Archives For March 2011

There’s no denying it now, the Lakers are rounding into championship form. They’re looking stronger by the game and continue to find ways to put the clamps on their opponents and pull out impressive victories. Tonight it was the Magic that stepped in front of the Laker buzz saw, falling 97-84, allowing the Lakers to up their post all-star record to 10-1.

Early on, though, it didn’t look like the Lakers would be on the right side of the scoreboard when the final whistle blew. The home team simply couldn’t make enough baskets. The Lakers worked their game plan by going inside to Gasol and working Kobe in his sweet spots, but neither could do any damage. Pau had multiple chances in the post against Ryan Anderson but allowed the Magic PF to root him out from the post to make his looks less effective. Seemingly every sweeping hook or turnaround jumper fell harmlessly off the rim as the big Spaniard struggled to score in what looked to be the biggest mismatch of the game.

Meanwhile Kobe, who decided he was good enough to go on his sprained ankle, was no better as he tried to work Jason Richardson in post and wing isolations. Even though his stride and ability to get up and down the floor looked fine, his jumper did not as shot after shot missed short or right with Richardson using his strength to keep Kobe from getting the clean looks he typically can when bodying opposing shooting guards.

On the other end, though, Orlando was working their offense to get the exact types of shots they thrive off of. Ryan Anderson found himself wide open several times outside the arc and made the Lakers pay as they collapsed down low hoping to protect the paint. Jameer Nelson also found gaps in the Lakers D off P&R’s and in the open court to get shots at the rim as the Lakers switched on the perimeter trying not to get beat on big man dives. And then there was Dwight Howard who showed the growth in his offensive game by hitting several wing jumpers as Bynum gave him space not wanting to get beat by the quick first step of the Magic big man.

But even with Orlando getting what it wanted, the Lakers kept the game close by sticking with their game plan to a tee. While Dwight Howard attempted to intimidate and control the paint by attacking Laker shots inside, Andrew Bynum continued his stellar work on the glass by cleaning up on the offensive glass (grabbing several of his 9! O-rebounds on the night) to earn the Lakers extra possessions. And with those extra shots, the Lakers made some timely jumpers (especially Derek Fisher) to ensure that the Magic wouldn’t run away and hide and turn this game into a rout in the 1st half. When you add Pau finally getting a couple of baskets to fall, Odom doing the same, and the Lakers forcing several turnovers, the Magic were only able to take a 5 point cushion into the 2nd half.

A cushion that wouldn’t nearly be enough, as it turns out.

In the 2nd half, the Lakers simply dominated Orlando and turned the game on its head. After not being able to find any traction in the first half, Pau and Kobe found their offensive stride. Rather than relying strictly on isolations, Kobe worked more off the ball and fought for post position to earn real estate closer to the hoop resulting in easier shots that he knocked down. #24 scored 12 of his 16 points in the 2nd half and picked up his D too, forcing a turnover and drawing a charge that kept the momentum swinging in the Lakers’ direction. Gasol, meanwhile, started to go at Anderson quicker and more decisively rather than jab stepping or trying to back his way into the post from 15 feet out. It also helped that the Lakers ran more cross screen actions to get Pau moving the ball and closer to hoop but it all resulted in Gasol getting the types of looks that he thrives off and getting the Orlando D off balance. Even when Gasol found Howard as his primary defender it didn’t really matter as Pau simply moved away from the hoop and knocked down his mid-range jumper as Howard backed off so as to not give up quick drives to the hoop. Simply put, Orlando just couldn’t get a stop when they needed it.

And where Orlando’s D struggled, the Lakers D excelled. Full court ball pressure, traps at the mid line and on the wing, and double teams in the post forced countless Magic turnovers that the Lakers took the other way for easy baskets. The open shots that the Magic had available to them in the first half vanished in the second as the Lakers ran their shooters off the three point line and forced them into the mid-range shots the D is designed to yield. And every time Howard got the ball in the post the Lakers swarmed with dig downs and double teams that Howard had trouble dealing with all night to the tune of 9 turnovers committed.

This is where Bynum and Gasol truly deserve credit. After both picked up some touch fouls jockeying for position in the 1st half, the Laker big men showed great resolve and good physicality in battling Howard for every inch of court space in the 2nd twenty four minutes. Every time Howard dipped his massive shoulder to generate some breathing room to get off his shot, Bynum and Gasol held their ground and allowed their mates to come and disrupt Howard’s handle of the ball. Bynum was especially great as he matched Howard every step of the way building on his ability to block a couple of Howard looks early to discourage those same shots later. Not to mention the fact that Bynum was able to not only keep up, but surpass Howard on the glass. When you compare their numbers (Howard had 22 points, 15 rebounds, 2 blocks; Bynum had 10 points, a career high 18 rebounds, 4 blocks) it’s easy to see that Big Drew rose to the challenge of facing the marquee big man in the game. Sure Bynum was outscored by 12 points, but he was so instrumental in helping to force Howard’s 9 TO’s while also earning LA so many extra possessions that it’s not a stretch to say the match up tilted in favor of Bynum. Considering that this game was a measuring stick contest of sorts, I’d say Bynum showed that his post all-star game surge is very much real and his impact comparable to any big man in the league.

