Sort through the first three games, and the Lakers’ identity looks like a fun-house mirror.
At one glance, the Lakers look like the energetic bunch that scraps, claws and outhustles their way to an overachieving victory opening night against the Clippers. Looking at another angle, the Lakers appear too undisciplined to key in on Golden State’s sharpshooters. In their 91-85 loss Friday to the San Antonio Spurs at Staples Center, the Lakers appeared lost without any of their leaders in both an absent Kobe Bryant and a diminished Steve Nash and an 11-man rotation that doesn’t have a sense of identity.
That’s a dicey formula going up against a team, such as the Spurs. As Jordan Farmar joked, “San Antonio is the same team for 35 years.”
Even with San Antonio forward Tim Duncan out of the lineup because of a chest contusion, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich in his own way explained perfectly how subbing in Boris Diaw doesn’t drastically change the team’s game plan.
“Same boring stuff,” Popovich said. “I don’t even have to be here. If they go out there, they either win or they lose. I’m being serious. Nothing changes.”
It may have been boring stuff. But it was effective stuff. Tony Parker carved up the Lakers’ defense for 24 points on 12 of 18 shooting and six assists. Kawhi Leonard (15 points) continued his continual rise. Diaw (14 points) held down the forte in place of Duncan. And Manu Ginobili provided a dependable 20 points off the bench.
Meanwhile, the Lakers coughed up a 15-point lead in the second quarter in too many ways imaginable. Outside of Pau Gasol’s 20 points on 8 of 17 shooting, the Lakers’ starting lineup shot a combined 5 of 27 from the field. The Spurs broke open a tied game at 80-80 with 3:55 left as the Lakers missed four of their last six shot attempts and committed two turnovers.
“They’re a well oiled machine. Even without Timmy, they had five guys on the floor that played together last year. They have a lot of success,” Lakers guard Steve Nash said. “On one hand, it’s extremely frustrating because we had a chance to beat a good team. On the other hand, at the end of the game, it’s not a huge surprise we’re left trying to figure things out while they’re a well oiled machine.”
The Lakers, though, look like a car assembled with various parts. The team resembles a nice-looking Ferrari that requires heavy maintenance as Kobe Bryant recovers from his torn left Achilles, while Nash tries to avoid suffering a major injury and actually looking like a Hall-of-Fame caliber point guard. The Lakers have some nice accessories in speed (Nick Young, Jordan Farmar), length (Wesley Johnson) and energy (Jordan Hill). But they haven’t fully tapped into those qualities.
As D’Antoni tries to field an 11-man rotation to improve his team’s depth, it’s also adding confusion toward the team’s identity and chemistry.
“I have to get it done, in the sense of how we can’t fall too far back [in the standings],” D’Antoni said. “We have to get a set group and go with it. We’ll get there as quick as we can.”
How long that takes remains to be seen.
After all, D’Antoni didn’t play Jordan Hill until the fourth quarter. He immediately made an impact by posting five points, four rebounds and endless defensive stops in one quarter’s worth of work. But his effectiveness diminished as he sat on the bench for most of the game.
“I guess Coach Mike just wants to see what the rotations are out there and seeing what he can find,” Hill said. “I just waited my turn until he called my name. I just went out there and what I have to do.”
Not many fulfilled that job description.
Nash sat for the entire fourth quarter after his listless five points on 1 of 8 shooting and five assists featured him feeling some pain in his quads. Shawne Williams, who scored three points on 1 of 4 shooting, adds heavy skepticism to D’Antoni’s claims that his floor spacing still remains more valuable than his statistical output. Then again, Chris Kaman didn’t offer much, either (four points on 2 of 3 shooting). Meanwhile, Nick Young’s foul trouble (four) and offensive ineffectiveness (six points on 1 of 3 shooting) still left the forward lamenting he sat out in the fourth quarter.
“I think he’s just experimenting right now,” Young said. “We’re going to see. I haven’t played in thhe fourth quarter since I’ve been here. But you can’t argue with coach. I just take it as he’s trying to put the right together. We have to be patient.”
The Lakers remain confident they can overcome that because none of their castoffs have much of an ego beyond wanting to prove their worth in the NBA. Jodie Meeks (14 points) still showed dependability his his outside shooting and driving. Johnson (12 points) displayed enough assertiveness to overcome a previously shaky shooting clip. Xavier Henry still played after suffering a gash on his forehead. Hard work and good intentions eventually yield positive results.
“If everybody continues to play, that will be out the window,” Johnson said. “Everyone knows the offense and everyone knows their tendency with what they like to do. Overthinking shouldn’t be an issue. We should play free. We were playing free the first game so it shouldn’t reflect on the scond game or tonight. It shouldn’t take that long. We should nip it in the butt soon.”
But that might become easier said than done.
Lakers guard Jordan Farmar noted how the team’s bench reserves had an identity on their 2009 and 2010 NBA championship teams namely because they mostly had played together for the previous four seasons. This year, the Lakers feature seven new players on the roster.
“At the same time, you’re trying to win games and trying to figure it out,” Farmar said. “It’s tough. We have to be diligent on the practice court. Guys that are playing together have a relationship with one another. They understand what each other likes and put each other in position to be successful.”
So far, the Lakers haven’t reached that state as a lack of identity has only added to the confusion.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org