As the team prepares for another deep playoff run, there are two major issues that are on the minds of every fan. First, are the Lakers playing well enough right now for that deep run? In recent weeks the team has not played anywhere near it’s best basketball. The bench is a shadow of the group that many pundits and fans hailed as the league’s best second unit. Plus, the starters have looked disjointed – not running the offense with precision and not playing the level of defense you would expect from the NBA’s sixth ranked team in defensive efficiency. Overall, the team is playing uninspired for major stretches of every game. Which leads us to the second concern – are the Lakers going to rest it’s best players to gear up for the pursuit of that elusive championship? Every fan can tell that this team is not only a bit bored, but it’s tired. When Kobe, maybe the best conditioned athlete in the league, is shooting flat jumpers (even by his standards) and lacking explosion to finish around the basket you know that the entire team could use some time away from the game to rest weary legs.
But how will the team remedy these issues? First and foremost is for the team to start playing better. Personally, I was encouraged by the last eight to ten minutes of the Bucks game. The offense looked more fluid as players moved with more purpose and got the types of looks that I wanted them to take. The defense also elevated another notch as Kobe denied passes to Jefferson, rotations were sharper, and Farmar did a good job of staying in front of his man. And while the competition was not the stiffest, with many matchups in our favor, it was nice to see us put together a good stretch against any opponent. Add the fact that the team was at the end of a seven game road trip and playing it’s fifth game in seven nights and I’m even happier about the performance. The team showed it’s resiliency. And that’s a trait that they’ll definitely need to play well in May and June.
But what about some rest for the weary? As I pointed out, Kobe looks tired. Gasol’s minutes are through the roof. And even though Fish has actually played less lately, he’s also our oldest player and has already had a month long stretch of games this season where he was consistently playing thirty five plus minutes nightly. Is Phil going to idle down the team to recharge their batteries before the playoffs? Answers may be coming soon. Phil has said that a major goal for this team is to reach the sixty win plateau. This is classic Phil as he has always motivated with carrots and with sticks. He will call you out in the media or make some snide remark about what a player is or isn’t doing, but he’ll also set goals for his team and drive them to reach it. Earlier in the year when we had our six game road trip, Phil commented that how we performed on that trip would go a long way in determining whether or not the Lakers win the whole thing. Did he say that because it was the truth or did he say it because he knew that he could motivate his guys to play their best against some of the league’s best teams? Whatever his reasons, it worked and the Lakers did play some of their best ball. He could easily be using this same tactic (with the drive for sixty wins) to motivate his players to play well coming down the stretch. And when the team reaches that goal, I do think we’ll see minutes reduced and a sharper focus on the little things that will help win games come playoff time. If anything, Phil is a master at setting up people to succeed and I don’t see him firing all his bullets in the regular season when he knows that he’s got a great chance to win a title with this team this season.
A major piece to this puzzle is the guy with the bunny on his shoulders. Andrew Bynum is the player that can not only help raise our level of play offensively and defensively, but also provide some much needed rest for the entire team. He can be this teams stimulus package, providing an anchor in the middle and giving aid to our tired players through a trickle down effect of shored up rotations and better bench play. And based off recent reports, he continues to progress and will return before season’s end. Rest assured, there are answers to the issues we are seeing. Some home cooking and the return of our injured big man should help our level of play. That same big man and reaching a stated goal should assure rest for some of our tired players. There are seven games left in the first season before the second one begins. And while we may not look ready for the part right now, I see that changing very soon.