Archives For March 2010

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Many say that the first game of a road trip sets the tone for the entire set of games a team will play on their trip.  If that’s truly the case, there are four other teams that have some problems when the Lakers come to town over the next week.  The Lakers came into San Antonio with a lot of questions facing them.  Could they continue their winning ways against quality teams (after building a 6 game win streak on the gutter dwellers of the NBA)?  Could they summon the intensity and focus that made them champions last season?  Is it possible to turn up their level of play and show the rest of the league that they really are a dominant team on the court and not just on paper?  I know these types of questions (and many others) were on the minds of fans and media alike, but against the Spurs we all got a glimpse of what the answer to those questions may be.

Suffocating.  Strangling. Smothering.  These are words that aptly describe the defense that the Lakers exhibited against the Spurs in second half of their 92-83 victory tonight.  An eighteen point third quarter was outdone by a seventeen point fourth quarter.  A 94.3 offensive rating with a true shooting percentage of 47% on the evening for the team from San Antonio – utterly substandard for a top ten offensive unit.  I don’t think I’ve seen a better defensive stretch all season from the Lakers and they provided it with their backs against the wall as they entered the second half trailing the Spurs by eight points.

And the Lakers only trailed because they couldn’t stop George Hill or Manu Ginobili from getting to wherever they wanted to on the court.  Hill lived in the paint and did an impersonation of Tony Parker that had the Spurs crowd buzzing.  Hill hit floaters.  He hit acrobatic layups.  He hit the corner three and short jumpers with ease.  He’d end the first half with 20 points and had the game’s announcers calling him a superstar in the making.  And then Ginobili showed why he’s already considered a superstar.  Manu was raining jumpers and abusing Lakers defenders.  One step back three was followed by another.  After a missed FT, the ball would again find his hands and he’d nail another long ball.  Three 3’s provided the bulk of his twelve first half points and he looked like he could keep it going all night.  The Spurs backcourt was simply doing whatever they wanted on offense and had the Lakers defense thoroughly frustrated.

But, despite the offensive explosion from the Spurs guards, the Lakers would keep it close.  And it was mostly done on the wide shoulders of Lamar Odom.  In the game preview I noted that the Spurs don’t have a defender that is capable of staying with Odom as our lefty’s ability to push the ball and move fluidly in the half court is a problem for a team that has front court rotation that features the old and/or slow legs of Duncan, McDyess, Blair, and Bonner.  Well, Odom took full advantage of his athletic advantages by getting the ball in his hands and attacking the rim at every opportunity.  Whether in transition or in the half court, Odom found creases in the Spurs defense and went to the rim.  And when he wasn’t the player doing the shooting, he corralled offensive rebounds (3 of his 13 rebounds were off our misses) and created extra possessions for us.  Odom was just everywhere, again, for the Lakers.  The thing I love most about Odom’s game is how he tweaks his style of play to fit what the Lakers need most.  Tonight, in a game where he had the biggest advantage of all our offensive players (save for maybe Kobe), Odom was aggressive with ball, taking 18 shots to lead the team in FGA’s, and really looked for his offense.

Odom wasn’t alone on offense though.  That guy Kobe decided to have one of his most efficient offensive games of the season in this game to help out LO.  On a night where Kobe didn’t get to the foul line, it didn’t really matter because his shooting stroke from all over the floor was so good.  Twenty four points on 11 of 16 from the floor on 75% true shooting.  Kobe ran roughshod over every Spurs defender that guarded him (5 Spurs in all tried to slow down Kobe – to no avail) and it got to the point that the Spurs were running double teams at Kobe when he was thirty feet from the basket.  But that was the beauty of Kobe’s game on offense this evening.  He accepted every double team and ably made passes to open teammates, setting them up for good looks.  Six assists on the night for Kobe (to only 3 turnovers) and he would have had even more had Pau, Fisher, and Artest hit some of the open shots that Kobe created for them.

But, this game really was about the defense.  And it all started with Artest.  Around a month ago, I said that Artest deserves consideration for defensive player of the year.  After tonight’s performance, I’m reiterating that sentiment.  Against the Spurs he reminded everyone of the destructive force he can be on the defensive side of the ball.  He hounded every player that he went up against, not only racking up the stats that show up in the box score, but also doing a ton of little things that help win games.  Five steals (with two leading directly to layups where he swiped the ball and went the other way for the score) and countless other deflections don’t even tell the entire story.  Not when Ron was also able to stop 3 on 2 fast breaks by pestering the ball handler and then chasing him not only out of the paint, but above the three point line.  The stats also don’t show how he had players picking up their dribble and passing the ball away just to have him cease and desist his attack dog defense of them.  Ron truly wreaked havoc on the Spurs offense and it’s performances like these that move the Lakers team D beyond formidable and into the elite category.

