After a short string of meh-or-worse games, Pau Gasol looked more Pau Gasol-like Tuesday, dropping 27/12 on Golden State, with three blocked shots.
I ain't gonna lie, it's been a little topsy-turvy these days in Laker Land as the team seems to have hit a wall on every conceivable level. Offense gone stagnant. Defense gone slack. Andrew Bynum gone mostly invisible. Ron Artest just plain gone, still unable to suit up after sustaining a concussion following a Christmas day tumble down some stairs. It's certainly the most random Laker injury this side of now-Warrior/past snowboarder Vlad Radmanovic, and Artest's halftime news conference did little to shed any light on what exactly happened to him. But that's almost appropriate, as answers of any kind aren't coming easy at the moment. I asked Kobe Bryant after the Lakers struggled to beat Golden State 124-118 Tuesday night if the sudden slump has felt as weird to play through as it's often been to watch.
Not so much, he said. "It's really just the up and downs of the season. It's such a long season, and you're gonna have spurts where you're maybe not playing as well as you want to be. You have injuries and freak things that happen. It's such a long season, something's bound to happen. It's just a matter of how you deal with it and how you get through it," he said.
Maybe that really is the case, cut and dried. After all, as Kobe noted, these Lakers are a "veteran bunch," a major asset in riding out choppy waters. But for the faithful living and breathing their fandom one possession at a time, this four game stretch has often resembled Chinese water torture. Two wins squeaked out against teams below .500 (Sacramento and Golden State). Two losses against legitimate foes that have some in Lakers Nation doubting this team's ability to pull off a championship repeat.
Pulses race even faster when nobody can quite put a finger on why the issues have seemed to come crashing down at once.
Having Artest out of commission obviously throws a wrench into the works, not simply because the team misses him on defense.
"He's certainly someone you have to play," said Phil Jackson of Ron Ron's offensive prowess. "He's a three point shooter and he's got the range."
At the same time, Artest suited up on Christmas, and joined everyone else in playing lousy. The lack of rhythm and continuity of late may not be worth panicking over (I'm sticking with my preseason prediction of a repeat), but clearly must be addressed.
Unfortunately, the fix doesn't appear an overnight thing.
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I'd love to tell everyone it's just a matter of fine tuning and regrouping between now and Friday's rematch against the Kings at Staples. I'd love to say we should sit back and watch as the Lakers hit the ground running like nothing ever happened. But I doubt that will be the case. Not with so many issues in need of tweaking. Not with Artest's return uncertain and Luke Walton, often handy when it comes to greasing the triangle's wheels, still on the shelf. Not with Bynum still struggling to remain effective quarter-to-quarter. (He suffered one lulu of a sequence in the second quarter Tuesday, in which the Warriors were able to convert a pair of Bynum turnovers and a wild miss at the rim into easy buckets at the other end.) And not with the bench remaining shallow and erratic.
I'd be thrilled for a pleasant surprise, but my guess we're in for a few more rocky games before the Lakers again resemble "The Lakers."
But the good news --aside from the fact that there is plenty of season still to play and rarely does a title winner not have to survive bumps in the road-- is a number of players looking to step up their games found a way to contribute Tuesday:
Having yet to play a "statement game" since inking his big bucks extension, Pau Gasol busted through, connecting on 10 of 16 shots for 27 points, with a dozen rebounds and three blocks tossed in for good measure. When the Lakers aren't playing at their best, Gasol often endures stretches far too long without a touch, and tonight offered several of those spells. Thankfully, the squad caught on to the notion that feeding Pau generally leads to good things and resisted the urge to think outside the box.
Lamar Odom, by his own admission, hasn't played very good basketball since last season. His first half Tuesday did nothing to reverse that trend. He went 0-for-5, had three shots blocked and pulled down just a pair of boards. The second half, however, saw Odom come alive: He scored 11 points. He grabbed seven rebounds in the third frame alone. And he made three trips to the line and converted on all of them. LO has always been considered this team's X-Factor; when he struggles the team struggles.
Phil thought Tuesday that Derek Fisher's legs might have been feeling the effects of playing four games in five nights, including two overtime periods and consecutive contests against speed-ball squads. He called on Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic (rarely used in crunch time, or any time, really) as a late-game backcourt. Farmar rose to the challenge, chipping in six points and a pair of dimes while cultivating what was easily his strongest effort since Dec. 19 against the Nets.
Throw in a solid third quarter that saw the team go from down seven to up two, and you have enough positives to potentially build upon.
And let's not forget Kobe, who put up 44, 4 and 11, with a sweet sixteen freebies attempted and converted. Unlike in recent games, Tuesday night felt like a game where Bryant's dominance was actually enhanced by his teammates' contributions. Truth be told, another issue of late has been mucho possessions that are too Mamba-centric. Did Kobe help get the team over the hump Tuesday night? Without question, along with Gasol. But it didn't feel like he was in danger of a hernia from carrying his teammates.
If you're a fan desperately seeking an uptick in mood, perhaps these elements provide reason to breathe slightly easier during an undeniably vexing stretch.
Or at the very least, to breathe straight into the open air, as opposed to a paper bag.