Archives For January 2011

Wearing a Lakers’ jersey invites scrutiny. The team has produced many great players, but none have been immune to being second guessed at some point in their careers. Ask Kobe the “ballhog”. Or Magic after he “choked away” the ’84 Finals. Kareem and Shaq also received their fair share of blame for Lakers defeats during their tenure with the team. It’s just how it goes.

Today, it’s Pau Gasol’s turn.

To be clear, no one can diminish the impact that Gasol has had in turning the Lakers from playoff team to to championship contender. Before his acquisition (as Bynum took a leap in his development), the Lakers were making strides in becoming a challenger to be reckoned with, but his arrival advanced the team’s cause instantaneously. Three championship round appearances and back to back titles speak for themselves and no one can argue the vital role he played in the Lakers achieving those heights.

However, with the Lakers not playing to the level that many fans and pundits would have predicted and Gasol now in his 4th season (if you coun’t 2008 as his 1st) in a Lakers jersey, the questions and outright doubt surrounding him seem as prevalent as they were following the 2008 Finals that showed him not quite ready for championship level basketball. Fans just seem quicker to jump on him and less willing to trust.

So I ask, is that fair?

Looking strictly at Pau’s numbers, you’d be hard pressed to see any real decline in his play. His scoring, rebounding, assists, and steals are all at the levels that he’s provided during his time in L.A. His blocks have nearly doubled since the 2009 season. The only drop you see is in FG% – in the past three seasons he’s gone from 57% to 54% to 52% this year – but that can be (at least) somewhat be explained by the fact that he’s playing more PF and is shooting more jumpshots than in year’s past.

However, when digging deeper and looking closer I think we can all agree that those numbers don’t really tell the entire story. This year, we’ve seen a less consistent Gasol. In December, Pau had nearly as many games where he scored 10 or less points (3) as he did 20 or more (4). In January, if you raise that standard to the number of games he’s scored 13 or less points (6) and compare it to games of 20 or more points (8) you see a similar trend. And while his rebounding numbers have not fluctuated as much, the point still stands: I’m having trouble recalling a time during Pau’s stint as Laker where there’s been as much wonder surrounding what he’ll produce on a given night.

Gasol’s most recent 5 game stretch is a perfect example of this. Against the Mavs, Nuggets, and Jazz here are Pau’s numbers (points/rebounds): 23/5, 19/13, 20/7. However, in the two most recent contests versus the Kings and Celtics, Gasol gave the Lakers 9/11 and 12/7.

In looking at Lakers’ losses, you see a similar trend. In those 15 games that the Lakers trailed at the final buzzer, Gasol has had 13 or less points in 7 of them. Against the top 4 teams (Dallas, Miami, San Antonio, Boston) he’s scored 23, 17, 9, and 12 points respectively. Obviously losing those games involved so many more identifiable issues besides Pau’s play but I point out his numbers just to again show the up and down nature of his play this year.

Look, I’m not here to bash Pau. I know that he’s quickly becoming a whipping boy of sorts for the Lakers’ issues but I don’t think he should be a scapegoat by any means. There’s too much going on with the rest of the team to try and pin all blame to a #16 Lakers jersey.

That said, I think it’s fair to say that the Lakers will need Pau at his peak level of play if they’re to advance as far as they’d hope when the playoffs start. As recently as the beginning of this season Gasol was being touted as the league’s most skilled big man. We haven’t heard that as much lately, and likely for good reason.

But in the end, shouldn’t we trust that he’ll be there when we need him? I mean, in the past two playoff runs he’s been the best big man on the court when facing off against the likes of Nene, Boozer, KG, and Dwight Howard. He’s raised his play to levels that many wondered he could and conjured performances that keyed victories in every playoff round including the Finals. He’s proven tough enough physically and mentally. He surely has earned some benefit of the doubt, has he not? Maybe I’m alone here, but when the going gets tough I think he’ll be ready to give his best. Maybe I’ll be wrong (and with his up and down play, that’s a distinct possibility) but I’m going to give him the chance to prove it.

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: A month after the Miami Heat brought a snowstorm to Staples Center on Christmas Day by blowing through the Lakers, the Boston Celtics tagged them with another confidence-quaking home loss. Out for revenge for their 2010 NBA Finals loss, the Celtics dominated the second half for a 109-96 victory over the Lakers. Boston had 24 more assists, 13 more rebounds and a lot more team-wide intensity. “It’s definitely an emotional game, especially since losing Game 7 here,” said Boston’s Paul Pierce, who scored a team-high 32 points on 11-of-18 shooting.

From Jeff Miller, OC Register: The Lakers are way too cool, accomplished and — let’s put this as kindly as possible — old to push the panic button. So, fellow members of the media, please stop asking Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, Phil Jackson and their collected 23 NBA titles if it’s time for them to start freaking out. These guys are more likely to admit to being pregnant than worried. They aren’t just unflappable; they are physically incapable of being flapped at all. After being bullied again in their own home Sunday, this time by Boston, a team that could eventually end their season, the Lakers sighed and shrugged and Fisher took the composed stance a step farther, to the edge of the absurd. “Somebody has to define for me,” he said, “what concern means.”

