PHOENIX — Lakers coach Phil Jackson discounted the notion that Luke Walton’s play has picked up since Vladimir Radmanovic was traded to the Charlotte Bobcats on Feb. 7, removing the chance that Walton and Radmanovic might swap roles for the second time this season.
Walton replaced Radmanovic as the Lakers’ starting small forward 20 games into the season. The Lakers acquired Adam Morrison and Shannon Brown for Radmanovic, who vented about his lack of playing time and generally appeared as if he would be happier elsewhere.
“It has to do with him being able to shoot the ball,” Jackson said of Walton, who is averaging nine points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists in his last five games, an improvement on his season averages of 4.8 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists.
“When Luke shoots the ball well, it makes a big difference in his game. I think the repetitions. He got a little under the weather right before the All-Star break and he had a couple of bad games there. He was still suffering a little bit. Now, I think he’s feeling good and feeling good about his game.”
DENVER — Coach Phil Jackson called the Lakers’ 90-79 loss to the Denver Nuggets tonight “a garbage game,” and who are we to argue his point? The Lakers scored a season-low for points.
The Lakers narrowly missed setting a franchise record for their lowest shooting percentage. They checked in at 29.8 percent, avoiding a dubious mark of distinction only after Jordan Farmar made a layup in the closing seconds. They were at 29 percent before Farmar’s bucket. The club record of 29.4 percent was set against the Utah Jazz on Nov. 3, 2004.
Otherwise, the Lakers’ first loss since Feb. 11 was a game to forget. They lost for the first time in seven games. What’s more, their five-game winning streak against the Nuggets also came to an end. Actually, it was a nine-game streak if you count playoff games.
“That was just one of those games,” Jackson said. “We didn’t want to lose it, but we didn’t have it. Obviously, we don’t shoot that way every night. You’ve got to give credit to the defense of your opponent, but we just didn’t shoot the ball very well.”
When someone asked Derek Fisher if fatigue played a role in the Lakers’ lackluster play, the veteran point guard seemed unsure what to say. The Lakers’ lack of energy was evident from the start. They arrived at their hotel around 4 a.m. after defeating the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night at Staples Center.
“I don’t know, I guess so,” Fisher said. “I don’t know whether it was getting in late or early or whatever you want to call it. If anything, it was a combination of the entire week. That wasn’t our team, for sure. The Nuggets played better than we did.”
DENVER — The Lakers played the first half tonight exactly like a team that checked into its hotel at 4 a.m., after playing Thursday night against the Phoenix Suns at Staples Center. They missed shots from here, there and everywhere. They also reached for the ball while on defense, rather than sliding their feet. Those are sure signs of tired legs.
Kobe Bryant scored 15 of the Lakers’ 40 points in the first half. J.R. Smith led the Nuggets with 11. The Lakers shot 31.1 percent while scoring their fewest points in a half this season. they also had nine turnovers. The Nuggets shot 45.9 percent and also had nine turnovers.
DENVER — Phil Jackson addressed the idea that the Lakers are a better team without 7-foot center Andrew Bynum clogging up the paint and slowing them down. Jackson agreed that the Lakers are quicker and able to run more effectively without Bynum, who is sidelined by a torn knee ligament until at least April.
“Offensively, we’re more streamlined,” the Lakers’ coach said tonight. “We probably run better offensively. We can do things will multiple ballhanders out there, particularly with Luke (Walton) and Lamar (Odom) out there. We know have four ballhandlers. Pau (Gasol) is very capable of running. So that part of our game, fastbreaks and scoring, has gone up. Defensively, I don’t think we’re quite as good.”
Remember, the Lakers got thumped around the basket by the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals last June. Bynum’s absence was viewed by many as the main reason why the Lakers lost to the Celtics in six games. The Lakers were called soft and worse because they failed to match-up physically against the Celtics.
Talk about a tale of two locker rooms. I stopped by the Suns locker room after the game and it was fairly dreary in there. Shaquille O’Neal tried to lighten the mood, but most of the Suns players dressed quickly and exited as soon as possible.
“This was a good test for us,” O’Neal said. “Obviously we failed the test tremendously.”
Down the hall in the Lakers dressing room, things were jovial by comparison. Jovial, but businesslike.
It was obvious the team had known it needed to blitz Phoenix early in order to be ready for tommorrow’s game in Denver.
“Tonight kinda felt like a trap game. We’re at home, Steve (Nash) is out. It kinda seemed like a game we could’ve taken the night off,” Kobe Bryant said. “So we wanted to make sure from the (opening) jump that we didn’t do that.”
Personally, I don’t think so. But after the Lakers polish off the Phoenix Suns in a few more minutes, they will have won 11 of 12 games since Bynum was injured.
Bynum said he wasn’t worried about regaining his spot in the rotation once he returned.
“ It’s cool. It’s cool,” he said. “Because when I come back in, then we’ll all jell. I’ll have to work my way back in and make us all better.”
Around the league though, not everyone is convinced the Lakers are a better team with Bynum than without him. Denver coach George Karl told Chris Tomasson of the Rocky Mountain News that he thought the Lakers might actually be more cohesive without their young 7-foot-1 center.
“Don’t you have to make the statement that maybe they’re better without
Bynum?,” Karl said. “Why do we always say Bynum? How many games has he played for this team? I like Bynum. I think he’s a great player. But sometimes you can have too much talent out there and it can kind of be confusing.”
Andrew Bynum has started workouts on a stationary bicycle and an elliptical trainer this week, the first steps in his rehabilitation and recovery from a torn medial collateral ligament suffered Jan. 31 against the Memphis Grizzlies. The Lakers expect the 7-foot Bynum to be sidelined until at least April. Coach Phil Jackson said recently he doesn’t expect Bynum to be ready to resume basketball drills until some time in March.
OKLAHOMA CITY — The Lakers nearly squandered all of an 18-point lead, letting their advantage slip to only 75-74 early in the fourth quarter before racing away to a 107-93 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight. Kobe Bryant scored 36 points to lead the Lakers to their fifth consecutive victory. Pau Gasol added 14 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Kevin Durant led the Thunder with 32 points on 11-for-20 shooting. Russell Westbrook, a former UCLA standout, scored 14 points on 5-for-13 shooting.
Bryant jammed his right ankle on a drive to the basket late in the game. “That’s OK, I have ankle insurance,” he said, chuckling. In other words, it’s nothing that would keep him from playing in Thursday’s game against Shaquille O’Neal and the Phoenix Suns on Thursday.
Derek Fisher marveled at Bryant’s play in the fourth quarter, when he scored 15 points and added two assists in the final 9-plus minutes. Bryant made 5 of 6 shots and 5 of 7 free throws.
“He doesn’t really do anything that amazes me anymore, but it’s still just fun to observe his ability to just make his mind up and say, ‘OK, this is what I’m going to go do,’” Fisher said. “To just make his mind up that he’s going to make the shots go in, I just don’t know if there’s anybody in our game who can consistently match that ability. I know I’m biased, but it was impressive to me.”