HELENE ELLIOTT

Lakers in a world of hurt because of a lack of effort on defense

Sure, the Lakers have had an inordinate number of injuries, but they are making matters worse by not being able to stop the other team.

Pau Gasol

Lakers center Pau Gasol, left, and Milwaukee's Larry Sanders chase after a loose ball during the Lakers' loss on Tuesday. Injuries and defensive struggles have played a dominant role in the Lakers' six-game losing streak. (Paul Buck / EPA / December 31, 2013)

It has come to this for the Lakers:

Kendall Marshall, barely two weeks removed from the NBA D-League, will start at point guard Friday against Utah as the Lakers try to end a six-game losing streak.

His primary qualification for starting?

"He's played two pretty good games," Coach Mike D'Antoni said, and he could have added that Marshall's next-best qualification is having a pulse.

These are lean days for the Lakers, still minus Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Xavier Henry and Jordan Farmar — at least at last count.

"We had a film session, and we lost two in a film session," D'Antoni said after what's left of his team practiced Thursday in El Segundo.

He was joking, but watching video of their latest losses to Philadelphia and league-lagging Milwaukee would have been enough to make anyone ill.

There's no sense in mourning the offensive talent that's missing, the creativity, clutch shots and playmaking that distinguish the Lakers at their best. Those things are gone and they won't be back for a while.

Still, a consistent and concerted effort on defense should enable the Lakers to compensate for some of those offensive shortcomings, and they don't have a defensive foundation they can fall back on to prop them up until they ride this out.

They were probably around the middle of the pack defensively before all of the injuries hit, but through Wednesday's games they ranked 28th out of 30 teams in the NBA in opponents' points allowed per game, at 103.3. They also had allowed opponents to grab the most offensive, defensive and total rebounds per game in the league.

Defense isn't emphasized enough, which isn't a revelation for a D'Antoni-coached team. But this is when the Lakers need to make a defensive stand, battle for rebounds and make opponents reluctant to go into the paint instead of feasting there. So far, they're not standing very tall.

"Sometimes our struggles offensively and frustrations carry on to our defensive end and that's part of it," said Pau Gasol, who has been in and out of the lineup lately because of an upper respiratory infection.

"We just need to, regardless of what happens on the offensive end, pick up our defense, our intensity there. Make it hard on the opponents because right now the opponents, they see blood. They see a team struggling and they say, 'Let's beat them again, bury them deeper.'

"So we've just got to make sure we let teams know that it's not going to be a walk in the park, that we're right there, and they're going to have to go through us."

Too often, opponents go around him — and everyone else. And that's the part that is most unacceptable, because it's something that can be improved but hasn't gotten better.

The backup's backup's backup at any position isn't going to be as talented as a starter, but at some point the Lakers have to accept that they must bear down defensively and try to compete at that end if they can't match up otherwise. Offense is largely instinct. Defense relies more on effort. That hasn't been nearly good enough.

D'Antoni said the Lakers are getting good effort. "It's just hard to sustain it sometimes because your confidence is shaken, you don't have the swagger we had," he said.

It's more like stagger than swagger these days.

"We had a couple guys playing hurt, like Jordan Farmar," D'Antoni said. "Then you look out there, yeah, it looks like he's just kind of going through the motions — well, he's hurt. There's a lot of stuff.

"I don't think you should ever question these guys' heart or want or that stuff. That's not our problem this year."

Jodie Meeks is expected to be Marshall's backup on Friday, though Meeks said he doesn't say "point guard" anymore "because it seems like they always get hurt. So I say 'decision-maker. ' "

No matter who it is or what it's called, the Lakers need hustle and effort there and in every other position.

"That's the main thing we try to focus on in film — work on the extra effort," Meeks said. "It might not be as big on the boards some nights because of all the injuries, but the one thing we can control is our effort, and we have to do that."

Directing more of that effort toward the defensive end of things would be a good start.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Twitter: @helenenothelen

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