LOS ANGELES -- The prevailing takeaway from the Los Angeles Lakers' first two games is that they aren't as brilliant as they looked against the Los Angeles Clippers and not as miserable as they appeared against the Golden State Warriors.
Friday's 91-85 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, a game that turned when the Spurs went on a 7-1 run with the score tied 80-80 late in the fourth quarter, showed that you should put even less stock in that back-to-back that started the season.
For the Lakers to realize themselves as the competitive basketball team they hope to become this season, they need to learn how to win, and a big part of that is learning which players they are going to win with.
Let's start with the personnel problem.
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni's plan for an 11-man rotation is already proving to be easier said than done, and he's the first to admit it.
"I have to get it done, in the sense of how we can't fall too far back [in the standings]," D'Antoni said. "We have to get a set group and go with it. We'll get there as quick as we can."
The most glaring bench blunder Friday was Jordan Hill inexplicably sitting the entire game, finally getting his number called and playing like a banshee with five points, four rebounds (including three offensive) and an assist (to Wesley Johnson for a wide-open corner 3-pointer to get L.A. going), all in the fourth quarter.
"I guess Coach Mike just wants to see what other rotations are out there and just see what he could find," Hill said. "I just waited my turn until he called my name."
Once D'Antoni settles on which names he'll consistently call in the fourth -- hearing him say Hill, Johnson, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Jordan Farmar doesn't sound too bad right now -- it will be up to them to settle the execution problem.
"We have to understand and learn what we're going to run down the stretch when the game is on the line, when it's a tight game like it was [Friday], see what our go-to plays are, what we feel more comfortable and what we're most effective with," said Gasol, who finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds but was as much to blame as anyone for the Spurs' spurt in the fourth, as he missed a free throw during the run and didn't close out hard enough on Boris Diaw's game-sealing 3-pointer. "So, that's what we have to learn. This is the first close game that we played during the season against a team with very experienced and high-quality players that they can really resolve in those situations like Tony [Parker] and Manu [Ginobili]."
Normally, the Lakers have that guy Kobe Bryant to lean on in the fourth quarter. For better or worse, at least Bryant's presence gives some order to things. It might be "hero ball," but it's a direction, an identity. He will gladly take the responsibility to organize things through him when the game is on the line. The Spurs, who were missing Tim Duncan on Friday because of a chest bruise, still had a system in place that settled them in closing time.
"That commonality," said Nash, who sat out the fourth quarter because he had aggravated one of his quads, so he wasn't helping the continuity cause either on this night. "Even without Timmy, they had five guys out on the floor that all played together last year.
"On the one hand, it's extremely frustrating because we had the chance to beat a good team. On the other hand, at the end of the game it's not a huge surprise that we're left trying to figure some things out while they're a well-oiled machine."
The Lakers, meanwhile, are still a pile of parts that D'Antoni is trying to fit together.
It's not that they can't work, either. That Clippers game showed how different things can be when the Lakers are making shots -- 14-for-29 on 3-pointers instead of 8-for-27 makes the final score look a heck of a lot different. And even against San Antonio, the Lakers led by 15 in the first half.
"We gave up that lead in the second quarter in the most critical moment of the game when we could have actually stepped it up a notch and kind of increased the lead and build on it," Gasol said. "But we allowed them back in the game. They made their run."
Now the Lakers must make their recognition, make their rotation and begin to make their reputation as the team they hope to become.