Friday's game news is wrapped into a special-edition injury report which discusses every ailing player in the league, beginning with guys who returned to action this weekend, Kobe Bryant among them.
Kobe missed two games with his sprained ankle, but he returned on Saturday with 21 points on 8-of-18 FGs, one 3-pointer, four rebounds, 11 assists and two steals in a crushing loss to the Wizards. It was his defensive decision-making, not his ankle, that cost his team on Friday (see below) and he should be fine going forward. Pau Gasol also returned but after a much lengthier absence -- he hadn't played since February 5th and showed understandable rust, scoring four points with eight rebounds in 20 minutes as the starting PF. The Lakers play four times next week.
Pau and Kobe returned, but Antawn Jamison sprained his shooting wrist and will require an MRI on Saturday. The good news is that X-rays came back negative, but Friday's cumulative events were enough to suggest dumping Antawn in average leagues. His minutes will be pinched with Pau starting at PF and his wrist injury may well throw off his shot, which is the bedrock of his value—thus far in March he's averaging 10.4 points, 1.5 threes, 6.3 rebounds and a microscopic 0.4 assists, 0.2 steals and 0.2 blocks. If he's not scoring from beyond the arc, he isn't helping your team. (Update: An MRI revealed that Antawn has ligament damage and will probably require surgery after the season, though he intends to play through it and said that he'll even be in uniform on Monday.
At midnight on Friday I was busily surfing the web with the Wizards-Lakers game playing as little more than white noise. L.A. was up by 18 points at home and the only suspense was how soon Mike D'Antoni would bench his starters. The announcers’ voices bobbed above squeaking sneakers and a few tired P.A.-inspired crowd chants. But soon I heard a genuine crowd roar, then a genuine hush. The play-by-play announcer quickened his pace, the color man's voice rose, and suddenly this game had my attention. Trevor Ariza just hit his career-high seventh 3-pointer? John Wall has 20 points, a career-high 16 dimes...and one turnover? I expected to see Bizarro-Phil Jackson appear on my screen, whispering anarchic offensive sets into Randy Wittman's ear.
But sadly, this is the reality of the Lakers in 2013. You can reasonably dismiss this game as a fluke, an uncharacteristic late-game collapse by a veteran team adjusting to the return of a half-speed Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant. The Lakers' 17 turnovers weren't a fluke, though, as they are tied with Phoenix for fifth-most turnovers at 14.8 per game. Nor was it unusual to see the Wizards only cough up nine turnovers themselves, since the Lakers rank 29th in the NBA in forcing turnovers (12.7 per game, ahead of only the Magic). Steve Nash has never been praised for his on-ball defense and he's basically a wraith against fleet-footed points guards, creating immediate defensive gaps and mismatches for John Wall and company, only so many of which can be covered up by Dwight Howard.
More distressing for L.A.'s playoff hopes is their bench. Some teams, the Nuggets foremost among them, boast remarkable depth and will make good use of it during the postseason, running hard with fresh legs and wearing down their opponents in a seven-game series (their lofty record in Denver's thin air makes them even more formidable). Other teams will take a different approach, slowing the game down to a half-court grind and shortening their rotations to seven or eight players. The Grizzlies spring to mind. But where along this scale of depth and strategy do the Lakers fall? Can guys like Antawn Jamison, Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks give the Lakers bench a competitive advantage? If not, can Kobe, Nash, Pau, Dwight and Metta handle a sustained 40+ minutes in a physical playoff series? I would answer 'No' to the final two questions.
As for Ariza's 3-point binge, it was a clear fluke for a guy whose 36.1 percent mark from downtown represents a career-high. He also got seven assists from L.A.'s defense. 1) Kobe Bryant closes out late on the right wing, 2) Kobe again closes out late on the right wing, 3) Ariza spots up before L.A.'s scrambling transition defense can locate him, 4) Steve Blake drifts toward the paint and ignores Ariza in the left corner, 5) Kobe gets caught ball-watching and ignores Ariza in the right corner, 6) Kobe gambles for a steal, forcing Metta World Peace into a late switch on Ariza in the right corner, and 7) Kobe is complaining about a non-call and doesn't cross the half-court line, while Ariza spots up for a wide open shot at the top of the arc. Ariza isn't known as a 3-point marksman which seems to have encouraged Kobe's habit of aggressively helping off his man...in any case, this was a fluky confluence of Ariza being 'in the zone' and Kobe playing his own imaginary zone defense.
Shawn Marion's strained calf sidelined him for eight games in March, but he looked good while racking up an 11 & 13 double-double vs. the Celtics, playing 31 minutes as the starting SF. His multi-week absence led to his appearance on many waiver wires, but he should be picked up wherever available. The Mavs finish the season with a 3-4-3-2 weekly schedule, good enough for the Matrix to help out in 12-team leagues.
On the other side of the docket, Courtney Lee sprained his ankle vs. the Mavs and finished with just five points, one rebound and zero assists in 27 minutes. He said afterward that his ankle felt "much better" than it did initially, so it's conceivable that he'll be in uniform vs. the Grizzlies on Saturday. If not, Jason Terry and Jordan Crawford will each get a healthy boost in playing time.
Arron Afflalo left Friday's game with a hamstring injury and said afterward that he was in "a lot of pain." We have since received word that he's done for the season, a tough blow for a Magic team already thin on veterans. The youth movement just got a shot of adrenaline, and owners should feel even more comfortable deploying guys like Moe Harkless and Tobias Harris, while keeping close watch on E'Twaun Moore and Beno Udrih. Hedo Turkoglu (suspension) is eligible to play in Wednesday's game vs. the Bobcats, but it remains to be seen whether he'll even crack the rotation.
Rudy Gay's back injury flared up on Friday, forcing him out of the game and ruling him out for Saturday in New York (he didn't travel with the team). We've already heard the term 'shut down' used by Dwane Casey, and with Gay's back injury lingering this could be the end of the road.