Archives For March 2011

In the game preview, I mentioned that if the Lakers had a chance to throw a knockout punch, they had better make sure it landed. With about 4:40 left to go in the third, Kobe hit a three-pointer to put the Lakers up by 21. After an awful defensive first half, it looked as if the Lakers had corrected all of their defensive problems as the Suns had only scored eight point up until that point. With a 21-point lead late in the third, all the Lakers needed to do was keep the defensive intensity up for another four and a half minutes and they’d find themselves up big going into the fourth, with the starters getting rest for much of the final period. But instead of the starters getting a break, the game was extended 15 minutes longer than the normal 48, ending with a Lakers two-point overtime win.

As mentioned, things were sloppy on the defensive end early. Steve Nash performed beautifully in the first quarter, finishing the first 12 minutes with seven assists. As soon as Marcin Gortat came in for Robin Lopez, the Suns pick and roll game was elevated to a level that was seemingly impossible for the Lakers to stop. If Nash wasn’t feeding Gortat on the hard roll, he was taking it to the basket himself. If he wasn’t getting to the rim, he was kicking it out to willing jump shooters. Nash’s penetration continually collapsed the defense, and when the ball was kicked out, all Suns on the floor became willing passers, taking advantage of the Lakers slow rotations and finding the open man for easy baskets.

Offensively, the Lakers were a bit out of character, shooting way too many threes (as was the case around this time of the year last season), and taking unnecessary shots early in the shot clock. The Suns went to a zone when the reserves came in, and the three point shooting just increased. The Lakers didn’t have a problem moving the ball against the zone, but instead of attacking a shifting zone off of ball reversals, they continued to launch threes, leading to long rebounds and great Steve Nash passes. When the starters returned in the second quarter, the offense began to look like the triangle we’re used to seeing. Kobe and Pau were able to slow things down and work for better shots. By the end of the second quarter, Kobe began to take things over either scoring, or assisting on, all Lakers points in the final three minutes of the half, helping the Lakers go into the half up six.

Fast forward to the last moments of regulation. With a little over a minutes left, Kobe sunk a deep jump shot, putting the Lakers up by six (remember, they led by 21 in the third), which seemed to be the haymaker to put the game on ice. Instead, the Lakers miss a defensive assignment and leave Channing Frye wide open for a three pointer to cut the lead in half. The Lakers turn the ball over on a shot clock violation on the ensuing possession, giving the Suns an opportunity to send the game to overtime. Vince Carter missed a mid range jumper, but the Lakers allowed Grant Hill to grab the offensive rebound. He kicked out to Vince Carter who looked for the shot, but kicked over to Hill, who had ran to the corner and knocked down the game tying three-pointer. Overtime. The first of three.

At the end of the first overtime period, the Lakers were up again in a position to win, but another Suns offensive rebound led to Channing Frye getting fouled, beyond the three point line by Lamar Odom, with about a second left to play. Frye knocked down all three free throws and send the game into the second overtime. Toward the end of the second OT, Kobe found himself trapped way behind the basket, and threw a fantastic pass to Pau, who was fouled down by two with just a couple of seconds left on the clock. Pau knocked down both freebies and sent the game into a third overtime. The third overtime was brutal to watch. All of the guys on the floor were exhausted. There were at least seven missed shots around the rim combined from both teams, but in the end it was the Lakers who would come up with the big plays. First, Kobe hit a three pointer over Jared Dudley, which seemed to spark a little life back into the team. Then Ron Artest finished off a Laker fast break with a beautiful left-handed jam over Channing Frye. Finally, Artest hit a leaning 15-footer to put the Lakers up five. Channing Frye would hit another three pointer, but the Lakers would prevail in a thrilling triple over time win.

Despite Lamar Odom’s foolish foul at the end of the first overtime, he played a fantastic game finishing with 29 points, 16 rebounds, five assists and a block. He continued to make huge play after huge play throughout the course of the game and was easily the most consistent Laker on the floor tonight. Kobe finished one assist shy of a triple double and recorded 42 points, his first 40-point game since the Lakers loss to the Celtics at the end of January. Also, Matt Barnes had his most effective game since returning from the injury. He finished with 13 points and five rebounds, but as always, his contributions came in the form that aren’t found in the box score. While he was on the floor, the offense seem to move better with his constant slashing and cutting and he was on the ball, or very close to it in all 50/50 situations.

