The Lakers are slipping...again.
And it's happening at the most inopportune time.
Prior to the game against Phoenix, the Lakers had only lost just 3 times since the All-Star break. More importantly, they took over the 8th and final spot of the playoffs from Utah and primed to finish the rest of the regular season strong—perhaps even catching Houston for the 7th seed.
With the 3-game losing streak they're now riding, the Rockets have gained a 3-and-a-half game edge in front of the purple and gold. But climbing up the playoff ladder was merely an after-party for the Lakers.
Their goal has been to get themselves in the playoff picture...and stay there.
Dropping 3 consecutive games, however, is a good way to start getting themselves out of it.
And to sprinkle a few more dilemma for the team and their fans, Kobe Bryant thinks that his return, along with Pau Gasol, has derailed the rhythm the Lakers have been playing on since their absence, according to Lakers.com's Mike Trudel.
Kobe said that with him out & Gasol returning, it "threw us out of rhythm." They'd been playing a certain way, are now adjusting again.— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) March 26, 2013
With only 11 games left in the regular season and clinging on that slim 1-game lead over Utah for the 8th seed, that is not something Lakers fans would like to hear.
But Bryant's comment is just a sugar coated distraction to a combination of the team's lack of interest in defense and multiple adjustments on offense against teams that have done their homework against them.
While having Kobe as the team's main facilitator worked ingeniously and became one of the big reasons for their success in taking over the 8th spot, it was only a matter of time until teams figure out a way to dismantle it.
Against the Warriors on Monday, head coach Mark Jackson patiently waited until the Lakers started looking to Kobe to dig themselves out of that 23-point hole before directing his team to double Bryant as soon as he crosses the halfcourt line in order to get the ball out of his hands.
The Lakers eventually cut that humungous lead down to 7 points in the 4th quarter. But Jackson's cerebral strategy did it's job enough to stop that late push from the Lakers from seeing another come-from-behind win at the ORACLE Arena this season.
Defensive craftmanship like that is how teams survive in the playoffs. For the Lakers, however, they don't even have a blueprint to base a defensive identity.
But hold on, it doesn't stop there.
As we're seeing against the elite and even the better teams in the league, the Lakers really have nowhere else to go when the opposing defense answers their reliant on Kobe in the 2nd half.
With a 2-time MVP and future Hall-of-Famer point guard that he's coached for several years at his disposal, it's confusing why Mike D'Antoni continue to have Bryant run the offense when it's clear ball movement and a true offensive scheme are needed to win certain ball games. D'Antoni is supposed to be one of the most creative offensive mind in the NBA. Why can't he use it?
Against Golden State, Jarrett Jack ran to double Kobe numerous times, but the Lakers never took advantage of that temporary hole on the defense to attack the paint to allow several options to score the basket through layups, alley-oop to Dwight Howard or even a wide-open 3 for either Steve Blake or Steve Nash. Instead, the Lakers waited until the defense sets itself back and handed the ball right back to Bryant and start exactly from where they left off.
That is not winning basketball, let alone playoff basketball.
If people think that the hiring of D'Antoni have been scrutinized enough, wait until the playoffs roll along.
If the Lakers are still having trouble now defending teams that show up for them and have no immediate in-game solution to getting better shot percentage to score the ball when their jumpers aren't falling with the regular season ending in just 4 weeks, the playoffs will eat them alive. Period.
And let's be clear, there won't be any "ideal" matchup for the Lakers this season.
When you look at the teams awaiting for the Lakers in the playoffs, they are teams who, not only feel they can with the title, but also believe that they can beat the Lakers in a 7-game series. Based on how most of them have faired against the purple and gold this season, who can blame them?
And if you add that brimming confidence to their solidity as a team and athletic advantage over the Lakers, you get an idea as to what the Lakers will be dealing with in the playoffs.
But the Lakers have enough talent and experience to really make a noise in the post-season. They have shown many times during the regular season that they can put together a complete game when they want to. They just have to remember that and feed off of it.
They still have time to correct what they'll immediately need for the playoffs in the remaining 11 games. But it's going to take a collective and assertive effort and desire to make it happen.
If not, then they're really making a sham-mockery of themselves.