Archives For April 2012

Without Kobe Bryant for the 5th straight game, the Lakers sought their 4th straight win and got it taking down the Mavs 112-108. The win gave the Lakers a season sweep over Dallas and bumped their lead to 1.5 games in the Pacific Division over the Clippers. The Lakers seem to be finding their stride right now and in doing so, set up Kobe to come back to a primed team that looks like it can make some noise in the playoffs.

This was a great game to watch. It helped that the Lakers won, but just consider these things: the game, as it got going, had some playoff level intensity for two teams that are still battling for positioning in the west; the game went to overtime and had some fantastic shot making from both sides and some big defensive stops down the stretch; there were 17 lead changes in the back and forth affair with neither team really gaining an advantage for the final quarter plus overtime.

From the Lakers side, it’s difficult to come up with a player that didn’t impact the game in some positive way. Steve Blake’s boxscore shows 4 points and 2 assists, but he played hard on D chasing a red hot Jason Terry off shots that, based of how he was playing, likely would have gone in.  Josh McRoberts was more productive – in terms of raw stats – than usual, scoring 8 points and grabbing 4 rebounds in his 17 minutes of burn while also bringing his usual energy and aggressiveness. He also had a nifty bounce pass on a high/low entry to Bynum that led to FT’s that was quite memorable for it’s precision. Only players with good feel can make that pass and McRoberts certainly has that.

When looking at the rest of the players that saw action, you could pull any name from the hat and find that he helped secure the victory in a major way…

  • Ramon Sessions had 22 and 5 on the night and was huge down the stretch of regulation. He scored 5 points in the final three and a half minutes and without that burst of O, there likely isn’t an overtime and the Lakers lose in regulation.
  • Andrew Bynum didn’t have the best shooting night (9-24) in getting his 23 points, but he made 4 of his 7 shots in the 4th quarter and overtime, scoring 10 points along the way. His final basket was his biggest, though, as he knocked down a sweet turnaround jumper from the a step inside the foul line, getting separation from Haywood after a hard shoulder fake that’s become a staple of his growing arsenal. When you add in his 16 boards and the fact that he did all his work with an upper respiratory infection, he deserves his due even though is overall efficiency on O left us wanting.
  • Ron Artest had another good scoring night with 18 points, though he needed 20 shots to get them. He did chip in 6 rebounds and 4 assists too. But, it was his 2nd half defense that was a difference maker. In the 1st half, Delonte West had 16 points on 8 for 11 shooting, doing most of his damage in the P&R as his man got caught on picks without recovering. In the 2nd half and overtime, Delonte West had 4 points on 1-4 shooting. What changed? Ron Artest guarded him in that second half, that’s what. Of course the team D was better on West as well, but it started with Ron fighting over screens, using active hands to disrupt passing angles, and basically making it hard for West to even catch the ball.
  • Pau Gasol put up 20 and 10 but hit the two biggest shots of the game – back to back three pointers(!), both of which turned one point deficits into two point leads.
  • Matt Barnes flirted with a triple double finishing with 11 points, 11 rebounds, and 8 assists by playing his typical scrappy, heady game. But it was the defensive play he made on the Mavs’ final possession that will be remembered most. With Dallas only trailing by 2, they ran a P&R with Jason Terry finding daylight to the rim with no one in his way. Barnes rotated to him at the last second, made him double clutch, and ultimately bothered the shot enough that Terry missed right at the rim. The game easily could have been tied and headed to a 2nd OT had Barnes not stepped up, but he did.

Of course not everything was perfect in this game and there are still things the Lakers must do better. Their P&R defense still needs a lot of work as Bynum – especially in the 1st half – sat well below the screen and gave up countless mid-range jumpers that were made too often. When you combine Bynum’s hanging back with Sessions going under screens all too often, the result was even more open jumpers. And when guys weren’t going under screens, they were getting caught on them way too easily, often times forcing a switch that left small on big and vice versa. Down the stretch Dirk got several good looks taking jumpers against Sessions because Ramon couldn’t get over the screen and ended up having to stay on Dirk.

The offense also took a fair amount of time to find any sort of rhythm. Early on, the sets were disjointed as the bigs didn’t fight for post position and the ball didn’t move well enough to make a sagging defense pay. The Lakers also looked all too eager to shoot the first shot that seemed open rather than working for a better one, only to later pass up good shots in order to move the ball on to less open teammates (this was especially true with the 2nd unit). Over time this was smoothed out (especially in the 3rd quarter where Ron really got going) but it was a bit concerning to see them struggle with the same defensive scheme they’ve seen from the Mavs all year.

In the end though, this was a great game for the Lakers that shouldn’t be nit picked too much. They played without Kobe and got their 4th straight win (and 3rd straight over a playoff team). If they can continue to fine tune their defense and focus on getting good shots on offense, this team really is dangerous.