All-in-all, this was a good win for the Lakers. They survived the Bynum suspension with two wins — two tough wins that they had to gut out in the final minutes. Thankfully, they don’t play again until Friday against the Clippers.

Records: Lakers 50-20 (2nd in West), Suns 35-33 (10th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.5 (2nd in NBA), Suns 109.5 (9th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.4 (7th in NBA), Suns 109.8 (22nd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Suns: Steve Nash, Vince Carter, Grant Hill, Channing Frye, Robin Lopez
Injuries: Lakers: Devin Ebanks & Theo Ratliff (out); Suns: Gani Lawal (out)

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers are coming off of a tough win that they had to gut out late in the fourth quarter against the Portland Trailblazers, one of their most impressive wins since the All-Star Break. It’s been widely reported that one of the Lakers biggest reasons for their post-break improvement was their new found commitment to defense — a commitment that began with Andrew Bynum. With ‘Drew out of the Portland game, many wondered if the Lakers ability to funnel opposing offenses to the middle of the court, forcing mid-range jumpers and contested looks around the rim would be as affective with out Bynum’s big body in the middle. Even without ‘Drew, the Lakers were able to hold the Blazers to 80 points, the ninth time since the break that they’ve been able to hold their opponent under 90 points.

Tonight, the Lakers will go into the game winners of four straight and 12 of their last 13 games. More importantly, they come into tonight’s game one game ahead of Dallas for the #2 seed out West and only a half game behind both Chicago and Boston for the #2 overall record in the NBA. While their recent success indicates that they’re playing the best, or at least close to it, basketball in the league right now, things aren’t exactly perfect. Kobe is still a bit hampered by his ankle, and if this Dave McMenamin report is accurate, we still may not know to what extent his ankle is bothering him. In the story, a team source told McMenamin that not only was Kobe’s knee drained that during the Oklahoma City first round playoff series, “but twice more — between the second round against Utah and the conference finals against Phoenix and again between Games 4 and 5 of the Finals.” This is just another thing we might want to keep an eye on as the end of the regular season rapidly approaches.

The Suns Coming in: The Suns haven’t been bad recently, but they definitely haven’t been good either, going .500 in their last 12 games. They’ve had some guys miss a couple games due to injury (notably Steve Nash and Channing Frye) and had Aaron Brooks sit out their game against the Clippers because of a suspension. Things have been rocky, to say the least, in Phoenix, a team fighting desperately for that eighth spot in the Western Conference. They come into tonight’s game, winners to two straight, but lost four straight before the two wins, a definite hit to their shot at the playoffs. Currently, the Suns are sitting in the 10th seed, just two and a half games behind Memphis, but have a tough five-game road stretch toward the end of the season, so every game for this team matters from here on out.

Suns Blogs: Valley of the Suns is a site worth your time if you want excellent thoughts on this team. Also check out Bright Side of the Sun.

Keys to game: I recently went back and watched Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals, a game that featured Allen Iverson leading the 76ers to a win over the Lakers, scoring 48 points in the Lakers only loss of the post season. The Lakers didn’t lose that game because the 76ers were a better team, we know this because the Lakers went on to win the next four games. We know this because they faced a team that already knew that they were on their backs before the series even started. The amount of fight in the 76ers, for one game, was enough to put the Lakers on their heels and steal away the Lakers perfect post season. The Lakers were up big early in the first quarter, but didn’t deliver the seemingly imminent knockout punch. Instead, they allowed a team with more fight to stick around and ended up losing the game.

Tonight, the Lakers will be going up against a team in a much tougher fight than the Lakers are. The Lakers, with the Pacific Division already wrapped up, already know that they’ve made it to the postseason, they’re just playing for seeding. The Suns know, if that with every loss, the reality of them not even making the playoffs is a little bit closer to being realized. No, this isn’t exactly the same situation as that Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals, if not only because the stakes aren’t even as close to being as high. But you do get the sense that, if the Lakers let this team hang around, they could lose this game, and more importantly, lose some ground on the Mavericks, Celtics and Bulls. With that being said, if the Lakers get the opportunity to put this Suns team out of its misery early, they absolutely need to. And of course, it all boils down to how they play on the defensive end.