Really, there is so much to say about this game that I could go on forever.  I mean, the team had 5 players in double figures.  The Lakers also shot 50% from three point country, making 10 of their 20 attempts.  Farmar and Brown combined for 19 points on 7 for 13 shooting.  Pau Gasol, though not very good on offense (which is a change from his recent performances) helped to hold Tim Duncan to 6 points on 11 shots and blocked two of Timmy’s jumpers in key moments of the game.  And while there were some things to improve upon – another poor showing from the FT line in a road game, the Spurs out rebounded us and out assisted us – the overall performance was just to strong to nit pick on any of those minor points.  This was just a great win and a fantastic way to start the road trip.  We can only hope this continues on Friday in OKC.

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Records: Lakers 52-18 (1st in West), Spurs 42-27 (7th in West, 7.5 games behind Lakers)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.4 (11th in NBA), Spurs 107.3 (9th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.2 (4th in NBA), Spurs 102.3 (9th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Spurs: George Hill, Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, Tim Duncan, Antonio McDyess

The Lakers Coming in:  Can the winning streak continue against good teams?  That is the question as the Lakers start their road trip tonight in San Antonio.  It won’t be easy with Bynum out, but the Lakers need to rally together and start to round into form for the playoffs.  After the Wizards game, Phil mentioned that he’d like to see a 5-0 road trip in order to build that momentum, but to also keep Denver and Dallas at bay.  However, since that time he’s backed off of those statements as both the Mavs and the Nuggs have had some missteps in their recent games that have created a bit more of a cushion for the Lakers in the standings.  Will the Lakers relax now that their coach has put the whip away or will they keep their focus?  That is the other question.  We’ll see tonight.

The Spurs Coming in:  The Spurs have won 9 of 12 games in March and seem to be finding their stride as the post season approaches.  However, if you look a bit closer at that record, you’ll see that the Spurs are beating bad teams and losing to good ones.  Their nine wins come against the likes of the Knicks, Clippers, T’Wolves, Hornets, and Warriors and their three losses were against the Cavs, Magic, and Hawks.  So, it’s tough to know how good this Spurs team is right now.  To their credit they did outlast the Thunder in OKC on Monday night, which is a quality win. (On a side note, yes, this is similar to what the Lakers have done lately.  So, this is a big game for both teams as both want to prove that their winning ways are not only the product of the schedule makers.)

Normally, when you talk about the Spurs the first names that come up are Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili.  Well, as we enter tonight’s contest, Parker is out injured with a broken finger on his shooting hand and Duncan, while playing solid ball, may finally be wearing down after carrying this team on his back all season.  That said, count Timmy out at your own peril.  That leaves Manu.  And he’s doing just fine, thank you, putting up great numbers of late and controlling games like the Manu of old.  Over his last five games, Ginobili has averaged 24 points and 5 assists with a TS% of 64%.  This includes a 38 point and 6 assist explosion against the Hawks where he buried 5 three pointers.  And speaking of the long ball, he’s shooting 45% from three for in March and 88% from the line.  To quote Kobe, that’s a bad man.

Spurs Blogs:  They have couple of quality sites: 48 Minutes of Hell and Pounding the Rock (which has been a very strong site for ages). You should check out both. 

Keys to game:  While missing Bynum will somewhat restrict the Lakers game plan, playing against the Spurs is nothing new for Phil Jackson’s Lakers.  These teams, directed by these coaches, have faced each other 3-4 times a year for almost a decade and there are no secrets between the teams.  That means that execution on the little things will be the difference in the game.   Can the Lakers protect the ball?  Will the Spurs be able to effectively slow the ball in transition?  Executing the game within the game will be key for both teams tonight.