Records: Lakers: 38-22 (3rd in the West), Mavericks: 34-26 (6th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers: 106.1 (8th in the NBA), Mavericks: 102.8 (23rd in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers: 103.6 (13th in the NBA), Mavericks: 101.4 (7th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Devin Ebanks, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Mavericks: Jason Kidd, Delonte West, Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood
Injuries: Lakers: Kobe Bryant (out), Jordan Hill (out); Mavericks: Rodrigue Beaubois (questionable)

The Lakers Coming In: The Lakers woke up Sunday winners of three straight (all sans Kobe Bryant, whose enflamed shin has sidelined him for the last four and will likely do so again on Sunday) and seven of their last ten, and in sole possession of the second best mark out West over that stretch. Sadly, however, the best mark (8-2) is shared by the team directly ahead of them in the standings (the Spurs) and the two (the Clippers and Grizzlies – 1 and 2.5 games behind, respectively) nipping at their heels.

On the plus side – setting aside concerns about the Lakers’ cyborg superstar (the dude that’s suited up, played and played well with virtually every manner of non-fatal ailment known to basketball-playing man) missing his fifth consecutive game in the midst of a playoff-positioning charge, because, well, y’know, the alternative is kinda freaky – the Lakers have received some outstanding play from the rest of the crew. As one would expect from the West’s most daunting frontcourt duo, Andrew Bynum (21.3 points, 16.3 rebounds and 2 blocks per game in the last three, including a silly 30-board explosion in San Antonio) and Pau Gasol (a tidy 20-10 and 2) have stepped up admirably in Kobe’s absence.

Additionally, however, the supporting cast has turned in a series of strong performances. In the starting lineup, while Ramon Sessions (11.3 and 5.7 assists) has remained steady and solid, Metta World Peace had brought nothing short of his A-game in the Lakers’ last two victories, netting a season-high 26 (including 5-of-8 3-pointers) against the Spurs, and following it up with 14 points, 8 rebounds and 5 steals Friday night against the Nuggets.

Meanwhile, Matt Barnes has provided a welcome spark to the second unit. Barnes has not only averaged 15.3 and 8 rebounds over his last three (including his best game as a Laker on Friday night – 24 and 10, including a perfect 4-of-4 on 3s), he’s locked in from the outside, making 8-of-13 (!!) from beyond the arc and is distributing the ball without turning it over, handing out 15 assists and committing just 7 turnovers in his last five games.

Assuming the extended absence is simply attributable to Kobe shelving the bulletproof act in the interest of peaking in the postseason, the past week will prove invaluable as this team moves forward. While sights would undoubtedly be set on a lower target were the Lakers to enter the postseason Kobeless, for the rest of the team to prove –to themselves and to the rest of the league – that they can win, sometimes comfortably, on the road, against playoff-caliber opposition without Kobe is a huge boost.

The Mavericks Coming in: The Mavericks take the floor at Staples in a situation similar to that of the Lakers. Like their Sunday hosts, the Mavs are firmly ensconced in their half of the West playoff bracket (unlike the Lakers, however, Dallas is in the bottom half), but not set in stone with regard to positioning. The Mavericks, currently the West’s #6 seed (and at the moment slated for a playoff rematch with the Lakers), trail the Grizzlies by a game and a half and lead the Nuggets and Rockets (who face one another tonight) by the same margin.

Currently 0-7 on the road against currently winning at a .600+ clip (great stat, via Arash Markazi on Twitter) and staring down the barrel of a 4-0 regular season sweep at the hands of the Lakers, the Mavericks will be beneficiaries of the opposing injury report (they were spared trying to stop LaMarcus Alridge on Friday) for the second straight game.

After a slow start, Dirk Nowitzki has rounded into form (maybe not the transcendent form of last spring, but definite All-Star form), with 51 points in his last two games on just 37 shot attempts, averaging 21.2 per game (on 46%/36%/88.5% from FG/3-pt/FT – how’s that for an off year?) after a month of March in which he hit nearly 45% of his 3-pointers and over 92% of his free throws en route to 25.2 per game. In the three previous meetings between these teams, Dirk is averaging 24 and 9.7 in just 35 minutes per game. Barring a cameo from the 2011 iteration, holding Dirk to these averages and focusing on shutting down the remainder of what is now an offensively challenged lot (Jason Terry is a threat, but Jason Kidd, a nicked up Roddy Beaubois, Shawn Marion, whatever is left of Vince Carter, Brandan Wright and Ian Mahinmi? Meh) should prove sufficient for a Laker victory.

Mavericks blogs: For the latest news and some great insight on the Mavs, check out the work done by The 2-Man Game and Mavs Moneyball.

Keys to the Game: FEED. THE. BEAST. It’s really awesome to see Brandan Wright’s career finally get rolling, Ian Mahinmi is a nice player and Brendan Haywood is, well, big, but Tyson Chalder ain’t walking through that door. The key to victory over these Mavs – as it would be with Kobe in the lineup, but particularly with him out – will be to dominate the paint through Andrew Bynum.

With Kobe in a suit, however, the Mavs will utilize their zone defense to pack the paint and force the Lakers to settle for the contested 3-point attempts that will be in far greater supply. This will ratchet up the pressure on the Lakers’ remaining wings (MWP, Barnes), along with Pau Gasol, to loosen that grip from the free throw line area, by both making mid-range jumpers to keep the defense honest and executing crisp, decisive entry passes to Bynum when the opportunity is present.

