The eight-game trip is finally over, although we writers still have Sunday night to spend in Cleveland before flying home. In honor of the Lakers longest trip in 17 years, heres eight things we learned over the 7,500 miles we covered in the last two weeks.
No.1: Lamar Odom wasnt able as he hoped to pick up where he left off before spraining a ligament in his right knee. In 10 games back since the injury, Odom is averaging 14.9 points, 10.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists while shooting 53 of 134 (39.6 percent).
The highlight of the trip for Odom came in hitting three fourth-quarter 3-pointers against Washington. But hes not attacking the same way he was before the injury and seems to be taking a lot more step-back jumpers and 3-pointers (1 of 6 Sunday) than before.
The Lakers had a hard time bridging the gap with Bryant on the bench, even though Jackson turned to Odom in those situations. In the second quarter Sunday, Odom missed a 3-pointer at one end and fouled Donyell Marshall on a four-point play at the other end.
Its clearly a tough time for Odom, who has spoken about the hardest thing for an athlete being when his body betrays him. Even so, the difference for the Lakers being a good team and a very good team is the same as Odom being a good and a very good player.
No. 2: The Lakers still have a lot of work to do in closing out games. They trailed the Knicks by two points in the final minute before losing. They took a seven-point lead into the fourth quarter before falling apart against Indiana.
They led Toronto by two with two minutes left and trailed 86-85 to Cleveland with two minutes to play. In a perfect world, youd hope to win three of the four games or at least come away 2-2. Instead, the Lakers lost all four times.
They also should have built on a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter against Boston rather than letting the Celtics back in the game. As Odom said Friday in Toronto, as long as the Lakers are inconsistent defensively, theyre going to play every game to the final horn.
No. 3: Hope you enjoy the sixth seed come playoff time. The Lakers are in no mans land in the Western Conference standings. They trail Houston by 3 games, San Antonio by 3 1-2 and Utah by 4. Those three teams all are fighting for the Nos. 3-5 seeds.
Then youve got Denver 3 1-2 games behind the Lakers in seventh. Its still premature to talk playoff positioning with 30 games left in the season but the Lakers path isnt going to be easy and they probably wont have home-court advantage in the first round.
No. 4: If youre picking teams to win the NBA Finals, dont forget about the Detroit Pistons. They dismantled the Lakers – – who have beaten the top five Western Conference teams – – both times they played and looked like a serious contender Thursday night.
The Pistons might have taken their cues from Ben Wallaces rebounding and shot-blocking, but Chris Webber gives them an offensive dimension they didnt have. Detroit also looked like it could bear down defensively in holding the Lakers to 78 points.
Just ask Bryant, who finished with eight turnovers in the game, one shy of his career high. The Pistons played zone in the first quarter, then aggressively double-teamed Bryant every time he dribbled the ball. He finished with 18 points and took 13 shots.
(The Cavaliers, for what its worth, committed only one defender to Bryant until he had scored 10 points in the fourth quarter. What happened when they started to double? Bryant had the ball stolen by Larry Hughes leading to the biggest basket of the game.)
No. 5: The schedule has been unforgiving for sure, but the Lakers are in a pronounced slump. They have gone 4-9 in the last 13 games and seem to be tired of hearing their problems excused away by injuries and inexperience.
“I think that we have enough talent in here that we dont have to blame it on injuries, Maurice Evans said, “because, honestly, the way were playing right now, it doesnt matter which guys are on the court.
Odom said Friday that the Lakers seem to play their best defensively when everybody is happy about their offensive game. That cant be the case. You cant base your defensive effort on whether youre scoring or not.
No. 6: Clevelands Scot Pollard has the coolest hair in the NBA. Pollard didnt play because of back spasms but has a blond Mohawk that makes him look like a punk rock star. Because of the league dress code, Pollard still had to wear a suit to sit on the bench Sunday.
No. 7: Sometimes they cant help it, but Andrew Bynum and Ronny Turiaf have to pick up fewer fouls. Even as the Lakers came from 11 down in the third quarter Sunday, Bynum picked up his fourth foul with 7:07 remaining.
Bynum came back for the start of the fourth quarter but fouled out with 3:20 left. That was the first of three consecutive trips to the foul line for the Cavaliers, as LeBron James drew whistles against Turiaf the next two possessions.
On the second of those fouls, the Lakers had forced James to circle the court trying to create before finally driving baseline. He had a tough angle to the basket but Turiaf still caught him with enough of a bump to be called for a blocking foul.
James made the second of two free throws to give Cleveland an 88-85 lead.
No. 8: The Lakers have to beat New York and Cleveland at Staples Center this week to head into the All-Star break on a positive note. All season, the Lakers have fallen back on their home record (19-6) and now its time to do so again.
A couple of bonus things we learned: Andrea Bargnani is going to be OK as the No. 1 overall pick . . . Smush Parker was sick the last part of this trip but has to find some consistency in his game . . . Bryant went 3-0 against Gilbert Arenas, Joe Johnson and James in those individual matchups he doesnt care about . . . The big-city Lakers, Knicks and Bulls all find room for newspaper reporters courtside but the Cavaliers quarantine us in the second deck. . . .Give Bryant credit for driving and kicking out to Parker for a big shot in the fourth quarter Sunday . . . .You dont appreciate how nice living in Los Angeles is until you spend two weeks traversing the Eastern Conference in the middle of winter.
