LOS ANGELES -- Mike D'Antoni alluded to it before the road trip, after the Lakers lost to Utah. At some point, the Los Angeles Lakers had to draw a line and take a stand.
Clearly it didn't happen in Cleveland or New York.
It may have, though, Tuesday night against the Charlotte Bobcats in a wild, ultimately unsatisfying 101-100 victory. After a sluggish start, the Lakers turned on the defensive pressure, found a little offense, and after a 3-pointer from Metta World Peace at the 7:52 mark of the second quarter had a comfortable 11-point lead. At that point, the game went off the rails. Over the rest of the half, the Bobcats outscored the Lakers 29-13, taking a five point lead into the locker room. Apparently, that run wasn't quite the attention grabber it should have been, because coming out of the half Charlotte outscored the Lakers 20-7, building an 18-point lead with six minutes to go in the third.
At this point, it was truly put up or shut up time for the Lakers. Sitting at 11-14, with the easier portion of the schedule already behind them and facing a pretty brutal slate of games in January, a loss to yet another NBA bottom-feeder could have serious repercussions into the spring.
So the Lakers drew their line. Increasing the defensive pressure, the Lakers cut the lead to seven by the end of the third, and just over two minutes into the fourth actually took a lead. Over the last 17-plus minutes, they held Charlotte to 20 points, including 6-of-27 shooting in the fourth.
Except, to quote Mom, "Here's the thing ..."
After going up by five, the Lakers couldn't put away a Bobcats team entering with an 11-game losing streak because they're horrible on both ends of the court. They busted enough of their own trips to cost themselves points, while breaking down enough on the other end to keep Charlotte alive. A game that never should have gone that far came down to a Gerald Henderson layup attempt orbiting the rim like something sent to space by NASA, before falling off the right side of the iron. Desperation follows by Byron Mullins and Ben Gordon both missed, and the Lakers won.
On the one hand, they came back in a game that looked as if were getting away. On the other, they were still literally centimeters from what would have been a catastrophic loss.
They won their third straight, but I can't imagine Lakers fans feeling an ounce better about their squad now than they did before the game. It took two great buckets down the stretch from Kobe Bryant (who also made a key feed to MWP along the arc), a Dwight Howard block on Kemba Walker, and a smile (arguably undeserved) from the basketball gods.
Here are five takeaways:
1. Transition defense. Again.
The Bobcats fueled their second-quarter run almost entirely by pushing off Lakers misses. Time after time, the Lakers seemed to get caught looking, hurt by bad offensive balance and (too often) a simple lack of hustle.
2. The rotation, she keeps evolving...
With Pau Gasol back in the lineup, save a few minutes for Devin Ebanks starting the game, D'Antoni tightened up the rotation in a major way. Seven players played 23 minutes or more, including 26 for Darius Morris and another night over 40 for Kobe. But more noticeable were the guys who sat. Jordan Hill didn't take off his sweats, and while he has been fighting back trouble he has never really established himself as a D'Antoni fave. Meanwhile Antawn Jamison also wore the DNP-CD collar, and as far as I know he's feeling just fine. Changes are coming, and fast, because D'Antoni has little time left to establish some consistency.
UPDATE: After the game, D'Antoni made it clear some guys are going to sit:
"I want (Metta) to play the four, and we have to be able to change our team. I hate it for Jordan Hill right now becaues he is the odd man out. He doesn't deserve it, he's played well, he's a good player, but for us to have a different team, a different look, Metta has to play the four."
D'Antoni was highly complimentary of Jodie Meeks, who continues earning himself minutes and will grow more valuable in with Nash around as a floor spacer. If Meeks is going to play -- and he is -- Kobe spends more time at small forward and again, Hill and Jamison see far less time on the floor.
3... And not just regarding who plays and who doesn't.
In the fourth quarter, D'Antoni swapped Gasol and Dwight Howard frequently. The two of them spent time together earlier in the game, but down the stretch? Nope. Perhaps when Steve Nash comes back -- maybe as early as this weekend in Golden State, but certainly for the Christmas game against New York -- he'll be the bridge allowing both of them to play comfortably together in important moments. Or he'll be the bridge allowing D'Antoni to be comfortable enough to let it happen. But long term, the question isn't about how Pau fits with Nash, but with Howard. If those two can't be on the court at the same time in critical moments, the Lakers have a problem.
4. Metta's green light should go yellow.
Eighteen shots, including 10 3-point attempts, is too many and the type that make coaches cringe. There is such a thing as too much freedom, and D'Antoni might have to set some boundaries for MWP.
5. Gasol looked OK.
Not great, not awful. There were strong moments early, particularly with how he moved the ball and ran defensively. He had a couple of early blocks, and definitely showed some spring he didn't have before missing games because of knee tendinitis. Still, as the game went on, his impact came and went. The whole "How Pau fits" thing remains a real work in progress. It's hard to complain about nine boards, five assists, and four blocks in 29 minutes, but at the same time the shooting percentage (3-of-10 shooting) remains a real problem.
UPDATE - D'Antoni on Gasol's performance:
"I was happy for Pau, for his first time back. He hasn't played in two weeks, and I thought the first five, six, eight minutes of each half he was really good."
Gasol, on his night:
"I feel a little winded, a little out of touch, but I was able to get out there and contribute. I'm getting into better shape, so I can get better."
Gasol, on whether he needs to adjust to D'Antoni, or D'Antoni needs to adjust to him:
"It goes both ways. I try to do my part, and hopefully the coaching staff will do their parts. I want to be as productive as possible and be out there as long as possible, so I can do what I need to do."
And as you can tell here, Gasol doesn't want to be sitting in crunch time.