The Lakers got a recent taste of a little of what the Suns may be doing tonight when they played the Orlando Magic. In that game, Stan Van Gundy opted to start Ryan Anderson to move Pau out of the paint. When Pau didn’t come out far enough, Anderson knocked down threes, when Pau did close out, the ball went in to Dwight Howard for an ISO on the block against Bynum. The Suns won’t have the same kind of post presence with Robin Lopez on the low blocks, but Channing Frye is the kind of forward that can extend the defense and make teams pay if left open. One of the positives of not having Bynum for tonight’s match up is that the versatile Lamar Odom will likely be assigned the role of covering Frye out on the wing, leaving Pau comfortably on the defensive block.

Other than Frye, the Suns have four more guys shooting at least 37 percent from behind the arch, and one more (Vince Carter) shooting 34 percent. Running guys off of the three point line will be key, as it always is, against the Suns. In their last meeting, a 99-95 Lakers win, they didn’t do a great job of running guys off of the three-point line as six different Suns hit at least one three, and three of them hit multiple threes. The Suns shot 47 percent from behind the arch while shooting only 42 percent from all two-point shots from three feet and beyond. Simple math suggests that the Lakers need to force the Suns to take more shots from two point range, not only because the Suns shot better from three, but in the occasion that they did score from inside the arch, they received one fewer point. Funneling the likes of Steve Nash and Aaron Brooks toward the middle is never easy, as they frequently tend to get where they want when they want, but the defense cannot get sucked into watching these guys put on a show and get caught sleeping while guarding shooters. If the Lakers bear down defensively, the offense will come naturally. This is a team that tends to make shots when they’re in a good defensive flow.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Fox Sports West. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710am. Update: You can also view this game nationally on TNT.

From Devin Kharpertian, Nets Are Scorching: For the past three or four years, the Kobe-LeBron debate has been at the forefront of NBA discussions as players, coaches, experts, fans and media members have all shared their opinions on which player they thought was better. James has owned Bryant in their head-to-head regular season match-ups, whereas the Black Mamba has won the proverbial games that matter, helping the Los Angeles Lakers earn the last two NBA titles. These players have never once competed against each other in the playoffs and yet will be linked with one another for the rest of their careers. Tupac Shakur’s Hit ‘Em Up will always be mentioned with Biggie’s Who Shot Ya, much like Jay-Z’s Takeover will always be in the same conversation as Nas’s Ether. We might just have a new addition to the list that involves how we perceive and remember LeBron James and Kobe Bryant: The Decision

From C.A. Clark, Silver Screen and Roll: Every once in a while, the circumstances and events of life require us all to take a good hard look in the mirror and analyze an aspect of our being that isn’t necessarily what we want it to be.  Sometimes, if we’re honest, we don’t particularly like what we see.  This is one of those times.  Ladies and gentlemen, fine patrons of Silver Screen and Roll, we need to be honest with ourselves about something … Andrew Bynum has a bit of a mean streak. Drew doesn’t exactly qualify to be a head of state in the Axis of Evil or anything, but our young big man has a growing list of incidents in which his participation was neither innocent nor benign.  Friday’s flagrant foul on Michael Beasley was the latest, and most egregiously blatant, incident, but we’ve seen similar plays out of Bynum in the past.

From C.A. Clark, SBNation: Last week, GQ released a list of the worst fans in sports.  Clocking in at No. 15 were the fans of the Los Angeles Lakers, the only NBA team to make the list.  Whereas all the other teams listed achieved their villainy through a combination of rowdiness and excessive vitriol, Lakers fans are apparently guilty of the exact opposite: they aren’t devoted enough to the cause. GQ calls the Lakers’ fanbase the fairest of fair weather fans, citing two separate instances (after the retirement of Magic Johnson, and again after the trade of Shaquille O’Neal) in which Laker Nation suddenly shrank, only to grow again a few years later once the Lakers managed to rebuild.  Also referenced was the environment of your average Lakers game, in which a fair number of the “fans” close to the court are more interested in their phones and the people sitting courtside than in the game itself.

From Janis Carr, OC Register: By now, the Lakers (and fans) are used to Derek Fisher’s late-game heroics, whether it be a key pass or game-winning shot with mere seconds remaining. Maybe they are too used to it. Kobe Bryant said Fisher has been playing like that since the two of them entered the league in 1996 and he has come to rely on the 36-year-old guard’s sense of order down the stretch. Bryant said he realized how much he leans on Fisher during those three seasons when Fisher played elsewhere. So you missed him? “What, instead of throwing it to Smush (Parker)? Yeah. I would shoot with three (men) on me. Now I shoot with one or two (players guarding him),” Bryant said after Monday’s practice.