From Mark Medina, LA Times: Nearly seven months have passed since the confetti dropped in Staples Center, the Lakers collected their 16th championship and the Boston Celtics walked away dejected for having fallen short. At no point in their 109-96 loss to Boston on Sunday did the Lakers display the characteristics of the 2010 championship team that overcame a double-digit Game 7 deficit, won as a team and stood at center court bearing smiles and fighting back tears while holding the Larry O’Brien trophy. Instead, the Lakers (33-15) on Sunday appeared disorganized offensively and overwhelmed defensively, and afterward had the same stoic reaction they’ve offered after other disappointing performances. “It’s not the playoffs yet, we’re still playing regular-season games,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said, explaining why he’s not concerned the Lakers have consistently lost games against marquee opponents, including splits against Denver and Utah and disappointing losses against Miami, Dallas, San Antonio and Boston. “You know, we’ll get there in time.”

From Vincent Bonsingore, LA Daily News: The message written on a greaseboard inside the Lakers locker room Sunday was short and to the point. But boy, what a story it told. It read, simply: Boston 59-42. Those numbers represent the second half scoring breakdown from the Celtics’ 109-96 win over the Lakers at Staples Center, and it doesn’t take a basketball genius to understand you aren’t going to win many games when you get outscored by 17 points over the final two quarters. But the figures have a much deeper meaning then just a second-half collapse in a Sunday afternoon loss in late January. It signifies as changing of the guard atop the NBA – whether temporary or permanent – the depths the Lakers have fallen since ripping the Celtics’ hearts out in last year’s NBA Finals and either an end or a new beginning to their quest for a third consecutive championship.

From ESPN Stats and Analysis via Land O’ Lakers: After the 109-96 loss to the Celtics, Phil Jackson was asked if Ron Artest, who scored just three points on one-for-10 shooting while struggling to check Paul Pierce, “got lost” on the way to Staples Center. “No, he was on time,” Phil replied. “(But) he got lost on the court.” Artest did, however, manage to locate the bench during the second half. He played fewer than six minutes over that duration, none of them in the final quarter. explained Jackson, “They started off with Pierce, what did he get, nine points right off the bat. Three three-pointers. (AK’s note: Only six points, but in less than three minutes.) And Ron took a couple shots that I thought were perhaps not in the context of what we were trying to do, so I thought maybe it would go in another direction, but it didn’t seem to work.”

From Dexter Fishmore, Silver Screen and Roll: My reaction to this game is a bit paradoxical. What’s troubling me most isn’t everything that went wrong – although that’s troubling me plenty – but everything that went right. Against the Celtics at Staples this afternoon, the Lakers forced a load of Boston turnovers, went to the free-throw line early and often, shot well on threes and got a masterly performance from Kobe Bryant. It should’ve been enough. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t close to being enough. The Celtics played splendidly, shooting the lights out from the second quarter on and taking away every non-Kobe offensive option the Lakers threw in their direction. Quickly erasing a seven-point deficit in the third quarter, the Celts blasted the champs in the second half and won going away, 109 to 96. The Lakers have lost four of their last seven and continued their season-long trend of coming up small in their biggest games.

From Hayes Davenport, Celtics Hub: So now we’ve had a few hours to let this sweet, sweet victory simmer. During this time, various outlets of sports punditry have come to some conclusions re: Kobe’s role in the loss. Now, like most things about Kobe, the dialogue surrounding the relationship between his production and his team’s results drives me a little bonkerballs. Today’s debate is no exception. Here’s a brief summary of the media reaction to today’s game: “Kobe singlehandedly took his team out of the game with his shooting! He made so many shots his teammates temporarily lost interest in playing basketball! You could see the disgust and resentment in their eyes as they watched Kobe selfishly make shot after shot, with no regard for whether or not someone else might like to make a shot sometime! Bottom line: if Kobe hadn’t made so many shots, the Lakers might have won this game!”

Team brilliance will always trump individual brilliance. The Lakers learned that lesson (again) when they fell to the Celtics 109-96.

Really the key to this game was the fact that down the stretch the Celtics pounded away with their deliberate offensive sets and smothering D while the Lakers’ offense stagnated into a Kobe-centric attack while their defense completely abandoned them. And while Kobe was tremendous and did his best by knocking down increasingly more difficult shots in the 2nd half, his 41 points just weren’t enough to keep the team in the game.

And mostly that brings us back to the fact that the Lakers defense was not up to standard. In the 2nd half the Lakers were outscored 59-42 as the C’s were able to get too many good looks by simply executing their sets and riding the hot hand of Paul Pierce (who we’ll get to in a second). On countless possessions the C’s got the ball into the spots that they wanted by using their screen actions and by going into the post to KG. This led to the Lakers losing their defensive integrity as they consistently over-helped and ball watched to the point that other C’s were able to get open shots against scrambling defenders. One play that repeatedly hurt the team was the baseline screen action to free shooters that could either run strong side off a double screen or to the weak side off a single screen to receive the pass. Ray Allen and Nate Robinson consistently got free on this set as Kobe, Shannon, and Blake kept trying to go top side on the screen only to get beat on the fade to the corner where the shooter would get up his attempt without a good contest. At one point early in the 4th quarter the Celtics ran this set on back to back plays, with both three point shots falling and the lead subsequently being extended from 3 to 9 in the blink of an eye.

