Archives For March 2011

Calling this game wild doesn’t really do it justice.

Three Lakers and two Mavericks were ejected. Seven technicals were handed out to seven different players. The teams combined to shoot 62 FT’s. A first half of offensive fireworks turned into a defensive, foul heavy slug fest in the second half. And after it was all said and done the Lakers cruised past the Mavs 110-82 to win their 8th straight game and increase their lead over them to one and a half games in the race for the 2nd seed.

And while most will focus on how this game devolved into a shoving match with flagrant fouls and ejections, what I’ll remember is how the Lakers once again proved that the Mavs truly struggle to compete with them over the course of a full contest. Dallas may have been able to keep this game close early on by making their jump shots and changing up the pace of the game with their reserve guards, but the Lakers bigs were again too much for the Mavs front line to handle.

With Andrew Bynum scoring 18 points on only 9 shots and grabbing 13 rebounds and Pau Gasol pouring in 20 of his own on only 14 shots while chipping in 7 boards of his own, the Lakers starting big men controlled the interior and just wore Dallas down. Bynum especially dominated the paint by earning excellent position inside and punishing any Dallas defender that tried to guard him. On several possessions he simply buried a Maverick big right in front of the rim and executed a simple jump hook for the easy two. As for Gasol, he worked his mid-range game to perfection but also went into the post against Dirk and got off several good looks in the paint as well. And when the Laker bigs weren’t scoring on their own shots, they cleaned up for their mates by securing offensive rebounds cleanly or simply tipping balls back into the hoop after their teammates’ misses.

Despite fantastic performances from Pau and ‘Drew though, Lamar Odom may have been the big man that really made the difference. In a game that many were claiming could determine who wins the 6th man of the year award, Lamar came up big (again) by scoring 16 points on 10 shots, grabbing 11 rebounds, and dishing out 3 assists. When the game was still relatively close at the end of the third and into the fourth quarter, LO went on a personal 11-0 run to break the game open by knocking down three consecutive 3 pointers and then getting to the bucket for a lay up. That push put the Lakers up by 20 and that was essentially the game.

With Dallas down big, however their frustrations started to boil over. Only a couple possessions after LO’s lay in, Steve Blake penetrated on the left side of the floor, took a bump from Jason Terry, and then proceeded to get shoved to the ground by Terry after the whistle blew. Blake, never one to back down, promptly got up and went face to face with Terry to voice his displeasure. As the refs rushed in to break up them up, Matt Barnes came in and gave a strong push to Terry and all hell broke loose. Before you knew it Brendan Haywood was going after Matt Barnes, Barnes was being restrained from behind by a Dallas Coach (who he ended up pushing down when trying to escape his grasp), and Blake and Terry were still trying to get at each other. The whole thing was simply crazy and resulted with Blake, Barnes, Terry, and Haywood all getting tossed.

After order was finally restored to the game, the Mavs made a quick push, the Lakers recovered nicely and got the lead back to 19, and the benches came into the game. However, before all the Laker starters could come out of the contest there was one last incident. After securing an offensive rebound and going back up for a put back, Pau Gasol got hit in the head and knocked to the ground by Brian Cardinal. Shannon Brown then shoved Cardinal and then was promptly ejected for sticking up for his teammate. All in all that meant all three of the Killer B’s got ejected. (As an aside, Brian Cardinal was playing sort of like a hockey goon at this point. I watched him for several consecutive possessions and on each play he took some sort of cheap shot at a player. Whether it was a giving a little bit extra push on a screen or going out of his way to bump a guy when he cut through the lane, he was initiating contact as often as he could. At the time I noted on twitter that he was playing dirty and a couple of plays later he committed his 2nd foul on Pau that ended up getting Shannon ejected.)