An additional challenge presented by Kobe’s absence is that Shawn Marion, the Mavs’ best defender (held Kobe to 29 points, on 10-of-37 in 2 games this season; Kobe scored 30 in the game Marion missed) and wing rebounder, will be afforded the opportunity to focus his effort on crashing the boards and shutting down the likes of MWP and Barnes, without fear of a Mamba strike. If he is allowed to dictate the terms under which he will be involved in this game, Marion will be a thorn in the Lakers’ side. It is vital that the Lakers a) keep Marion off the boards as best they can, while b) making him work as hard as possible on the defensive end, by running him off of screen, making him defend post-ups, run him off of screens.

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

Box Score: Lakers 103, Nuggets 97
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 110.8, Nuggets 104.3
True Shooting %: Lakers 63.3%, Nuggets 50.9%

For the fourth straight game, the Lakers were going to be without Kobe Bryant, who was still out with tuberculosis or whatever that shin injury is called. Looks like it was up to the other guys to step it up again. Also, Coach Mike Brown didn’t coach due to personal reasons. John Kuester, former Detroit head man, had the reins for tonight. I almost expected a mutiny.

And, yes, I totally expected Andrew Bynum to get 35 rebounds in this game.

The Good:
He didn’t. But Bynum ended up with 30 points and was actually efficient in his shooting. He went 11 for 19 on the field and he got to the stripe, too (8 for 11). Granted, it wasn’t exactly pretty early on for Bynum and we’ll get to that later. Oh, and he had eight rebounds. Disappointment.

Against San Antonio, it was Metta World Peace that achieved his Laker career high. Tonight? It was Matt Barnes. He scored 24 points and pulled down 10 caroms (tied for the Laker high!). Yeah, I’m kinda disappointed he doesn’t have much of the El DeBarge hairstyle anymore but he was certainly getting into the rhythm of the night. Barnes hustled everywhere and made all four of his shots behind the arc. They don’t win this game without his potent scoring (YES) and scrappiness. He should’ve worn a hockey mask tonight.

Speaking of Metta, he started off fast on the offensive end. He eventually ended the game with 14 points but his hands were a bigger factor today as he ended up with 5 steals. And he also grabbed 8 boards. The small forwards for the Lakers are kicking it into high gear.

Pau Gasol didn’t have the best scoring game (14 points) but he did have ten boards and three swats. He also helped move the ball around with 5 of the Lakers’ 25 assists. Ramon Sessions struggled but he had a decent line at 7-4-6. And Steve Blake had his third consecutive good game with 7 points, 3 assists, and 2 steals off the pine.

And, of course, Staples Center fans got tacos and the Laker fans on the internet got virtual tacos. Plus the Lakers clinched a playoff spot with the win so don’t panic about that!

The Bad:
Bynum continues to have his issues with double teams (his frustrations probably made him get lax on D in the first half). The Nuggets came back a few times when they started quintuple-teaming (relax… I could get hyperbolic) Bynum even before he receives the ball. Of course, when they stopped doing that, Bynum made them pay.

Andre Miller has a YMCA game that can never be beat. He had a 20-6-6 line. He’s virtually had the same game since he was in college and probably when he was 8 months old. It never ceases to amaze me. And Al Harrington always seems to do well against the Lakers. Al Harrington finished with 18 points and reminded everybody that turtles fight with honor.

The Spurs only had ONE offensive board in the previous game. Tonight? The Nuggets had EIGHTEEN (in overall rebounds, the Lakers still won, 45-40). The Lakers forgot to box out Manimal (Kenneth Faried) and Pierre (JaVale McGee). They combined for 11 offensive boards.

Also, I’d like to know the stats for most double-digit games blown in a season. I believe the Lakers lead in that department. They were up as many as 15 points. Oh, Lakers. You’re so Hollywood. You just have to keep making it dramatic. If I wanted drama, I’d go rewatch my Melrose Place DVDs.

Lastly, I was hoping JaVale McGee would do something moronic. He didn’t and he actually had a very good game (14 points off 7/9 shooting and 10 boards). Though his only misses on the field were critical tip-ins that were botched late in the game.

The Ugly:
Turnovers were the story. The Lakers ended up with 22 giveaways. Gasol had six and Bynum had four. What was maddening was their post entry passes. If messing up a post entry pass was a crime, we’d have a bunch of Lakers in jail now.

Also, it’s amazing that the Nuggets had SIXTY-EIGHT points in the paint. 68 out of their 97. The Nuggets had 21 fastbreak points so even without those, that’s still a ridiculous amount of points in the paint. How about that vaunted frontcourt, eh, Lakers? Oh, well. It was a good thing that the Lakers didn’t get into a shootout/track meet with the Nuggets because that would’ve been disastrous.

The Play Of The Game:
I will go with the steal and the dunk by MWP in the first quarter. It really shows that he’s healthy, too. Keep doing that thang.

The Lakers are now 1 1/2 games ahead of the #4 Clippers. At this point, they’re probably not going to get any higher than the third seed. So they’ll have to keep playing their ball and continue to have momentum as the playoffs inch closer. They may not have Kobe again in their next game. But it’s probably a good thing as his teammates gain more confidence and Bean gets some much-needed rest.

