The Los Angeles Lakers traveled to US Airways Center Thursday night, where Steve Nash made his long-awaited homecoming against the Phoenix Suns. The game looked as if it was in L.A.’s control most of the way, but an awful fourth quarter resulted in a disappointing 92-86 loss for the road team.
This matchup was the first of a seven-game road trip for Los Angeles, and it began in competitive fashion. The themes for this team as of late have been efficiency and selflessness, and while those two weren’t on full display this time around, their talent level alone made up for an abundance of early turnovers.
After losing the first quarter by four points, the Lakers finally started to establish momentum. They were still missing open looks, but they were putting the ball in the basket at a much higher rate than a Suns offense that had gone ice cold.
Phoenix’s defense would finish the quarter strong, and the game was tied heading into halftime.
The third period was the first time we truly saw the Lakers moving the ball well as a team. Kobe Bryant—or more accurately, the new Kobe Bryant—was looking for his teammates the whole game, but ball movement never appeared to be a focus of the team until the second half.
A 73-63 lead going into the fourth was a big boost for Los Angeles, but the Suns weren’t done yet.
Phoenix’s offense found the touch late in the game, but it was again their defense that helped them get back in it. With just under four minutes to go, the Lakers had scored just nine points in the quarter, and Phoenix had found the spark to tie the game behind a scoring outburst by Michael Beasley.
The pace of the Suns troubled L.A. late in the contest, and they were outscored by 16 in the game’s final period.
Los Angles entered this game having played the best basketball of its season, but it also entered having lost seven straight road contests. Something had to give, and unfortunately for the Lakers, they couldn’t overcome their road troubles against the struggling squad from Phoenix.
The Phoenix Suns were rocking some good-looking throwback uniforms Wednesday night, which is fitting, considering the blast from the past Steve Nash likely felt entering the arena.
This game was the first time Nash had played at US Airways Center as a visitor since 2004. Unfortunately for the point guard, it wasn't the grandest of returns, and a quiet game proved to be troublesome for the Lakers.
By the end of the first quarter, Nash led all of his teammates in scoring. He missed two of his three shot attempts, but his four made free throws pushed him to six points in just nine minutes.
The problem for L.A. was that Nash would quiet down the rest of the way, and he was never fully involved in the offensive attack.
Normally, two assists from the point guard would be a major concern, but when Kobe Bryant is taking over as a facilitator, you can't blame Nash for giving up the ball. What you can blame Nash for is inefficient shooting.
The 38-year-old finished the game with just 11 points on 3-of-8 shooting, and that many misses is going to make things tough when the offense goes cold in the final quarter.
Kobe Bryant has been criticized his entire career for the number of shots he's taken. The last four games, however, we've seen a completely new approach, as he's become a true facilitator within the Los Angeles Lakers' offense.
The brilliant thing about Bryant's game, which we saw against the Suns, is that he's making smart plays. He's not just refusing to shoot the ball as we've seen in the past; he's driving, kicking and finding open teammates who are loving the open looks.
The only problem with Bryant's new style is that a number of his passes looked forced against Phoenix. He had three turnovers in the game's opening quarter, and he boosted that number to six by the time the final buzzer sounded.
As much as you love to see Bryant passing, it's obvious that he's still the Lakers' No. 1 option. He recognized when his team needed points throughout this game, and he finished the contest with a team-high 17 points.
Metta World Peace has been struggling to find his shot as of late, and that same theme continued at the start of this one.
Through one half of play, the starting small forward was just 3-of-8 from the field, and he managed to knock down just one of his first four three-pointers. It's not that he wasn't finding open looks, he simply wasn't making them.
When the second half began, he looked like a brand new player making his first two three-point attempts, but that turnaround would prove to be fool's gold, as his shot was off the entire rest of the way.
Aside from that of a defensive nuisance, World Peace's role on this team is that of a spot-up shooter. He finished this game with 17 shot attempts, tying Kobe Bryant for the team high, yet he made just six of them.
Going 3-of-10 from deep range is unacceptable, and he's going to have to find his stroke if he wants to keep his minutes.
Buried beneath Steve Nash's return is the fact that Earl Clark also made his return to US Airways Center Wednesday night. L.A.'s starting power forward began the game as well as we've come to expect, but foul trouble and a lack of attempts deterred him from ever finding his stroke in the second half.
Clark took just four attempts in his 30 minutes, and even worse, he made just one of them. All of his shots came from behind the arc—a spot where he's been on fire as of late—but he just wasn't able to get going.
On the boards, Clark had another good performance. He pulled down eight rebounds against the smaller Suns, and his energy was a factor every time he crashed the middle.
This wasn't one of Clark's better performances, but you can see where his value lies even when he's relatively quiet in the points department. There's a reason Pau Gasol remains on the bench, and a performance like this one won't change the mind of Mike D'Antoni just yet.
Dwight Howard was a beast on the boards, but that's not what most people will be talking about come Thursday morning.
The big man, who has been either injured or less than 100 percent all season, hurt his right shoulder on a shot attempt in the fourth quarter and did not return to action, despite a close game late.
Before the injury, he pulled down 14 rebounds in just 29 minutes, including five on the offensive end.
Offensively, this wasn't one of Howard's more impressive games. His shooting was decent at best, as he completed four of his nine shots, but there were stretches of the game where he looked to be completely out of the game plan.
With Howard, it appears that you have to take the good with the bad this season. The bad in this game was his disappearing act on offense. But, hopefully, it doesn't get worse with another nagging injury to that troublesome right shoulder.
Still adjusting to his new (and unwanted) role on the bench, if Pau Gasol had one thing going for him in Phoenix, it's that he was able to establish position all night long. He was able to get into the paint from start to finish, and when his shot was falling, he looked like the Gasol of old.
The problem was that he simply missed too many good looks. He did manage to finish the game with 14 points on 6-of-13 shooting, but that was in 37 minutes, and his four turnovers and 2-of-5 foul shooting are still causes for concern.
Gasol earned more minutes in this one, but a lot of that had to do with the foul trouble of Earl Clark. He's a great player to have off the bench, but consistency is going to be the most important factor moving forward.
Outside of Gasol, the Los Angeles Lakers struggled to find much production off their bench until late in the third quarter.
Antawn Jamison had been quiet much of the contest, but two big threes at the end of the third and another one to begin the fourth helped increase the Lakers lead to double digits. His role on the team has fluctuated throughout the year, but when he's making his shots, he becomes a big part of their success.
Other than a strong few minutes from Jamison and a decent overall showing from Gasol, the bench was quiet.
Steve Blake was just 1-of-4 from the floor, while Jodie Meeks logged just nine minutes.Neither proved to be a detriment to the team, but neither stepped up at any point either.