But the real key to the C’s offensive attack and the Lakers’ defensive breakdowns was the fact that Paul Pierce just refused to be guarded effectively all game. Ron Artest was completely outclassed by Pierce, who got quality shot after quality shot all night against him. It wasn’t so much that Ron wasn’t contesting Pierce’s shot, it was the fact that he surrendered position so easily and allowed Pierce to get to his favorite spots on the floor. Pierce brilliantly worked the shallow wing and the elbow area all game and found relatively easy 12-15 foot jumpers as his reward for beating defenders off the dribble. And when Pierce wasn’t working in isolation, he was floating around the perimeter, using screens and losing defenders to get up uncontested three pointers. On the day, Pierce scored 32 points on only 18 shots and did an excellent job of carrying the C’s offense when they needed a boost and then deferring to others when his mates finally found their groove.

But while I give full credit to the Celtics for taking this game (especially in the 2nd half), I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the Lakers didn’t aid their cause with their lack of assertiveness. Outside of Kobe, you’d be hard pressed to find more than one or two Lakers that played well or brought the requisite aggressiveness for more than short stretches. Lamar Odom had a good first half and ended the game with good numbers (15 points, 5 rebounds) but receded from the action for a lot of the 2nd half when the C’s pulled away. Bynum seemed to be hampered by a sore knee (it looked like the left rather than the braced up right) and didn’t have the explosion or the want to contest shots around the rim that he’s shown in recent weeks. I mentioned that Ron didn’t do a very good job on Pierce, but he also struggled mightily on offense, shooting 1-10 from the floor for 3 points. And Pau Gasol simply had an awful all around game, only making 5 of his 13 FGA’s and grabbing more offensive rebounds (4) than defensive ones (3).

You’ll notice, that I listed every Laker big man as a player that had below average impact on the game and that led to the Lakers getting out-rebounded 43-30 and them doing a poor job of controlling both the offensive and defensive paint.

I know it will be easy to look at this game and think it was 2008 all over again, but actually this game reminded me more of game 5 of last year’s Finals (here is the boxscore – see the similarities?). If you recall, in that game, Kobe went off for 38 points but the Lakers ultimately lost as their offensive and defensive execution failed them down the stretch. This game mirrored that one to these eyes because as the Lakers as a team struggled to put together complete possessions, the game then became one in which the Lakers became overly dependent on Kobe doing too much on both sides of the ball to try and pull out the win.

In the end, frustration is sure to be at a high after a game like this. They led the game after 24 minutes and several times in the 2nd half the Lakers were well within striking distance and couldn’t get over the hump because their execution failed them. They allowed the C’s to push them off their spots while granting them the courtesy not doing the same in return. Considering those facts, this game should have been a loss. But when actually watching the game there were so many times that one rebound or one or one defensive stop could have made it so the outcome was different. And in a way, that’s encouraging for me rather than discouraging because, as we’ve mentioned a lot around these parts, building towards the playoffs is a process. This team is not there yet (obviously) but as Phil Jackson said after the game I think they’ll get there.

Records: Lakers 33-14 (2nd in West), Celtics 35-11 (1st in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 112.6 (1st in NBA), Celtics 108 (12th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.7 (9th in NBA), Celtics 100.1 (2nd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Celtics: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes (out); Celtics: Jermaine O’Neal (out)

The Lakers Coming in: Just when you start to think that maybe the Lakers have finally moved past their extended first half of the season malaise, they produce yet another confounding dud against the Kings last night. As Darius wrote in his preview yesterday, the game represented a typical trap game before tomorrow’s matinee showdown with the Celtics — and the Lakers fell for it, hook line and sinker. The loss itself wasn’t alarming considering the team’s shoddy defense from the outset; what has to make you question the Lakers’ current mindset, though, is the fact that this veteran team spoke candidly before playing Sacramento about how they refused to look ahead to Boston…then were guilty of doing exactly that. Luckily, that’s what magnified regular season games like tomorrow’s are for — to test their collective championship mettle with only two and a half months left until the playoffs begin. I fully expect that the loss to the Kings has long been forgotten already and for the Lakers to come out with a playoff mindset that’s been lacking for most of this season.

The Celtics Coming in: The Celtics, who have been ravaged by injuries to their front line throughout the first half of the season, received great news this week when injured center Kendrick Perkins — out for seven months after injuring his knee against the Lakers in last year’s Finals — was given the go-ahead to return to the court. With Shaq ailing of late and Jermaine O’Neal out indefinitely, the timing of Perkins’ return couldn’t be better for the player who Doc Rivers believes would have been the difference in Game 7 last year. He should also dramatically help the C’s on the glass, too, where they are currently worst in the league with only 38 boards a night. Even with Kendrick’s return, the Celtics were perhaps also guilty of looking ahead to tomorrow’s matchup, suffering their worst loss of the season, 88-71 against Phoenix. Still, at 35-11 and with a comfortable three game lead in the loss column over Miami and Chicago back East, this healthier Boston squad appears primed to officially begin their march to another NBA Finals.

