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Let’s be honest. The NBA is a whole lot better when the Lakers and Celtics are formidable teams.

The rivalry has one characteristic that no other rivalry in sports has. Almost every major rivalry in sports started because of geography or the two teams being in the same division or conference.

USC-UCLA? Same city.

Bears-Packers? Four hour drive.

Redskins-Cowboys? Same division.

Red Sox-Yankees? Only a four hour drive, once again. (Though, the whole Babe Ruth sale and Curse of the Bambino was a unique twist. But the Curse is over and the rivalry has lost a bit of its luster.)

What about the Dodgers and Yankees? It’s nice that they’ve maintained their rivalry to some extent, but they used to be crosstown rivals. Doesn’t count.

Boston and Los Angeles are over 2,500 miles apart. They’ve never played in the same division and never will – let alone the same conference. These two teams are rivals based on one sole reason – they’ve met in the NBA Finals 11 times and have combined for 33 NBA titles and that’s what makes it the greatest rivalry in sports. The rivalry is based on the battle for league dominance, not geographical supremacy.

Unfortunately for all NBA fans, though, these two storied franchises aren’t exactly experiencing halcyon days in 2014. Combined, they’ve lost 24 of their last 27 games and have a greater interest in ping pong balls over the Larry O’Brien trophy this year.

They’ll meet tonight in the first of two games this regular season at the TD Garden in Boston. It’ll be the first time the two teams play each other since the post-KG era in Boston. The Lakers played 25 games (including playoffs) against the Celtics during the Garnett-Pierce-Allen era and won 13 games. They’ve won seven of their last 10 regular season games against the Green.

The Celtics received some good news when they learned that star point guard Rajon Rondo will make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers “barring any setbacks”. Having one of the best distributors in the game (averaged 11.3 assists per game over the last three seasons) will bring flow to the Celtics’ offense, which ranks 28th in assists this season. And although Rondo has been criticized for his shooting throughout his career (24.1 percent career three point shooter), he has a career two-point shooting percentage of 49.9 percent.

The Celtics made a three-way trade this week with Miami and Golden State, shipping their third-leading scorer, Jordan Crawford to Golden State for Joel Anthony and a pair of draft picks. They could potentially have three first round draft picks this summer and that could go up assuming they decide to trade Rondo, too.

On the court, the Celtics have been a solid mid-range shooting team this year. They’re 4th in shot attempts from 16-24 feet and have made 41.3 percent of those shots (8th best). However, their three-point shooting has been abysmal and Rondo isn’t going to change that. In their last 13 games, the Celtics have shot below 30 percent from beyond the arc. The team doesn’t really have size – their two tallest players, Kelly Olynyk and Vitor Faverani are both inexperienced rookies. In fact, Celtics centers have allowed a PER of 19.7 against opposing centers this year.

Aside from Rondo, the Celtics will look to Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, and Jared Sullinger for production. Green leads the team in scoring with 15.7 points per game. Bradley is a sharp shooter who has made 38.3 percent of his triples this season. Meanwhile, Sullinger leads the team in rebounding with 7.8 boards per game.

The Lakers march into Boston not having won since January 3 at home against the Jazz. They’ve lost 12 of their last 13 and  have made just 31.7 percent of their threes during that span. The Lakers have been reliant on three point shooting all year long. In wins, the Lakers have made 41 percent of their threes compared to just 33 percent in losses.

They’ll be without Nick Young tonight, who was suspended for throwing a punch at Phoenix’s Alex Len in Wednesday’s loss at the desert. That’s the last news the Lakers needed to hear as they’re already missing Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Xavier Henry, and Jordan Farmar. The Lakers rank fourth in terms of points per play on the Isolation. It’s going to be difficult for the Lakers to succeed in that department with Young out of the lineup since 23 percent of plays he runs are out of the ISO and the Lakers average 0.9 PPP when he runs it.

To replace Young, the Lakers signed Manny Harris to a ten-day contract yesterday. Harris leads the D-League in scoring with 30.6 points and had a 49 point performance earlier this month. With the roster depleted, don’t be surprised if Harris plays double-digit minutes in his Laker debut.

The Lakers are in for a tough one tonight especially with Rondo coming back for the C’s. If they’re going to win this game, they need to improve their three-point shooting. The team lives and dies by the three and they must take quality threes if they’re going to stay competitive in this game. When they’re not shooting threes, they need to use their two hottest players – Pau Gasol (19.7 points, 11.6 rebounds in January) and Kendall Marshall (three straight double doubles) – efficiently in the pick and roll.

Finally, the Lakers need to wake up after halftime. The Lakers have shot just 38 percent in 3rd quarters over the last 13 games and have been outscored by an average of 7.5 points in that span. Whether it’s lack of making adjustments or tiring out, the Lakers have to play a strong 48 minutes. If they do that, they can possibly squeak out a win on the road.

