers were certainly game and, defensively, made life a slog for their visitors. But their offense periodically stopped as well, and at the end of the day, the team with more cohesion in the closing moments prevailed. The Lakers are more of a work in progress, and shorthanded to boot, and this showed when matters counted most.
Here are four takeaways from the loss:
Pau Gasol needs to put the ball on the floor with his jumper curiously off
In theory, Gasol is a nice fit for his new coach's offense, given his ability to space the floor 15-20 feet. He may lack the 3-point range of Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw, Channing Frye or some other big men who thrived alongside Steve Nash, but Gasol's jumper commands the legitimate respect of a defender. Unfortunately, it's not dropping with regularity, one huge 17-footer late in the fourth quarter notwithstanding. A gander at Pau's advanced numbers reveal he's hitting just 20 percent from 10-15 feet and 35 percent from 16-23 feet, both well below his typical clip.
I have no idea what's causing the struggles, but I do have a suggestion to offset the difficulty, one I've already floated earlier this season. Gasol needs to put the ball on the floor more often and force the opposing big men to work harder defending him. Pau's ball-handling rivals many an NBA guard (see Meeks, Jodie), and there aren't many big men who can stay with him off the dribble. That versatility is what makes Gasol such a tough cover, but he's doing the opposition a favor by taking the jumper every time, even while open. And when they don't fall, it's an even bigger bonus for the enemy.
That's not to say Gasol played poorly Tuesday night. He worked the glass to good effect, getting himself to the line for his troubles. He also did a nice job playing traffic cop for the offense, facilitating a few excellent sequences creating buckets for Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace. And defensively, he was effective. But with Nash out and Antawn Jamison still not a steady offensive threat, the Lakers need Gasol's points as well, and he's leaving too many on the table as those jumpers refuse to cooperate. I'd like to see him force the issue, pick up some easier baskets or free-throw attempts, and perhaps gain a little confidence in the process.
Kobe Bryant, however, is making everything look easy
The sweat-free nature of Kobe's game this early season was best demonstrated during a third-quarter sequence when, on back-to-back possessions, Kobe ran a curl around a high screen from Gasol, then weaved his way through a pair of Spurs straight to the basket. Identical action, same result, and with precious little sweat. Even a 3-pointer was made easy as Kobe calmly pushed Dwight Howard forward as if Superman were his personal fullback, bulldozing the defender until there was enough daylight to shoot. It's a continuation of a theme throughout the previous seven games. There has been a conscious effort to get Mamba quality shots, and he's making good on those opportunities. As of this writing, he's averaging a shade more than 26 points on fewer than 17 shots a game, the lowest total since the 1999-00 season.
That's not to say Kobe never reaches into his bag of tricks to pull out a doozy. For example, a fadeaway jumper with the clock running down and Manu Ginobili draped all over him found bottom, a classic "How'd he do that?" basket we've seen countless times in his career. But all things being equal, the fewer of those type of shots he has to drain the better, and Kobe is being asked to play that card less often.
Jodie Meeks had a brutal night
Generally speaking, your designated 3-point specialist shouldn't boast a 3-1 turnover-to-shot attempt ratio, particularly when the guard in question isn't called upon to handle the ball much. Somehow, Meeks pulled it off. On a related note, that the second unit hasn't logged many minutes with Meeks and Chris Duhon as their backcourt was often painfully obvious.
The Steves were missed down the stretch.
With Nash and Blake sidelined, Darius Morris looking like a second-year guard, and Duhon failing to set the world particularly aflame, Bickerstaff opted to play the closing minutes of the fourth quarter without a point guard. The show was essentially run by Kobe, with World Peace in the backcourt and Gasol, Howard and Jamison upfront. This crew managed to keep pace with San Antonio, but predictably, shots weren't manufactured with ease. A reliable second ball-handler and table-setter would have come in handy.