By all means of judging games by feeling of momentum, this was the Bobcats' game to lose. Their runs were electrifying and it looked like they were more dominant than Los Angeles on the whole. But then the Bobcats did lose in a terrific showing of mismanagement by three points, 88-85.
The Bobcats more or less controlled the game throughout although the Lakers kept within striking distance due to a major advantage getting to the line and hitting shots from behind the arc. The Bobcats had some stupid fouls to bail out missed threes from Nick Young, which proved instrumental as the game got away from the Bobcats.
Oddly enough, the Bobcats didn't draw fouls anywhere near their normal rate, finishing with eight total free throw attempts on the night. It didn't seem that they were ripped off by the officiating or anything, but they just didn't draw the contact they usually do. Ramon Sessions didn't get to the line once and Gerald Henderson had only two free throws, coming late in the fourth quarter. Combined, Sessions and Henderson average about nine free throw attempts a game.
What hurt even more is that the Lakers were nearly flawless from the stripe, going 21-for-23, including 12-for-12 free-throw shooting in the second half. With the final possessions coming down to a single point, that perfection especially hurt.
Another major failing was that Charlotte had a big disparity in their three-point shooting compared to the Lakers'. Los Angeles went 5-for-9 in the first half from behind the arc and 2-for-11 in the second. Despite nearly shutting down the Lakers' distance shooting in the second half, the Bobcats still had no long range response from anyone besides Kemba Walker, who made the Bobcats only two treys out of their 13 attempts. That's a 15-point disadvantage from downtown.
Charlotte's offense found a nice groove despite their unusual defensive failings. Kemba Walker was as close to perfection as might have ever been as a scorer or a passer. He wasn't overly dominant and picked his shots quite well, exploiting mismatches in the midrange over big men and hitting a couple shots from deep. Walker also punished the Lakers in the paint a little bit and forced them to stay honest.
He and Jefferson ran their familiar wing screen option to find success at times against the Lakers' lackluster perimeter defense. For those unfamiliar, Jefferson receives the ball out in the left wing and Kemba makes a decision to go towards the free throw line or left to the baseline as Jefferson reads the defense for a passing lane.
As the two teams traded blows for the first three quarters, the Bobcats reached their stride in the third quarter but even then they never got more than nine points ahead of Los Angeles. The Lakers shot themselves in the foot seemingly constantly with turnovers and their offense festered in the limits of their roster's mediocrity as the Bobcats took advantage in the fast break for highlight dunks.
Still, the Lakers wouldn't go away, and more importantly, the Bobcats couldn't execute to close them out. At so many times in the last quarter it seemed like just one successful possession would break the Lakers and boost the Bobcats enough to confirm that the game would indeed be a Charlotte victory. But those plays never came. Sure, the Bobcats scored, but there was no flow to it and the Lakers cut the lead slowly.
As has and will likely be the case for much of the season, the Bobcats went with a backcourt of Ramon Sessions and Ben Gordon to start the fourth quarter as the entire starting lineup rested in preparation for the final minutes. This lineup was, in no extreme basketball exaggeration, a disaster. Sessions couldn't hit his usual running layups or draw fouls. Ben Gordon resumed being Ben Gordon after a mildly surprisingly eight points on seven shots in the first half. Ball movement was lethargic and forced. Jeff Taylor, Sessions, Gordon were all on the floor yet it seemed like Bismack Biyombo was the premiere scoring threat. That lineup needs serious work, starting with better ball movement. The defense wasn't terrific but it wasn't awful. Turnovers hurt too. The Bobcats had a small lead that eventually evaporated in the time this lineup ran the court.
Of course, the Bobcats regained the lead in a hurry when the starters returned, led by Walker and Henderson. Not ones to roll over, the Lakers clawed back into it with Nick Young hitting free throws and a couple shots from Kobe. The Bobcats offense shifted to Al Jefferson and the scoring evaporated. Henderson then made a defensive error getting caught up in a classic Kobe midrange pump fake to draw the foul. He hit the pair of free throws with 37 seconds left and the Bobcats were suddenly down one with time running down.
The Lakers pressured hard on a Kemba Walker-Josh McRoberts two man game from the right wing. McRoberts found a cutting Henderson in the paint with Pau Gasol rotating. Henderson caught the pass and went for the turnaround baseline shot over Gasol, but it bounced off the rim. Jefferson got the offensive rebound and the Bobcats took a time out with 16.6 seconds left.
Steve Clifford had a choice to make on offense of whether to give the keys to the offense to Walker, who was 10-for-13 for 24 points, or to Jefferson, who was 7-for-16 for 14 points to that point. He went with Jefferson. The play was not run well. Jefferson received the inbounds pass nearly at the three-point line. As Jefferson backed Gasol down into the paint, the Lakers had all of their players with at least one foot in the paint. Jefferson elevated but the shot was off. Gasol recovered the ball and was sent to the free throw line following a foul.
Now down three after Gasol's two free throws, what did the Bobcats do but draw up an inbounds three look for Ben Gordon.
You read that right. They brought Kemba up first on a weak initial showing along the sideline towards the corner, but that was covered easily but the play was to create the space so Gordon could have room to catch the ball above the break behind the arc and try to get a three. The running off-balance three of course missed with only a couple seconds remaining. Jefferson caught the airball and was blocked by Gasol on the ensuing putback attempt.
This is just my opinion, but I would be hard-pressed to go to Jefferson so often late in this game with Gasol's post-defense and the scoring game Kemba had. Jefferson received the ball pretty far out on the possessions he had but he still managed to work Pau well towards the basket. Yet Gasol played solid post defense and clearly bothered Jefferson with his length.
By the way, here's Al Jefferson's play by play on shots he took in the last quarter: Misses 17-foot jumper / Misses layup / 3-foot jumper blocked by Pau Gasol / Misses jumper / Layup blocked by Pau Gasol.
As I mentioned before, the Lakers ratcheted their perimeter defensive intensive and focus up later in the game, especially on the pick and roll. Still, Walker's ability to create space and utilizing it for open midrange jumpers was on point tonight, and I'm not sure how you give Jefferson the ball over him with the way Jefferson's quarter was going.
Further, I don't have the stats, nor do I know if they exist, but I tend to think the chances of an offensive rebound are greater with a perimeter player shooting and the big man focusing on rebounding. Jefferson's play clogs the paint -- with good reason, because he was clearly a lot for Gasol to handle all by himself -- but that also makes those offensive rebounding chances that much tougher when space is much more cramped favoring the defense and the rebounds are likely to be short. Again, I could be wrong. I often am. Historically, Jefferson's been solid in these situations, but at this time and place, he's had a lot of trouble.
As a final note, I'd like to point out that Ben Gordon played the entire fourth quarter. With Jeff Taylor and Ramon Sessions' rough nights on offense, I guess it's debatable to have him on the floor, but I still will not accept that he's the one to get the game-tying attempt for three over Walker or that he should be on the floor for the entire fourth quarter.
Clifford has been terrific in turning the team around from last year, but woof, this mismanagement was saddening.
Sorry I shot them from my phone as I watched TV but hey, life gives you lemons and here's your shoddy cell phone video lemonade.
Oh, and can't forget about the halftime show!
All music from Janelle Monae's The Electric Lady or Crystal Castles' III.