To put the Lakers’ 2nd half dominance in a statistical measure, their offensive efficiency was a whopping 141.5 and their defensive efficiency over that same 24 minute stretch was 92.7. They again held an opponent to a sub 40 point half (Orlando scored only 38 points) and forced 10 turnovers while not coughing the ball up a single time themselves. Every player contributed to the supreme 2nd half with Odom hitting two big three pointers to extend the Laker lead, Barnes contributing his 5 total points in that stretch, and Blake playing great D on Jameer and Duhon by picking up full court and really pressuring the ball. It truly was a total team effort.

And that’s what the Lakers are becoming right before our eyes and right at the right time: a total team. Kobe may not have had it going early but Fisher picked up the scoring slack. When Pau missed shots, Drew cleaned up on the O-glass. When Ron went to the bench for a rest, Barnes came in and played strong D in his stead. And in the 2nd half the guys that didn’t play well early turned it on to generate a wing going away. What we saw all night is exactly what we’ve seen since the team regrouped after all-star weekend and if teams around the league haven’t noticed, I’d be surprised. If Kobe couldn’t use a bit of rest I’d say it’s a shame that the team doesn’t play until Friday because I’d like for nothing more than for them to keep this going with another game tomorrow. It sure is good to watch this team play right now.

Records: Lakers 47-20 (3rd in the West), Magic 42-25 (4th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.6 (3rd in NBA), Magic 108.2 (11th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.6 (8th in NBA), Magic 102.1 (4th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Magic: Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu, Brandon Bass, Dwight Howard
Injuries: Lakers: Devin Ebanks & Theo Ratliff (out), Matt Barnes (probable), Kobe Bryant (game time decision); Magic: Daniel Orton (out), J.J. Redick (questionable)

The Injury Bug:We all know the Lakers are rolling, winning 9 of their last 10 games. However, Kobe’s ankle was also rolling on Saturday and that leaves his status for tonight’s game up in the air. Personally, I think that Kobe will play but don’t think it’s necessary or even prudent for him to do so. The Lakers play two games (tonight and Friday) before reaching the 7-day mark of Kobe’s injury and we all know that with his obsessive commitment to getting treatment and rehabbing, the extra time off would do him good. And while the Lakers are in full fledged finishing mode to end the season with the best possible seed, an injured Kobe (especially a player more dependent on his jumper than ever) that doesn’t have the same lift or threat of going by an opponent isn’t the best option to be on the floor. When you add to that how he’ll likely suffer on D, I say rest him. All this probably means he’ll play and put up an efficient night scoring while playing lock down D, but that’s my 2 cents.

Kobe’s not the only Laker banged up, however. Matt Barnes continues to struggle with his right knee and Phil Jackson has said that the Lakers “are still not out of the woods” when it comes to their backup SF’s ailment. Barnes being touch and go really is an issue for LA. It’s one thing to have Kobe out a game or two, as that’s something you can work around for that limited time and then welcome him back on that pre-determined timeline. But it’s another altogether to have a key reserve like Barnes consistently questionable in this manner. I trust that Matt will tough it out and play, but the Lakers are reliant on him to play strong D, rebound, and be active in their halfcourt offense. If he’s compromised in performing these tasks, the Lakers then become more reliant on Luke Walton or Kobe (who, as noted, isn’t 100% himself right now). Hopefully Barnes can work his way through this and not be hampered for too much longer, but his situation bears watching.

The Magic Coming in: Since the all-star break, the Magic are 6-4 and have had a couple of good wins (Miami, OKC) and some bad losses (Sacto, Golden State). When this team is playing well, they live up to their top 5 defensive ranking, holding teams like OKC, Chicago, and Phoenix to sub-90 point games, but that caliber of D isn’t always available to them as evidenced by the 81(!) points they gave up to the Warriors in the 29 second half + overtime minutes in their 123-120 defeat this past Friday. This makes complete sense when you consider that outside of the tremendous work that Dwight Howard does in controlling the paint and in hedging/recovering in P&R actions, the Magic have surrounded the reigning DPOY with average to below average wing defenders. When teams that rely on outside shooting get hot, there’s little Howard can do to help out his perimeter mates.

That shouldn’t be mistaken as criticism for Howard, however, as he’s simply been a dominant player this year. He’s in the top 10 in scoring and is 2nd in the league in rebounding, blocked shots, and FG%, putting together a resumé that is truly MVP-worthy. Dwight has improved his offensive game by adding a solid 12-foot wing bank shot and continues to be a force in early offense, running post lane sprints and in the P&R where he’s always a threat to catch and finish on lobs. The only areas where Dwight can be knocked down a peg is in his FT shooting (still hovering right below 60% on the year) and in the fact that he’s already earned 16 technical fouls and served a 1-game suspension for reaching that threshold. All that said, though, he deserves recognition for the year he’s having and it’s likely only due to the perceived under-performance of his team relative to expectations that he hasn’t garnered more of a push for MVP. I’m trying not to make that same mistake.

Magic Blogs: Eddy Rivera does a great job running his site Magic Basketball and you should check it out for smart takes. Also check out the equally fine work Evan Dunlap does at Orlando Pinstriped Post.

Keys to game: Not knowing whether or not Kobe Bryant will play impact the keys to this game some, but not as much as you may think. Because while Kobe Bryant is a key every night, tonight’s game is one that I think should be a Pau Gasol game whether Kobe is wearing his home gold #24 or in the locker room getting more treatment on that bum wheel.

