BOSTON -- Kobe Bryant bailed out the Lakers again, netting his fifth game winner of the season with 7.3 seconds left to beat Boston 90-89 on Sunday, but a weakness was exposed in Los Angeles' defense that needs to be addressed.
Quick, penetrating guards make the Lakers' defense fold faster than a Texas hold 'em player who draws a 2-4 unsuited.
The latest player to dice up L.A.'s defense was Boston's Rajon Rondo. The fourth-year guard, who torched the Lakers for 21 points, eight assists and six steals in the Celtics' Game 6 Finals clincher two seasons ago, was just as effective Sunday, piling up 21 points and 12 assists, and according to Lakers coach Phil Jackson, "literally changed the ballgame in a matter of about four minutes" in the second quarter.
Coming into the game, all of the hubbub surrounding L.A.'s trip to the Hub was about the team's toughness. It turned out to be a nonissue after the first quarter when Pau Gasol didn't back down when Rasheed Wallace was ready to rumble. The Lakers had a 13-point lead at that point, so the Celtics' intimidation tactics weren't really working anyway.
Rondo's at-will penetration is the reason L.A. lost its lead in the second quarter and found itself down by 11 in the fourth.
"It's on me to guard him," Bryant said. "I take that responsibility. … Just got to let me, let me chase him."
It's not shocking that Bryant would try to protect the team's Achilles' heel on his own. This is the same guy who tends to pretend that weaknesses doesn't exist. On Sunday he added a sprained ankle to the list of injuries he has played through this season, a list that already includes a fractured finger, pulled groin, strained knee, upset elbow and bad back.
And it goes without saying that Bryant is an excellent individual defender too, but if the Lakers' plan moving forward is to rely on him to quell all of the quick guards that come their way, he won't have anything left in the tank to bail them out on offense.
Plus, how often will they be able to get away with sticking Fisher on a 30-something jump shooter and not get burned by a more athletic, penetrating 2-guard?
Their bench isn't ideal either. Shannon Brown's speed and strength are assets that can combat a guard like Rondo, but Brown's inexperience in staying home defensively makes that a less-than-favorable option. Jordan Farmar's quickness is on par with any opposing player they'll face, but his slight frame makes him susceptible to post-ups and he has a tendency to gamble for steals.
There's a reason the Lakers' front office recently inquired about the Nets' Devin Harris and are rumored to be interested in the Bulls' Kirk Hinrich. There are more teams out there with guards like Rondo just waiting to pick apart the Lakers through penetration.
Just take a look at the teams L.A. could face in the playoffs: San Antonio has Tony Parker, Denver has Ty Lawson, Utah has Deron Williams, Phoenix has Steve Nash, Houston has Aaron Brooks, Oklahoma City has Russell Westbrook, New Orleans has Chris Paul. It's a minefield the Lakers will have to navigate through.
"I think group defense is what you have to do [to stop penetration]," Jackson said, refuting Bryant's desire to do it on his own. "Team defense is really the issue behind that."
Gasol agreed, pinning some of the blame on the Lakers' big men who serve as the last line of defense when a guard gets in the paint.
"We got to talk," Gasol said. "We got to talk to the guards that are defending Rondo in this case, to keep them in front and let them know where the guy is setting the screen and what side that he's setting it and make sure we don't leave our guy to give him the pass choice because he's good at finding people [after] penetrating and getting in the lane. We have a big part of the responsibility of stopping the ball too."
Fisher, who was repeatedly taken advantage of by quicker guards such as Brooks and Williams during last year's playoffs when the matchups dictated Jackson couldn't switch him to defend the shooting guard, said the team doesn't need to talk so much as it needs to think.
"You have to realize the purpose for his penetration and his activity," Fisher said. "A lot of times he's penetrating to find other people, he's not penetrating to score himself."
When the Lakers lost that Game 6 at the TD Garden, Bryant's first message in the postgame news conference was that his team had to improve its defense and rebounding.
Before Saturday's practice, Bryant said the Lakers were a "really good defensive team" as it stands two seasons later. There are statistics to back him up, as L.A. ranks third in the league in points per possession allowed (1.01), is fifth in opponents' field goal percentage (43.9) and ninth in opponents' points per game (96.76). But with the blueprint out there on how to diffuse the Lakers' D, there is still work to be done.
"We're off and on defensively," Jackson admitted before the game. "Some nights, we look like we're interested in it and we work at it, some nights it's tough to get our big guys back in transition and stop teams from running out. So I'm not ever totally pleased defensively with how we play. That's a matter of you can always be better type of thing."
Boston's been a good teacher to the Lakers. The Lakers' embarrassing Finals loss drilled in their heads what physicality can do to help a team's championship chances. The Celtics may have done them a favor again if a lesson's been learned about preventing penetration.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.