Week At A Glance

Andre Khatchaturian —  January 13, 2014

Nothing has gone right for the Lakers in the last 11 games. They’ve only won one game during that span and most of the losses have been ugly…and that’s putting it lightly. The team hasn’t lost 10 of 11 since 2005 — the last year they missed the playoffs.

Seven of the ten losses have been by margins greater than 10 points. Their latest loss was a 36-point drubbing from the Clippers. At one point in that game, the Lakers trailed by 43.

It doesn’t matter whether Laker fans are on board with tanking or not — the fact remains that the team rarely goes on slumps like these historically. Times are, of course, different these days. The team lacks confidence and has been marred with injuries all season long. In fact, only four Lakers have played in all 11 games during this horrid slump — Jodie Meeks, Jordan Hill, Nick Young, and Ryan Kelly.

It’s hard to find any bright spots because everybody is playing poorly — especially on defense. Over the last 11 games, there isn’t a single Laker who has a defensive rating below 100. Pau Gasol, who has been pretty solid offensively during the slump, has the worst defensive efficiency at 115.2.

Pardon me while I go vomit.

Every cloud has a silver lining, though. The silver lining throughout this slump has been the play of Kendall Marshall. Let’s rephrase that — the offensively play of Kendall Marshall. As awful as the Lakers have defended under Mike D’Antoni, he’s incredible in elevating the game of point guards. Marshall has thrived under D’Antoni’s system — averaging 0.92 points per play as the P&R Ball Handler. The team averages 0.7 points per play in P&R Ball Handler situations this year so it’s clear that Marshall has improved the P&R for the Lakers.

That’s where the good news ends, though. Even the proponents of Operation: Tank can’t be happy because the Lakers still aren’t bad enough. Along with the Kings and Jazz, there are still five Eastern Conference teams that have a worse record than the Lakers. This means that the probability that the Lakers land a top three pick are still pretty low.

It’s hard to imagine that the Lakers will continue their free fall. Kobe Bryant and Steve Blake should be back eventually – though it may be wise for the Lakers to begin considering perhaps shutting down Kobe for the rest of the season. That said, knowing Kobe’s competitiveness that probably won’t happen.

Until his return, the Lakers are in for a tough test. They begin their annual Grammy Road Trip this week when they head to Phoenix on Wednesday to start a string of seven games away from Staples Center. The road trip will begin after a home tilt against Cleveland tomorrow. They will also play against the Celtics at the Garden in one of the most storied rivalries in sports – a rivalry that can now be considered dormant because of the two teams’ performances this season.

Even in the Lakers’ best years, the Grammy Road Trip has given them fits. They went 6-0 in 2009 during their championship run, but aside from that year, they’re just 33-31 in the last 10 years (excluding 2009).

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Again, these were competitive Laker teams that made the playoffs essentially every year. This year’s Lakers will most likely struggle big time during the grueling trip which features a match against LeBron James and the Miami Heat in South Beach.

Week At A Glance

Andre Khatchaturian —  January 4, 2014

The Lakers wasted a tremendous opportunity this week to get back on track. They had two games against Utah and one each against Philadelphia and Milwaukee but they were only able to muster one win.

The loss against the Bucks essentially showed the country why pundits and Vegas had predicted the Lakers to have a win total in the low 30s this year. I don’t care how many injuries a team has – going down 14-0 in the first six minutes against the league’s worst team at home is inexcusable.

And the loss against the Sixers? That was a team who had just one road win all season and was suffering a 13-game road losing streak. Instead, the Lakers made Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young look like All-Stars in the loss.

The Lakers could have won 45 games this year and made the playoffs, but let’s be honest – these injuries haven’t helped at all. The Lakers used their sixth starting point guard in Friday’s win against the Jazz. The effort has been there, too. Guys like Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre, Kendall Marshall, Jordan Hill, and Xavier Henry have been doing their best all season long.

But that effort went away momentarily in the losses against the Jazz, Sixers, and Bucks. Those are games that can be won with effort alone. If the Lakers put the same energy they did in the Heat loss on Christmas, they would’ve been able to win.

In the Sixers loss, the Lakers outrebounded Philadelphia and held the Sixers to just 41 percent shooting. However, the Purple and Gold shot just 36 percent. They took 37 threes and made only 12 of them. They didn’t work hard to get good quality shots. They just bombed threes and missed them.

Then on New Years’ Eve, the Lakers were outrebounded by the Bucks, 51-39, and once again shot just 36 percent. Mike D’Antoni’s seeming disdain for Jordan Hill continued in that game as he only played him 11 minutes. That might explain why they were outrebounded by the fifth worst rebounding team in the league.