From Broderick Turner, LA Times: The Lakers really can’t fully quantify the value of Lamar Odom. His coach, Phil Jackson, said Odom has been “invaluable” to the team. When Odom was a free agent, Jackson urged the organization to re-sign him. The Lakers and Odom agreed to a four-year, $33-million deal in July 2009. Otherwise, the Lakers might not be back-to-back champions and be talking seriously about winning a third straight NBA championship, Jackson said. “We made a decision as an organization two years ago to sign Lamar, which put us in a difficult [salary] cap situation,” Jackson said. “Yet we’re convinced that without him, we wouldn’t win a championship again. That was a good decision by the organization.”

From Mark Medina, LA Times: Displaying the same aggressiveness he uses when fighting through double teams and grabbing rebounds, Lakers center Andrew Bynum rushed past the assembled media Monday after the Lakers’ practice. That left everyone else on the team to explain how Bynum’s handled his two-game suspension for getting a flagrant foul, type 2, after throwing Minnesota forward Michael Beasley with his right forearm. The assessment sounded fairly mixed. “He was frustrated,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said.

With the post season rapidly approaching, we’re nearing the point where the regular season awards will be voted on. Over a series of posts, I’ll make my argument for a specific Laker to win an award or be included on one of the All-NBA or Defensive teams. Today, my take on why Lamar Odom should win the Sixth Man of the Year award.

I understand that with any regular season award there are several viable candidates.  And in terms of the Sixth Man of the Year award, this year is no different. Jason Terry, Jamal Crawford, George Hill, Shawn Marion, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, and Ty Lawson all having very good seasons and helping their respective teams win games. They’re relied upon to be the first (or second) man off their teams’ benches and expected to produce in tangible and intangible ways to help their squads. I think any team would be lucky to employ the above list of players, they’d surely have a better team for it.

That said, Lamar Odom should win the Sixth Man of the Year award.

I won’t delve into the numbers here because others have already done that very well, making convincing cases for LO. Check out this post for a clear look at how Odom compares to some of the above listed players. Or this one to see how some of the top candidates perform in different parts of the game. Heady cases both of those articles are, and worth your time.

Instead, I’m here to talk about Odom’s role on the Lakers and how, even beyond the tangible numbers, he’s been key to the Lakers success.

As I’ve mentioned several times over the past few years, Odom’s versatility allows the Lakers to play multiple styles without sacrificing talent. On offense, Odom is an initiator of the Lakers sets and allows the other versatile pieces on the roster to spread their wings and work different parts of the court to be most effective.

This is most evident in how, with Odom bringing the ball up the court and facilitating the offense, Kobe Bryant can move out of the two guard front of the Triangle and into his sweet spots of the elbow and weak side low block where he can take advantage of his mid-range and excellent low post games. As has been proven countless times over the years, when Kobe is isolated at the elbow or the low block, defenses are put in the difficult position of having to choose between single covering him or coming with a double team. What rarely gets mentioned however, is how the Lakers are able to put a guard into these positions on the floor without sacrificing floor balance or spacing. The key is Odom, as his versatility allows Kobe to move off the ball and into positions where he can focus solely on working over a compromised D.

But Odom’s ability as an offensive initiator isn’t his only valued skill in the Triangle. He’s also a tremendous finisher with an innate understanding of spacing, timing, and how to work off other offensive threats to make himself available as a finisher. How many times have we seen Odom perfectly time a cut off the ball, receive a pass from Kobe or Pau, and finish inside? How many times have we seen him use a screen to curl into the lane and get an easy dish that he converts for an easy deuce? Or how about the times that he’s working sideline P&R’s with Gasol and he either swoops into the paint for a lay in or dishes last second to Pau or another teammate for an easy finish? The fact is that Odom’s ability as a finisher perfectly complements his teammates and he’s able to consistently do damage both with or without the ball in his hands. The fact that the Lakers don’t have to run plays for Odom but still reap the rewards of him as a finisher is one of the most underrated part of his success.