One thing I’m interested in seeing tonight is who matches up with the red hot Ginobili.  Recently, Artest has covered the other team’s best wing player regardless of position.  He guarded Wade and Tyreke Evans even though they play shooting and point guard, respectively.  If that trend continues tonight, Ron will match up with Manu leaving Kobe on Jefferson.  So, if this is the case expect a slug fest between Ron and Manu where both players use their expertise in using angles to their advantage while also fighting to establish the position that they want to attack their opponent.  Both Manu and Ron love to use space to their advantage – Ron by crowding offensive players and Manu by using his step back moves and side step dribbles to cross up defenders – to rule over their opponent.  So whoever wins this battle within the match up will have the upper hand.  But Ron (or any other defender) won’t be going at Ginobili alone.  In the absence of Parker, Manu has taken up the mantle as the primary creator in P&R situations so our bigs will need to hedge on Manu while not over extending in a way that lets the Argentinian split the double team and get into the teeth of the defense.  Surround, corral, and then recover needs to be the theme when defending the P&R tonight.  Also, I mentioned above Manu’s accuracy from behind the arc.  Marking him behind the three point line will be a key tonight and the Lakers should be extra aware of his want to drive hard to his right and and then step back for the long jumper.

On offense, aggressive Kobe may be in the house tonight.  In the past, Kobe has relished facing the Spurs and has found a comfort zone in attacking San Antonio’s help schemes.  The Spurs are a defense that will give up the mid-range jumper as they prefer to chase teams off the three point line and then funnel penetration to Duncan who is an expert at contesting without fouling.  However, it just so happens that Kobe is king of mid-range and has hurt the Spurs game after game, year after year by using his one dribble pull up jumper as a key weapon against them.  Kobe’s making 45.5% of his two point jumpers from 10-23 feet and he’ll get plenty of chances at that exact shot tonight.  Also expect Kobe to go down to the low post on the weakside and try to punish whatever member of the Manu, Jefferson, Mason, Bogans quartet that is guarding him tonight. 

The other key to this game will be the performance of our third and fourth offensive threats against their’s.  If Kobe and Manu play close to a draw and Pau/Duncan do the same, the key will lie in who wins the offensive matcups of Artest/Odom vs. Hill/Jefferson.  Traditionally, the Spurs don’t really have a player that can guard LO as McDyess and Blair don’t have the size (Blair) or the foot speed (Dyess) to deal with our versatile lefty.  If Odom can secure defensive rebounds and push the ball against a transitioning Spurs defense, it will go a long way in not letting San Antonio’s defense get set and execute their half court D.  We also need Ron to continue to make his jumper and to use his strength advantage to earn trips to the foul line.  I’ve given up hope that Ron will show any improvement in his ability to finish efficiently in the paint, but if he’s not finishing nor getting to the FT line, it’s almost a waste of a possession.   As for Hill/Jefferson, we need Kobe (or Ron) to mark him well (especially on his penetration) and for our guards to slow down the ever improving second year player.  In Parker’s absence, Hill has really stepped up as a vialbe scoring option and is using some of Parker’s pattened moves by getting out in transition and finishing well in the lane.  At the end of the night, look at the plus/minus numbers for Odom and Hill and I bet they’ll tell a big part of the story of who won this game.

Where you can watch:  6:30pm start on KCAL and nationally on ESPN.  Also on ESPN Radio 710am

NBA: Lakers vs. Kings Mar 16

This morning, we turn our focus to the Spurs, who have been playing well as of late. They’re only 3-2 in their last five, but watching their last few games seems like they’re on a five game winning streak. I know they did not play well in Orlando, and lost to Atlanta, but Manu Ginobili has been playing like the old Manu and George Hill has been playing very well in place of the injured Tony Parker. Even though the Spurs have stuggled for much of this season against playoff caliber teams, tonight’s game against Tim Duncan and Co. will be no walk through the park as they have not lost in San Antonio since January 31st.

An early preview from Basket Blog: As has become typical of Gregg Popovich Spurs teams, the Silver and Black are picking up their play as the playoffs approach, even with starting point guard Tony Parker going on the shelf on March 6 with a hand injury, due to return in mid April. In fact, the Spurs have gone 9-3 in March* after a 6-5 February, their only three losses coming at Cleveland by two points, at Orlando and at Atlanta in overtime.?*This comes as no surprise, since the Spurs are the NBA’s best March team since Tim Duncan was drafted in 1997, going 152-54 for a .738 winning percentage (L.A. is second at 134-69, .660).??In related news, Manu Ginobili has been playing like … a healthy Manu Ginobili, averaging 21.2 points and 5.7 assists while shooting 53 percent from the field and 45 percent from 3-point range in March. Throw in solid bench production, Tim Duncan’s consistency and an improving Richard Jefferson and the Spurs are dangerous. “(Ginobili’s improved play) helps a lot and I think their bench has been very successful,” said Jackson said after the team photo on Tuesday. “They had a game the other night against Golden State where (Tim) Duncan played 13 minutes and it was one of the highest scoring games they’ve ever had. It just says something about their bench coming to life and their players all supporting one another.”