Celtics Blogs: Celtics Hub always does a great job documenting the boys from Bean Town.

Keys to game:

Ah. And so we meet again. By now, every party involved knows the story between these two teams. The ending has shifted over the past few years, but the essential pieces remain the same.

Both the Lakers and Celtics can put the ball in the hoop, but as we all witnessed last June, the verdict between these rivals is almost always determined by defense and rebounding. Unlike last year’s Finals, the keys to both teams’ defenses are finally back and healthy. Andrew Bynum was limited throughout that series, but has made a sizable difference to the Lakers’ D since returning from injury this season. The same can be said for Kevin Garnett and as I mentioned above, Perkins, too. The presence of Shaq, almost specifically brought in to combat the Lakers’ front line, has the potential to change things a little, but we already know Bynum isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with the Big Fella. Pau Gasol — so clutch against these same C’s in Game 7 — seems to really elevate his level of play against Boston, especially on the defensive end, where his underrated defense against KG was a difference-maker in last year’s Finals. Kendrick’s return will no doubt help the Celtics on the boards, but one of the Lakers’ most valuable strengths in their recent title runs — and for tomorrow’s game — has been their ability to flat out rebound the ball.

The Celtics’ backcourt has run amok on the Lakers basically since the 2007-08 season. The plot line is usually similar: Rajon Rondo dominates extended stretches of games and Ray Allen seemingly gets wide open shot after wide open shot. Despite his improbable poor shooting in Game 7, how many point blank shots did he have in that game? Enough to make most fans crawl into the fetal position on more than one occasion. Though Kobe has had many adversaries over the years (Raja Bell, Bruce Bowen, Ron Artest, etc.), personally, I’ve always enjoyed his head-to-head battles against Allen. At least with Kobe, you know you have a player who has consistently displayed the requisite skills needed to slow down a guard of Ray’s caliber. If only finding a solution for Rondo — averaging a jaw-dropping 13 dimes a night — were so easy. I give all the credit in the world to Derek Fisher for his clutch play against Boston in Games 3 and 7 of the Finals. That said, he has not once proven himself capable of deterring Rondo from controlling the tempo of the game during the past three seasons against the Celtics. As a result, the Lakers team defense becomes even more important against a disciplined team like Boston. The key here, as always for L.A. (or anyone facing the C’s for that matter), is to try to disrupt Rajon’s flow by enticing him to shoot the ball. The game of percentages is simple here; who would you rather have shooting that eighteen-footer — Rondo or Allen/Pierce/KG?

Major characters aside, how many times have we seen the Nate Robinson’s, Ron Artest’s, Glen Davis’ and Lamar Odom’s single-handedly alter the outcome of games between the Lakers and Celtics? Looking ahead to tomorrow’s matchup, Odom stands out to me as a player who could make a huge difference against Boston’s slower front line. With Shaq, Perkins and Davis already with their hands full with Bynum and Gasol, who is left to try and stop Lamar? While I whole-heartedly believe that both L.A. and Boston’s rosters are the most complete, evenly matched in the NBA, the Celtics don’t really have an athletic wing defender who has the length and speed to match up against the Lakers’ versatile assassin. From a defensive standpoint, I think that the Celtics’ inability to stop Odom is almost tantamount to the Lakers’ glaring weakness at point guard. As we saw during Game 7, it was Lamar who quietly triggered L.A.’s comeback from 13 down in the third quarter by using his long arms and dribble penetration to repeatedly get inside the lane or grab a pivotal offensive rebound.

Over the past four years, both the Lakers and Celtics have proven themselves capable of beating the other on the road. You want to believe that STAPLES Center will come to life and give the Lakers an edge as it did in last year’s Finals, but I’m not really sure that it even matters much at this point. These two battle-tested teams know each other intimately by now. It’s an unquestionably an important game for both teams; for the Lakers — who haven’t beaten a true title contender yet this season — and for the Celtics, who are finally almost whole again for the first time this year. Win or lose, tomorrow’s game already seems more like foreshadowing for a greater climax to come, though. But, if anything is going to jolt the comatose Lakers out of their extended 2010-11 nap, it’s a hard-nosed victory against that one-of-a-kind shade of green.

Also, be sure to check out the awesome fan-made promo vid at the top of the page to relive some of the greatest moments of the Lakers vs. Celtics rivalry, 2.0. I’ve got goosebumps; what about you?

Where you can watch: 12:30 p.m. start time on ABC. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710 AM.

From Andy Kamentzky, Land O’ Lakers Blog: The Lakers swore during Thursday’s practice nobody was looking ahead to Sunday’s showdown with the Celtics. After this debacle, I’m hoping it was the opposite. I’d like to believe everyone wasn’t just looking ahead, but actually played while picturing Celtic heads on the bodies of each King. In fact, I pray they all shared a group daydream where K.G. tried to punk Devin Ebanks over nothing in particular. At least that would explain getting outclassed by a bunch of schmoes. Otherwise, the loss is just embarrassing without even some unjustifiable form of justification offered. I’m not saying Sacto didn’t play hard and earn their keep. But man alive, did the Lakers play most of this game entirely disengaged. The boo birds were active for the first time in a while, and I wouldn’t say feathers were ruffled over nothing. Sacto is an awful road team — although really, they’re not very good in any setting — and should never nab a win on Laker soil. Throw in the fact Boston lost to Phoenix, and this was a wasted chance to gain ground in the race for home court advantage over as many teams as possible.