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There was a question waiting in every city on this trip for Jackson about the evolution of Bryant. We saw a lot of different games out of Bryant, in fact, from not taking a shot in the first 11 minutes against Detroit to trying to carry the Lakers in the fourth quarter against Cleveland. Here was Jackson’s answer to a question about comparing Bryant and James to Michael Jordan.
“To see a player like Michael,” Jackson said, “who was eye candy for people because he could hang in the air and create shots and do things that were so special, we all thirst to see someone that can do that same type of thing.
“LeBron and Kobe have that same ability, remarkable ability to do things out there that make you want to look at it again and see it again in slow motion. Its hard to turn away from that but its also hard to compare them. Its just one highlight film after another with these guys.
“The idea that to combine that with team play and to do the right thing in this game, its got to be a real cohesive act, its got to be a real touch.
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By Ross Siler
CLEVELAND–If the Lakers were going to salvage something from this two-week road trip, if they were going to fly home thinking about anything other than a three-game losing streak, then Kobe Bryant was going to have to carry them to the finish line.
Bryant scored his teams first 14 points of the fourth quarter and outscored LeBron James 36-18 for the afternoon. Yet the Lakers were left with a 99-90 loss Sunday to the Cleveland Cavaliers and a 3-5 trip that was far from postcard perfect.
“We have to take what it is, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “Just re-establish ourselves, go back home and try and build some momentum again. Thats all the NBA is. Its a roller-coaster ride between wins and losses and you just have to keep your spirits up and go back and work hard.
Jackson told his players in the locker room afterward that they gave away Sundays game. It was hard to reach another conclusion after the Lakers held Cleveland to just 12 points on 4-of-25 shooting in the third quarter, then lost the fourth quarter 35-23.
“Our defense pretty much caved, Bryant said. “We gave them a lot of easy opportunities at the basket, a lot of free throws. The fourth quarter is when you really want to hold a team in and force them to hit shots, not put them at the free throw line.
The Cavaliers went 13 of 18 from the line in the fourth quarter while the Lakers shot six free throws. They also got 46 points from their bench players – – Sasha Pavlovic had 21 and Anderson Varejao 12 – – compared to 15 from the Lakers counterparts.
Bryant played 44 minutes in all and came back for the entire fourth quarter; James didnt return until the 6:47 mark. Bryant hit a turnaround with a hand in his face, drilled a 21-footer over Pavlovic and tossed in a reverse layup with three defenders in his vicinity.
That also might have been part of the problem. Bryant made 5 of 8 shots in the fourth quarter while the rest of the Lakers went 3 of 11.
“According to Kobe, nobody else wanted to step up in that sequence, Jackson said. “That was one of the things that we were looking for was somebody else to try and get going.
If the game turned on one possession, it came with 1:26 left and the Lakers trailing 88-85. The Cavaliers double-teamed Bryant with Pavlovic and Larry Hughes, who knocked the ball out of his hands.
“It was a great defensive play, Bryant said. “He just made a great defensive play. I was looking to read some of my cutters, try to get other guys involved in that particular situation. He made a great defensive play.
Pavlovic raced ahead and scored at the other end as part of a three-point play after a soft foul by Smush Parker. The Lakers would get as close as 91-87 after that but couldnt grab a rebound after Pavlovic missed a 3-pointer and gave up a basket to Varejao.
As a result, the Lakers added Sundays loss to the ledger from this trip. They lost five of the eight games but were thoroughly beaten only by Detroit. The other four losses were games that could have gone in the Lakers favor but for one reason or another didnt.
The Lakers were supposed to get Kwame Brown and Luke Walton back on the road but learned neither players sprained ankle was ready. They also started the trip on the wrong foot when Bryant was forced to serve an NBA suspension in New York.
Then the Lakers collapsed in the fourth quarter against Indiana and watched Lamar Odom and Sasha Vujacic scream at each other during a timeout. They recovered to beat Washington and Atlanta after that but trailed from start to finish against the Pistons.
That game was punctuated by forward Brian Cooks immediate benching for discarding a warm-up top in Jacksons lap on his way to check in. As Cook jawed with assistant coach Brian Shaw on the bench, the Lakers looked like a team that had come apart.
Two more losses followed in barely 72 hours. The Lakers erased an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter but faltered down the stretch against Toronto and then watched a 1-point game with 2 1-2 minutes left Sunday go against them.
Jackson had wanted to go 6-2 on this trip, the Lakers longest since December 1989. Instead, Bryant was being asked afterward if injuries and the road had caught up to the Lakers, who are just 4-9 in their last 13 games.
“Thats part of it, Bryant said. “Were a much better team when we have everybody healthy. With that being said, we had opportunities to win games on this road trip that we just didnt win. The only positive thing is that its over.
James finished with 18 points but made just 5 of 16 shots. He still caused problems for the Lakers in the fourth quarter, collapsing the defense on drives and finding Pavlovic for a 3-pointer and Varejao for an 18-footer in the last four minutes.
Odom started the game matched up against James and finished with 11 points, 11 rebounds and an assist. But Odom made only 5 of 13 shots and Jackson said afterward that Odom “looked like he wasnt stepping into the vacuum in the fourth quarter.
“Its time to go home and feel better when we get back to L.A, Odom said.