The Lakers finally woke up against the Jazz last night, though. Pau Gasol had a monstrous performance amidst the trade rumors of him going to Cleveland and Kendall Marshall became the newest point guard to elevate his stats under Mike D’Antoni. And let’s not act like he’s the next Magic Johnson – the Lakers were playing the Jazz. Nonetheless, it was an admirable performance by a guy who went from starting in the D-League to starting for the Lakers in less than a month.

The Lakers may have snapped their six-game losing streak this week, but now stand at 14-19 with a brutal schedule ahead. Kobe isn’t coming back anytime soon and Gasol’s days may be numbered. They need those two to make any type of run.

The rest of the Lakers season essentially becomes Survivor: Lakers Edition. Those who play hard, have a shot of staying with the team next year. Right now, guys like Hill, Farmar, and Henry have to like their chances of being wanted to stay in LA – that is unless of course they get contracts from elsewhere.

The biggest audition is Mr. D’Antoni’s. The proponents of #TankCity fail to understand that D’Antoni can’t afford to tank a whole season in favor of a draft pick. If the Lakers are bottom feeders and he loses his job, what good does a top five pick do him? He might as well have a gun to his head right now and the clock is ticking. D’Antoni needs to prove that he could at least coach this team to a .500 record. The more he wins with this roster, the more leverage he gains and the higher the chances are of him coaching the Lakers next year.

Maybe that’s why he played Marshall over 40 minutes in the win against the Jazz. His biggest strength is elevating point guards. Now that he saw what Marshall can do in a small sample, he’s hoping he can ride him to victory and a chance to coach next year.

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This is a list of point guards that played under D’Antoni before he joined the Lakers. All of them had better numbers with Mike at the helm. A few of them (Lin, Nash, i.e) had their best years with D’Antoni. So last night’s performance was no surprise. It would’ve been a surprise if we saw the Lakers allow fewer than 80 points a game for a five game stretch with D’Antoni as coach. But point guards elevating their game? Been there, done that.

The Lakers won’t be playing against cupcakes much longer. After a home affair against the Nuggets, they play three “road” games in four nights. Tuesday and Wednesday features a Texas two-step at the Mavs and Rockets. Then, the team returns to Staples Center to play a road game against the Clippers on Friday.

Week At A Glance

Andre Khatchaturian —  December 28, 2013

Let’s not make any excuses for the Lakers.

We can. After all, they are missing three future Hall of Famers from their lineup. That said, they could have won two games this week and they blew it against Miami and Utah in the late stages of both games.

It’s easy to blame the fact that the Lakers are playing with numerous injuries. However, there are some coaching decisions that need to be brought to the forefront.

It shouldn’t take a Pau Gasol upper respiratory infection for Mike D’Antoni to finally give Chris Kaman some playing time. In a starter’s role against Utah, Kaman was phenomenal and arguably the best player on the floor for the Lakers.

In 30 minutes, Kaman scored 19 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and blocked three shots. It’s also important to note that with Kaman on the floor, the Lakers are a far better defensive team than without him.

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Knowing this and the fact that Kaman was playing the best game of his season, it was stunning to see D’Antoni take out Kaman with just over a minute left in the loss against the Jazz in favor of Ryan Kelly and then later, Robert Sacre. Neither player had played much in the game, but for whatever reason, D’Antoni thought it would be wiser to have Sacre on the floor for the last possession.

Gordon Hayward of the Jazz easily drove past Sacre and set up a put back dunk for Derrick Favors in the dying seconds which gave Utah the win. It’s impossible to say whether anything would have been different with Kaman on the floor, but letting the man finish the game, especially when he’s been playing well, wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

At least we even saw Kaman in the Utah game. D’Antoni didn’t play him at all against an undersized Miami team. Game management toward the end of that game was questionable, too. With the Lakers down by five midway through the fourth, D’Antoni benched his two best players – statistically, at least – Jordan Hill and Jordan Farmar and the game slipped away from there.

Finally, in the Phoenix game on Monday, the Lakers were outrebounded 62-39. Of course, Hill only played 14 minutes that game. Another head scratching decision by the Lakers bench boss.

Speaking of Hill, he’s still only averaging just over 20 minutes per game. Why is this? Is he not conditioned? Does he get tired? Hogwash.

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As seen in the table above, Hill is just as effective when he gets minutes. He doesn’t get tired. He still scores, he still rebounds, and he’s still effective. In fact, in a win against the Pistons earlier this year, Hill played 36 minutes and scored 24 points and grabbed 17 rebounds. Hill should be starting and getting big minutes. There is no excuse as to why he shouldn’t be.