From C.A. Clark, Silver Screen & Roll: No, tonight’s game has no real bearing in the argument that I found myself ensconced in earlier today, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention both the poor “clutch” performance of Kobe Bryant, and of the Lakers as a whole in tonight’s game. Kobe was 2-8 in the final 5 minutes of the game, and he shot worse the clutchier the situation got, going 0-4 with the score within 5 points. The irony is not lost on me, nor is it lost that three of those shots were desperation 3 point heaves in the final 20 seconds. Regardless, it’s an alarming trend we’ve seen throughout the season. Whereas in years past, the Lakers’ win column was filled with too-close games pulled out in the 4th quarter, we’ve been treated to a steady dose of come-from-behind fail this season. What that indicates won’t be determined until May. The popularly plotted course requires that I come before you and moan about the Lakers’ lack of effort. After all, the Lakers are infallible and any loss they happen to pick up is automatically a result of their lack of effort. Well guess what, I’m not buying it tonight. Call it a fluke, call it the miracle on Figueroa Street, but I think the Kings were simply the better team, for one night only. Were the Lakers looking ahead to Boston? Of course. Did they do a good job of getting back in transition, or moving their feet at all? Nope. Did they play a stupid brand of basketball replete with turnovers and poor offensive flow? Sure. And did they get killed on the boards? Absolutely. But I saw plenty of effort out there. Kobe wanted this game. Lamar Odom did, too. Pretty much anybody not named Pau Gasol gave it a good try out there tonight, and the Lakers still lost. That means just as little as it would if effort were the main reason behind the loss.

From Dave McMenamin, Land O’ Lakers: The loss was quickly framed in terms of the classic one step backwards, two steps forward mentality. “I think that sometimes [a bad loss] serves a purpose in itself, not damage,” Jackson said. “[It makes] guys get back, get back to their game, their aggressiveness and the nature that we’re trying to play the game.” It is a smart tactic to try and stop the bleeding instead of letting a loss linger, especially with a battle with Boston right around the corner. “It should intensify our focus against a team that we were supposed to beat at home, for sure,” Gasol said. “It’s a tough one to take but hopefully it will make us stronger and it will be useful for the next game.”

From Mike Bresnahan, LA Times: The story, though, was the Lakers’ surprising lack of defense, particularly down low. Andrew Bynum stood up and took the blame. “We didn’t even come out and defend the way we should have, myself in particular,” he said. “In the first half, I kind of disrespected Cousins and he got off to a blazing start. You can’t do that in the NBA. Can’t take a night off defensively.” Bryant had 26 points at halftime, but Cousins had 22 as the Kings led, 59-55. Dalembert came into the night averaging five points a game but made eight of 12 shots. “Their big guys came out and really took it [to] our guys, and carried the day for their team,” Jackson said. The Lakers appeared to have momentum after Odom spun baseline and dropped the ball off to Gasol for a dunk, bringing them within 93-89 with 3:18 to play. But they short-circuited on their next four possessions, Gasol making one of two free-throw attempts, Gasol having the ball stripped on a shot down low, Brown missing a three-point attempt and Bryant missing one too.

From Mark Medina, LA Times Lakers Blog: It’s not so much important to what degree Olajuwon influenced Bryant. It’s that it’s part of an ongoing effort in continuously finding new wrinkles to help him remain an offensive force. That’s revealed in the various ways Bryant has gotten on the scoreboard in the past six seasons. According to Synergy, most of Bryant’s offense during that stretch came in isolation plays, ranging from 29.4% to 38%. But this season, Bryant’s areas of scoring came in isolation (29.4%), post-ups (16.3%), pick-and-rolls (15.1%) and transition baskets (9.9%). Considering the jump from October, November, December and January in points per game (24, 27.2, 23.7, 23.7) and field-goal percentage (45.45%, 42.37%, 47.25%, 49.78), it also shows Bryant’s increased his level of efficiency. That’s why it’s not surprising that Bryant’s work with Olajuwon reflected both players’ appreciation for fine-tuning their craft.

From Dan Devine, Ball Don’t Lie: Odom’s wonderful play probably won’t be recognized with an All-Star berth, which is understandable due to the insane collection of frontline talent out west. But it’s also a shame, because he’s exactly the type of player that can make freewheeling contests like the All-Star Game more fun. When he’s got it going, as Kelly wrote earlier this week, Odom “might be the most aesthetically pleasing basketball player” in the league to watch. And like a liquid that takes the shape of whatever container you pour it in, he can slide seamlessly into just about any role the game would call for — including, as he showed during Friday night’s surprising 100-95 home loss to the Sacramento Kings, a crowd-pleasing playmaker capable of delivering pinpoint, whirling dervish, no-look feeds over his shoulder to streaking teammates like Pau Gasol(notes). Getting to see Odom display his remarkable fluidity and fantastic collection of talents by playing off of and setting up the likes of Kevin Durant(notes) or Blake Griffin(notes) would be a hoop purist’s dream. More likely, though, Lamar will once again wind up just outside the spotlight, his prodigious talents falling just shy of bursting into full view.