You see, even though Brandon Bass is a rugged player and one who will scrap on the defensive end, Pau has at least 5 inches on the man and should be fed the ball relentlessly to take advantage of that difference in height and length. Pau should get low post touches in the hub of the triangle, high post touches at the elbow, and wing touches on the weak side where he can either shoot his jumper or attack off the dribble. The key, though, is that he must get touches. Even if Kobe does play in this one, the Lakers must run their sets and should let Gasol be an initiator of offense, both looking for his own shot and for teammates breaking open.

Pau can’t be the only big doing solid work, however. The match up that most are surely looking forward to is Andrew Bynum doing battle with Dwight Howard on both ends. After beasting the Mavs combo of Chandler and Haywood, Bynum gets a much stiffer test tonight in Howard. And in order to be successful against Dwight, Bynum must continue the underrated part of his growth this season – his patience. Since the all-star break, Big Drew has shown a great ability to correctly decide how to operate in any given possession. Rarely has he forced shots and more often than not he’s used an array of pivots and drop steps to maneuver his large frame into position to get off a good look. He’ll need to show that patience tonight against Howard if he expects to have good success. He’ll also need to show good instincts on the offensive glass, stepping in to gain good position when Howard steps away to challenge shots and bodying Dwight to root him out of position.

Odom must also show up tonight with an aggressive mindset and want to attack the paint to force help. LO will likely see a lot of Ryan Anderson tonight and that’s a match up that LO can win by using his superior quickness and length to get to the paint off the dribble and in attacking the offensive glass. This is also a game where Odom can effectively push the ball after securing defensive rebounds against any defender that he matches up with. If LO steps up with a game typical of his excellent year, the Lakers will be in good shape.

Defensively, the Lakers must execute well in slowing the Magic’s simple offensive formula. The Magic rely on three offesive keys to beat teams: Dwight Howard post ups, the P&R, and the three point shot. Luckily for the Lakers, these offensive actions are the ones that their defensive scheme hope to limit, but to actually achieve it will require discipline and strong play in both one on one and team situations.

Slowing Howard will mostly depend on Bynum’s ability to play on an island without fouling. Howard loves to post on the left block where he can drive middle for his running hook shot and then drop step off that that same action for a lay-in/dunk, turning over his right shoulder. I’d like to see Drew give Howard a half a step to his right hand to encourage the hook and then challenge the shot with his length. The key then, of course, is boxing out and keeping Howard off the glass has he possesses the best “2nd jump” in the league.

As for slowing the P&R and the three ball, this mostly comes down to limiting penetration by the ball handler. Orlando loves to get Jameer, Hedo, and Arenas going by having them run off Howard screens and then turn the corner to get into the paint, where they can either shoot a short shot, lob the ball to a diving Howard, or kick the ball out to open shooters when the D collapses. Bynum will need to stick to his guns by executing his soft show where he can both contest the shot effectively and/or rotate to a diving Howard. Meanwhile, the Lakers wings will need to stick to their men behind the arc as Orlando will never lack for shooters on the floor (especially Richardson who’s having a hot March shooting the ball).

In the end, this game is an important one for the Lakers as they’d love to continue playing strong ball and keep their momentum going in the right direction. But with a limited (at best) Kobe or even without him at all, the burden will fall on the Laker bigs who will hopefully get some help from Ron, Fish, and Blake. If the Lakers can control their glass, limit Howard’s explosive finishes, and run the Magic’s shooters off the three point line, they should be in good shape.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Fox Sports and ESPN. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am. And for those only near a computer, stream the game live at ESPN 3 right here.

From Broderick Turner, LA Times: Kobe Bryant, who sprained his left ankle Saturday night against the Dallas Mavericks, has been listed as a game-time decision for Monday night’s game against the Orlando Magic at Staples Center, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. Bryant, who arrived late to the team’s training facility in El Segundo, didn’t practice Sunday, preferring to get treatment instead. “We hope he’ll be able to play,” Jackson said. Bryant declined to talk to the media. Bryant had said after the injury occurred late in the third quarter that it was the scariest ankle sprain of his career.

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: Kobe Bryant managed to walk slowly out of American Airlines Center, his sprained left ankle taped tightly with what Bryant described as “a baseball” growing on the outside of it from the swelling. Nevertheless, Bryant said of the ankle: “The strength is pretty good.” He said with around-the-clock treatment he would be “fine” — even though Lakers coach Phil Jackson cast some doubt on Bryant’s availability Monday night vs. Orlando when saying Bryant’s injury was “severe.” Bryant also said it felt like the worst ankle sprain he has ever had. Bryant was able to play the last 6:30 of the Lakers’ victory in Dallas on Saturday night after an awkward landing with 2:02 left in the third quarter as he tried to recover a ball in the air. Bryant said of that moment: “I thought I was done … like, done. I was just praying my foot was lined up (when looking at it.)”

From Wondahbap, Silver Screen and Roll: Psssht! Like you didn’t know? Bynum is smashing, the Lakers are rolling, and all of a sudden, the Western Conference looks mighty easy again. His defense and rebounding continue to be the rock that the Lakers have pounded their supposed Western Conference challengers into submission with. The Spurs? Bynum ate up whatever Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili cooked up, he made you think Tim Duncan retired during the game, and the Lakers rolled. They might as well have told San Antonio they can take home-court Advantage and shove it. The Mavs? So much for that length they added. Big Drew beasted for 22 points and 15 rebounds and was clearly the best player on the floor. Think about that. In a game with Kobe, Pau and Dirk Nowitzki, it was Bynum who looked like the unstoppable one?