In the end, there was so much more to this game that deserves mention that it’s kind of sad most of it will be overshadowed by the chippiness of the game and fact that Barnes may be facing further sanction from the league. I mean, Kobe had another good night scoring 28 points to go along with his 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and two steals. Ron Artest continued his offensive resurgence by hitting several key jumpers, including 2 of his 4 three point attempts, on his way to 13 points. Ron was also very good night moving the ball and in making plays for others, tallying a team high 6 assists while having 0 turnovers. As a team, the Lakers were excellent on both sides of the ball posting an offensive efficiency of 117.0 while committing only 7 turnovers (including zero in the fourth quarter. Their defense was just as great as they limited the Mavs to only 12 fourth quarter points, only 31 in the 2nd half, while posting a defensive efficiency of 87.2. Dallas only shot 36% from the field and no one outside of Dirk had a meaningful affect on the game.

Simply a dominant performance that has the Lakers in prime position to continue their run, playing what’s easily their best ball of the year. At this point, I think it’s fair to say that there isn’t a team playing better ball right now than the Lakers. And considering we’re only 8 games away from the end of the regular season, I’d say that’s pretty good timing.

Records: Lakers 53-20 (2nd in West), Mavericks 53-21 (3rd in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.8 (2nd in NBA), Mavericks 110.0 (8th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.6 (7th in NBA), Mavericks 105.2 (10th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Mavericks: Jason Kidd, Rodrigue Beaubois, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler
Injuries: Lakers: Devin Ebanks & Theo Ratliff (out); Mavericks: Caron Butler & Dominique Jones (out), Corey Brewer (questionable)

The Lakers Coming in: What else can really be said at this point? The Lakers are rolling, they’re succeeding with defense, and with each passing game they seem to be inching closer to the level they’d like to be at for another post season run.

Sure, there’s a chance they catch the Spurs for the #1 seed in the West and there’s still a chance that they could pass the Bulls for the #2 seed for the playoffs overall. That said, I stick with what I’ve been saying for some time: it’s more important that the Lakers be playing their best ball than play in a specific arena. Said another way, the Lakers play what I like to call a mobile game. They’re not a shooting team that is boosted by playing on their home court. They don’t rely on a set of streaky players that need to be at home to consistently play their best. The Lakers’ size, Kobe, and a playoff tested roster can win anywhere when playing at their top guear and venue isn’t the biggest priority. Still though, I’d be lying if I said I’d rather them play a game 7 on the road rather than at home. So, I won’t be turning away wins or a shot at the number 1 seed.

As for the bottom of the playoff draw, I’ve never been a proponent of seeking out a specifc foe and thus advocating a loss in order to draw a specific path for advancement. First of all, the standings at the bottom of the West are too tight to accurately predict and second of all I want the momentum to continue progressing. A loss for the sake of facing a specific opponent may seem logical, but I’d rather the team win as many games as possible and let the chips fall where they may. For all the talk of the Lakers wanting to avoid a specific team, I think it’s more logical to look at this from the perspective of potential opponents. I mean, who really wants to play the Lakers right now?

The Mavericks Coming in: Because we’ve been focused on how well the Lakers have been playing, you may not have noticed that the Mavs have reeled off 5 straight wins of their own. Granted the competition wasn’t that tough but at this point in the year a win against any opponent is key as the race for seeding has taken on extra importance. With those wins, the Mavs have been able to stay only a half game behind the Lakers with only one more loss than our guys. Simply put, they’re not going away and they continue to play strong ball.

And as it’s been all year they’re carried by a veteran crew that just knows how to win games. Dirk is again an MVP candidate that puts up numbers extrememly efficiently. Kidd and Terry provide steady play that only picks up with the game on the line. Marion and Chandler are working well in the paint as rebounders and scorers when the D’s attention is too perimeter focused. And they offer a variety of role players (Cardinal, Beaubois, Peja, Haywood, Barea) that each bring a different dimension to capitalize on the weaknesses of any given opponent. This is just a well constructed team that should not be discounted.

Mavericks Blogs: Check out The Two Man Game for consitently excellent analysis. Also visit Mavs Moneyball as they also do a great job covering this team.

Keys to game: It was only 2 weeks ago that these teams played last. In that game, the Lakers bigs (especially Andrew Bynum) proved to be the difference as the Lakers edged the Mavs by 5 points and pulled even with the Mavs in the win column. Since that game, the Lakers have passed the Mavs to take sole control of the West’s 2nd seed but if they want to keep it that way (the Lakers are up by only a half a game with the same number of wins and only one fewer loss) they’ll need a similar effort from their bigs tonight.

