LOS ANGELES—For all of the Lakers’ problems this season, they’re still a team possessing the talents of superstars Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, so when the Bulls don’t execute, play defense at their typical level or suffer through a miserable offensive outing, it’s a recipe for disaster.
All of the above occurred Sunday, as the Bulls (35-28) fell to the star-studded Lakers (33-31), 90-81, and despite imposing their blue-collar style of play and keeping Bryant relatively in check, their injury-related lack of depth and scoring deficiencies caught up to them, resulting in the final score.
All-Star center Joakim Noah (18 points, 17 rebounds) had his hands full from the outset of the contest, as his counterpart Howard (16 points, 21 rebounds), much maligned for his performance all season, appeared motivated, the Lakers looked to get him established from the early going and he was a force on the glass.
Meanwhile, the backcourt of former league MVPs Bryant (19 points, nine assists) and Nash (16 points) continued their reversal of historical roles, as Nash focused more on scoring and Bryant, whose shot was off early, handled play-making duties.
Still, despite Howard’s interior dominance, the visitors managed to keep things close via their typical, grind-it-out style of play, even as they again struggled with their shooting, besides Nate Robinson (19 points, eight assists)—again filling in for injured starting point guard Kirk Hinrich, who was sidelined for the game, along with top reserve Taj Gibson and superstar Derrick Rose—who was also effective in setting up his teammates.
At the conclusion of the opening period, the Bulls trailed, 20-16, with their offensive struggles either not boding well for the remainder of the afternoon affair or signaling there was no way to go but up in the future.
Marco Belinelli (11 points), after a quiet first quarter, came out aggressive offensively in the second frame—part of that could be attributed to Bryant, who was guarding him, taking a breather, but after three consecutive games with 20-plus points while starting in place of injured starter Rip Hamilton, he also had the responsibility of being a primary scorer—to help the Bulls survive with their second unit in the contest.
Backup center Nazr Mohammed also provided a lift off the bench, as he banged with Howard on the defensive end and building off a solid performance in the team’s previous outing, a home win Friday over Utah, also gave the guests an offensive boost.
While the Lakers were decisively winning the battle of the boards and got balanced scoring, as veteran forwards Metta World Peace and Antawn Jamison, as well as reserve guard Jodie Meeks, made timely shots, behind dynamic play from Robinson, the Bulls remained within striking distance and as Noah and starting forwards Carlos Boozer (12 points, 10 rebounds) and All-Star Luol Deng (11 points, eight rebounds) began to get more involved, they even briefly overtook their hosts.
At the intermission, the Bulls were still behind, 44-40—due to a 10-2 Lakers spurt, following the Bulls taking their only lead of the first half as sloppy ball security and poor shot selection did them in late in the period—after a Robinson driving layup with two seconds left on the clock.
After the break, Lakers took the upper hand and extended their advantage behind the play of Nash, who utilized his uncanny shooting touch and ability to operate in the pick-and-roll to his benefit, presenting issues for the Bulls’ usually stout defense.
Furthermore, aside from Noah, who was rebounding at his normal high level, the Bulls struggled on the glass and couldn’t muster up much offense either, leading to them falling into a double-digit hole.
Things quickly snowballed, as the hosts, who started out absolutely frigid from outside, began to knock down long-range jumpers, and couple with their offensive-rebounding dominance, the Lakers built a commanding lead, though Bryant was mostly held in check.
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Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls were on the wrong end of a 73-61 score, following forward Earl Clark’s jumper to beat the third-quarter buzzer.
The fourth quarter didn’t start out on a positive note for the visitors, whose struggles in pick-and-roll defense continued, resulting in easy opportunities for the Lakers, though the duo of Noah and Robinson, the two most productive Bulls on the day, ensured that for the time being, the deficit didn’t grow.
In fact, during a Lakers lull, the Bulls capitalized, with Boozer picking up his level of play, and trimmed it to a single-digit affair, but as both teams hit a scoring drought, the needle didn’t move for either side until the hosts gradually got back into the swing of things, which again put the visitors in an untenable situation.
While the game wasn’t out of hand, the Bulls’ pace, efficiency and offensive firepower made it too difficult to battle back as the game entered its stretch run and when Bryant asserted himself as a scorer, it was all but over.
With the way the Lakers have been surging lately, the afternoon matinee’s result could be viewed as predictable, especially as the short-handed Bulls continue to grind through the campaign, shooting woes and all.