The Los Angeles Lakers saw their modest five-game win streak come to an end against the Denver Nuggets, who again proved that the Mile-High City is one the toughest road destinations in the NBA. On the strength of a dominant rebounding performance and a balanced offensive attack, the Nuggets easily dispatched Kobe Bryant and the Lakers by a final score of 126-114 Wednesday night.
Bryant finished with a team-high 40 points, but Dwight Howard's third-quarter ejection and the Lakers' overall defensive ineptitude doomed their hopes for the franchise's first six-game winning streak in two years.
Led by Andre Iguodala's stat-stuffing performance, Kenneth Faried's dominance on the glass and Corey Brewer's infectious energy, the Nuggets looked like the team many picked to finish atop the Western Conference before the season started. They used a season-best 39-point third quarter to put the Lakers away for good.
This contest was something of a throwback for L.A., but in the worst way possible. Kobe got his numbers and Steve Nash was his typically efficient self, but terrible interior defense and the inability to stop penetration led to a result much like the ones that marked the Lakers' early-season struggles.
A decisive loss against a tough opponent that has won 90 percent of its home games this year isn't the end of the world for the Lakers, but there's sure to be plenty of hand wringing in Hollywood after this one.
Let's get the conversation started by grading every L.A. Laker's performance.
Steve Nash: C
Steve Nash has gotten a lot of credit for being such a steadying influence on the Lakers offense, but fairness dictates that he take a little blame for the dreadful pick-and-roll defense L.A. exhibited in Denver.
Ty Lawson got wherever he wanted against Nash, which forced the Laker bigs to leave their men to shut off penetration. That resulted in ample looks at (and above) the rim for JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried.
Moreover, the Lakers' scattered attempts to switch and help yielded a ton of open threes. Normally, that's not a problem against the Nuggets, who struggle to knock down long-range shots. But when those looks started to fall in the second half, Denver's lead ballooned.
On offense, Nash did just about everything right, finishing with 15 points and eight assists on 6-of-8 shooting. But offense wasn't L.A.'s problem.
His solid performance on one half of the court, mixed with his subpar effort on the other earns him a completely average mark.
Darius Morris: F
Darius Morris was a starter for Mike D'Antoni in name only. Despite being a part of the first unit, Morris logged just seven unproductive minutes against the Nuggets.
There's a lot of sense in bringing Metta World Peace off the bench, as he can function as something of a spark plug in that role, but Morris simply isn't deserving of a starting job.
He didn't score, botched a number of breakaway situations by making the wrong pass, and basically failed to affect the game in any positive way. Based on his (under)performance, Morris didn't start the second half and never saw the floor again.
D'Antoni's plan to bolster the bench by starting Morris is a good idea in theory, but he might be better served by looking elsewhere for his fifth starter.
Kobe Bryant: B
It's always been fashionable to criticize Kobe Bryant's shot selection and overrated defensive reputation, but let's get one thing straight: He's not the Lakers' biggest problem, and he certainly wasn't against Denver.
He finished the game with 40 points on 13-of-24 shooting. Sure, he took plenty of shots, but it's hard to knock him when he makes more than half of them.
To be fair, Bryant's offensive brilliance was tempered by his habitual tendency to "ball watch" on D. Kobe's bad habit, coupled with the active cutting of Corey Brewer (27 points in 24 minutes), yielded far too many easy layups for the Lakers to string together any stops.
Aside from his failure to contain Brewer in the second half, Bryant played a good game. Unfortunately for the Lakers, they need their star to be "good" on both ends.
If there's any real criticism Kobe deserves, it's that he needs to do a better job of setting a sound defensive example for his teammates. He's obviously in a leadership position, and if he exerted a little more energy on D, it could serve to peer-pressure his teammates into ratcheting up their own defensive effort.
Pau Gasol: C-
Kenneth Faried's manic activity and relentless effort took Pau Gasol off the floor early, as the lumbering Spaniard struggled to stay with the Nuggets' energetic rebounder. It was a nightmare matchup for Gasol, but no other Laker succeeded in slowing Faried down, either.
The Manimal finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds (nine of which were offensive).
Maybe his knees aren't all the way back after a long bout with tendinitis. Or maybe the back-to-back games sapped his energy. Whatever the underlying cause, Gasol looked awful on defense in Denver.
He moved slowly, couldn't get off the floor and was late to react in a number of critical defensive situations. Sometimes, he didn't even get down the court on offense.
Unsurprisingly, his minus-16 was, by far, the Lakers' worst plus-minus figure.
Defensive issues aside, Gasol deserves credit for pulling Faried away from the basket on offense, and he proved he might actually work well as a facilitating stretch-4 by pumping in a couple of threes. But he struggled to play well for long stretches and his final line of 19 points, five assists and six rebounds obviously doesn't show how helpless he was against the Nuggets' hard-charging forwards.
The Gasol from a couple of years ago would have punished the smaller Faried on the block, but that guy is long gone. In his place, the Lakers have an immobile, jump-shooting big man who simply cannot play against athletic bigs.
All of that was on display in a depressing performance against the Nuggets.
Dwight Howard: D-
Dwight Howard had some trouble knocking down his free throws against the Nuggets. He didn't have any such difficulty with Kenneth Faried. That latter knockdown earned Howard a flagrant-2 and a third-quarter ejection.
Howard's foul was ugly, but it wasn't the worst thing he did for the Lakers. His poor defensive rotations and his inability to dominate the game on the boards were the real story. When he left the game, Denver had a 38-25 advantage on the glass.
Those issues, not the clunky offense, have been the Lakers' biggest trouble spots during their tumultuous young season, which puts Howard at the center of their most deep-seeded problems.
D12 finished with 12 points and seven boards in 27 minutes, but it was his subtler shortcomings on defense and on the glass that defined his value (or lack thereof) in this one. The Lakers could have used him down the stretch, and his ejection hurt L.A.'s chances.
But based on the way he was playing, it's hard to call his early exit disastrous.
Metta World Peace: D+
The Lakers' new sixth man had been enjoying a nice bounce-back season to this point, and his shift to the bench makes a lot of sense for the Lakers, who need somebody to produce in the second unit.
Going forward, World Peace will continue to be a vital piece of the Lakers puzzle on defense and might prove to be a consistent bench producer. Unfortunately, he didn't get the job done Wednesday night.
MWP finished with 10 points (4-of-13), six rebounds and six fouls in 33 minutes.
Bench Grade: D+
Jordan Hill was giving the Lakers solid bench minutes before Dwight Howard was tossed, and he continued to do the same afterward. In 13 minutes, Hill managed nine points and nine rebounds, but it was his work on the offensive glass that really benefited the Lakers.
It won't show up in the stats, but Hill did a decent Kenneth Faried impression, tipping balls out and keeping possessions alive. He hustled, fought for position and generally showed some of the tenacity that L.A.'s starting bigs lacked.
It wouldn't have been tough to be the Lakers' best bench player in this one, but Hill easily took that title.
Otherwise, Chris Duhon (two points) and Jodie Meeks (seven points on 2-of-11 shooting) were complete disasters, as has often been the case this season.