HOUSTON — You want a metaphor for the current Los Angeles Lakers?
Kendall Marshall’s jump shot.
If everything is firing perfectly, a whole complicated host of unconventional, unheralded variables that tumble into place for the basketball to be shot-put on line and higher than seems possible from such a low, sad starting point … then the Lakers win.
The only game the Lakers have won in their past 10 tries, all without injured Kobe Bryant, was the night of “Marsh Madness”—at home against the Utah Jazz, Marshall’s first start in place of the injured Jordan Farmar. He produced 20 points, 15 assists and one turnover, including the dagger three-pointer from way beyond the arc.
Marshall shot 1-of-6 on three-pointers and 2-of-13 overall Wednesday night in the Lakers’ loss to the Houston Rockets. Many of his jumpers started from that low release point and never found ideal extension to get up and over the rim.
It was the most graphic demonstration to date of Marshall’s much-maligned stroke that had been more than satisfactory with the Lakers, aesthetic beauty aside.
Marshall entered the game 11-of-22 on three-pointers, a fabulous success rate. It’s a credit to him, but it has still hovered as a concern in Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni’s mind—even though D’Antoni has plenty of other things about which to worry.
The 14-22 Lakers have so little room for error with all their injuries and now just two games (and two losses) into a potentially season-crushing stretch of 10 road games out of 11 before Bryant, Farmar or Steve Nash might return to take the ball out of Marshall’s hands.
For Bryant’s part, he continued his funeral-black-wardrobe choices but perked up enough to grab the game ball during a timeout and do a little dribbling. Couldn’t resist.
Nash, meanwhile, went through another rigorous pregame shooting regimen that focused on his mechanics and trying to teach his body to avoid movements that trigger the major problems of the nerve root damage in his back. He’s such a brilliant shooter that he did make every single shot he took for one three-minute stretch of threes, free throws and pull-up elbow jumpers, however.
For the Lakers to achieve anything respectable during this month and have some playoff hope for Bryant and Nash to come back to, Marshall is going to have to limit his growing turnovers while also knocking down those open jumpers.
I asked D’Antoni before the loss in Houston about Marshall’s shot mechanics. That just goes to show how low the Lakers are scraping to have the season in any way dependent on something that wasn’t even a speck on the brain of anyone in the organization in a training camp where there was expectation that Bryant and Nash would have bounce-back health.
Me: "Kendall’s obviously a pass-first point guard, but with his shot, are you at a point where you’re comfortable with it?"
D’Antoni: "Oh, I don’t know. Have you seen his shot? I’m not real comfortable. But—it goes in. He’s got to make sure that he makes enough of ‘em to keep everybody honest. That’s kind of where he has to go in the league, to keep working on his shot and keep getting it better. And you don’t think it’s a great shot, but three out of four games he’s shot the ball really well. If he does that and keeps getting confidence, which it seems like he has right now, he can definitely play in the league."
I asked D’Antoni, who had experience in Phoenix with weird shots from Shawn Marion and Leandro Barbosa, about overhauling a guy’s shot mechanics when they are so unconventional.
D’Antoni’s first thought was, in essence, it doesn’t really matter to me given the narrow time frame my life is tied to this guy’s shot. Here’s how he put it, much more nicely: “First of all, you can’t do anything until summertime; you would never touch anybody during the year.”
But then D’Antoni noted that the Suns didn’t wind up changing Marion and Barbosa: “They make ‘em, so you don’t touch ‘em. If they don’t make ‘em, then obviously you try to break it down and try to do a better job. But I think a lot of it is repetition. As long as he (Marshall) does the same thing every time, then he’ll be fine. And the older he gets, the better he’ll shoot it.”
But Marshall isn’t going to get any older than 22 through the next few weeks, so it’s going to be something to monitor.
Rockets center Dwight Howard said Houston’s central focus in halftime adjustments Wednesday night was to stop Marshall from getting into the paint, and the Lakers scored just 15 points in the third quarter to lose their lead. Eight of Marshall’s 13 shots and three of his six turnovers came in that third quarter.
It wound up not mattering that Howard couldn’t make many of his ugly shots either: He went 7-of-16 on free throws in a fourth quarter full of D’Antoni’s Hack-a-Dwight.
It was surely a relief for Howard’s girlfriend, Christine Vest, who lived in L.A. last season and potshotted D’Antoni with the best of them. Vest posted to her Instagram account a shot of her game-night wardrobe Wednesday: a camouflage-print hoodie with “LAKER HATER” in red and the Rockets’ logo on the front, Howard’s name and No. 12 on the back. (She removed the post after the game.)
The key was Howard and Houston not committing a single turnover in that third quarter, a reminder of how perfectly on track things must run for the Lakers defense to stop anybody—even when Bryant and Nash return.
“Our defense is the aspect of the game that has worried me the most, more than anything else,” Pau Gasol said.
Jeremy Lin was D’Antoni’s point guard two years ago in New York, making a name for himself in large part by proving that his jump shot was decent enough not to undermine his strengths. Lin worked on his shot maniacally—again—last summer and has some results to show this season: 47.2 field-goal percentage, 36.4 three-point percentage—both several notches better than his career numbers.
But Lin didn’t have to take a single shot in that third quarter for Houston. That’s because the Rockets had a healthy superstar; James Harden scored 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting, to add to his game-high 38 points.
The Lakers don’t have Bryant to turn to. Supposed top gun Gasol was scoreless in the third quarter.
So, amazingly, it’s on Marshall, his undeniable court vision, uniquely accurate passing and uncommon jump shot to guide this offense into some kind of smooth rhythm in what otherwise could be a polar-vortex-level-cold month for the Lakers.