Post-practice interviews on the Lakers issues and tonight’s game from Land O’ Lakers: Wednesday will feature the Lakers mano y’ mano with the Spurs, a showdown these squads have grown extraordinarily familiar with over the last 10-plus years. As Kobe Bryant noted, “We could run their plays and they could could run ours.” These battles have largely ended in the Larry O’Brien swapped back and forth between Kobe and Tim Duncan. The two haven’t just collected rings during the 2000’s, they’ve arguably been the two best players of the recent decade. I know I’d tab them as such. Still, The Big Fundamental, as his nickname implies, has never been the flashiest or most demonstrative of players, generally content to go about his business and film the occasional Adidas commercial. Even as a 12-time All-Star, Duncan’s low key persona has sometimes meant flying under the radar compared against other superstars. But Kobe’s not losing too much sleep a lunch pail persona has resulted in Timmy being somehow under-appreciated: “They already call him the greatest power forward of all time,” smiled Bryant. “How much more do you want? For that matter, Kobe’s playing no sad violins over the Spurs’ downward slide in the standings this season, despite having gone unhappily through a similar situation in 2006 and 2007. Asked what he felt for the Spurs’ plight, Kobe’s answer was fairly succinct: “Nothing.”

After Tonight’s game, the Spurs will play LeBron James and the Cavs. 48 Minutes of Hell talk about playing the league’s two best players back-to-back and the Kobe v. LeBron debate:

Texas is no stranger to intense debates, having long been the national hotbed for our public education system’s creationism vs. evolution discussion. Over the next few days a different sort of debate will play out in the AT&T Center, one that still challenges longstanding values and beliefs. Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, which one is the best player in the NBA? Ask Tim Duncan, who at one point in his career could make a pretty convincing argument for himself, and he’d probably answer Kobe on Wednesday and LeBron on Friday. As far as opponents go, the San Antonio Spurs will never face better players in consecutive games. And Texas may not ever again be privy to as heated a sports debate. For all the high-flying wings that have been built up as the next air apparent, from Grant Hill and Vince Carter to Tracy McGrady and Dwyane Wade, it’s been Kobe Bryant who has come closest to Michael Jordan. His career arch mirroring Jordan–transforming from high-flying scorer to coldblooded midrange tactician–Bryant has been mistakenly labeled at times as the greatest player throughout the past decade.

There was a bit of good news on Luke Walton’s progress reported yesterday, we learned that he is looking to be back with the team by April, and he practiced with the team yesterday. After practice, Ron Artest told reporters that he “wasn’t aware of the Lakers six-game winning streak” and told Bill Plaschke that Trevor Ariza was a better player than he and probably fit in better with the Lakers:

The long list of those who think the Lakers miss Trevor Ariza just increased by one. Even Ron Artest agrees? ”He’s a better player than me,” Artest said Tuesday. But Ron-Ron, nobody ever said he was better, we just said he was a better fit.” He’s a better player,” Artest repeated emphatically. “He’s won a ring, I haven’t. I can’t even compare to him. He’s a better player.” Artest also agrees, incidentally, with the part about Ariza being a better fit.” He probably is,” Artest said. “He’s a role player, a great role player. I haven’t been a role player. Many times I’ve had to carry the load, this is a different look for me.” It is this different look that has some of the Lakers covering their eyes. Entering the season’s final stretch, basketball’s wackiest star is performing his nuttiest act yet. Ron Artest is barely raising an eyebrow. He hasn’t figured out the flow of the Lakers offense this season, he has sometimes seemed a step slow on defense, and he’s made little impact on the team’s toughness. In a move engineered by the Buss family last summer, Artest was signed here from the Houston Rockets to replace Ariza, who then signed with Houston, after balking at the Lakers’ contract offer.

