NBA: Lakers missing the physical part of their game
By Kevin Ding
The Orange County Register
CLEVELAND — This tells us something.
This was the first time this season the Lakers wanted a game and didn’t go out and take it.
Now we know for certain they aren’t yet developed enough to take whatever they want. And they matched the softness they showed in defeat Thursday night with some babyish whining afterward about the clinching foul call against Ron Artest. (Both Artest and Phil Jackson called it “weird.”)
The reality is that all the way through that play, Cleveland was more aggressive — which is why Anderson Varejao got that call for Artest tugging in his arm. Varejao was diligently powering through what Pau Gasol later admitted was a weak box-out, so the Lakers never did get the ball, down by three and 23 seconds left.
For everyone who simply assumes the Lakers blasted that characterization of being soft to smithereens by beating an unready Orlando team last June, it’s not that simple. There are not just steps forward in life; there are steps back.
Including the Christmas loss after which Jackson noted how Gasol withdrew after being floored early by Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers have looked in two losses against Cleveland’s physicality more like the team that got bounced around in the 2008 NBA Finals by Boston.
That’s why Kobe Bryant is already putting out the Jan. 31 game against Boston near the end of this long trip as a challenge to his team.
“We’ll see how we respond to a physical team in Boston,” Bryant said.
Bryant knows the truth: Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom are a wonderfully skilled crew in the front, but they don’t have innate nastiness.
“That’s not part of our DNA,” Bryant said. “We have to step up and match that (physicality) and still play skillful basketball.”
Artest, brought in because the Lakers knew in-house they needed more physical presence, played more like an unstable figure skater than a hockey goon Thursday night. LeBron James breezed his way to 37 points — including 12 points in the 6:22 he played in the fourth quarter.
Don’t question Artest’s toughness. He is a physical player; he just isn’t right now because his plantar-fasciitis case continues to fly under the radar. He sat with his feet in a tub of ice water after the game and couldn’t help but reach down and rub the afflicted area on his right foot that consistently gets sore by the fourth quarter.
Artest will get better, in health and in comfort with what the Lakers do. What it is a greater issue is whether Gasol can step forward as he did last season — because he surely has taken a step back in the “hard-nosed” sense Bryant cited.
Gasol rightly deemed it fair to take some extra time off after his first hamstring injury considering how he has almost played non-stop for years because of his Spanish national team obligations. But he really milked his second hamstring injury, and he paid the price Thursday night, when he lacked that game-ready focused intensity on a night he did really want to win.
Gasol acknowledged he settled time after time for his jumper instead of driving and duplicating the moments when he was having his most success. Then again, he drove to the hoop on the last possession of first quarter when he couldn’t hand it off to Bryant — but then timidly left his layup short as he braced himself for contact that never came.
During the ensuing break between quarters, after he had sat down and rested, Gasol got up with a towel draped over his shoulders. He wandered out there toward that hoop in front of the Lakers’ bench and repeatedly went through the motions again with his left hand, upset with himself for putting it up so softly.
If only that was as bad as it got for Gasol.
He couldn’t convert his chances in the fourth quarter and said his two free throws that could’ve tied the score with 24 seconds left were missed because he was still wobbly from his failures just before.
“Hopefully,” Gasol said, “the next time I am in that position and things don’t work out a couple of times, I’m able to shake that off and step up to the plate.”
Gasol knocked that “hopefully” thing off the table last year. Now it’s back.
And with it comes a seed of doubt planted anew.