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: Phil Jackson used the words “full strength.” No ambiguity about the context, either. “He’s at full strength now,” the Lakers’ coach said about Andrew Bynum. That’s throwing out quite a bone when it comes to the project the Lakers have grown far more accustomed to being nicked in the knees than giving opponents consistent paddywhacks. Even more than Jackson saying flat-out, “Drew is coming into his own now,” that declaration that Bynum is operating at full power by the coach perennially dissatisfied by his starting center’s energy and stamina (and health) was jarring. Yet that’s how this young man came rolling home Saturday night, acknowledging that his confidence is swelling after having had the road trip of his career:

From ESPN Stats and Info, via TrueHoop: With just six points and 12 rebounds, Kevin Love’s streak of 53 double-doubles came to an end Sunday night in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ loss to the Golden State Warriors. It was the first time since Nov. 19 against the Lakers that Love didn’t reach double figures in both points and rebounds. With the streak coming to an end, here’s a look back at what he accomplished: Love put together the longest single-season double-double streak since the NBA/ABA merger (1976-77). He fell just two games shy of tying Elvin Hayes for the longest such streak over the past 40 seasons. Over the 53-game stretch Love averaged 21.8 points per game to go along with 16.3 rebounds per game. He had three games in which he scored at least 30 points and recorded at least 20 rebounds. Only one other player in the past 10 seasons has had even three such games in a single season, and that was Kevin Garnett, also with the Timberwolves, in 2002-03. (Note: Love had one such game before the streak began, giving him four total this season)

From Ethan Sherwood-Strauss, Hoops Speak: Bryant’s gifts are his own, the media did not spawn this multi-faceted arsenal. Only the genius from within could become that artist who flings shots, without warning, from all angles—in the way a tornado hurls cows. The media can however, influence Bryant’s brand, how we see him, and how he strives to be seen. I couldn’t help but suspect our imprint upon reading coverage of Kobe’s postgame workout. Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register tweeted: “In more than a decade covering Kobe, I haven’t seen him do this before.” So the action is abnormal, even if it is agenda-free.

UPDATE: From Matt Moore, Pro Basketball Talk: This game can be used as a seminal moment for the Lakers, snapping back from a disappointing loss in Miami, proving that they still have the Mavs’ number after some regular season struggles, and showing they are still on track to reach the Finals. It can be used to illustrate that although Dallas is talented and experienced, and blessed with tremendous depth down low, it may not be enough thanks to the talent gap in the paint.

But really, if you want to know what this game meant? It’s “the moment” for Andrew Bynum. There have been flashes along the way. Signs. Huge games, bigger than this one. Moments where Bynum was the difference maker, the extra piece, the X-factor, other cliches. This wasn’t the biggest game of Bynum’s career, far from it. But the other games for him were proof of what he could do, what he was capable of, what was possible with him.

In a game that meant everything for making up ground in the West, the Lakers gave it everything they had, defeating Dallas 96-91. Led by one of Andrew Bynum’s best — and most timely — performances of the season, L.A. effectively controlled the tempo for most of the game’s 48 minutes. Bynum was a beast on both ends of the floor, scoring 22 points, including several aggressive moves in the painted area, while also reeling in 15 rebounds. We’ve been saying it for several games now, but he’s truly been a different player altogether since the All-Star break and one who dramatically increases the Lakers’ hopes for a third straight championship. As he said himself after the game, Andrew is heeding Coach Jackson’s longstanding order to focus on defense and rebounding. To that end, he grabbed rebounds with authority and provided an invaluable last line of defense against a deep Mavericks team. In the process, he dominated Tyson Chandler, a player who was brought onboard specifically to defend the likes of Bynum and Gasol.

Andrew was far from the only Laker responsible for tonight’s huge road victory; this was a true team effort from start to finish and especially so after Kobe sat out extended minutes after injuring his ankle. Steve Blake sprung to life at the most opportune time for L.A., showing the entire arsenal of skills that the Lakers were so attracted to when they signed him last summer. As Darius has written before, Blake’s ability to run the offense hasn’t really been his problem this season — in fact he’s done so quite adeptly for a first year guard in the triangle. Instead, he’s mostly struggled with finding his own niche on offense. Tonight, he finally put all the pieces together, scoring nine points and dishing out five dimes in 27 minutes.

This was the type of game where everyone who stepped foot on the floor contributed to the ultimate outcome. Ron Artest continued his improved play, scoring 12 points and grabbing eight boards, including a dagger offensive board and put-back with under a minute remaining. That a pivotal offensive rebound provided arguably the game’s most important moment was somewhat ironic considering the Mavs held an advantage on the glass all night long (48 to 43 rebounding edge). Whether it was Gasol hitting a clutch free throw, Lamar attacking the hoop or Barnes generally annoying the entire Dallas roster, all nine players stepped up big when they needed to most. They did it with energy on defense too, refusing to allow anyone other than Nowitzki and Marion to get going. Even Jason Terry, usually a Lakers killer, only managed 13 points.

Unlike the game against Miami, the Lakers also came up with all of the critical plays in the final minutes of the game, despite letting the Mavs back into it after riding a deceptively comfortable six to nine point lead for most of the fourth quarter. It’s not like the team really had much say in the matter either with Bryant — who scored 16 points on a subpar 6-20 from the field — relegated to the sidelines for part of the game’s key stretch. Barring a more serious injury, that’s not a situation that’s likely to happen often in the playoffs, but should still give the Lakers not named Kobe a great deal of confidence moving forward.