Coming into this contest I thought there was a great chance that this could be a trap game. With the Celtics coming into to town on Sunday, I thought it’d be very easy for the Lakers to only go through the motions versus the Kings, simply relying on talent in the hope that outclassing the woeful division opponent would be fairly routine. Well, let’s just say that I’m very disappointed to have been right as the Lakers fell 100-95, surrendering their momentum from strong wins in the past week and spoiling a night where Kobe passed Hakeem Olajuwon to become the 8th leading scorer in league history.

This game was lost on two levels.

First was on the defensive end. Rather than put the clamps on the Kings in the manner that they did the Thunder and Nuggets in their two previous wins, the Lakers decided to only play on one side of the ball. They continuously gave up open shots to the Kings and paid for it with made shot after made shot by the visiting team.

DeMarcus Cousins led the way, showing off his tremendous range as he consistently hit his 18-20 foot jumper as the Lakers tempted him to take that shot. After finding his rhythm from distance, he then took the ball inside and used a combination of power and touch to get off decent looks that even when decently defended (which was sporadic at best) he was able to knock down. The promising young big man finished the night with 27 points on 19 shots and collected 10 rebounds against the Lakers big men as no one seemed to have an answer for his versatile offensive attack.

But the poor defense wasn’t limited to the big men. The Lakers’ wing defenders didn’t do that great a job either as they consistently gave up dribble penetration, got beat on cuts when caught ball watching, and also gave up too many uncontested jumpers when they were forced to help in the paint due to their other mishaps. Quite the trifecta.

Really, the Lakers just weren’t hustling on that side of the ball. It showed in their rotations, it showed in their reactions to passes, and it showed on their defensive glass where they gave up 15 offensive rebounds.

The second area where the Lakers lost this game was in the performance of their big men. Typically a strength for the Lakers, tonight the combo of Pau, Bynum, and Odom couldn’t seem to gain any traction. Bynum had a solid game with 12 points (on 4 of 8 shooting), but only grabbed 4 rebounds in 27 minutes and was bodied all night by Cousins whenever he tried to exert himself in the offensive paint. As for Pau and Odom, they shot 4-11 (9 points) and 0-7 (4 points) respectively. And while they combined for 19 rebounds, they weren’t a presence in the paint on either side of the ball and played with little force against the Kings front line. Watching Gasol get outdone by Samuel Dalembert (18 points, 5 rebounds) was especially frustrating considering how much time they spent guarding each other in the 2nd and 3rd quarters (where Pau allowed Sammy to get to his spots so easily that it inspired a confidence that led to him taking fadeaway 15 footers and me calling him Hakeem Dalembert on twitter).

As for the other Lakers, Kobe had a good statistical game (38 points on 27 shots, 7 assists, 4 rebounds, 3 steals) and did his best to try and keep the Lakers afloat. He really did play a complete game and was playing so well (and was the only consistent spark for the team) that Phil played him the entire 2nd half in the hope that he could carry the team home. Shannon Brown also played well as he poured in 17 points on 11 shots and hit a number of big jumpers in the 2nd half in helping the Lakers cut the large deficits they faced in the final 24 minutes. But, just like Kobe, Shannon didn’t have enough down the stretch and the team ultimately fell short.

In the end, this game was just extremely disappointing. The Lakers, knowing what needed to be done to win the game, barely tried early and dug themselves too big a hole to climb out of late. I’m not sure if they’ll ever learn the lesson of playing harder for long enough for them to seize games against lesser teams but watching them go through the motions tonight was especially frustrating. Credit the Kings for making shots, stepping up, and seizing the game in the 2nd half, but I can’t help but point out that so much of tonight’s result was based off the Lakers playing a sloppy complacent game for most of the contest. When the Lakers finally decided to turn up the defensive pressure in the final frame, they outscored the Kings 24-15. It’s not a stretch to think that 4th quarter could have been reproduced in earlier portions of the game with the ultimate result being different. Instead the Lakers coasted and they got burned for it. Hopefully, Sunday will bring a different temperament and a victory.

Records: Lakers 33-13 (2nd in West), Kings 10-33 (14th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 112.7 (1st in NBA), Kings 102.5 (26th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.5 (8th in NBA), Kings 108.0 (16th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Kings: Tyreke Evans, Beno Udrih, Omri Casspi, Jason Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes (out); Kings: Francisco Garcia (out)

The internet is on FIRE: Look around the web today at all your favorite basketball sites. TrueHoop started it all with the post we linked to this morning. Since that time, Zach Lowe at the Point Forward has weighed in. So has Kelly Dwyer. So has Kurt over at Pro Basketball Talk. So, is he or isn’t he (the king of clutch, that is)?