The Lakers’ next game is against the Mavericks on a Sunday matinee. Great. We all know how the Lakers do on a Sunday afternoon. If it doesn’t rain, maybe you’re better off chillin’ in the park and waiting for the sun to go down along with your homies…

Have a great weekend. Even with this ridiculous wind going on in Southern California.

Records: Lakers 37-22 (3rd in the West), Nuggets 32-26 (7th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.0 (9th in the NBA), Nuggets 108.5 (3rd in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.6 (13th in the NBA), Nuggets 106.5 (23rd in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Devin Ebanks, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Nuggets: Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Kosta Koufos
Injuries: Lakers: Kobe Bryant (out), Jordan Hill (out); Nuggets: Wilson Chandler (doubtful), Rudy Fernandez (out)

The Lakers Coming in: The Laker have won two in a row and seven of their last ten. Through that stretch they’ve provided their typical up and down play, but have been putting together enough winning performances to keep their hold on the Pacific Divsion lead and, with that, the 3rd seed in the West.

The most recent win, though, was one of their best of the year. The Spurs had been playing some of their best ball of the year but the Lakers went into their house, defended and rebounded like mad men, and controlled the contest from the outset. And they did it all without Kobe Bryant who missed his third straight game with a bad shin – which will keep him out tonight as well. Of course, the Spurs game was only one game but the ingredients that went into that win – ball movement on offense, effort and intensity on defense – are ones that can be used as the foundation for future success. It’s my hope that it happens.

The Nuggets Coming in: The Nuggets have won three of four and are looking to keep that momentum going as the playoffs near and they fight for a berth in the second season. They’re currently 7th in the West and need every win they can get to ensure they not only make the playoffs but earn a favorable seeding and match up.

This Nuggets team is different than the one the Lakers saw the last time they matched up, however. Nene has been traded to the Wizzards for JaVale McGee, and that move has dramatically changed their front court rotation. Starting in Nene’s place Kosta Koufos while rookie Kenneth Faried has nabbed the starting PF spot. McGee sees time as a back up but this front court shake up has led to solid results mostly because Faried (who’s nicknamed “the Manimal”) has shown so much promise. I’ll let David Thorpe explain further in his rookie rankings (where he current has Faried ranked #2):

Faried reminds me of Udonis Haslem when he was a rookie in that Faried is light and thin but ultra-tough and competitive. He’s proved to be even more athletic than I expected, routinely making plays above the rim on offense and defense while still being expert at the grimy plays. His next step, though, is understanding and anticipating the game. He needs to learn how to use his mind to sniff out an action before it happens, or know exactly where to move on offense so a teammate can earn a better shot or make an easier pass. Faried gets lost on defense in part because he moves so fast, so thinking while slowing down and reading the sets will actually help keep him in better position longer.

When you add Faried to what is still a very good roster, the Nuggets are able to match up well with most teams while imposing their style of play on their opponents. Their hope is that this translates to a post-season berth and success once there.

Nuggets Blogs: Head over to Roundball Mining Company for all your news and analysis on the Nuggs.

Keys to the game: With Nene now gone, the Nuggets have become a more extreme version of the team they once were. They no longer run much of their offense through the post and instead push the pace even more and depend on their wings to provide their offensive production.

This translates to the Lakers needing to focus even more on transition defense and in slowing down Denver’s slew of perimeter threats. And it all starts with Ty Lawson. One of the fastest guards in the league, Lawson will punish teams in transition by pushing the ball at every opportunity. He’ll first look to get to the rim for his own shot but is equally capable of setting up his teammates for good looks around the perimeter. Afflalo, Gallo, and Harrington are all capable of getting hot from behind the arc and all will need to be marked in transition when they run to the three point line.

In the half court, the Lakers are once again facing a P&R heavy team with PG’s that can hurt them in a variety of ways. I’ve mentioned Lawson’s speed and quickness, but he’s also an able shooter that can hit the three point shot when given room. The Lakers must contain him coming around the corner and rotate to shooters that will attempt to space the floor to give him driving lanes. The Lakers must also deal with Andre Miller at the point. He’s also a P&R threat but will try to do a lot of his damage from the post where he’s a strong and crafty player that can create his own shot while also picking out teammates when help comes. Dealing with Miller down low will be a challenge and it will be interesting to see if the Lakers put a bigger defender on him in the hopes of disrupting his post game.

The Lakers must also pay special attention to the trio of Gallo, Afflalo, and Harrington. The two former have been playing strong ball and are major threats from behind the arc. Afflalo is a marksman from the corner and has shown a comfort expanding his game to put the ball on the ground and attack when the closeout isn’t disciplined. Gallo is a true all-court threat that relies on his jumper to set up the rest of his game. He can attack off the dribble, work some from the post when a small defender is on him, and is a good passer too. As for Harrington, he has a torn meniscus but is playing through it and remains a threat from behind the arc. Earlier this year his ability to hit shots befuddled the Lakers and whoever guards him (Pau, McRoberts) will need to stick with him but should also test his ability to drive and not just let him shoot spot up J’s.

Offensively, without Kobe, the plan will again be to go into the post to Bynum and Gasol. Bynum has an advantage against Koufos and should be able to use his superior length and his power to get good shots should he work to earn position. Against McGee, Bynum should also be able to get good looks but against the taller, more athletic defender, Bynum will need to use his niftiness around the hoop. Counters, head fakes, and moves to the baseline where he uses the rim as protection should serve him well.