Defensively, though, is where I think Odom really makes an unheralded impact. The fact is that most times, when looking at this award voters only focus on one end of the floor. However, when looking at Odom, that’d be doing him and his contributions a major disservice. Odom is very good at defending the P&R and is one of the few big men who more than holds his own when needing to switch onto ball handlers on the perimeter. Beyond outright switching out onto wing players, though, he’s also excellent at showing help and then recovering back to his own man, or rotating to a teammate’s man to keep the integrity of the Lakers’ schemes. This year he’s also been much better at stepping in and taking charges beyond being a threat to block shots from the weakside (or even on the ball). When you throw in his top 15 rebounding numbers, you have a player who’s impacting the game a great deal on defense with few metrics actually available to measure it.

Lastly, there are arguments to be made about other players being a “closer” for their team. I know that Jason Terry is an elite scoring option in 4th quarters for the Mavs and is often a player that hits big shots for his team down the stretch of close games. However, Odom too is a closer for the Lakers. Many times, it’s he – not Bynum – that is in at the end of games as his versatility on both sides of the ball is valued by Phil Jackson. Just last Friday against the Timberwolves, it was Odom who hit a three-pointer that pushed a three-point lead to six with only two and a half minutes remaining. He then again hit a big jumper with a little over a minute to go to make a five-point lead seven. This type of late game production has happened a lot this season, but with Kobe, Gasol, and even Fisher all on this team there isn’t a lot of room for recognition of late game heroics.

In the end, Odom has the numbers but he also has had a tremendous impact on the Lakers beyond those numbers. His versatility makes it so he can be a highlighted player or one who contributes in the background. He helps slot players into different roles where they can excel, all while molding his game to fit the teammates he’s playing next to. In essense, he’s been the ultimate Sixth Man and he deserves this award.

From Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: Defense. Take away the first half problems securing the glass, and the Lakers did a nice job against the Blazers. Portland was limited to 38.6 percent shooting on the night, in three of the four quarters failed to score more than 20 points, and only notched only 32 in the second half. Once Nicolas Batum, who went off for 19 points on eight-for-10 shooting in the first half, cooled off, Portland didn’t have any viable options. LaMarcus Aldridge, playing as well as any big in the league over the last few months, had 18 points on 17 shots, as the Lakers limited him to only three trips to the line. Andre Miller, Brandon Roy, and Rudy Fernandez were a combined nine-for-36.

From Dexter Fishmore, Silver Screen and Roll: There’s no question but that Andrew Bynum has been the prime mover behind the Lakers’ defensive surge since the All-Star break. Earlier today, however, league schoolmarms advised him that, as sanction for his Friday night war-crimes against Michael Beasley, his services would be neither required nor permitted in the Lakers’ next two games. This left Drew’s teammates to face the Portland Trail Blazers tonight with a Bynum-sized hole in their defense and left us to wonder whether this was the moment the Lakers’ month-long roll would get knocked off course. Happily, it was not that moment. A second-half defensive clampdown catalyzed a late comeback that ended with an 84 to 80 Laker victory, their 12th in 13 dates since All-Star Weekend.

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: It is customary for Phil Jackson to give his players time to themselves on the bench while he stands out on the court alone with his clipboard early in timeouts. He’ll then approach the bench before play resumes and face his players, showing them what he has doodled on a board under the names of who will be staying in or entering the game. This time, Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher were on their feet while their Lakers teammates remained clustered by the bench. It was early in a timeout, but it was an important timeout in an important game that the Lakers had done a lot to lose and now needed to do a little to win.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: Tugging at his jersey, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant yelled out to no one in particular. He high-fived courtside fans. He pumped his fist in delight. And he stared out to the 18,997 at Staples Center with the signature glare that defines his intensity and competitiveness. But Bryant appeared angry, even more so than usual, after drilling what he called “my shot” — a baseline jumper over Portland’s Brandon Roy that gave the Lakers a five-point lead with 32.9 seconds remaining. Afterward, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson remained coy concerning Bryant’s emotions, saying, “It was just normal. You mean pulling his jersey over his head and running up and down the court was animated?” It became apparent, however, Bryant needed to let out all the frustration about the elements surrounding the Lakers’ 84-80 victory Sunday against the Portland Trail Blazers.