Ultimately, tonight’s win was about the Lakers setting a goal and delivering. They’re not quite in championship form just yet (see: missed free throws and rebound attempts), but this is a far cry from the team we saw from November to February. And if this game foreshadowed what we can expect in a likely second round series against the Mavericks, we’re in for a real doozy.

Records: Lakers 46-20 (3rd in West), Mavericks 47-18 (2nd in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.7 (2nd in NBA), Mavericks 110.2 (8th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.6 (8th in NBA), Mavericks 105.8 (12th 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), Peja Stojakovic (questionable)

The Lakers Coming in: One loss, even in a game that the Lakers really wanted, doesn’t diminish the fact that the team really has been playing strong ball of late. I’ll happily take 8 wins in 9 tries any time it’s offered up especially when it’s fueled with top shelf defense. That said, the loss to the Heat did bring up some old ugly habits that the Lakers need to ensure don’t linger for too long. Sloppy rotations on the wing led to too many open jumpers to capable shooters while both bigs and smalls didn’t do a good job controlling the defensive glass. When you combine that with the turnover bug popping up at the wrong times and the reserves not contributing with needed consistency, Thursday’s Lakers looked quite similar to the team that has been far too up and down for most of the year in these key areas. Mind you, even with these problems cropping up the Lakers were very much in position to win that game so things aren’t that bad. But those are habits the Lakers need to flush from their system if they’re going to close the season as strong as they’d like. I’d like to see better in these areas starting tonight.

The Mavericks Coming in: One reason the Lakers haven’t made up more ground on the Mavs in the chase for the 2nd seed out West is because Dallas has been playing so well. They’ve only lost 3 times in their last 23 games and each of those L’s was by a single point. The veteran crew that the Mavs put on the floor just seem to know how to win games. Dirk continues his stellar play as an all around offensive force with shooting percentages (53/43/88 from the field, three, and FT line) that are truly eye popping. Jason Kidd is still going strong as a floor general and has evolved into a viable deep threat from beyond the arc. Jason Terry is a 4th quarter terror to opposing teams and Shawn Marion is having a bounce back year of sorts with solid activity around the rim and  And Tyson Chandler is providing the rugged defense, rebounding, and inside finishing on lobs and put backs that he gave the Hornets just a few years ago in their rise as a West power.

All that said, while Dallas has been on an extended run of playing winning ball, 2 of those 3 losses (in their last 23 games) have come in their last 4 contests. Both New Orleans and Memphis were able to squeak out wins on the strength of strong play from their PF’s and timely scoring from their PG’s. And if Dallas does have a weakness it’s that their defense isn’t consistent, often forcing them to play zone to cover up for their deficiencies in stopping players on the wing and when going after Dirk on that side of the ball. Make no mistake, though, the Mavs are a top flight team. They’ve infused their lineup with youth and athleticism with the return of Roddy Beaubois and offer useful options off the bench in Barrea, Peja, Cardinal, and Haywood. They’re deep, experienced and surely have an underestimated hunger to claim a championship before their core of veteran players retire. Their time is now and they’re playing like it.

Mavericks Blogs: Rob Mahoney does superb work at The Two Man Game. Also check out Mavs Money Ball for more very good analysis.

Keys to game: Dallas, more than maybe any other team outside of Boston, offers a team that matches up quite well with the Lakers. Their size, bench play, style of guards, and outside shooting seem perfectly constructed to play the Lakers tough. In order to defeat such a team the Lakers will need to be at their best in order to counteract those strengths.

Offensively, the typical approach of working the ball inside out is still the best strategy, but not necessarily in the way that you’d think. Yes, Gasol and Bynum should be asked to do work against Dirk and Chandler respectively, but I’d also like to see Kobe go into the post more this game than he did against the Heat. The Mavs will have a difficult choice to make today in terms of who they put on #24. Before the return of Beaubois the Mavs were quite content at starting DeShawn Stevenson to defend Kobe, but now that won’t be the case. Beaubois will be forced to defend a much bigger player today as he’ll either defend Kobe or will move onto Artest if Marion defends the Mamba. This lack of a multiple, capable wing defenders could be the Mavs downfall against the Lakers should they do what’s needed to exploit this weakness. That means moving Kobe off the ball more frequently and having him run off screens both to get his jumper off as well as to motion him to the post. I’d love to see the Lakers run center opposite sets for Kobe and also have him run off the single/double screen actions so he can curl towards the paint to get his shot off against either defender that he sees.

The other key offensively will be how the Lakers deal with the Mavs’ zone D. Ball and player movement will need to be crisp. Shooters will need to catch and shoot without hesitation and knock down some shots to loosen up the D. Also, the Lakers bigs will need to be active in both flashing to open space at the FT line and along the baseline. If the ball moves quickly and decisively into these gaps it will force the Mavs D to collapse and it will open up every other option in the Lakers’ sets. If the opposite occurs and the Lakers lazily swing the ball around the perimeter and simply settle for contested jumpers it will be a long night. The Lakers know what they’ll need to do, the question is if they’ll commit to it.