And with that in mind, I’m going to go away from the individual matchups for once and try to zero in on a few themes that I think will really be key tonight. I mean, we all know the names at this point – Dirk, Kobe, Pau, Terry – and surely the individual match ups those players face and how efficiently they go about their business will matter. But what I’m really looking at tonight are the themes of a game. Those include:

An inside/out offense: Dallas has one reliable interior defender in Tyson Chandler. If he picks up fouls or can’t contain Andrew Bynum, this game will tilt heavily in the Lakers’ favor. The ball must go inside early and often to allow the Lakers to set up the tempo of the game and play to their strengths. Remember too that Chandler is quick to show help to his mates while then trying to recover to the glass to rebound. I’d love to see the Lakers attack the paint with players other than Bynum so that Drew can take advantage of a vacated Chandler to pick up extra possessions.

Rebounding: The Lakers must control their own defensive glass and finish defensive possessions by securing the ball. In the last game Dallas secured 15 offensive rebounds. Dallas is the 8th most efficient scoring team in the league and extra possessions only give Dirk, Terry, and the rest of their scorers another chance to hurt the Lakers. Shawn Marion’s activity was especially damaging as his 7 offensive rebounds were a game high. He needs to be boxed out and Ron/LO can’t be caught staring at other offensive threats when they need to be boxing out and attacking the glass.

Mid-range jumpshooting: You’d be hard pressed to find another team that shoots the mid-range jumper as well as the Mavs. Dirk and Terry are both excellent shooters and both can get their shots in a variety of ways – in isolation, off screens, and in P&R actions. The Lakers need to stick to their normal defensive scheme but be more active in contesting these shots than they are vs. other opponents. Bynum, Gasol, and Odom will need to play the P&R well by closing off the paint but still providing a contest of these shots of ball handlers turn the corner looking to shoot in rhythm. This game can turn if one of Dirk or Terry get hot, so the Lakers need to zero in on these guys.

Bench play: The big story going into this game will be the supposed battle between Terry and Odom as they’re the leading candidates for 6th man of the year. But it will be the play of Blake, Brown, and Barnes that I’m really focusing on. Barnes’ activity on D and on the glass could be especially troubling for the Mavs as they don’t have an active wing in his mold that can really stay with him in all aspects of the game. Barnes will likely find himself matched up with Peja a lot, so I’d love to see Matt hit the glass hard and run the lane in hopes of getting a couple of easy baskets in transition. As for Brown and Blake, their defense will be key when matching up with Terry. They can not leave him on screens and can’t be over eager to help teammates and abandon their responsibilities on JET. If history has proven anything, Jason Terry is a Laker killer and he needs to be accounted for at all times.

In the end, there may not be a more important regular season game down the stretch. It’s still very likely that the Lakers face this team in the playoffs and a win tonight can reiterate to the Mavs the challenge they’re up against. If the Lakers can effectively hit on three of the above keys, they have a good chance of winning.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm tip time on TNT. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.

From Joey Whelan, Hardwood ParoxysmYears from now we may look back on Lamar Odom as the tragic figure of the 2010-2011 NBA season, locked in a perpetual grey area of explanation. Defining the nature of the 31-year-old Laker veteran is akin to defining the role with which he is most often associated – 6th man. It’s a position that has evolved with time but still remains vague in characterization, existing only within the context of “player has come off the bench more times than he has started” nomenclature. Odom has reached a point in his ever changing career where his talent and production levels seemingly eclipse what we consider to be the boundaries of a so-called “role player” and in doing so has subsequently left himself suspended in basketball purgatory. The easy and immediate argument for those opposed to the awarding of 6th Man of the Year to a player of Odom’s status and ability is the simple fact that he is on pace to start more games than any previous recipient. He so closely toes the line for that hard cutoff of playing time that many are inclined to simply push him over the edge into full fledged starter. Yet, it is the fact that Odom, as a result of his timely and elite level of play, shatters our preconceptions of what a player off the bench can be. This – not the number of starts – is truly the decisive factor in the publics’ decisive opinion.

From Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: A Cardinal, an Archbishop, and an E! camera crew walk into a practice… Sounds like the setup for a joke — not necessarily one you’d hear outside the Catskills, though a joke nonetheless — but Wednesday in El Segundo it was reality for the Lakers. Among those inside the gym watching practice were Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose Gomez, and Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, Archbishop of Lima. (I suppose if any two people can be trusted not to reveal the game plan for Thursday’s test against the Mavs, it’s these guys.) Then, after the doors opened to the rest of us, the esteemed pairing was joined by a gaggle of production types filming Lamar Odom for his reality show.

From SoCalGal, Silver Screen and Roll: Lamar Odom has been called many things, including the most unselfish, most versatile, and most underrated player in the NBA. He’s been called the toughest matchup, the guy who makes the Lakers the hardest team to beat. Lakers fans love him, his teammates love him–he’s the emotional center of the team, sports writers love him, Jeff Van Gundy loves him, Khloe Kardashian loves him. What’s not to love? Lamar spent his early years as a Lakers player trying to be the second option to Kobe Bryant, a role he never really seemed comfortable with. In fact, to my eyes he didn’t seem to want to be “here”, meaning playing basketball. Don’t get me wrong, I think he loved the game, but the pressure was probably too much. He also seemed to be easily taken out of a game mentally, particularly when he got into foul trouble. You’d see his head drop and you knew it was over, even in the first quarter. Mind you, this is what I saw, but it may not be what was actually happening. At any rate, it was frustrating to watch, but I stuck by Lamar, hoping things would get better. Thank heavens the Lakers did too.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: Each time Lakers forward Ron Artest patrolled the sideline, an anxious George Lopez awaited him. The Lakers entered the first extra session in what became a 139-137 triple overtime victory last week against the Phoenix Suns, but Artest promised the game would end soon. He and Lopez wanted to immediately head to the Beacher’s Madhouse Theater at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood where they’d film a music video to their newly released single, “Go Loco.” But that had to wait, with each overtime fueling even more uncertainty they would pull it off. The second overtime prompted Artest to promise Lopez the game wouldn’t last longer. It did. Then the third overtime didn’t end until shortly after 11 p.m, meaning Artest’s two- to three-hour music-video shoot lasted until 7:30 a.m.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: The concept still becomes difficult for Lakers forward Lamar Odom to grasp. He remains in serious contention for winning the NBA’s Sixth Man award, yet he acknowledged he’d never envision being in the running for such an honor in the first place after the Clippers selected him as the No. 4 pick in the 1999 NBA Draft. Even when the Lakers acquired him in 2004 from Miami as part of the Shaquille O’Neal trade, Odom didn’t see this scenario happening. He was considered the Scottie Pippen type player to Kobe Bryant, but a failed playoff appearance that season and two first-round exits in 2006 and 2007 eventually spurred the Lakers to acquire Pau Gasol on Feb. 2008. That sent Odom to the bench, a permanent spot Coach Phil Jackson wanted him to embrace as the 2008-09 season opened.

From Mike Bresnahan, LA Times: The Lakers didn’t appeal to a higher power Wednesday, though Archbishop Jose Gomez was at their practice, as was Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani from Peru, taking in a scrimmage from folding courtside chairs. Gomez used to be a San Antonio Spurs supporter but switched allegiances after taking over leadership of the L.A. Archdiocese this month. “A lot of people were praying and telling me to switch from the Spurs to the Lakers. Prayers work. Now I’m a Lakers fan,” Gomez said. “I’m also praying for the Spurs, but a sign from God is that the Lakers are playing much better.”

Dictating On Defense

Darius Soriano —  March 30, 2011

Matt Scribbins provides insight and analysis throughout ESPN’s TrueHoop Network, including at HoopData and Magic Basketball. He graduated with distinction from Iowa State University last spring, where he was also a member of the Cyclone football team. In the fall, Matt is part of Football Outsiders’ Game Charting Project. You can also find him on twitter: @mattscribbins

Location, Location, Location

The switch has flipped. The swagger of the champion is back. The Lakers are 15-1 since the All-Star break, and poised for another journey to the ring. Some people think Kobe’s jutting of the jaw sparked the run. Others credit Gary Vitti for working miracles in the training room. I tend to think it’s the Lakers ability to play traffic cop.