For me, there’s just all sorts of gray here and muddling through it all is more than I’m going to put down on this page right now. The short version is that Kobe has made too many great shots for me to ever discount his ability to perform with the game on the line. Those makes, to a certain extent, have shaped my perception of what he’s capable of doing and have me believe in him. The fact that he’s missed a lot of shots concerns me too, of course. I’m especially not fond of forced shots taken in situations where it’s seemed that a better look could have been obtained. So, it’s a balancing act with Kobe and in the end so much of how any one person feels will fall to perspective and what you value and what your rooting interests are.

And, in the end, my rooting interests lie with the Lakers. I want them to win. and that brings me to my final point: As a Lakers fan I take the good along with the bad when it comes to rooting for this team and for Kobe. I do it happily. Team results matter the most to me and look where this organization is right now and what it’s achieved over the span of his career. Five total championships, defending back to back champions and a contender for more. Sure, there have been bad moments. Plenty of times that I’ve questioned the shot that was taken and the situation it was taken in. There’ve also been plenty of times that I’ve literally jumped out of my chair cheering at the result a game, a shot, an assist, a rebound. I don’t expect this to sway anyone in any direction and it isn’t even an argument to propel or dispel the myths of how Kobe performs in the clutch. It’s only to say that he’s a guy that’s been able to get it done enough times that I trust him and I feel incredibly lucky that he wears the jersey of the team that I root for. (Now back to the game preview since, you know, there’s actually a game tonight.)

The  Kings Coming in: The Capital Kids have lost 5 of 6 and 8 of their last 10. In what was supposed to be a building block year, the Kings have at best been stagnant and at worst taken a few steps backwards. The young talent is in place, but continued strife between coaches and players and the lack of trust in the systems run mean that this team isn’t on the same page. Earlier in the year it was issues with DeMarcus Cousins and head coach Paul Westphal and now it’s Carl Landry that is speaking out in a way that doesn’t paint the head coach in a flattering light. And while those comments by Landry have since been explained in more detail, the question still remains if this team is on the right trajectory considering the young talent on the roster. At 10-33 on the year, I’m not sure you’ll find many that would think that’s the case.

Kings Blogs: As you can see from the links above, both Cowbell Kingdom and Sactown Royalty are tremendous sites that give fantastic insight and perspective on the Kings. You should visit both to learn up on this team.

Keys to game: Beyond all the X’s and O’s, the biggest ingredient to a Laker victory will  be focusing on the task at hand and on the team that’s actually on the floor. As we all know, the Celtics visit Staples on Sunday and it will be quite easy to look ahead to that game rather than completely hunkering down for the Kings. If the Lakers do that, though, they’ll be in for a dog fight.

So, the Lakers must look at their game plan and execute it fully in order to pull out the win.

Offensively that means going inside to Bynum and Gasol in order to make the Kings big men defend. Assuming the Kings starters are what I’ve listed above, Gasol will have a major size advantage over Jason Thompson and he should get plenty of touches to exploit it. As for Bynum vs. Cousins I’m very excited to see how this match up plays out considering the choice words that Cousins had about Bynum’s contributions to the Lakers most recent title run. Granted, those comments were made some time ago but this is the first time that the two will have faced off in game action.

Besides going inside to the bigs, though, the Lakers will also have an interior advantage with Kobe and Ron. In the past, the Kings have preferred to let Casspi (whose length and quickness can disrupt Kobe’s perimeter game) guard Kobe with a lesser defender taking on Artest. However, with Ron’s improved offensive play of late, we’ll see if that’s still the case. Either way, both Kobe and Ron should be able to earn post up position against any defender they match up against and we’ll likely see a variety of duck ins and curls from both players to get them shots in the paint.

Defensively the Kings end up running a lot of isolation even though their sets are predicated off ball and player movement. Evans and Cousins are often the guys with the ball in their hands in these iso sets so the Lakers must be aware of what both players want to do. Do not be surprised to see Ron guard Evans for long stretches and use his size and length to bother his handle and disrupt his driving angles. The Lakers want to keep ‘Reke out of the paint so expect to see some shading by Ron where he invites the jumper while forcing all drives to the baseline into helping bigs.

As for Cousins, he’s a gifted offensive player and the range on his jumper may invite coverage from Gasol rather than Bynum. In the last match up between these two teams, Pau did a pretty good job of limiting Cousins’ effectiveness (he shot 3-9 for 9 points) by contesting his jumper and then using his length to bother his shots in traditional post up situations. And while I’m sure that ‘Drew will get his chance to guard Cousins as well, it may make more sense to cross match here and allow Bynum to patrol the paint by laying off Thompson.

The other key to slowing the Kings D will be containing the P&R. Beno Udrih has long been a player that performs well against the Lakers and his ability to get into the paint on P&R’s has consistently been an issue when these teams play. However with the Kings struggling to connect on their outside shots and Bynum now protecting the paint as well as I’ve ever seen, here’s hoping that those driving lanes get cut off as help arrives quickly.

In the end, this is a game the Lakers should win. They’re far superior in all phases of the game. However, as mentioned earlier, this contest screams trap game and the Lakers would do well to concentrate on the Kings and not look forward to the team in green that visits on Sunday. If the Lakers’ priorities are in check, we’ll be looking at wing #3 in a row heading into the weekend. Here’s to them getting it.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Fox Sports West. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710am.