Defensively, slowing the Mavs is a multi-layered task that will truly test the Lakers new defensive scheme. The Lakers are more than happy to give up the mid-range jumper and force teams to bury long twos to beat them. Well, Dallas has the exact personnel to do just that. Dirk is one of the best mid-range shooters in the league, making 51% of his shots from 10-15 feet and a whopping 54% of his shots from 16-23 feet. Meanwhile, Jason Terry makes those shots at a very respectable 47% and 46%. If the Lakers are going to slow the Mavs in these areas they’ll need strong individual D (I’m looking at you Pau and Odom) and  Bynum will need to be ready to contest those shots when players come off screens rather than being overly concerned with players getting all the way to the rim (ala Wade and LeBron). Terry, Beaubois, and Barrea are the only Mavs that consistently threaten the rim on penetration, so understanding that players will be more than comfortable shooting that pull up J will have to be in the back of the minds of the Lakers bigs.

The other defensive key is ensuring that the Lakers clean up their defensive glass. Dallas is not a particularly good offensive rebounding team but in Chandler, Haywood, and Marion they have active bodies that will go after the ball if the Lakers relax after the shot goes up. Dallas is too efficient an offensive team to give extra opportunities to.

Lastly, the pace of this game should favor the Lakers as the Mavs actually play at a slower pace than the Lakers. This should enable the Lakers to set up both their halfcourt O and D easily.  However don’t discount Dallas’ ability to change the tempo of the contest by pushing the ball and trying to get easy baskets in transition at the rim and along the perimeter against collapsing and late rotating defenders. Kidd, Beaubois, Terry, and Barrea all have some waterbug in them and they’re more than willing to get out in the open floor and exploit defenses. This is even more of a strategy when Dirk is out of the game and Marion slides to PF and Cardinal comes into the game. The Lakers bigs will need to get back but protect the rim so that the wings can mark shooters who love to run to the three point line in early offensive sets.

We all know this is a big game. In fact, despite the sexiness of the Heat match up with all that star power, today’s game is even more important to the Lakers. Dallas is a game and a half up in the standings and this game offers the perfect opportunity to cut into that lead and ultimately would put them one step closer to snatching the #2 seed away from them. Plus, winning this game would allow the Lakers to finish 3-1 on their road trip, a mark that would be quite the achievement considering the caliber of opponent they faced on this trip.

Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time out west on KCAL and on NBA TV. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.

Last night’s game has stuck with some folks into today. That tends to happen when a very winnable game turns into a loss and the opponent is of the marquee variety. And while I don’t want to dwell too much longer on last night’s contest – especially with a much more important game, strategically, tomorrow in Dallas – below is some afternoon reading to get you through the rest of your day. Enjoy.

First up, Myles Brown has a strong take on Kobe’s performance down the stretch of last night’s game that is worth a read. There’s no sugar coating here, but understand that a lot of what he says hits home. An excerpt:

Kobe Bryant wants to win. This is inarguable. What’s equally clear is that Kobe wants to win his way. It’s an attitude borne of preternatural ability and competitiveness, yet more importantly, a viewership enamored with legend making. We thirst for iconic performances; signature moments of athletic excellence which make our eyes bulge and time stand still. With every crossover, reverse pivot and nimble fadeaway, Kobe etches himself deeper into our consciousness. Every injury he dutifully trudges through, every buzzer he beats and every ring he collects carves another feature on Rushmore. One or two more and some may dare to say that he’s supplanted a deity.

There’s much more worth reading there, so go check out the whole thing  as Brown does a good job of looking closely and critically at Kobe and the dichotomy that can exist in his game and approach.

Next up, we’ve all read a lot about the Lakers’ new and improved defensive scheme. And while we’ve seen it in action during the games, we’ve not yet seen a breakdown of it that combines pictures, video, and easy to follow explanations.

Well, that’s what Sebastian Pruiti is here for. In his piece over at SB Nation, he dives into the Lakers’ new technique at defending the P&R with great examples of what other teams do and how that differs from what the Lakers are now doing. A snippet:

Despite being one of the better defensive teams in the NBA this season, the Los Angeles Lakers and their coaching staff felt that it was necessary that they change how their team defended the pick-and-roll, catering more to Andrew Bynum and his skill set….Basically, the Lakers have determined that they don’t want Bynum showing hard on pick-and-rolls, opting to have him hang around the middle, with the rest of the defense funneling the play to him in the paint. The result is more midrange jumpers with the defense being able to contest threes and keep point guards out of the lane. The midrange jumpers are not troubling since the Lakers have determined that they want their opponents taking those shots, because who excels at that anyway?

Go check out the entire thing and get smarter about what the Lakers are doing on D so you can impress your friends when you explain the difference bettween a hard and soft show and how the Lakers have abandoned blitzing ball handlers.

UPDATE: From Sebastian Pruiti, NBA Playbook: Late against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Miami Heat decided to put the basketball in Dwyane Wade’s hands, letting him be the one who would create on the offensive end.  One way the Heat seemed to let Wade create was making him the ball handler in pick and roll sets.  Over the course of the final five minutes, the Heat ran the pick and roll with Wade as the ball handler four different times (these four possessions represented all of Wade’s 4th quarter PNR Ball Handler possessions)…According to Synergy Sport Technology, Dwyane Wade goes away from the screen in pick and roll sets 25.4% of the time, which is 3rd most in the entire NBA (Behind Derrick Rose and Earl Boykins).  Even more, out of the 3 pick and roll sets in the final 5 minutes (before the final one with one minute left), Wade went away from the screen 2 times, scoring both times:

From Dave McMenamin, ESPNLA: As the clock ticked toward midnight Thursday evening, long after players from both teams had filed out of American Airlines Arena following the Miami Heat’s 94-88 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryant emerged from the visitors locker room and headed back to the court. It was time for Kobe doin’ work, after doin’ work. “I just wanted to work on some things,” Bryant told a pack of reporters who waited and watched his nearly hourlong workout. “I just wanted to work on my game.” In a surreal scene that encapsulated Bryant’s reputation as being wholly dedicated to the game, Bryant completed a series of extensive shooting drills, working in shots off the dribble along with catch-and-shoot 3-pointers and free throws.