Have you ever left a stadium with intentions of driving home, but the traffic cops forced you into a gridlock? You just wanted to make one right turn, but instead you were waved through and ended up in pure misery. Well, the defending champs are playing traffic cops on the hardwood since the All-Star break. The Lakers are routing frustrated opponents from high percentage shooting areas, and forcing them to jack up shots from BFE (beyond fifteen, every time).

This article will use the following designations: Zone 1 (within 2 feet of hoop), Zone 2 (3-9 feet), Zone 3 (10-15 feet), Zone 4 (16-23 feet), and Zone 5 (three point shots).

At the Rim

According to Hoop Data, 63.8% of shots in Zone 1 are successful, on average for all teams. Through fifty seven games, 28.24% of shots against the Lakers were attempted in this area. In the last sixteen games, Laker opponents are afforded 1.31% fewer shots per game at this distance. This may not look like a key transformation, but any reduction in the highest percentage shots is significant if the goal is to score points. Nearly a third of the Lakers last sixteen contests have been close (five points or less). In games decided by a bucket or two, it’s critical to get to the rack.

Opponents cannot be thrilled with a reduction in attempts, and compounding this problem is their shooting percentage near the cylinder. Before Staples Center hosted the All-Star Game, teams were making about 62% of their shots in Zone 1. Since February 22nd, the Lakers imposing front line has forced opponents to shoot a little worse within two feet of the rim. The Lakers field goal percentage allowed in Zone 1 since the break (60.9%) would be the best in the West if they played this way throughout the season.

Unfortunately for the rest of the NBA, shots at the rim are a highlight. Before the break, teams were making an above average percentage (39.3%) of shots in Zone 2 versus the Lakers. Phil Jackson and his staff must have placed an emphasis on defending this space during the stretch. Opponents’ shooting percentage has plummeted nearly 22% in Zone 2, falling to below 31%.

Laker opponents are actually making three point shots at higher rate than shots in Zone 2 since the All-Star break. This year, the Bulls defensive field goal percentage of 33.2% in Zone 2 is the best in the NBA, and it’s not even close. It is extremely impressive the Lakers have blown that mark out of the water since the middle of February. Los Angeles may not maintain this absurd rate through the playoffs, but the defensive commitment along their front line suggests they could keep it dang low.

Riding #17 to title #17

The man in the middle, Andrew Bynum, deserves much of the credit for the success inside. If opponents enter Mr. Bynum’s neighborhood, he greets them with a headache instead of a handshake.

No one will mistake Marcin Gortat for Hakeem Olajuwon, but the big man was a beast against Los Angeles recently. Gortat has averaged 4.5 shots per game at the rim this season with the Suns. When Andrew Bynum sat out the recent triple overtime game, Gortat attempted twelve shots in Zone 1, and he made 75% of them. (To the Triple Overtime Conspiracy Theorists – the vast majority of Gortat’s attempts were in regulation). Furthermore, the Suns, who average the third fewest Zone 1 attempts in the West, shot a whopping 36 times within two feet of the hoop. Clearly, Phoenix tried to take advantage of #17’s absence. In the team’s previous meeting, Bynum was in the lineup and Gortat only attempted five shots at the rim. As a team, the Suns attempted half as many shots in Zone 1 when Bynum played.

Want further proof of Bynum’s status as a Do Not Enter sign? During the pre-All-Star slump, the Lakers visited Amway Center on February 13th. In 39 minutes of action, MVP candidate Dwight Howard made 12 of his 13 shots within nine feet of the rim. By the final horn, the Magic had attempted 22 shots in Zone 1 and sent the Lakers into Valentine’s Day with heartburn.