Finally, Kurt over at Pro Basketball Talk has the latest update on Phil Jackson’s contract negotiations with Jerry Buss:

Phil Jackson does not have a contract to coach the Lakers next year. That fact has led to a lot of speculation and talk — from a struggle for control within the Buss family to Jackson leaving Los Angeles to coach the Knicks next year.

Jerry Buss would like to remind you that last year at this time Jackson did not have a contract. Same with the year before that, Buss said in an interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com.

We really want to get through the year and then take a deep breath and see where we are. If I were to go to Phil right now and say, “Will you coach next year?” he’d say, “Well, let’s wait until the end of the year and see how I feel.” So, I don’t think it causes any tension. I know I have to wait until season’s end before a discussion begins.

-Phillip

Whenever the Lakers have a couple days off in a row, I try use the break in the action to take a look around the league.  There are always some good stories brewing and as a fan of the game, I love to take  stock in what the other franchises are doing.  So, without further ado here is what I’ve noticed in the past few days when looking at the league…

*That sound you hear in the standings below the Lakers are teams jockeying for playoff positioning.  There’s only a one game difference between the 6th and 8th seeds and only a game and a half between 5th and 3rd in the Western playoff race.  And while the top three seeds are likely sewn up (the top records from the division winners earn those seeds and the divisions look pretty much locked up save for a battle between Utah and Denver), home court in the second round is definitely up for grabs amongst those top seeds.  Meanwhile at the bottom of the playoff standings, teams are trying to earn the right to avoid the Lakers in the first round.  The last two weeks of the regular season are always a great time to take a look around the league because even though teams tend to know if they’re going to make the playoffs, there’s still a ton of fight in them to set themselves with the best possible matchups to advance.

*Speaking of Western playoff teams, Dallas may have peaked a bit too early.  After running off 13 straight wins, they’ve now lost three of four.  And two of those three losses were blowouts suffered at the hands of the Knicks (yikes) and the Hornets.  As I pointed out the last time I spoke about the Mavs,  there were some metrics out there that didn’t buy into the Mavs being a true powerhouse (fair or not).  Now at this point, it’s not like I’m going to bury the Mavs – I still think they’re going to be a tough out in the post season.  However, if they continue to stumble down the stretch  I think it’s fair to question if playing so well in late February and early March benefitted them in any real way.  Don’t get me wrong, before their trade for Butler and Haywood, the Mavs were playing .500 ball and were in a malaise.  They needed a shake up or an infusion of new blood.  But it’s now, at this point in the season, we’re at a time where (I would think) they want to be playing their best ball. 

*A couple of teams that are playing some pretty good ball are in the East.  Fear the Deer, everyone.  The Bucks are on a roll and are now the team that nobody wants to face in the playoffs.  This team has taken on the mentality of their head coach (Skiles) and are playing hard nosed defense.  You add to that Andrew Bogut’s strong play and the reemergence of John Salmons as a perimeter threat, and you’ve got a team that will stop you defensively and then show an inside/outside game with their offense that is tough to slow down.  The other team that is making a push late in the season is Boston.  Before losing to the Jazz last night (no shame in that), the Celts had won four games in a row and have been showing some of that championship mettle and swagger that made them so imposing two seasons ago when they won the title.  Long ago buried by many a national pundit, the Celtics are climbing out of the dirt thrown on top of them in a manner that would make Beatrix Kiddo proud.  Sure, Boston is still (at least) a step behind Cleveland and Orlando as favorites to win the East.  And, they’ve also been swept by the Hawks this seaon.  But, when push comes to shove, they have the league’s top ranked defense and a veteran team that may have one last push in them.  (Now allow me to go wash my hands after typing complimentary things about the Celtics.)

*The big news around the league right now is that Warriors franchise is on the market.  Yes, the Warriors are for sale.  Anyone have a few hundred million lying around to help me buy them?  No?  Okay then, lets move on and take a closer look at all this.  The consistent rumor affloat is that Oracle kingpin Larry Ellison is the frontrunner to buy the team.  The rumors further say that he’ll look to bring in Jerry West to run the basketball operations.  Having Ellison and West on board would be a pretty good place to start in turning this franchise around.  You add Ellison’s wallet to West’s ability to create a winning atmosphere and then put it together with a pretty good roster and things could be looking up.  However, that’s a long way off and currently only a pipe dream (selling the team and bringing in a new front office will take time).  Right now, it’s still Cohan and Nellie (who is, for now,  still looking for those last few wins to become the NBA’s all time winningest coach) and D-league call ups (Reggie Williams!) putting up career highs every other night.

