PHOENIX — The Lakers “ran out of gas,” as coach Mike D’Antoni put it, but he kept pushing the accelerator. Their “legs weren’t there,” as D’Antoni noticed, but he kept ordering them to run. The Lakers “looked tired,” but D’Antoni refused to offer them much rest.
The symptoms surrounding the Lakers’ 99-76 loss Monday to the Phoenix Suns remains pretty clear. Without Kobe Bryant (sprained left ankle) and Pau Gasol (torn plantar fascia in right foot), the Lakers lacked some of their top-heavy talent. By playing on a second night of a back-to-back, the Lakers had less time to recover from their victory Sunday over the Sacramento Kings. With finishing a 10-game stretch that has spanned 15 days in seven different cities, the Lakers looked burned out.
“You could see the wheels fall off,” Lakers guard Steve Nash said. “Especially lately with guys injured, we’ve been playing a 7 man rotation. That caught up with us a little bit.”
Yet, D’Antoni remained adamant afterwards about sticking to such a small lineup.
“I just wasn’t ready to grasp at straws. After it’s over with yeah, you can tell me it’s that way. But if we come back and win? I don’t know at that point. We know the guys we’re going with. We have to get Gasol back and Kobe back and we’ll go back to a nine man rotation. We’ll be fine.”
Lakers forward Metta World Peace tried sounding defiant too, saying “the better team won.” But the Suns are 23-45 and lost four consecutive games. The Lakers had won seven of their previous nine contests.
Then World Peace asked a Lakers official for a copy of the box score. It revealed some ugly details. The Lakers scored a season-low 76 points. They shot 33.3 percent from the field. The Lakers were outrebounded 41-31. They committed 18 turnovers. Nearly every player in the rotation played heavy minutes, including World Peace (39 minutes), Dwight Howard (37 minutes), Steve Blake (34 minutes), Jodie Meeks (33 minutes), Steve Nash (31 minutes). Only Antawn Jamison fell below that with 23 minutes.
“Maybe it was a little fatigue,” said World Peace, who scored only 12 points on 5 of 17 shooting. “I don’t think we clicked tonight.”
Meanwhile, seldom-used reserves, such as Chris Duhon, Devin Ebanks, Darius Morris and Robert Sacre, only played the final 2:48 when the outcome was already decided.
“You definitely think that’s a possibility that your number may be called,” Lakers guard Darius Morris said. “You start to tune in even more and be ready if possible. You do provide some fresh legs, but everything coach does is very well calculated. Obviously he has a plan that he thinks is best for the team.”
And D’Antoni’s plan won’t involve any of those aforementioned players even though he’s stressed to them to keep working because an opportunity will arise.
“It means they’re not playing well enough to play,” D’Antoni said. “It means I have seven guys I’m confident with.”
D’Antoni then defended why he’d lean on his players with such heavy minutes considering the Lakers trailed only 78-70 with 8:12 remaining. But the Suns outscored 21-6 the rest of the way. The Lakers also missed five of their next nine shots before D’Antoni cleared out the bench.
“We’re down 8. What do you want me to do?” D’Antoni said. “Take Nash out because he will miss the next three? Maybe take Dwight out? What are you going to do? That’s hindsight. Most people on the other side are real good at it. That’s pretty clear. But that’s a hypotheticals that mean absolutely nothing.”
That’s because none of the seldom-used players have provided much impact this season. Earl Clark noticeably struggled with four points and two turnovers, making it hard for him to eat into Howard’s minutes.
“We tried to give it our all,” Howard said. “If we don’t have it, we trust that somebody else will. Everybody tstepped on the floor tonight came out with the right mentality. But we didn’t knock down shots and they did.”
Definitely fatigue contributed to that. But D’Antoni offered a solution.
“You’ve got to fight through it. You’ve got to gut it out,” D’Antoni said. “Most of the time, you do it with smarts and we didn’t have that either.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org