Below are five things to take from the Lakers’ 106-94 loss to the Toronto Raptors Sunday at Staples Center:
1. Kobe Bryant showed rustiness. OK, so no one expected Bryant would match the career-high 81 points he set 7 1/2 years ago against the Raptors. But if his introductory Darth Vader music and the rousing ovation he received at Staples Center didn’t give it away, plenty of hype awaited Bryant’s return. His nine points on two of nine shooting and eight turnovers, however, shows the Lakers star has plenty of work to do in adjusting his game post Achilles.
Bryant took on largely a facilitating role to accommodate for his diminished athleticism and rustiness, resulting in eight rebounds and four assists. But everything appeared slightly off key. His first shot attempt – a six-foot left hook — air balled. Several of Bryant’s passes either entered traffic or were off target. Bryant even attempted two charges, a tactic he once dismissively called a “chump move.”
In fairness to Bryant, he had his moments. Bryant’s first play involved setting Robert Sacre up for an easy layup. Bryant made a left-handed bank shot after a possession where he performed two pump fakes and several jab steps, a sequence that epitomized his superior fundamentals. Bryant also made a deep jump-shot that roused the Staples Center crowd. Bryant showed a genuine effort to involve his teammates, including a hockey assist that led to a Wesley Johnson dunk . But considering the high standard Bryant sets for himself, he’s obviously a work in progress.
2. Pau Gasol continuously struggled. So much for Bryant’s presence jumpstarting Gasol’s game. Despite Bryant making a concerted effort to connected with him on pick-and-rolls and the post, Gasol finished with a quiet seven points on 3 of 11 shooting and eight rebounds.
How bad was it? Laker fans booed him loudly on missed free throws, missed jumpers and missed defensive assignments. Gasol sat the entire fourth quarter. And his stat line nearly matched Bryant’s. Bryant’s seems more understandable since this marked his first game eight months after shattering his Achilles. Meanwhile, Gasol has played all season.
Beyond his right ankle injury, there’s no viable explanation that Gasol missed so many open looks. It appeared struggles only frustrated him, slapping the ball after a failed defensive rotation and slouching his shoulders after a missed jumper. When Gasol has games like this, he needs to grind it out through more hustle.
3. The Lakers had no answer for Amir Johnson. Consider Johnson a fan of the Rudy Gay trade. After averaging 9.8 points this season, the former West Chester product dropped a team-leading 32 points on 14 of 17 shooting. Perhaps the only mistake he made happened when he traveled on a wide open jumper. Other than that, Johnson canned both open jumpers, drives to the basket and putbacks.
4. The Lakers’ bench carried the day. With the Lakers’ starting lineup scoring only one point in the third quarter, the reserves still kept the team within striking distance by scoring 20 points. Save for Nick Young’s ridiculous 360-drive that ended in a shot hitting the backboard, the Lakers’ reserves brought the same energy that earned them the chance to close out the game last week in a loss against Portland. That didn’t happen this time around, with Bryant and representing the fourth quarter unit.
But each reserve brought a distinguishable quality, including Xavier Henry’s driving (17 points on 6 of 8 shooting), Young’s shot creating (19 points on a six of 12 clip), strong accuracy from Jodie Meeks (14 points on 6 of 12 shooting) and Shawne Williams (10 points on 4 of 6 shooting) as well as Jordan Hill’s energy (11 points and rebounds). Unlike the starters, the Lakers’ reserved continued from both having continuity and athleticism in their lineup.
5. Steve Blake struggled without having his playmaking role. With Bryant handling most of the primary ball handling duties, Blake played as a de facto shooting guard. He struggled getting in rhythm with a one of six mark from the field. But the Lakers sorely needed his playmaking presence. Considering Bryant’s eight turnovers, having Blake handle the ball a tad more could’ve entailed better results.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org