*But the Warriors are not alone when looking for some (potential) front office shakeups.  Have you been following what’s going on in Portland?  Their assistant GM was just fired for reasons that aren’t entirely clear (though there are theories).  And now, GM extraordinaire Kevin Pritchard may be out next.  Really?  Read what the link above says (more great work from Dave at Blazer’s Edge) and either feel bad for Portland or revel in the fact that a franchise that was touted as being an up and coming team that would one day soon be our chief rivals is (potentially) coming apart at the seams. 

*Finally, just 11 days ago, we faced off with the Suns.  And in that game Amar’e Stoudemire went off for 29 and 16 in a losing effort.  The Suns have not lost since – winning 5 straight games mostly on the back of STAT.  Why do I mention this now?  Only because I want to link to this (oh no, Anthony Tolliver).  That throwdown was even better than this Amar’e offering just a few weeks ago (sorry Richard Jefferson, I had to).  But Stoudemire’s dunk against Golden State, can’t ever top this ultimate victimization of a Warrior ever (boy, the Reign Man, wow).

NBA: Boston Celtics at Los Angeles Lakers

With the Lakers set to start their third road-trip of the month all of the Lakers chatter is about the Lakers’ next five games and the seven after that. It’s all about how the Lakers play going into the postseason and what this next slew of tough games can do for the collective mentality of the team. Also, Andrew Bynum’s Achilles injury is going to be on everyone’s mind as, once again, the Lakers are headed down the stretch of the regular season with their starting center in street clothes, nursing an injury, hoping to be full strength for the postseason.

From the Los Angeles Times Lakers Blog (With post-practice interviews): With the Lakers embarking on a five-game trip beginning Wednesday against San Antonio, Coach Phil Jackson initially saw it as something that could “make or break” the team’s standings in the Western Conference. The Lakers had enjoyed remaining the top seed throughout the season, but three consecutive losses in early March further tightened the race among Denver, Dallas and Utah. Since then the Lakers (52-18) have reeled off six consecutive victories and have a pretty firm standing in the West, holding a five-game lead over the Nuggets (47-23), a five-and-a-half game cushion against the Mavericks (46-23) and a seven-game advantage over the Jazz (45-25). With Denver and Dallas losing Saturday to Milwaukee and Boston, respectively, Jackson shared Monday that he no longer feels this upcoming trip bears as much significance in the standings. After still expressing some frustration over the Lakers’ second-half letdown in their 99-92 victory Sunday against the Washington Wizards, Jackson is mindful his changed perspective could reduce the urgency the team could have during its trip. “I hope the players don’t take that as an [excuse],” said Jackson, who gave the team a day off from practice Monday partly to help conserve energy. “They know we really want to establish our road game, and we had a real good road record the last couple of years.”

From ESPN Los Angeles: The Eiger mountain located in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland, rises to an elevation of 13,025 feet. The first ascent of the Eiger was made on August 11, 1858. The north face of the Eiger (in German it is called Nordwand) was not climbed until 1938. It is one of the three great north faces of the Alps, rising 5,900 ft above the valley of Grindlewald. Since 1935, at least sixty-four climbers have died attempting to scale the north face, thus earning it the German nickname, Mordwand, or “death wall”. It is the ultimate test of skill and endurance. Swiss alpinist Ueli Steck, on February 13th, 2008, broke his own record, by soloing the north face in 2 hours, 47 minutes and 33 seconds. Beginning the weekend of April 16th-18th, the defending NBA World Champion Los Angeles Lakers will embark on what some may characterize as a similar daunting mission. They will begin (along with 15 other teams) the arduous climb to reach the top of the league’s ‘mountain’ and claim the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship trophy and the rings that go with it. To reach the summit, a team must win 16 games and navigate past four opponents, some far more challenging than others. Only one team will survive and be successful.

From Silver Screen and Roll: With only 12 games remaining, the Los Angeles Lakers have definitely hit the home stretch of their regular season schedule.  Traditionally, the Lakers under Phil Jackson (those with championship aspirations at least) have closed the season with a flourish.  For example, the championship teams of Shaq and Kobe ended the season with records of 14-3 (99-00), 8-0 (00-01), and 8-3 (01-02).  Last year’s squad finished 7-1. But the record is just a by-product. What really goes on at the end of each regular season is a conscientious increase in effort level on the part of the team. The Lakers may not care about the regular season en masse, but they do care about the final 10 games or so, if only because a strong performance through those 10 games can help a team to peak throughout the playoffs.