From Stephen A. Smith, ESPNLA: In the locker room, black towel draped over his shoulders and chest, his knees, feet and ankles swallowed in ice, it was easy to decipher Kobe Bryant’s mood. Back out on the floor, long after the game had ended, firing shots from all over the floor, there was no doubt about Bryant’s resolve. Nor about his disappointment. His Los Angeles Lakers, riding an eight-game winning streak, having elevated their game and their prowess by riding the shoulders of big men Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol the past two weeks, picked a fine time to come up as miniature as they had appeared entering the All-Star break. When it counted, against a star-studded cast rendered helpless against size, length and heart all season, neither Lakers big man showed up, especially on defense.

From Brian Windhorst, Heat Index: In retrospect, LeBron James wished he’d missed the last insurance free throw in the Miami Heat’s biggest win of the season. “It means we still can’t win games by five points or less,” James said. “We still can’t crack that.”  It’s true, the Heat beat the Los Angeles Lakers by six points, 94-88, on Thursday night. That nagging record in those five-point games still stands at 5-13. James’ joke wasn’t just a jab at the scrutiny the Heat have been under recently, it was mostly an expression of relief. That was the overwhelming reaction after they outdueled the Lakers at a clear flash point in the Heat’s season. Getting any win over any team would have eased the burden Miami has been carrying for the past two weeks. Beating the two-time defending champs while they were red-hot and doing it by outplaying them in the stretch run, though, was like hitting a momentum jackpot.

From Bill Simmons, Fast-forward 23 years. I still hate the Lakers. I don’t hate the MoHeatos, but there’s nothing more perversely fun than watching them blow games after how last summer was handled. Thursday night, I realized that Lakers-Heat games turn me into a bizarro version of the mother from “The Good Son.” In other words, I don’t know which kid to drop faster. To be honest, I assumed the Heat would make the decision easy by caving like they always do. They were closing in on the dreaded Point of No Return: five straight losses, some finger pointing, some crying, som- … wait, players cried? Yup. Players cried. Or so the coach said. With the Lakers coming to town, with a TNT audience watching, with Kobe looking to avenge a Christmas Day shellacking, with Bosh slowly turning into Private Pyle, with Miami’s crunch-time woes worsening to the point that I kept waiting for them to sign Karl Malone … it just seemed like the perfect time to break out a running diary.

From C. A. Clark, Silver Screen and Roll: If you were to tell me two weeks ago that the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat would play a hotly contested game, with a playoff atmosphere, and the game would be decided solely on the basis of who wanted it more, I would have just about bet the house on the Lakers winning the game. But circumstances change, and those circumstances (Miami on a 5-game losing streak, the Lakers on an 8-game winning streak) dictated that it was Miami that entered this game as the team desperate to taste victory. And so they did, out-crunching the Lakers and pulling out a 94-88 win that will stem the tide of all the panic press that has descended on South Florida. This was not what you would call a pretty game. Ironically, the 1.13 points per possession posted by the Heat looks fantastic, and the 1.06 PPP posted by L.A. is OK, too, but both of these numbers were driven by an insane level of offensive rebounding.

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: It was the night for the Miami Heat to show it could play with the big boys. And the Lakers weren’t quite big enough at the end. The slumping Heat rallied in the second half to beat the Lakers, 94-88, on Thursday night. It was not just a triumph of Miami’s speed over the Lakers’ size, as in the team’s first matchup on Christmas. This time, the Heat produced 46 points in the paint to the Lakers’ 30 to end the Lakers’ eight-game winning streak. “I hope to see them again sometime this year,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. The Lakers failed to execute down the stretch, when Miami coach Erik Spoelstra exploited them repeatedly with the same alignment of LeBron James as a decoy for Dwayne Wade to attack.

From Mike Bresnahan, LA Times: Andrew Bynum finally had a bad night. In a sign of how far the Lakers’ center had progressed, it was difficult to call 13 points and 12 rebounds a bad experience, but he insisted on it. “It took me a while to get going today. I don’t really know why,” Bynum said after the Lakers’ 94-88 loss Thursday to the Miami Heat. “I was roaming. I just wasn’t being quite as active. I’ll watch the tape a little bit.” Bynum saw his rebounding spree (50 in the previous three games) ease up a bit after he took only one before halftime. It was a main talking point of a fairly even first half: Bynum had only one rebound in almost 16 minutes? Turns out he sustained a minor injury, landing on the foot of a Heat player in the second quarter and saying he tweaked his right ankle.

From Kurt Helin, Pro Basketball Talk: Here is what you need to know about what Thursday night meant to the Lakers, and why Kobe Bryant has pushed his teams to two consecutive titles. Thirty minutes after the Heat defeated the Lakers 94-88 in a game where Kobe’s shot was off after the first quarter (8-21 overall after starting 4-4) and his shot selection down the stretch was terrible, he was back on the court and started shooting. In an empty AmericanAirlines Arena after a tough game Kobe was putting himself through a workout and trying to fix his jumper. He was out there for an extended period just trying to fix what went wrong. In the end, both the Lakers and the Heat may be better because of what happened Thursday night.

