LOS ANGELES -- Tuesday's 79-77 loss to the Indiana Pacers may have been the most aesthetically unappealing loss of this season for the Los Angeles Lakers, but Sunday's loss to the Orlando Magic topped it. At least Indiana plays good defense, which can in part explain the Lakers' inability to unite ball and cord. And in the meantime, the Lakers played extremely active defense to compensate for the anemic offense. Sunday, they laid an egg on both ends of the court while largely phoning in the performance. And with their record now below .500 again, it goes without saying they can't afford to play games through the use of cellular towers. If these guys don't feel completely ashamed of themselves, something smells rotten in Denmark.
Here are three takeaways from the loss.
1. The Lakers played far too loose on both ends of the court.
If the prospect of facing his old team created an emotionally charged state for Dwight Howard, it didn't immediately show in the big man's demeanor, and there certainly wasn't a trickle-down effect with the center's teammates. Across the board, the Lakers demonstrated the collective focus and execution of a team wholly aware they were facing a 5-10 Magic squad down two of their best players (Al Harrington, Hedo Turkoglu). As such, the Lakers played this game mostly in third-ish gear. This was particularly evident on defense, as Orlando, which entered the game averaging 91.1 points per game (29th in the NBA) and shooting 43.8 percent from the field (21st), met increasingly little resistance as they put up shots. More often than not, whatever misses from the Magic stemmed from their own ineptitude, rather than the Lakers really cranking it up. Shooters were left open. Guards were continually screened off and steps behind to close. The big men provided a weak last line of defense. The offense steadily devolved into a disorganized stream of mush, and Howard, free-throw issues readily acknowledged, needed to be force fed more against a frontline wholly incapable of slowing him.
That's not to say the entire 48 minutes featured no intensity whatsoever. Kobe Bryant aggressively -- as the game wore on, over-aggressively -- sought his shot. Pau Gasol seemed intent on turning his recent fortunes by taking matters in his own hands. (More on that below.) Metta World Peace is always a bull in a China shop. But all in all, the Lakers clearly regarded a win as manifest destiny, and that overconfidence burned them. I'll give the Magic props for seizing an opportunity, but at the risk of sounding like a jerk, their victory was hardly the result of forging a sum greater than the parts. From the opening tip, the Lakers didn't take them seriously.
This is how I framed the loss. A writer sitting next to me proclaimed, "the Lakers are getting their a---- kicked."
"That would imply the Lakers were actually part of a fight and lost. They didn't even try hard enough to earn an a-- kicking."
2. Gasol (perhaps) took a step forward.
A lot has been (rightly) made about Gasol's discomfort in the Lakers' system since last season, regardless of which "Mike" happens to be his head coach. In either case, Gasol has been stationed in the high post or elbow and often asked to help facilitate the offense, with either Andrew Bynum or Howard typically the first option in the low post. The inability to take regular residence on the low block, where he considers himself at his best, has been a sticking point for Gasol. To some degree, Pau's beef is legitimate, and he hasn't been used to his strengths since Phil Jackson's last season in L.A. However, he also has become too big a hostage of his situation, often seemingly resigned to remaining on the outside looking in, rather than assert himself in a manner fitting of a player with his credentials.
Sunday, Gasol made a concerted effort to find ways to get himself down low, whether away from the ball or with it. After setting high screens, he would roll more often to the basket, rather than drift back to pop. Away from the ball, he'd cut to the baseline, putting himself in position to back down opponents for spin moves and easier looks. Receiving the ball at the elbow, he faced up, then drove inside before hitting Antawn Jamison on the cut, setting him up for the and-one bucket. He looked to back down defenders more than face up, and steadily moved away from his jumper, even when open. This energy translated into better screens, increased activity, and a generally better energy from a player clearly in need of discovering a niche.
Before going overboard with praise, it's mandatory to point out that Orlando's front court is low on players who qualify as high-end defenders or bangers, which undoubtedly made it easier for Gasol to position himself to his liking. It'll take a repeat performance (or 10) against a team with more formidable centers and power forwards before anyone can be rightly convinced Gasol has discovered a comfort zone. Like every Laker, his defense was mostly unacceptable, as was getting blocked by Glen Davis at the rim. But the first half in particular felt like a potential sign of life, even in a loss. As I've said many times, there's as big an onus on Pau to find his way in D'Antoni's offense as it is for D'Antoni (and eventually Steve Nash) to guide him there. Hopefully, Sunday was a sign of Gasol accepting this reality and taking control.
3. Hack-a-Howard looks especially ugly when you're losing the lead.
Dwight turned in another lackluster showing at the stripe (9-of-21), and with the Magic entering Hack-a-Howard mode with about six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Magic coach Jacque Vaughn opted to intentionally foul the the big man away from the ball. Ironically, this is when he shot freebies (relatively) well. He was 5-12 during that stretch (then 2-2 in the last minute), and the common school of thought is that if Howard makes basically half of those free throws, a point per possession is a win for the Lakers. Well, that outlook changes when your center is getting hacked AND your defense continues to collapse. Howard will be deservedly asked a lot of questions about the struggles at the line, but they weren't the reason the Lakers lost.