Gasol should also be able to do solid work against Faried. While the rookie is an explosive leaper with good length, he’s giving up several inches to Pau and that should mean work around the post can be executed more easily. If Pau can hit a few jumpers, he should then move to the left block against Faried and use his height advantage to get off his shot – especially his hook as that will be a harder shot to challenge.

The other key on offense will be ball movement. In the last two games, the ball has moved freely and it’s led to good looks from a variety of Lakers. Ron has benefitted most as he’s gotten the ball in rhythm and been able to explore more of his offensive game, working his mid-range and post game more often instead of just standing in the corner. Of course, a lot of this ball movement will be based off the play of Sessions. Ramon should be able to work the P&R, probe the defense, and work to get good shots for himself by penetrating the lane or using the space the D is sure to give him to shoot open jumpers. If Ramon can use his speed to penetrate the lane it should lead to nothing but good things for the Lakers.

Lastly, the Lakers will need to ensure the floor is balanced on offense in order to aid in their transition to defense. Denver plays at the 2nd fastest pace in the league and, as mentioned earlier, will push the ball every chance they get. If it doesn’t lead to lay ins and dunks, they’ll also run early offensive actions to get them into their sets quickly where they can get quality shots. The Lakers must defend against this on one end and then avoid getting caught up playing at such a quick pace on the other end. If they can do these things, their chances of winning go up dramatically.

The first game back from a road trip can often be a tricky one. The comforts of home can lead to a lack of focus in that first game so the Lakers must battle against this and bring the proper level of energy and effort. If they do, they can extend their streak to three straight.

Where you can watch: 7:30PM start time on Fox Sports West. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.Keys to game:

 

Friday Forum

Dave Murphy —  April 13, 2012

Carried on the broad backs on Andrew Bynum and Metta World Peace, the Lakers plowed deep into the trough of a massive breaker in San Antonio, emerging triumphant on the other side and heading for home. It was a perfect storm of a game, and might have been their best one of the season. Yesterday, our Darius wrote this:

But the chemistry is budding. Connections are being made. It’s seen when a mistake occurs and players exchange ideas and knowingly nod in agreement about what should have happened.

Much agreed. It’s been a strange up and down year, and not just for the Lakers. Regardless, they seem to be transforming in front of our eyes. Nobody can guess how far they’ll go, but they’re a team to be reckoned with.

Andy Kamenetzky at the Land O’Lakers, asks if Steve Blake has rediscovered his game.

The Land O’Lakers game preview with Jeremy Wagner from the excellent Roundball Mining Company blog.

Dave McMenamin at ESPN writes about MWP and a matter of tempo

C.A. Clark at Silver Screen and Roll examines the case of Kobe Bryant’s mortality.

SoCalGirl at Silver Screen and Roll takes a look at the home stretch.

Elliott Teaford of the Daily News, brings us Pau Gasol’s thoughts about consistency

Mike Bresnahan at the L.A. Times, reports that Andrew Bynum’s 30-board night, was not a surprise to Elgin Baylor.

Kevin Ding at the OC Register, reveals that Andew Bynum dwelt on shooting woes in the Spurs game, rather than accept credit for his monumental effort on the boards

Kurt Helin at ProBasketballTalk, reports that Lamar Odom is no longer in the running for an Olympics spot.

Ryan Ward at Lakers Nation, writes about MWP’s back issues, which nearly forced him into retirement.

The Denver Nuggets, currently in the west’s eighth playoff slot, visit Staples tonight. Kobe will reportedly sit out again. Let’s hope the Lakers use their victory against the Spurs as motivation to continue crashing the boards, and playing hard without him. On a side note, there’s been a lot of news this week about Lamar leaving the Mavericks, and returning home. He’s been distanced from the game since leaving Los Angeles, and has caught a fair amount of flack in the media very recently. He’s been going through a rough stretch. I hope he finds his game again.

– Dave Murphy

The Celtics?

Don’t break your computer monitor or gouge your eyes out just yet and hear me out.

Back in the 2007-08 season, the Celtics were a newly constructed team that was supposed to compete for the championship. They had a franchise stalwart (Pierce), two young players who were homegrown in their system (Rondo and Perkins), and had executed two trades to acquire two elite veterans that would solidify their line up with leadership and high-level play (Garnett and Allen). As Lakers fans know all too well, this group ended up doing exactly what they were formed to do by winning the title that season in a six-game playoff series. Their “big three plus one” model got them the championship they sought. They came together quickly, experienced some rocky moments along the way, but finished strong.

Fast forward to today.

Since the trade deadline, the Lakers have been a team remade. The addition of Ramon Sessions has given the Lakers a dimension they sorely lacked – a playmaking point guard whose multifaceted game can fill in the gaps on offense. He can score, he can assist, and – most importantly – he can control the flow of the game as a true floor general. The Lakers no longer have to rely solely on the abilities of Kobe Bryant as a wing operator to dictate how the offense plays out. Sessions can now operate with the ball in his hands during any part of the shot clock and ensure that a quality look at the basket is created.