From the Los Angeles Times: Less than a month from now, the playoffs will start and the Lakers will brace themselves to try to defend their NBA championship. But the road they must travel to a repeat will be difficult. That was a topic Lakers owner Jerry Buss and Coach Phil Jackson discussed Monday while the team picture was taken at the practice facility in El Segundo. Buss and Jackson recalled the challenge the Lakers faced when they were trying to win their third consecutive NBA championship in 2002. “We just talked about the time we went through the three toughest teams in the West in Portland, San Antonio and Sacramento one year,” Jackson said. “Somehow or another, it makes your team really prepped for a championship round.” The Lakers swept a loaded Portland team, 3-0, in the first round of the ’02 Western Conference playoffs. They defeated the Spurs in five games in the second round and had to go seven games to dispatch the Kings in the conference finals, winning Game 7 in overtime in Sacramento.

From Land O’ Lakers: In Sunday night’s 99-92 win over Washington at Staples, the Lakers led by 26 at halftime and so dominated play against a travesty of a mockery of a sham of an NBA team I was left wondering if the final 24 minutes were really necessary. Yes, apparently, they were, because the Lakers played with only passing interest in the third quarter, and none in the fourth as the Wizards outscored them 32-17 and cut the lead to eight with two minutes to play. The Lakers were never really going to lose, but as a disgusted Phil Jackson noted after the game, they cost themselves a chance to get starters much needed rest and bench players much needed burn. Though enormously frustrating to fans and deadline conscious sportswriters alike, this sort of thing has gone on most of the year. While the Lakers haven’t actually dropped many games to the sub.500 set they’ve consistently played down to the level of their competition. The players talk about the need to find consistency, play with urgency, put together four quarters of good basketball, and round into form before the playoffs. We do the same. Did they use their five game tuneup against some of the league’s worst teams effectively? Will they be able to build momentum on the upcoming five game roadie?

From ESPN.com’s Daily Dime: The reflex in Lakerland, where they’ve seen and done it all before, is to react to Andrew Bynum’s latest injury and eventual return by calling it a rerun. “We almost had the same kind of situation” last year, Phil Jackson said, alluding to the knee injury that sidelined Bynum from January until just before the start of the playoffs. The difference is that this time Bynum has been a more vital part of the Lakers than he has in the past. And there’s always a chance that this could be a replay of 2008, when Bynum was injured, projected to return for the playoffs and never did. While the Lakers have given a two-week estimate for Bynum to come back from a strained left Achilles tendon, Jackson admitted Sunday night that “we really have nothing definitive about it.” They only know that the tendon didn’t rupture. “We don’t know how this therapy’s going to come out,” Jackson said. And they don’t know what his conditioning level will be after an injury that restricts his initial workouts to jogging in a pool. From there it could take some time to get back to NBA basketball game speed. There are 3½ weeks and 11 games left in the Lakers’ regular season.

From Kurt over at NBC.com: Phil Jackson — he of the generally stoic reaction to questions — was genuinely relieved when he talked about it. So was Andrew Bynum. So was every Laker. This weekend they learned Bynum likely will be out for two weeks with a strained left Achilles tendon. The injury came just running up the court Friday night, then the tests came back over the weekend saying it was nothing too serious, he just needs a couple weeks off. Only in this case is losing your starting center for two weeks greeted with relief. With Bynum’s long history of serious injuries — not to mention slow recovery times — an injury to the Lakers center just a month before the start of the playoffs was a serious cause for concern. He missed 32 games last year and was not the same guy in the playoffs, he missed 46 the year before and never suited up in the post season. Just missing him for two weeks is not ideal, but it is far better than the worst-case scenario.

Finally, Pau Gasol was named Western Conference Player of the Week. There was a post at Interbasket.net explaining how popular Kobe (along with Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur) is in Turkey. And Lakers Edge has a nice write up on 50 years of Lakers memories featuring some of our favorite moments, including a picture of Eddie Jones (my favorite Laker ever) laying in an easy deuce over Hakeem Olajuwon.