Dwight Howard strolled into Staples Center and faced a vengeful Bynum one month later. This time, Howard only got off eight shots in Zones 1 and 2, and he actually played four more minutes than the previous matchup. More important, he only made four shots within nine feet. The Lakers won by 13 and Howard scored 16 fewer points in Zones 1 and 2. Fairness in conversation, Howard did make three shots from Zone 3. However, you don’t need the Zen Master’s acumen to realize it’s better for Los Angeles if Howard attempts jumpers instead of dunks.

We could provide examples all day, but this is the final one. On December 12th, the Nets hosted the Lakers for Part I of the Kardashian Bowl. This was Bynum’s last game on the bench before he made his season debut. The Nets attempted 36 shots in Zone 1, and another 16 from Zone 2. On January 14th, Bynum was in the lineup for round II. New Jersey attempted 25% fewer shots at the rim, and 20% fewer shots overall within nine feet.

Other factors may have played into the skewed shot distribution with Bynum in and out of the lineup, but the big man is definitely a driving factor in the discrepancies.  

New Approach

Earlier this year, Los Angeles redesigned their pick and roll defense, as described by Kevin Ding. The Lakers wanted Bynum to stay in the lane, instead of helping on guards near the key. Ding said “the concession is the Lakers will let opponents take mid-range jumpers from 15 to 19 feet.” This is an extremely favorable concession for Los Angeles, as long jumpers drop less frequently than shots at the rim.

NBA Playbook’s Sebastian Pruiti has great video examples of this change in philosophy. The best example is this one, when Atlanta’s Joe Johnson works off a screen, sees Bynum in the lane, and is forced to launch a low percentage jumper with Ron Artest in his face.

Pick Your Purple Poison

Would you rather get pummeled by 1986 Mike Tyson, or 1987 Mike Tyson? This is basically the decision opponents face when deciding where to shoot against the Lakers. With Bynum’s dominance inside, teams are actually electing to take on two of the best defenders in history, Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant.

The Lakers’ defensive goal since Christmas has been to force long jumpers, and now they are. Before the break, teams attempted 24% of their shots in Zone 4. During the 15-1 stretch, challengers have increased their percentage of long jumpers by about 7%. Historically, this is a horrible zone from which to shoot.

Since the break, Los Angeles has forced opponents to shoot more than 15 long jumpers (16-23 feet) in all but three games. In the games that teams shot fewer than 15 (@Miami, vs. Orlando, vs. Phoenix), the Lakers are 2-1, and one of the victories was the two point win versus Phoenix.

So, why are players still attempting shots from Zone 4 versus the Lakers?

One easy answer – the Lakers hold teams to a lower three point percentage than anybody else in the West. Since the break, the Lakers’ opponents have slightly increased their percentage of attempts beyond the arc. Even better news for Los Angeles is that teams are making 6.2% fewer of their shots in this zone.

With defensive stoppers all along the perimeter, it’s basically free money for Los Angeles if teams launch it from beyond the arc. Factor in Matt Barnes return to the lineup, and this facet of the defense is a sure bet to wreak havoc in the playoffs.

Final Horn

The Lakers improvement on defense makes them the favorites to win the NBA Finals, again. It is important to note the champs haven’t made their money beating up poor shooting teams during this run. Using effective field goal percentage as a barometer, they have faced five of the top six shooting teams in the NBA (Dallas, San Antonio, Phoenix, Orlando, and Miami) since the break.

It won’t be surprising if Kobe grabs his sixth title this summer, and Phil takes home his twelfth. What is surprising is they will lean so heavily on a kid to do so. Andrew Bynum, who is younger than Minnesota rookie Wes Johnson, is anchoring the Lakers defense in their quest for three-peat.

The dominance Bynum has shown recently makes the trade talks around the All-Star break comical. Obviously, adjustments would have been made, but it’s hard to believe the Lakers would be surging on the defensive end if Bynum was playing home games in Denver.

Critics, and players, can continue to take shots at Bynum and the Lakers all they want. Just remember – the shots won’t come from close, and the long range attempts will be off the mark.