From Mike Bresnahan, LA Times: It sure seemed as if the game took place in Portland, with the dour weather lingering glumly outdoors and the Trail Blazers sticking it to the Lakers indoors. But Kobe Bryant had seen enough, his sprained ankle, sore shoulder and stiff neck all to be mentally discarded in the fourth quarter. He shrugged off an off-target night, a string of poor shooting games and a salivating Trail Blazers team in an 84-80 Lakers victory Sunday at Staples Center. It’s hardly surprising that Bryant’s involved in a gritty victory, but this time he added a rare touch, high-fiving a courtside fan and releasing some steam as he yanked hard on his jersey after a 14-foot fade-away meant a five-point lead with 32.9 seconds left.

This wasn’t a pretty game. Far from it, actually. But the Lakers battled, kept the game close, and made the plays down the stretch to beat the Blazers 84-80. The win clinched the Pacific Division and served as a reminder that the guys with the old legs still have some left in the tank.

And really, that was the big take away from this game – the Lakers, for all their poor shooting and all the possessions that they came up empty, just kept fighting. They played through contact, kept their composure (for the most part), and found a way to keep the game close so their veteran players could make the plays – plays that they’ve made so many times before – on this night too.

Yes, they missed Andrew Bynum. On too many possessions the Lakers bigs ended up having to scramble to help on both drives and in showing strong side zone looks to deter post entries. This tactic left Blazer shooters open on the weak side and when circling to the top of the key on ball rotations. Nic Batum made this defense pay to the tune of 25 points on 10 of 16 shooting, including 4-9 from three point range. And when Batum wasn’t doing his damage from the outside, LaMarcus Aldridge was shooting that feathery jumper of his before the D could get to him to get his Blazers the points they needed to keep the Lakers at arm’s length.

But the Lakers just kept grinding.

Lamar Odom was great in Bynum’s stead, making 8 of his 11 shots and grabbing 11 rebounds. Better yet, though, was his work as a facilitator in the offense where he tallied 6 assists by moving the ball on to an open teammate both in open court situations (a soccer style outlet pass to Shannon Brown was as pretty a deep pass I’ve seen) and in the half court. Odom brought the ball up and was great in helping to organize the Lakers’ sets so that when they needed a good look they could at least put forth a decent effort to get one.

Pau joined LO in playing a solid game, if not his most efficient one. Gasol needed 15 shots to score his 14 points, but did add 13 rebounds (including 5 offensive) with 3 assists and 2 blocks to provide a strong anchor in the post without Bynum as a partner in the paint. Most important though, was the fact that Gasol only picked up 2 fouls the entire night and that meant that he could essentially match up with Aldridge all night and make his life a bit more difficult than it was the last time that these teams matched up. Aldridge did get some good shots to fall, but Pau did a good job of sitting on his right hand (only a few times allowing LMA to get to the middle from the left block) and making him shoot contested jumpers. It’s a testament to LaMarcus that he was able to hit as many as he did considering Pau’s length and the timing he showed in contesting those looks.

But really, this game was about the closing minutes and how the Lakers’ two longtime clutch performers came up big again. In the final 4:18 of the game, Fisher and Kobe combined for 12 points (and Kobe assisted on the Lakers only other basket in this stretch) to carry the team home. If we hadn’t seen this so many times before, I’d say that I was surprised but really it was just a reminder of what they’re capable of.

A Kobe jumper was followed by his bullet assist to Pau for an easy basket at the rim. On the next Blazer possession, Kobe knocked the ball away from Andre Miller, Fish picked up the loose ball and threw ahead to a streaking #24 for the dunk that tied the game. After a Portland timeout, Derek Fisher got a steal of his own took the ball coast to coast and after taking a big stride scooped up a lay in that gave the Lakers the lead that they’d not give up. Their last two buckets sealed the game as Kobe shot a fading baseline jumper after beating his man off the dribble to his right hand (only a shot that we’ve seen hundreds of times before) and Fish capped it all off with a step in twenty footer at the top of the key after the play broke down. Vintage stuff from both.

