Starting To Get Serious

Kurt —  March 3, 2008

The games are starting to take on a playoff feel — more physical, better defense, crowds more into it. The Lakers game yesterday against Dallas was like that — which is one reason it was a quality win. With the tightness of the West right now, I think we could see a lot more games like this before the playoffs roll around, and winning games like this gives the youngish and still meshing Lakers a lot of confidence.

One key thing I took away from the last couple of games— the Lakers need Bynum back to make a serious run at the title. I think we all knew that, but these games confirmed it. I love Pau Gasol. He has been everything we could have hoped for. But he is not a powerful physical presence in the paint, someone we can count on to bang away and get boards and play tough defense at the rim (or on the pick and roll). Yesterday Dampier was very physical with Gasol and it threw him off. Dampier led the Mavs in scoring midway through the third quarter and looked like a guy who deserved that fat contract.

Gasol made smart plays down the stretch defensively, but he can’t be expected to bang for 48. He can’t be expected to do it for what promises to be three tough playoff series in a row in the West (followed, ideally, by the finals).

We need Bynum back and healthy enough to be that guy. I’m not one of those terribly worried about how Gasol and Bynum will blend — I think their games will complement each other beautifully. Josh from sent me some thoughts along these lines the other day:

How will Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum mesh? Will they be able to play together? Everyone seems to be in wait-and-see mode, but I can answer that for you right now: It won’t be a problem. It will be perfect. It will be beautiful.

It seems to me that those questioning whether or not Bynum and Gasol can co-exist in the paint are making one key mistake: They’re judging a book by its cover. That book is Pau Gasol. He’s 7 feet tall and has often played at the center position, including during this first stint with the Lakers while Bynum is out. And therein lies the problem.

Because Pau Gasol is a 7-footer, the incorrect assumption that most people are making is that he prefers to operate under the basket, and that he doesn’t have the range to score outside the low post. After all, isn’t that true of most 7-foot tall centers? But Pau Gasol isn’t most 7-footers, and he’s not a center. Not only does he not have to operate in the low post to be effective — he actually prefers not to! He prefers to play off the elbows, and he’s much more comfortable facing the basket than he is with his back to it. He can shoot the jump hook with either hand, and he’s jot a good mi-range jumper. With all the attention Kobe and Bynum will draw, he’ll also get plenty of easy layups and dunks by cutting to the hoop.

The simple fact is that Gasol is not a center. He’s a power forward. He’s size leads people to assume he plays a center’s game, and the fact that he has filled in at that position has further reinforced this idea for many. But the reality is that Pau Gasol is a power forward — like any other, except taller — and if he were 6’10, we wouldn’t be talking about this.

Gasol’s game and Bynum’s will form concentric circles, with Bynum playing in the low post with his back to the basket and Gasol facing up on the elbows and baselines. And, as many have already pointed out, the passing ability of both big men, the attention that they will draw from Kobe (and vice versa), and the fact that neither demands the ball, can only make a good thing that much better.

We need a few games for that meshing to happen prior to the playoffs starting. But bottom line, we need Bynum back.

A few other thoughts:

• I said he had not been playing well, so let me say I loved the energy Luke Walton brought to the game yesterday. He was diving, hustling, scrapping. If he can play like that coming off the bench (when Radmanovic then Bynum return) it will be a huge boost for the Lakers.

• Kidd played better in the Mavs system than I expected, because they are running better and more than I expected. I knew Kidd could run the break, but as Bill Simmons said the question was who would run with him. So far, not bad, Terry and Stackhouse are doing well in that role. Still not sure Kidd was worth Harris and two first round picks (meaning the future), but he played well.

• Late in the fourth quarter, the Mavs had to put Stackhouse and Kidd on Kobe in isolation — that is going to come back to haunt them, and not just against the Lakers. Those are not great defenders in space (in Kidd’s case anymore, he used to be) and if that is what they’ve got they will pay a price late in games in the playoffs.

• Yes, you have to foul late in the game and up by three. Jackson said he feared the four-point play or giving up three free throws. If you do it right that is not an issue — foul the guy who gets the inbound pass instantly. Even if the guy is shooting the three, unless it is Steve Nash the chances of hitting three straight free throws are less than hitting an in-rhythm three. Hope that was a lesson learned.

• Yes, Kobe may have vaulted himself into the lead in the MVP race. Horses often change position down the stretch, but Kobe has the lead and maybe a clear run to the trophy. As I said before, I think he gets the “body of work” vote this year as well (LeBron will have more chances, some voters will think).