-Matt Scribbins

From C.A. Clark, Silver Screen and Roll: The Los Angeles Lakers are, without a doubt, the hottest team in the NBA.  With 15 wins in 16 games since the All-Star Break, against the toughest portion of their schedule no less, the Lakers seem to have confirmed suspicions that their early season struggles were a bit of a mirage.  That veteran leadership and championship pedigree didn’t just disappear. The method to their hotness has been a vastly improved defense; the Lakers were giving up 105.7 points per 100 possessions before All-Star Weekend, and have allowed just 98.2 points per 100 after.  When the terms championship pedigree, veteran leadership and vastly improved defense are combined to form a team that seems to be peaking at just the right time, there is but one inevitable conclusion.  Obviously, the Lakers have flipped the switch.  They are trying now, focused, locked in.  It’s a nice, easy answer that explains exactly how the Lakers can go from looking like a decaying empire to looking like a dominant juggernaut.  But the easy answer is the lazy answer.

From Dexter Fishmore, SBNation: Through most of the 2009-10 NBA season, a schism divided Laker fans into opposing camps. On one side were those who endorsed management’s offseason decision to part ways with Trevor Ariza, a hero of the 2009 championship push, and sign Ron Artest to take over the small-forward position. On the other were those who thought Ron too old, flakey and shot-happy and who regarded Ariza as a better fit. This debate came to an end with a minute left in Game Seven of the NBA Finals last June. That’s when Artest hit the biggest shot of his career, a three-ball that extended the Lakers’ lead over the Celtics to six points and propelled the champs to their second straight title. It’s not fair to Ron, Trevor or the front office that a move be judged based on whether a single shot goes down, but when the Lakers and Celtics play a Game Seven, rationality hits the open road. Fair or not, Ron’s clutch basket forever validated the Lakers’ decision to sign him.

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: Leave it to Tex Winter, who while on the Lakers’ staff was one of Andrew Bynum’s harshest critics, to have the explanation for why Bynum has turned his career and this entire Lakers season around. Winter espoused a theory that has always stuck with Phil Jackson’s longtime mental-health consultant, George Mumford, during their years together building up all those Bulls’ and Lakers’ brains to win all those NBA championships. According to “The Readiness Principle,” as Mumford calls Winter’s idea: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. The patient wisdom in that statement did not keep the passionate Winter from ranting and raving about what young Bynum wouldn’t learn early in his Lakers career, but ask either Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, and they’ll tell you how much they appreciated Winter’s ranting and raving in a world of gushing and groveling around them.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: The Lakers would rather avoid engaging in this exercise, knowing that winning games will quell any uncertainty about their standing in the Western Conference. But with the Lakers (53-20) trailing the San Antonio Spurs (57-17) by 3 1/2 games for first place in the conference and holding a one-game lead over the Dallas Mavericks (52-21) for second place with nine games remaining, it sure is tempting to see what needs to happen for everything to fall into place. That’s why the intrigue surrounding Thursday’s game against Dallas remains pretty obvious. Not only would a win give the Lakers a needed cushion against the Mavericks, it could close the gap against the Spurs if San Antonio can’t end a four-game losing streak Thursday against Boston. “Whatever is going to happen is going to happen,” Lakers forward Pau Gasol said. “The thing we have to keep in mind is continue to play well and continue to win. If that means we catch them and pass them, great. If it doesn’t, we move on.”

From Mark Medina, LA Times: The question left some players squirming, politely declining to answer no matter if I quoted them publicly or protected their thoughts in anonymity. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson immediately expressed his disinterest in the topic saying, “We’ve talked about this before and I’ve said no. I’m not going to talk about that.” And then some players immediately shifted from cliches to honest assessments when I told them their names wouldn’t be attached to the answer. We’re not really dealing with state secrets here, but it may as well be in the world of sports. I simply wondered which potential first-round opponent would the Lakers consider most dangerous. Of course, some refused to participate, mentioning how the they’re more worried about how the rest of the regular season shapes up than worrying about who they face in the first round of the playoffs. But Laker fans surely do.

From Sean Sweeney, DIME Magazine: We’ve heard it before from Kobe Bryant: Shannon Brown does things that I could never do. He repeated it again last night after Brown decided to nearly jump through the backboard, switching hands in mid-air effortlessly. We just wish Aaron Gray would’ve jumped. Also, catch Kobe’s reaction after the jump.