There were several positives from this week aside from Hill’s strong play. Farmar got minutes and after a rusty performance in his first game back from injury on Christmas, he produced in a big way in the loss against Utah, scoring 16 points, dishing out seven assists and getting three steals. Farmar has been showing potency on both sides of the ball this season. The Lakers have a 97.9 defensive rating when Farmar’s on the court.

Finally, Nick Young showed spurts of solid offensive play this week. He hasn’t been overly consistent. One day he’ll shoot 28 percent, the next night he’ll shoot 59 percent. That said, the ON/OFF numbers for Young are incredible. With him on the court, the Lakers have an offensive rating of 103.6. Without him, they’re just producing at an offensive rating of 96.5. At least, he’s getting minutes.

In short, the Lakers need to give Young, Kaman, Hill, and Farmar the minutes they deserve. There is no such thing as an easy win for the Lakers anymore, but they have a favorable home schedule this week as they play the Sixers, Bucks, and Jazz. Gasol should return this week and if D’Antoni keeps playing Kaman, Hill, and Farmar, the Lakers should be able to turn their fortunes around and inch closer to .500.

 

Week At A Glance

Andre Khatchaturian —  December 22, 2013

Kobe Bryant is out again and the Lakers will be missing him for the next six weeks. With him in the lineup, the Lakers were just 2-4. Without him, they’re 11-10. Because of this, the following question has emerged: Are the Lakers better without Kobe?

The answer to this is no. Let’s not overreact. The Lakers struggled with Kobe mostly because there was no chemistry and he was rusty. In his last game, he played a pivotal role in the Lakers road win over Memphis. He took a season high 18 shots and scored 21 points. He also had a season low four turnovers. The rust was coming off and he was taking more control of the offense, but then he got injured once more.

The Lakers went on to dominate the Timberwolves on Friday night at home mostly because of Nick Young’s three-point barrage and a vintage performance by Pau Gasol who scored 21 and grabbed 13 rebounds. They played energized without Kobe and it had many feeling that the team just flowed better without the Mamba.

However, in less than 24 hours reality hit the Lakers as they got blown out of the water by the Warriors. They shot 14 percent in the 3rd quarter. Granted, they were missing Pau, who was out with an upper respiratory infection, but having Kobe could’ve helped.

The fact of the matter is, although the Lakers have gelled to a certain extent without Kobe, they’re nothing more than a .500 team without him in the lineup. They did a great job in the first 19 games of the season keeping their heads above water and they’ll need to do it again for the next six weeks – a stretch that includes a grueling seven-game road trip in the east coast.

It will be possible. The people who say that the Lakers are better off without Kobe have all the statistics in the world to back up their claim.

The Lakers had a better Offensive Rating without Kobe in their first 19 games of the season (101.9) than with him in the lineup (100.1). Their Defensive Rating was also remarkably better without Kobe (102.8 vs. 108.6 with him). Finally, his On/Off numbers were atrocious in his brief comeback, too.

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There’s no doubt about it that the Lakers can win without Kobe. It also helps that 12 of their next 20 games are against Eastern Conference opponents. The Lakers are 5-3 against the East this season and their paltry 13-14 record would give them the top spot in the Atlantic Division and the fourth seed in the weak conference.

The Lakers could win games if they continue to receive consistently efficient output from Pau and Nick Young.

In his three games this week, Gasol shot 72 percent from the field, and averaged 19.3 points and 10.7 rebounds. Those are vintage Pau numbers. He’s shown moments of productivity throughout the season but he needs to be more consistent. The same goes for Young. He has emerged as the team’s leading scorer and he’s shooting over 40 percent from three point land in December.

It would be nice to see Jordan Hill get more playing time, too. He’s averaging under 20 minutes per game in December but he’s shooting 69 percent from the field and averaging 6.6 rebounds. He could get more playing time in favor of Wesley Johnson, who is averaging over 30 minutes per game in December, but has the lowest field goal percentage among Laker regulars this month (38.2 percent). His three-point percentage is even more atrocious at 25 percent.

Finally, let’s give a warm welcome back to the rotation to Chris Kaman. With Gasol out last game, he grabbed 17 rebounds. He also had a defensive rating of 86.9 in the blowout loss. He didn’t shoot well (5-of-17) but nobody did last night. Kaman has been healthy for awhile now and there’s no reason why he should be getting a “DNP – Coach’s Decision” next to his name every game. He deserves a chance to show the coaching staff what he could do.

The Lakers have a tough week ahead of them on Christmas week. They play the surprising Suns on the road tomorrow before the much anticipated home tilt against LeBron and the Heat on Christmas Day. Then, on Friday they’ll play the Jazz in Salt Lake, a place where the Lakers are 19-34 since 1986-87.