He pushes the pace when need be and slows it down when nothing is there. He organizes the offense and picks apart defenses by finding teammates in positions where they can succeed. He can make his opponent pay by getting baskets of his own and does a lot of his damage in the paint when the D pays too much attention to his more celebrated teammates.

Teammates like Kobe, Pau, and Bynum. Guys that have been all-stars and all-NBA many times over. Guys that franchises are built around. Guys that still put up elite numbers and are two-way threats. Together, these players now have their own “big three plus one.”  The question is, how far can they take it?

The answer will be entirely dependent on two factors: how they can mesh together and how seriously they play defense.

Wednesday’s game against the Spurs offers hints at the latter. San Antonio possesses the 2nd most efficient offense in the league, but the Lakers held them to 15 points fewer  than their normal output (per 100 possessions). In other words, last night the Lakers defense made the Spurs offense look like the Bobcats’. Andrew Bynum controlled the paint by contesting shots and grabbing nearly every available rebound. Ron Artest played physical and opportunistic defense on the wing. Pau offered a second 7-footer to contest shots and rebound, while Barnes, Blake, and Sessions did above average jobs on the Spurs’ wing threats. The Lakers played hard, smart defense. They dug a hole and proceeded to bury the Spurs in it.

How this team meshes is another matter. Being cobbled together in the manner that they have been reminds me more of the 2008 Lakers than the C’s. While it’s difficult to equate Sessions’ impact to Gasol’s, the Lakers have added – at a relatively late part of the season – a key piece at a position of need that has elevated their play on offense. With that addition, roles are shifting and players are being asked to fit together and perform in ways that they aren’t yet fully comfortable.

But the chemistry is budding. Connections are being made. It’s seen when a mistake occurs and players exchange ideas and knowingly nod in agreement about what should have happened. It’s seen when adjustments are mapped out in the huddle, then executed on the fly on the next possession. It’s seen when players vouch for each other after games in interviews with the media or, on the flip side, provide critique of a performance that will need to be adjusted moving forward. This team is growing together.

The pieces, positions, and personalities may not be the same. The Venn diagram of skill sets and approach may not show as much overlap as it could. But when I look at the 2012 Lakers, I see a bit of the 2008 Celtics and while it makes me a bit nauseous, it’s also a bit exciting. That Celtic team showed that by playing together they could simultaneously harness their individual talent and maximize team success. They showed that by playing for each other on both sides of the floor they could get the stops they needed, while scoring the baskets that were required to win. They traveled a rocky path to the Finals, but once there showed they had the extra gear that every champion needs.

This Lakers team has those same ingredients. Can they find the chemistry? Can they play the defense? Can they overcome their weaknesses, maximize their strengths, and play for each other? Only time will tell, but with the talent, experience, and burgeoning abilities of key players I wouldn’t count them out yet.

Box Score: Lakers 98, Spurs 84
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 110.1, Spurs 94.4
True Shooting %: Lakers 53.5%, Spurs 50.6%

The Lakers faced San Antonio for the first time this season. Kobe was still out. The Spurs rested Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili in the previous game so they would feel more fresh. We kinda joked that the Austin Toros would keep it close against the Lakers, who barely escaped the Hornets’ nest a couple of nights ago. What followed was a complete surprise.

The Good:
Andrew Bynum. Andrew Bynum. Andrew Bynum. THIRTY REBOUNDS IN THE GAME (easily breaking the season high in rebounds of 25 by Dwight Howard and… wait for it… Ersan Ilyasova!). Bynum absolutely owned the paint on both ends. Owned it so much that it felt like the single offensive rebound by the Spurs (yes, they only had ONE) was a pity board. But I suppose the Spurs can feel better that they would’ve outrebounded the Lakers if Bynum wasn’t there. The board count? The Lakers had a 60-33 whoopin’. SIXTY. 16-1 on the offensive boards, by the way. Of course, with Bynum’s domination on the boards, Pau Gasol looks lazy in comparison. Our favorite Spanish forward only had 11 rebounds. SLACKER.

Not only did Andrew Bynum get a career high in rebounds (Darius also noted that Bynum didn’t foul at all in the game!), but Metta World Peace had his best scoring game as a Laker. He scored 26 points and, at one point, made five straight field goals in the 3rd that included a series of fadeaway jumpers. He even made an old-school flat-footed 3-point set shot with the shot clock running down. Metta had smoke coming out of his fingers. I wish that Bill MacDonald knew his NBA Jam terms, though. Three in a row is not heating up, Billy Mac; that’s ON FIRE.

Pau Gasol had a terrible start, shooting-wise, but the Spurs got into even deeper water when Pau started making his jumpers in the 4th quarter. He had 21 points to end the game and, like Bynum, owned the paint as well. It’s just that we can’t appreciate Pau’s performance as much if Bynum (who also had 16 points) was basically being Pac-Man by eating rebounds as if they were ghosts.

Matt Barnes continued his hustle with 13 points, 6 boards, and 4 dimes. He also hit 3 3-pointers in the first half, which got most of us Laker fans afraid that they might depend on that 3 a little too much. But the ball rotation was so good that they had such good looks, we’d get mad if they didn’t take them. Steve Blake finished with 10-3-3 in his second consecutive good game, including a 3 that basically Austin 3:16’d San Antonio and the Laker fans that have been down (to put it kindly) on his game.