In the end, I can’t say I enjoyed this game from an aesthetic stand point but I definitely reveled in the grit, determination, and poise that the Lakers showed to come up with the win. With Bynum out and the game not really going their way for most of the contest, this team could have chalked up a loss to poor circumstances and moved on to the awaiting Suns on Tuesday. Instead they fought hard and made the big plays that championship teams make when their backs are against the wall. They turned a 4 point deficit with 4 minutes left into a 4 point win by riding 5 straight makes from Kobe/Fisher while forcing the Blazers’ into missed shots and turnovers to take seize the contest. Again, it wasn’t pretty but damn was it a sight to see. After Kobe hit his baseline jumper, high fived a fan, and screamed at the top of his lungs as he ran back up the court you could see how much this game meant to him and the rest of the guys. This team is rounding into playoff form. And that, even more than the win, is what I’m excited about.

Records: Lakers 49-20 (2nd in West), Trailblazers 40-29 (6th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.7 (2nd in NBA), Trailblazers 108.6 (11th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.5 (7th in NBA), Trailblazers 107.0 (14th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Trailblazers: Andre Miller, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Gerald Wallace, LaMarcus Aldridge
Injuries: Lakers: Theo Ratliff & Devin Ebanks (out); Trailblazers: Greg Oden & Elliot Williams (out)

The Lakers Coming in: The wins have been piling up, but that’s not really today’s news. This morning we learned that Andrew Bynum will be suspended two games for his flagrant foul on Michael Beasley, meaning he’ll be out for tonight’s game vs. Portland and Tuesday’s contest vs. the Suns. And while the two games is a bit excessive (I think the league’s ruling is indicative of Beasley’s hard fall and not necessarily the foul itself), this is what can happen when you shoulder shiver a player in mid-air and it results in him taking a horrendous fall where he can’t return to the game. I’ve said it already: Bynum’s aggression is a good thing, him not making a play on the ball and committing a reckless, dangerous foul is not. He deserved to be suspended and now he and his team suffer for him making said play.

All that said, I hope Bynum learns from this. I hope he learns that he must play big, but must also play smart. That he can give a hard foul, but must do so within the context of playing the game not with a frustrated shove that’s a danger to other players and to his own team. Because with Bynum’s embracing of his new role as a defensive anchor comes a greater responsibility to actually be there for his team. He’s no longer an extra piece to the puzzle but a main part in which his absence can make all the difference. So as he sits and watches his team in these next two games, I hope he examines all of this and comes back as focused and ready to play as ever. Odds are, he’ll see how much his team needs him.

The Trailblazers Coming in: There may not be a team playing better that is so under the radar right now. Portland is 7-3 in their last 10 games but have wins over some really strong opponents. Miami, Dallas, Orlando, and a Philly team that’s been playing great ball have all fallen to Portland this month. They’re slowly getting healthy with the return of Marcus Camby and Brando Roy and seem to be adjusting quite nicely to the acquisition of Gerald Wallace they made at the trade deadline. With Wallace now a fixture in the starting lineup and Aldridge moving over to center (along with Roy and Camby providing good support off the bench), the Blazers now have a lot more talent at their disposal and it’s showing each night. They’re able to throw diverse lineups at teams where they begin games relatively small with their starting group, but can then go big (Miller, Roy, Wallace, Aldridge, Camby) or a mixture of both styles (with Rudy Fernandez and Patty Mills thrown into either back court positions) and match up with nearly any lineup their opposition throws at them. This is now a team that will be an extremely tough out in the playoffs – regardless of seeding – and teams would be wise to try and avoid them in the first round this year.

Trailblazers Blogs: Portland Roundball Society does a very good job covering the Blazers. You can also check out the always excellent Blazers Edge for great insight on this team.

Keys to game: As noted above, Portland will go small tonight and with the absence of Bynum they may just get away with it. Mike Trudell has tweeted that the Lakers will start out cross matching with Artest guarding Gerald Wallace and Odom’s assignment a bit less clear. If this does indeed happen, I could imagine Odom guarding Andre Miller in order to neutralize the PG’s excellent post game while Kobe guards Batum and Fisher chases Wesley Matthews around screens and around the perimeter. The Odom/Miller match up is one that LA went to last year when Kobe missed a game in Portland (a game LA won) and LO did a very good job laying off Miller on the perimeter and then bothering him any time he went into the paint. I hope to see some of this same tactic tonight.

