Remember the days when the Lakers’ bench routinely coughed up the double-digit leads their starters worked so hard to establish?
In a season full of contradictions, the Lakers just added another one. The Lakers’ bench played hard enough to fight back from two double-digit deficits. They weren’t talented enough, though, to close it out.
The Lakers’ 114-108 loss Sunday to the Portland Trail Blazers left coach Mike D’Antoni equally upset with his starting lineup’s play and gushy about his reserves fighting until the very last second. So what will he take away from it?
“It depends if I want to get off the ledge tonight or sleep,” D’Antoni said. “There’s two ways to go.”
First, the bad.
The Lakers coughed up a 17-point deficit in the first half after missing their first eight shots. Portland opened up a 20-point lead from the prolific Damian Lillard (26 points) and steady LaMarcus Aldridge (27 points, nine rebounds) en route to a 94-74 lead entering the fourth quarter. It didn’t help that Pau Gasol posted six points on a horrific 3 of 15 shooting, or revealed afterwards he will receive an MRI Monday on his sprained right ankle. Or that Jordan Hill’s taken a free fall with only two points and six rebounds. Or that both Gasol, Hill and Steve Blake sat out the entire fourth quarter.
“I didn’t think the energy was good,” D’Antoni said. “I didn’t think we fought through adversity. I didn’t think we were tough enough. I didn’t think there was enough resistance defensively.”
Second, the good.
The Lakers proved why they lead the league in bench scoring (47). Xavier Henry had a career-high 27 points off a flurry of drives to the basket and mid-range jumpers. Robert Sacre had a career-high in points (12) and rebounds (seven) after spending last season mostly as the designated cheerleader. Nick Young entertained the crowd with 17 points, including two dunks. Never did the Lakers’ reserves see a deficit too deep that compromised their effort level.
“A lot of this game is heart and soul and how hard you fight,” D’Antoni said. “I thought that group did it.”
The Lakers showed a divided effort among their starters and reserves. They also appeared split on whether to take comfort in the Lakers’ 9-9 record without Kobe Bryant (left Achilles tendon) or that they nearly beat the Trail Blazers (14-3), which boast the second best record in the Western Conference. But as far their unequal playing time?
“We know Mike likes to stick with units that are functioning. It doesnt matter who’s on the bench or on the floor,” Gasol said. “I wasn’t upset because they were making a big run. I didnt have a particularly good night. The guys did a excellent job hustling and giving ourselves a chance.”
Clearly, the current Lakers’ hardly resembles last year’s team, which frequently bickered about minutes, roles, and shot attempts.
“I think it was time to make a switch,” Blake said about sitting the fourth quarter after posting 13 points on 5 of 12 shooting and nine assists in 33 minutes. “I was a little tired. I can’t lie. It was time to give me some rest. While I was out, guys played great. It’s totally fine watching them.”
The 18,997 at Staples Center didn’t seem to mind, either, showing plenty of energy after seeing the Lakers’ reserves show that on the court.
They went crazy after Shawne Williams’ tip-in cut the Blazers’ lead to 99-98 with 3:40 remaining. They even shouted “M-V-P” chants to Sacre when he went to the free-throw line.
“I don’t even know what to say,” he said, trying to suppress a smile. “I knew my time would come.”
But certainly not like this.
Sacre temporarily climbed the pecking order above Gasol, a two-time NBA championship and four-time All-Star. It appears Sacre permanently climbed the pecking order above Chris Kaman, who hasn’t played the past three games despite receiving medical clearance to return from a previously sore back.
“I’ve been just waiting for my time and I’ve been waiting to seize the moment,” Sacre said. “It’s unfortunate we couldn’t get the win tonight, but that’s what this team’s all about. You never know who’s going to come out and produce.”
The Lakers have shown that all season.
They’ve featured nine different leading scorers. They have four players averaging double digits in Gasol (14.3 points), Young (14.2), Jodie Meeks (13.2) and Blake (10). It wasn’t enough to beat Portland. But it was enough to draw a rousing ovation from the Lakers fans more accustomed toward seeing their team win NBA championships.
“We have fighters on our team,” Henry said. “I like the guys on our team because we’re in it to win. When you play hard and play aggressive, good things happen.”
Well, at least enough for D’Antoni not to feel so sour about the mess his starting lineup created.
“I’m encouraged,” D’Antoni said. “We have young guys. We have guys who fight.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org