They say it’s the contrasting styles that make the fight, and tonight we were blessed with a hell of a battle as the Heat outlasted the Lakers in a 94-88 victory in South Beach. The Heat, with their strong perimeter play were able to beat the Lakers in their own game — with their strong inside play and defense — were able to simultaneously end two of the most talked about streaks in recent NBA news.

After the Lakers last loss (to the Cavs, the obvious low point of their season, Darius wrote:

The Lakers got outworked by a team hell bent on revenge. The Cavs played hard, they played smart, and they took advantage of every opening the Lakers gave them.

Tonight, this game gave off a similar feel. The Lakers turned the ball over, the Heat turned them into layups. The Lakers gave up offensive rebounds, the Heat turned them into second chance points. The Lakers sagged off of shooters, the Heat turned them into 3-point opportunities. The Lakers missed easy buckets around the rim, the Heat turned them into defensive stops. Tonight, unlike their last loss to the Cavs, wasn’t about a lack of effort on either side of the ball, it was about the Heat taking advantage of the Lakers small lapses in their game plan and mental toughness. From Mario Chalmers hitting wide open threes to Mike Miller grabbing offensive rebounds to guards getting ripped on the perimeter, the Lakers continued to give the Heat small windows of opportunity to make plays. And with a game that remained as close as this one did, those miniscule windows of opportunity become increasingly more crucial as every second ticks off the clock.

Kobe was able to get going early, matching all eight of the Heat’s first eight points — all of which came off of Lakers turnovers. He got to the free throw line, hit his first three jumpers, including a contested three-pointer, looking as if he was going to have a nice rhythm for the game. While Kobe began to heat up, Miami was getting what they hadn’t got from their role players during their five-game losing streak — production. Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller hit four three-pointers in the first quarter, and along with Mike Bibby, shot 7-for-12 for the game.

In fact, the Heat bench was one of their major issues coming into tonight’s game, scoring a combined 14 points in the Heat’s last two losses. Tonight, that bench combined for 18 points, completely out-playing the Odom-Barnes-Blake-Brown foursome. Mike Miller contributed 12 points, on 4-for-6 shooting with three offensive rebounds (seven overall). Mike Bibby came off the bench and hit a couple of big threes and Zydrunas Ilgauskas had a couple of offensive rebounds that hurt the Lakers. The Lakers bench struggled for the majority of the night, shooting four-for-17 with nine rebounds and only one forced turnover. Lamar Odom wasn’t horrible, with all four of the Lakers’ field goals, but missed a few easy shots around the rim and gave up some rebounds that led to Heat second chance points from not boxing out.

The second half was about what the starting unit did or didn’t do. Going into the half, the Lakers had given up 55 points, putting the Heat at a much higher pace than any of the Lakers opponents during their eight-game winning streak. Defensively, the Lakers didn’t look themselves, but in the third quarter, the defense turned things up a bit, starting with Andrew Bynum. He made himself big in the paint, altering shots and cleaning up the glass. ‘Drew finished the third quarter with four points and seven rebounds after just one rebound in the whole first half. With ‘Drew in the middle altering shots and forcing the Heat slashers to take jumpers instead of attacking the rim, the Heat finished the quarter with only 13 points and the Lakers, at least on that end of the floor, like the team that hadn’t given up more than 87 points in five straight games.

The fourth quarter, things changed. Mike Bibby hit his two three pointers — one to tie the game, and the second time to give the Heat a three-point lead. With about 5:30 left to play, the Heat called a timeout, and came out of the timeout and executed down the stretch like they hadn’t in recent games. Dwyane Wade started attacking the rim, getting two straight layups. One possession later, Chris Bosh got to the rim for the Heat’s third straight layup. All of a sudden, the Lakers couldn’t get stops. On the Heat’s only missed shot after Chris Bosh’s layup, Wade grabbed the offensive rebound and got a short jumper out of it. The Lakers, on the other hand, couldn’t execute down the stretch. Kobe had a crucial turnover with about 1:30 left to play, the Lakers got three offensive rebounds after missed shots, and couldn’t convert on any of them. To put it in terms easy to understand, the Heat held the Lakers to three points in the last 3:20 of the game. All of Miami’s problems that kept them from winning a few of the games during their five game winning streak finally came together for them. They got stops, they got easy shots around the rim, and they got the win.

Tonight’s game definitely had a playoff atmosphere to it. Of course, this is one that we would have liked for the Lakers to bring home — and for the majority of the game, it felt as if the Lakers were going to take over at any point. It just never happened. The Lakers, for the most part, played hard. They just came across a very good team that was desperate for a win. Again, tonight’s game came down to the Lakers giving small opportunities to put points on the board throughout the game, and those opportunities built up into a six-point lead after 48-minutes of basketball. This isn’t a game that the Lakers can dwell on for too long, as they have the Dallas Mavericks (who are up on the Knicks by 12 as I type) in Dallas on Saturday and a game against Orlando on Monday. It’s going to be key for them to have a short memory and continue to improve as this is a team playing for playoff positioning, not to prove something in each individual game. For a team with championship aspirations, games like this are only a minor dent in a season that really won’t be summed up until their last game is played.