The ball movement was quite a sight. They had 23 assists on 40 field goal makes.

And the Lakers were swarming on D, particularly inside the paint. They made Tony Parker shoot difficult shots (2/12) and were getting in the face of most of their shots from inside to the midrange. The Spurs shot 40.7% overall and only scored 41 points after the half. San Antonio couldn’t deal with the Lakers’ size (insert terrible enlargement pills joke here).

Andrew Bynum and Metta World Peace should be able to listen to ‘N SYNC or Celine Dion as loud as they want in the locker room the next few nights after their fantastic performances. Steve Blake should’ve given Bynum the ball so he could shoot a 3 (I’m sure you guys noticed how Bynum ‘guarded’ Steve on the final seconds).

This feels like the most complete Laker game this season. Maybe tomorrow, Kobe Bryant will be amnestied.

The Bad:
The Lakers have had trouble covering the perimeter for years now and this is no exception. The Spurs hit 13 treys in the game but that was pretty much the only weapon the Spurs had.

Ramon Sessions (LATE EDIT: HAPPY BIRTHDAY!) was a little bit out of control even though he still had a decent game. Since the Lakers owned this game, I suppose we can give Sessions a pass with his four turnovers.

The Spurs did a great job fronting the post against the Lakers in the 2nd quarter. The Lakers had trouble with that for a while and if I was a San Antonio fan, I would wonder why they went away from that.

It’d be nice if the Lakers can kick teams while they’re down. When up 23, punch them in the face and go for a 30-point lead. When up 50, kick them in the groin and go for a 60-point lead. When up 127, leave C4s on their backs and go for a 180-point lead. You get the picture.

I’m also the last person to harp on referees (well, Darius might fight me to the death on this one) but the Spurs could Dragon Punch Andrew Bynum in the face and they still wouldn’t call a foul. Maybe they felt sorry for the Spurs.

The Ugly:
Good grief, Boris Diaw is a big boy. Imagine him dancing. Yeah, I thought you would like that image.

The Play Of The Game:
I will take MWP’s flat-footed three-pointer early in the fourth. That’s when you knew that everything was going right. You actually kinda wonder if Kobe’s spirit actually went inside Metta’s body. It was a sight to behold.

In a way, this game makes me angry. You saw how Bynum was so dominant on the glass. You kinda wish he would stop loafing around so he can average around 15 boards a game (30 boards a game?). It’s obviously a bit hard for Bynum to score with no Bean on the court but he has to be patient and not get so frustrated on both ends. Pass it out, repost, rinse, lather, repeat until a good shot comes along from the team. We all assume Bynum’s going to own this team beyond the Kobe Bryant era. Hopefully, he’ll figure it out. He’s a smart kid.

If this was any indication on how well the Lakers can play, the Spurs better know what they’re facing. They’re going to face each other twice more in the season. Of course, Gregg Popovich could just be a total jerk, kill a thousand people, then sit his stars down.

Meanwhile, the Lakers start a three-game homestand on Friday. They draw the Denver Nuggets. Of course, we would like to see the effort and execution they had earlier tonight against Ty Lawson and company. They can’t depend on Danilo Gallinari missed lay-ups and JaVale McGee bloopers that would make him an America’s Funniest Home Videos staple; the Lakers gotta bring it. With or without Kobe.

Enjoy the win. I know my dinner tasted better after that. Even if it was just a measly chicken sandwich.

Records: Lakers 36-22 (3rd in the West), Spurs 40-15 (2nd in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.9 (11th in the NBA), Spurs 109.6 (2nd in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.8 (13th in the NBA), Spurs 103.5 (12th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Devin Ebanks, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Spurs: Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw
Injuries: Lakers: Kobe Bryant (out); Spurs: none

The Lakers Coming in: Where to begin? Kobe is injured and will miss his 3rd straight game. The Lakers defense is trending down. Mike Brown has pulled Devin Ebanks from the depths of the bench to play in Kobe’s stead while Andrew Goudelock continues to not see any minutes. Andrew Bynum’s FG% has suffered in recent games as he struggles to deal with the varied looks defenses are sending at him. Meanwhile Pau Gasol seems to be finding his stride as the season winds down. Metta Ron-Ron is playing well and Steve Blake has started to find some aggression on offense. As a team, the Lakers can look very good for stretches (as they did in closing out the Hornets) or very bad for stretches (as they did in getting down by nearly double digits to the Hornets).

All of that was a long way of saying if you can tell me what to expect from the Lakers on from game to game – hell, from minute to minute in a game – you’re a better prognosticator than I. This team is consistently inconsistent in nearly everything they do and while that can be frustrating, it also makes every game interesting (for better or for worse). I just try to enjoy the ride the best I can, especially in a season that’s offered as many ups and downs as this one has.

The Spurs Coming in: Someone forgot to tell the Spurs they weren’t supposed to be this good. After earning a top seed in last year’s playoffs, the Spurs promptly lost in the 1st round to the upstart Grizzlies. This should have served as a blow to their confidence and their approach. Then, at the beginning of this year, Manu Ginobili broke his hand and was out for 6 weeks. This should have crippled their wing production as they were forced to rely on Danny Green (cast off from the lowly Cavs), Gary Neal, and rookie Kawhi Leonard (who was acquired via trade for the steady George Hill). When you add in Duncan continuing to age, roster changes that include a starter leaving and Boris Diaw arriving, and the turbulence of this condensed campaign, common thought would have the Spurs struggling to keep float in an ever competitive Western Conference.