(Below, Henry Abbott takes a look at the reality of Kobe’s clutch time greatness, or lack thereof.)

From Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Ask pundits. Ask general managers. Ask players. Ask almost anybody. Who would like to have take the last shot with the game on the line? Kobe Bryant wins by a country mile. Every time. (In a general manager poll this season, he earned 79% of the vote, his ninth consecutive blowout.) There is not really any other serious candidate. Ask me, though, (as Ryen Russillo did last week and Mike Trudell the other day) and I’ll tell you I don’t know who’s the best, but with all due respect to Bryant’s amazing abilities scoring the ball, there’s zero chance he’s the king of crunch time.

From J.A. Adande, TrueHoop: It’s hard to upstage Phil Jackson when it comes to talking. Jackson’s whimsical ruminations have a way of turning into national news. I’ve seen him top a 10-minute Gary Payton rant with a mere two words. That’s why it’s unusual that the takeaway from an evening with Jackson and current and former Laker players at Staples Center Thursday was the emcee’s repeated references to Brian Shaw as Jackson’s eventual replacement. Bill Macdonald, the pre- and postgame host for Laker broadcasts on FSN West, introduced Shaw as “the next coach of the Lakers” and made a point of asking Jackson and players Derek Fisher and Luke Walton about Shaw’s ability to take over for the most successful coach in NBA history.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: Having gone this route several times in his coaching career, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson understands the skepticism. He had mulled leaving the game multiple times during his storied coaching career, only to return rejuvenated and in most cases with another championship ring. An ugly divorce between Bulls management and Jackson led to his departure in 1998 after six championships. It was presumed the same fate would rest with the Lakers after his hasty departure following the 2004 season, capped most notably with his book, “The Last Season,” which exposed many inner conflicts within the organization. And Jackson appeared on the verge of leaving again after the 2010 title run, only to need a week’s  rest in Montana to find the lure of a fourth three-peat too tempting to pass up.

From Elliot Teaford, LA Daily News: At some point tonight, Kobe Bryant probably will swish a jump shot that will account for his 11th and 12th points against the Sacramento Kings, enabling him to tie Hakeem Olajuwon for eighth place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. It’s anyone’s guess how many points Bryant might score tonight against the lowly Kings. It might not be all that many because the Lakers might be way ahead and he might not play in the fourth quarter. But it’s a good bet Bryant will score at least 12 points and catch Olajuwon, who scored 26,946 during his Hall of Fame career. It’s also likely that Bryant will continue his climb, with an eye toward becoming the highest-scoring guard in league history. Michael Jordan is the only guard ahead of him, sitting in third with 32,292.

From Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: Thursday night, the NBA announced the starting lineups for February’s All-Star Game at Staples. Kobe Bryant was among those named. In other news, the sun rose in the east this morning, and taxes are due April 15th. Bryant led the balloting with 2,380,016 votes- his first win of the big popularity contest since 2006- almost 300K more than Orlando’s Dwight Howard. It’s the 13th straight season in which Kobe has been selected for the team. Only three players- Jerry West, Shaquille O’Neal, and Karl Malone- have played in 14 consecutive. Nobody has ever earned 15 in a row, but it’s pretty difficult to picture a scenario in which Kobe doesn’t get there. Even if he was hurt in the preseason and didn’t play a game, he’d likely be one of the two leading vote-getters among Western Conference guards. Not that I’m advocating he test the theory, but at this stage of his career voting for Bryant has become reflexive for much of the basketball public, particularly among international fans, and deservedly so.

From Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: Before the season, Sacramento was widely considered an up-and-coming team. Not one that would challenge for a playoff spot this season, but an intriguing group with young talent and a very good chance to improve on their 25-win 2009-10 campaign. Or, maybe they’d totally disintegrate as a team in the midst of serious questions about the future of basketball in our state capital. There’s always that option. And it’s the direction things have gone for Paul Westphal and Co. this year. They arrive for tonight’s game at Staples with only 10 wins in 43 games, tied with Minnesota for the second lowest total in the league and only two ahead of a Cleveland that has lost, at last count, 298 games in a row. To get a better feel for how and why things have gone so wrong for the Kings this season, we reached out to Zach Harper, host of Cowbell Kingdom (and ESPN’s raucous Daily Dime Live chats). He was willing to answer our questions regarding a team with few answers these days:

From Sekou Smith, Hang Time Blog: This is a direct message to the anti-Kobe Bryant crowd out there. Give it up! Give up the fight. And give it up for Kobe Bean Bryant. Seriously, stop hating on the man and surrender. There’s a good chance KB Bryant is going to leave this game with his face on the NBA’s version of Mt. Rushmore, alongside those idols from his childhood, specifically Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. You can’t win this argument. Despite all of your theories to the contrary and reasons for why he should not, could not and will not go down as one of the game’s top five all-time greats, it’s going to happen. There’s no stopping him now. He’s already got the championship rings (five of them, to be exact) and career longevity that has eluded so many other seekers of basketball’s holy grail (fame, fortune, rings and legendary status).

UPDATE: Lastly, LD2K gets us ready for the next round in the Lakers/Celtics rivalry coming up this Sunday. Enjoy.