Friday night in Portland, it was Kobe Bryant, not Brandon Roy, who found himself reaching for a positive result.
Wednesday night, the Lakers found themselves outplayed by the Clippers for much of the game, only to buckle down and tie things up near the seven minute mark of the fourth quarter. At that point, most of the building figured the jig was up and the Lakers would pull away for the win, except the LAC didn't cooperate. When it was over the purple and gold were on the wrong end of a 102-91 score.
Having botched the whole "big comeback, strong finish" thing, the Lakers figured they'd give it another crack Friday night against the walking hospital ward currently constituting the Trail Blazers, hoping to end an eight game losing streak in the Rose Garden reaching back to February of '05. After a first half in which sketchy offense, poor defense, and hot Portland shooting put the Lakers down by 12, L.A. came out of the break in good form, fueled in part by an impressive sequence over three-plus minutes from Kobe Bryant.
The Lakers scored on five straight trips- including four threes- between 10:11 and 7:50, each basket coming off a dish from Kobe, good enough to pull within five. At the 6:02 mark of the third, Lamar Odom corralled a Derek Fisher miss and quickly found Andrew Bynum underneath for the alley-oop. Lakers within three, timeout Blazers, a Rose Garden full of once angry, bio-fueled fans now biting their fingernails. Out of the stoppage, the teams traded buckets, the Lakers still seemingly primed for a late quarter push. Instead, over the final minutes it was Portland who took control, thanks to some great shot-making, questionable decision making from Kobe, and general breakdowns from the Lakers.
3:25- Brandon Roy, who was incredible for Portland throughout (32 points, 9-11 from the floor, 13-14 from the line, six dimes), comes off a high screen and sticks a jumper over a closing Bynum. Blazers by five.
2:54- LaMarcus Aldridge goes over Bynum from the right block, hitting a tough fadeaway jumper. Blazers by seven.
2:31- Kobe drives on Martell Webster from the top of the key, and makes the shot with the foul. He misses the FT, but LO is there with the putback. It was one of the best looks Kobe had all night, and ironically may have screwed up L.A.'s offense the rest of the night. Lakers minus three.
1:43- After a Dante Cunningham reverse layup, Kobe again tried to take Webster off the dribble. This time, though, it resulted in a wild shot as Webster pulled away from the contact and Kobe went to the ground. Portland corrals the shot, and in transition Webster sticks a triple. Portland by eight.
1:14- Again Bryant goes to the iso well, again with poor results. He tries to move on Webster from the right wing, and again Webster defends it well, forcing a travel.
The Lakers would turn it over twice more in the quarter, once on a terrible pass from Fisher at halfcourt, flipping it back to Odom who hadn't crossed the timeline, then Kobe trying to make a long, cross court pass over the defense. Both robbed the Lakers of chances to pull closer after empty Portland trips. Webster, meanwhile, added one more bucket to push the Blazers lead back up to 10. From there, any rhythm the Lakers had established earlier in the quarter was gone and they were back to the highly individual play so damaging to their offense over the last few games.
Nor was there any balance. Kobe, who continued shooting through the fourth, finished with 37 shots, 22 coming after the break, 16 coming in the final quarter. The rest of the Lakers starting lineup combined for 42 attempts. He hit on 14 of his shots, the other four guys 23.
That's not going to work.
I'm not blaming the loss solely on Kobe. He had a bad game- 32 points on 37 attempts, seven dimes but five turnovers- and over his last three games has shot very poorly. Clearly, the Lakers had issues defending their bucket, and Portland saw great play from Roy, Webster (particularly defensively against Kobe), and a great night from Jerryd Bayless off the bench (21 points). The Blazers may have been shorthanded, but still outworked the Lakers and forced them out of their comfort zone with hard, decisive double teams down low. Instead of responding with disciplined play, smart ball reversals or hard cuts to punish a scrambling D, the Lakers generally just settled for jumpers.
With Pau Gasol on the sidelines, the last three games have shown stronger signs of a Lakers team slipping back into "Save us Kobe! Mode," too willing to defer to Bryant. Or perhaps 24 is too eager to hoist his team on his shoulders. You say chicken, I say egg. Either way, poultry (technically, chicken eggs are poultry, right?) in any form doesn't seem to be serving the champs all that well.
Those final three minutes of the third were a microcosm of what went wrong all night. The offense lost its balance, the defense couldn't get stops, the team as a group made mental errors. Just as it was against the Clippers, the Lakers seemed primed to take the game, then fell short.
The Lakers get Milwaukee on Sunday before facing San Antonio and Dallas in Texas next week, then the Clippers again next Friday.
Hurry back, Pau.