Instead, they’re in 2nd place and only a game out of 1st. Instead, when everyone was writing their eulogy, they decided they’d bust through their plywood casket and tunnel back above ground like Beatrix Kiddo.

Credit Popovich’s steady hand and brilliant management of players minutes, roles, and egos. Credit Tony Parker, who once again is showing he’s one of the more impactful PG’s in a league full of difference makers at that spot. Credit Tim Duncan’s ability to fend off father time like he would a post defender for one more season. And credit all those role players who have stepped up and played well all season.

Before their most recent game (a loss to the Jazz where Popovich told Timmy, Manu, and Parker to stay at home) the Spurs had won 11 in a row. That was the 2nd time they’d done that this season.

Someone forgot to tell the Spurs they weren’t supposed to be this good.

Spurs Blogs: 48 Minutes of Hell is a fantastic site. Check them out. Also give a visit to Pounding the Rock.

Keys to game: Because this the first of three match ups against this team, I’m going bullet style with things I’ll be looking at tonight…

  • The Spurs take the 7th most threes per game, make the 2nd most, and shoot the 2nd best percentage from deep. Their roster is littered with players who can knock down the three ball and they play every position (Parker, Neal, Green, Ginobili, Jackson, Bonner, Diaw). Long story short, the Lakers must defend the three point line well tonight, especially the corner three. Rotations must be crisp and on time. Closeouts should force their shooters to put the ball on the ground and then funnel them to Bynum and Pau who must also rotate well to challenge mid-range jumpers and shots at the rim.
  • The Spurs are a P&R dominant team and use this action to set up a lot of their half court baskets. Parker is the primary handler in this set and he’s capable of turning the corner quickly to get into the paint and shoot his floater or get all the way to the rim and finish against size. The Lakers must hedge out to deny his driving lanes but must also be aware of his ability to split the hedge and burst into the paint quickly. This means proper angles must be taken to avoid giving him the corner or the split (I never said it would be easy). Rotations behind the initial hedge must be sharp. Parker (and Ginobili) are good passers out of this action and they love to suck in the D and then kick to the corners to open shooters.
  • Speaking of shooters, many of them worry me but none more so than Bonner. A Laker big (likely McRoberts or Gasol) will be on Bonner most of the night and that defender will have to balance helping in the paint and sticking to him as he floats around the arc. If the Lakers get sucked into the paint too easily, Bonner will be able to fire uncontested threes at his leisure and those are shots he will knock down.
  • Offensively, Bynum will need to rediscover his efficiency. He’s struggled making shots he normally does and tonight’s the night to correct that. I hope to see quick power moves after he works for deep position early in the shot clock. If he runs the floor well, he can battle Duncan and Splitter for real estate on the block and then use his size, strength, and length to get good shots.
  • Bynum will also see double teams tonight and he must work out of them quickly. If he makes the easy pass it will lead to re-posts and/or good ball movement that set up his teammates for good shots. He must understand that the best thing he can do is not force the action but rather force the defense into making hard choices. His job isn’t necessarily to beat the double himself but to make the play that ends up beating the double.
  • Gasol will need to keep his scoring touch going. I hope to see him use his length advantage against Diaw and his quick first step to create off the dribble when he’s isolated at the high post. Making a few jumpers will only open up his options so he must prove he can knock that shot down early and then build his attack off of that.
  • Sessions must attack Parker as often as possible and must use his speed to create opportunities in the open court when they present themselves. The Spurs aren’t a good offensive rebounding team, mostly because they want to get back in transition. However, that doesn’t mean they’re not vulnerable in this area. When Bonner and Splitter are on the floor they can be  run on and Sessions must recognize when he has the chance to be a one man fast break. Look for these chances most when Bonner is in the corner on offense and there’s a long rebound.
  • Sessions must also be smart in the P&R. If Diaw starts out on Gasol, I’d love to see a heavy dosage of 1/4 P&R’s to make Boris be a primary defender on this action. He doesn’t have the quickness to keep Sessions in front of him AND make his rotation back to the paint or to his man (who should be popping into space).

Without Kobe the Lakers are in a bit of a pickle tonight. They’ll be missing their primary wing threat and will need their bigs and Sessions to carry the offense. That said, Ron can do damage against this team with quick post ups and by knocking down the open three pointers that will be made available to him. Barnes and Blake will also need to hit some shots as those long jumpers will keep the defense honest and make sure Sessions has room to drive and the bigs have room to operate in the post. If the ball moves and shots fall, the Lakers can play with any team (even sans Kobe) and earn this win tonight. If they defend the three and make the Spurs take and make contested long two pointers, their chances of winning are even higher.

Getting a win tonight would be a good first step in the home stretch where they’ll see this team two more times after tonight. The Lakers know what it will take: effort, energy, and execution. Let’s see them get it done.

Where you can watch: 5:30pm start on KCAL. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.