As for the rest of the defense, the major key is slowing LaMarcus Aldridge. Pau will certain have his hands full tonight as LMA tries to get position on the left block to go to work with his soft turn around jumper or attempt to drive hard to the middle with his strong hand. Pau likely won’t get much help on D tonight as Portland boasts enough shooters and slashers to make helping defenses pay, so he’ll need to be strong in keeping Aldridge off his spots and smart in how he guides him around the court so he can effectively challenge his shot. Remember too that Pau will be playing without a safety net tonight since Bynum won’t dress, so that means foul trouble will need to be avoided and his rebounding work will need to be at peak level. Portland is too good an offensive rebounding team for Pau to be in single digits tonight. Obviously, Odom too will need to be at his best on the glass and if he’s on a Miller (as I hope/expect) he should be able to effectively leave his man when the shot goes up and go after every loose ball that comes off the rim.

Offensively the Lakers will need top shelf performances from all their main threats. The last time these two teams met, Kobe had a great game in going for 37 points and Gasol black swan’d his way to 18 points, with several coming on strong fourth quarter/overtime finishes against Aldridge. Artest also had a very good shooting game when he poured in 24 on only 13 shots, making countless big jumpers throughout the entire contest to keep the game close when his mates were struggling. With Bynum out, these guys will need to again show up tonight and be effective on O to make up for the fact that Big Drew won’t be around to clean up on the offensive glass and earn extra possessions when shots don’t fall.

I’d love to see Pau get going early and take Aldridge to the mid post where he can go back to work with his mid-range jumper or attack off the dribble. Aldridge has improved as a defender but Pau has more than enough skill to go at him and get buckets at the rim and on the wing when given space. As for Kobe, after the T’Wolves game he vowed to be “more than ready” for this contest so we’ll see if he’s able to deliver. He’ll likely be matched up with Matthews, a player that Kobe’s been able to score on in the past by using his height advantage in the post. This is where Bynum being out can actually aid the Lakers as now Kobe will move out of the two guard front and into the post more where he can isolate at the elbow on the weak side and in the hub of the Triangle after players clear through the lane when executing their ball side cuts. If Kobe can make some short jumpers early, he’ll influence the D and potentially force help that will only open up the offense of Odom, Artest, and Fisher when they spot up and slash on the weak side of the formation.

One last  thing to watch for is the pace of the game. Portland likes to play at a slow pace but in the last match up they tried to push the ball only to run out of steam late. The Lakers were able to manage their quick start effectively enough but ultimately wore them down late with strong post play and by using their size advantage. Tonight, the tables may turn as the Lakers are the team that has the horses to run the floor more tonight. With LO a starter and Barnes back (or at least close) to full strength, the Lakers could do themselves a favor by getting into the open court more and looking to get baskets in early offense. Pau can run with Aldridge and Odom should be able to clear the glass and push the ball too. If Kobe’s ankle looks as good as it did in the 2nd half of the ‘Wolves game, he too should be able to do a bit more work in early offensive sets, especially in early post actions where the back line D isn’t quite set.

In the end, this game is very much important for both teams. Portland has slew of tough games ahead of them and tonight gives them a chance to face off against a Bynum-less Laker group and earn a win that can give them even more confidence for this final stretch before the playoffs. Meanwhile the Lakers need to continue to build on their post all-star run and stay ahead of Dallas in the loss column for the #2 seed. Neither team wants to take a step back tonight and that means we should have a good one on our hands.

Where you can watch: 6:30pm start on Fox Sports West. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.

Sunday Morning Reading

Darius Soriano —  March 20, 2011

While we all wait for the Portland game this evening and whether or not Andrew Bynum will be available to play or if he’ll be suspended by the league for his foul on Michael Beasley, below are a few links to help you pass the time. Enjoy.

*Mitch Kupchak is nothing but a straight shooter and he lives up to that rep in this very insightful sit down with Mike Trudell from Lakers.com. He talks all things Lakers including how he and Phil communicate during a season, his evaluation of Blake and Barnes in their first season with the team, and how he wouldn’t trade Andrew Bynum for anybody. Definitely worth your time.

*In this look at 6th Man of the Year candidates, John Schuhmann goes beyond scoring numbers to make his case for who should win. It should be no surprise that Lamar Odom does well when examining the players in this way.

*A quick look at some of the top teams’ records since the all-star break. No wonder the Lakers are gaining ground on some teams.

*Learn a thing or two about the Lakers weak side “solo” series and how they get good shots out of it.

*Lastly, no reading here, and we instead take you back to one of my favorite shots by a Laker ever. Just so happens it was against the Blazers. Watching this shot never gets old.