At the 2:48 mark of the 4th quarter, as the Lakers stared down the barrel of a 17-point deficit to the near cellar-dwelling Phoenix Suns, a rare sighting, clearer than a blurry Bigfoot photo, occurred. A wave to the end the bench startled those forgotten few that occupy it. Warm-ups’ fell to the floor and Laker players beyond MDA’s Magnificent 7 checked into the ball game. The cleared bench not only waved the white flag for a 99-76 failure, another back-to-back loss on the road, but also instigated a conversation long on the minds of LAL fans.
Why such a short bench?
The Suns are not the same offensive juggernaut when MDA and Nash burned a trail up and down the US Airways Center court. They do not possess the names and faces of supreme talent and All-Star regulars they once did. They wheeled and dealt away their big contracts and recognizable faces to rebuild.
Prior to the game, MDA addressed the issue of the heavily logged minutes for his starters and two pine performers, stating that he saw the three days off following the game as a good cause to keep the rotation tight. Granted, the seven players he stuck with have been playing wonderfully inspired basketball. Yet, justifying the potential to run them into the ground as a reward for their incredible turnaround by offering them less rest now for temporary rest in the future seems as confusing as it is to write it out or read the result. It doesn’t make any sense to overplay the hand that has been fighting for their playoff lives over five games in the last eight nights.
Spot duty for key reserves to play a few minutes of defense here and there might not have impacted the outcome of this game. Duhon chasing around Dragic for three minutes of game time, or Sacre battling with Haddadi in the post for a possession or four might not have drastically shifted the final point differential. It would, however, have stolen a few minutes for Nash and Dwight to rest their mutual back issues for the stretch run. It would have given guys on the bench a few more minutes of time on the court heading into a possible first round, seven-game series that might require them to play five or ten minutes in a decisive Game Four.
A slight lengthening of the bench would have absolutely impacted the 33% that the Lakers shot from the field. 5-22 from three isn’t the result of talent, or lack thereof. It’s all legs.
The Lakers plain and simply were gassed. They needed a few minutes here and there to collect themselves and recognize that they 3s just weren’t going down. They could have gotten a pep talk from Coach Vino about driving to the basket, or getting the ball into Dwight as he towers over Luis Scola. A bench player would follow those orders. A bench player that has more DNPs than FGAs would abide by such marching orders and find the big fella in the block.
Instead, Scola utilized the excess of energy from not having to play defense to score all 14 of his points in the 4th. He slammed the door on the Lakers’ refrigerator with a three following a scramble for the ball, one of many hustle plays for rebounds the Lakers lost. Lack of energy on similar plays killed their shot at tying the idle-Rockets for 7th place.
Only thirteen games remain on the schedule for the Lakers. They hope both Kobe and Pau return in the coming week, reinforcements for their last charge towards the playoffs. This game, this loss, was important. To draw even with the Rockets puts an inordinate amount of pressure on them to perform, and maintains the confidence necessary for the Lakers to withstand the pressure on them. Fortunately, the short-handed Knicks held off the Jazz, so the Lakers’ grasp on the 8th seed remains, albeit a tenuous one. A few minutes here and there for the bench could have made the difference in more than just tonight’s game. The end of the season looming just makes this particular example seem enormous.