The rising tide of panic among Laker fans subsided slightly Tuesday as the Lakers beat the Raptors 109-107 on a game-winning shot by Kobe Bryant (of course), snapping a three-game losing streak. But while they avoided losing four in a row for the first time in nearly three years, this was far from a convincing performance.
In the first quarter, the Lakers went to their bread and butter. I'm not talking about Kobe - they save him for the fourth quarter. The Lakers pounded it inside to Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. The two combined for 18 of the 29 points in the first. The Raptors allowed the two big men to go to work with little resistance. The Raptors rarely brought the double-team and Gasol and Bynum are too tough to guard one on one. Did the Raptors not study game film? During this losing streak, teams have been forcing the Lakers to beat them on the perimeter. You have to double Bynum and Gasol early and force them to kick it out.
In the second, the Raptors did double in the post and it worked. Bynum and Gasol scored just four points in the quarter and the Lakers were held to 5 of 15 shooting. The Lakers have not been moving the ball well. They pass it around the perimeter and each hold it for a few seconds. There is no driving into the lane and then kicking. It's largely been isolation plays and as good as the Lakers are, this just isn't going to get it done.
As bad as the Lakers looked on offense in the second, their defense was much worse. The Raptors hit 7 of 10 three-pointers because the Lakers were slow to react. Lack of ball movement was not a problem for the Raptors as they had 16 assists at the half as compared to 7 for the Lakers (who also had 6 turnovers). The Raptors led at the break 58-50.
There was a moment in the third quarter when I saw one of the main things that has been missing from this Laker team over last year's team. With just over seven minutes remaining, Chris Bosh drove to the lane and was rejected by Bynum. The Lakers pushed the ball and Bynum finished with a dunk on the other end. It was one of the few times all season I've seen defense lead to offense. It had been so long I almost forgot it was possible from this team. It's these easy buckets and swings in momentum that have been missing and it's one of the biggest reasons people question whether they can win another championship.
The defense did play a little better in the second half but not nearly enough to silence the mounting criticism. The Lakers made an effort to close out on shooters as proof by the Raptors hitting 2 of 12 three-pointers in the second half. But one of those three-pointers was huge. With 19 seconds remaining and the Lakers up two, Odom was fouled and sent to the line. He hit the first but missed the second. On the other end, Chris Bosh of all people nailed the game-tying three with 11 seconds remaining. Bosh had just six three-pointers all year and hit TWO in this game.
But he left 11 seconds on the clock and you know what that means. Bryant got the ball at the right side of the three-point line, drove right and pulled up with Antoine Wright in his face and knocked down the 17-foot jumper for his sixth game-winner of the season. Bryant finished with 32 points including 14 in the fourth quarter. But instead of heaping praise upon Bryant and being in awe, I'm going to say - he was due. Earlier in the season he missed a game-winner against these same Raptors and he also missed a few key shots against the Heat last Thursday and missed a game-winner against the Magic on Sunday. He's amazing but he's nowhere near automatic.
After the game Bryant was asked if this win was satisfying to which he replied he wasn't because that's not how you win championships.
I love it when they interview kids because you always get the truth from them. The 22 year-old Bynum was asked if his team is as lackadaisical as they look and he said definitely. He said the reason is that people are looking forward to the playoffs. That's the mindset the Lakers are bringing into every game - just one less game until the playoffs. There's just 17 regular season games until the playoffs but if they don't change that attitude it will be a quick exit for the defending champs.