Not a lot of people expected the Lakers to beat the Nuggets in Denver, especially on the 2nd night of a back-to-back. But that kind of doubt shouldn't apply to the Lakers themselves. Not now. And not when they're this close to making the 8 teams that are currently in the heirarchy of the playoffs start worrying about facing them.
The Lakers were a game below the .500 mark and had the chance to come within 2 games of the Rockets after losing their 27th game on Saturday. Yet, the purple and gold jog their way into the Pepsi Center court seemingly mentally and physically unprepared to take advantage of such a rare opportunity this year.
The Lakers lost 119-108. What's concerning about it is they allowed the very same things that cost them all of their losses and nearly surrendered some of their wins do it again to them at this stage of the season. Credit the Nuggets for sticking to their gameplan of making the Lakers pay for every mistake and every slow reaction to every play that could have helped change the tide of the game. But the Lakers simply have no reason for the way they turned the ball over, for not sprinting back on defense and for their Big 3 to not do something about making sure the rest of the team don't lose their composure and desire to win the game.
Not once did Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard come together and gathered their teammates in a huddle to get everyone on the same page of what they needed to do as a team to take over the game after knocking an 18-point deficit down to 7 points with just over 5 minutes left in the 4th quarter.
The Nuggets were reeling offensively and started losing their grip defensively. All the Lakers needed to do was to dig deep and keep swinging. They may not have a defensive identity yet. But this team has shown numerous times before that if they share a common interest in how to beat an opponent, they can do it because they have enough smart, competitive, and talented players to make it happen. That is if their leaders on the floor give them guidance and motivation. It's just so unfortunate and befuddling that didn't happen in Denver.
The Lakers are always talking about needing to have that sense of urgency. But it's hard to figure out if they really comprehend what comes in having that sense of urgency. It's not something that they have the option to bring each game. It has to be a permanent part of what they do, and at times, the lighthouse during a stormy night. It will not always save them considering that basketball is still a game of matchups. But it is something that will always give them a fighting chance to win any game.
Yes, Mike D'Antoni should have made better adjustments at halftime and used some of the younger players sitting on the bench to match with the younger legs and athleticism of the Nuggets. But at the end of the day, it's the players on the court that dictate how the game is won and lost.
Coaches walk a fine line every game of balancing changing something that could win 1 game but risk losing that oh-so important sense of trust in him from his players down the road. D'Antoni didn't sit his usual role players off the bench in favor of Devin Ebanks, Darius Morris, Robert Sacre or even Chris Duhon because this 8-man rotation will be his bread-and-butter now and in the playoffs. But more importantly, he trusted his team, based on what he'd seen the past 5 weeks, that they'll eventually figure out how to win and pull it off. It just so happened that the Lakers could not shake off everything they did wrong in the 1st half to get the victory in Denver.
That said, hope is not lost for the Lakers. They're still playing their best basketball of the season despite not having Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill. However, they now find themselves relying on the 2 teams in front of them to lose a few games to make it to the playoffs.
In their remaining schedule, Houston has Dallas (0-2), San Antonio (0-2), Indiana on the road (0-1), Memphis away from home (lost previous road game), Clippers (0-2), Portland at the Rose Garden (lost previous road game), Denver (0-3) and the Lakers at Staples Center.
Utah, the team in 7th place, has the Bulls (0-1) in Chicago, Knicks at Madison Square Garden, OKC (1-1) 2 more times, Houston on the road, Spurs at the AT&T Center, Trailblazers in Portland, Memphis (0-2) a couple more games and Warriors in Oakland (lost previous game there).
Of course, none of the losses that the Rockets and Jazz could get will matter if the Lakers trade losses with them. There are 24 games left for the purple and gold with 11 of those against playoff-bound teams. But 6 of these 11 games are on the road.
Against the remaining 10 playoff teams on schedule, the Lakers are a combined 5-13 (1 win on the road) for the season, and they have yet to embark on their annual 2 games versus Atlanta.
The Lakers may not be mathematically out of the playoff picture yet, but they have found themselves in a very, very tight squeeze. It may sound silly to ask more of Bryant, Nash and Howard after sacrificing a lot on the court, but this season hasn't been an ideal year from the beginning. Yet, look how far they've come after dealing with all of the trials and tribulations.
They fought through it all as a team behind the direction of their leaders. Adversity has wiped its brows and has reloaded to strike back. The Lakers will need to do the same.