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Newly appointed Knicks president Phil Jackson was on hand to witness the type of performance he hopes to eradicate in the coming years. After a hot start in which they scored the contest’s first eight points, the listless Knicks allowed the shorthanded Lakers, playing without Kobe, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, to go a combined 34 of 46 in the second and third quarters. When all was said and done, LAL had put together one of its better performances on the year in handing the Knicks a 127-106 defeat. LA managed to score fifty-one points in the third quarter, a franchise record.

This was one of the few games I’ve been lucky enough to attend this year, and the atmosphere inside Staples was surprisingly lively when you consider what’s transpired this season. The Lakers seemed to feed off the energy and the knowledge that the game was nationally televised. When you watch a game in person, the little things that you notice when you watch games not on television- stuff like effort, communication on defense, and hustle- becomes much clearer. And yesterday, it was shockingly apparent that the Lakers wanted to win more than the Knicks did. It’s as simple as that. New York was slow on defensive rotations, slow in their closeouts on three-point shooters, just plain old slow.

The Lakers on the other hand, were not. It was the same formula that helped LAL start off hot decently: up-tempo, push the pace type offense relying heavily on ball movement and three-pointers and defense designed to keep the opponent out of the paint. It was refreshing to see the Lakers play some effective defense for once- they were able to make things tough on Carmelo Anthony, who missed his first seven shots (mostly jumpers). While Anthony did eventually begin to hit those jumpers, the game was well out of hand before he got cooking. What I’m trying to say here is, Anthony was mostly a non-factor despite his 29 points.

Iman Shumpert was completely invisible, as has been the unfortunate truth for Knicks fans recently. He’s really not developed nearly the way anyone in the league or the Knicks’ front office anticipated, and it feels like ages ago that he was regarded as a future building block who could effectively guard LeBron in playoff series’ for New York. If I’d have told you two years ago that Iman Shumpert would be averaging 6.7 points and have a PER under 10 this year, you would have been disappointed in the way he’s developed.

In contrast, the Lakers were excellent last night. Xavier Henry was impressive in his return, going 8-11 for 22 points off the bench in only 23 minutes of action in his first game since returning from a wrist injury. His legs looked springy-fresh and he seemed genuinely excited to be back on the court. That’s something that I think people–me included– have kind of forgotten this year: yes, it’s been a terrible season and the Lakers aren’t anything near a good team, but the players are still living their dream, still playing in the NBA every night for one of, if not the, league’s most famous franchise. For those who don’t have the title-or-bust mentality (so for everyone except Kobe, really), that’s still pretty damn cool.

Swaggy P was excellent for the second straight game, putting up 20 and adding to the historical tone of the evening by notching his sixth 4-point play of the year- a Laker record. He was the first one in Carmelo’s ear all night, as you’d expect and want, as well. Jodie Meeks, who might warrant a few votes in the Most Improved Player voting, hit four of the Lakers’ 18 3-pointers, just one shy of the record set previously this year. It was the type of three-point barrage that Mike D’Antoni’s teams muster when they’re playing well against a team that didn’t come to play. And that was exactly the case- the Knicks really never seemed to interested in putting together a run to get back in the game and didn’t seem all too upset when it was clear they’d lose.

In a season filled with disappointments and too many embarrassing score lines, it was nice to the squad hand down a beating of their own. No matter the circumstances, beating the Knicks is always nice- especially in front of Phil Jackson.

ESPN Los Angeles’ Dave McMenamin first tweeted out the news that has seemed growingly inevitable as the season wears on- more likely than not, Steve Nash has played his last game this season.

There’s no other way to describe this news other than plain old sad. Nash has worked his tail off to get back to form this season and make due on that increasingly unexplainable contract that pays him upwards of $9 million per season. But when you’re body simply won’t cooperate, there’s nothing you can do.

I was one of the millions of Laker fans who was ecstatic when the news broke on July 4th, 2012 that the team had acquired the two-time MVP. Never in a million years did I expect Nash to function more as a cap-clogger than anything productive on the floor. It’s now a legitimate possibility that the Lakers use the stretch provision on Nash, would could end the future hall-of famers career. By exercising this provision, the Lakers would release Nash and his cap figure would be spread across three years, allowing the Lakers added flexibility to chase free agents.

If Nash has indeed played his last game in purple and gold, his final game tally in two years would be 60. Not what the Lakers had in mind.

Kobe’s in a similar position in the sense of not knowing whether he’ll suit up for another game this year. He’s still weeks away from an evaluation, and if he’s cleared to play then, he’d likely have to have at least a bit of practice time to get him back into game shape. And judging from the 4 games he played in his return from the achilles injury, he wouldn’t be his usual self- at least not at first- when he does make it back onto the court.

All of this injury news bodes well for those Laker fans aboard Team Tank. The Lakers enjoyed probably their best win of the season last night in snapping Portland’s five-game win streak. In Portland. The win was so surprising that it prompted this headline from the LA Times: “Lakers beat Trail Blazers…in Portland…really!” But despite this, and the win over Sacramento where the Lakers caught fiiiiire from three, the upcoming schedule remains brutal- six out of the next eight games are against teams above .500, including two each against the Thunder and Spurs (who are absolutely incredible. Nothing less. Each and every year I count them out, figuring Father Time will eventually prevail. Those who believe the age-old adage that Father Time is undefeated doesn’t know that Gregg Popovich exists. Okay, Spurs rant over).

Without Kobe and Nash for the foreseeable future, the Lakers should return to their losing ways in the next couple weeks. Of the remaining 22 games, 15 come against teams above .500. If you’re rooting for losses, things are working out quite nicely for you- the Lakers’ remaining schedule is brutal and they will be without the production of both Kobe and Nash, however limited that production might be, when they go toe-to-toe with these superior teams.

Here’s to you, Pau

Daniel Rapaport —  February 27, 2014

In all likelihood, Pau Gasol will play a maximum of 25 more games in the Lakers’ purple and gold. Pau’s contract, which pays him $19.3 million a year, will expire at the end of this season. He’s past his prime, sure, but he still has a ton to offer to a team who needs a skilled big man to push them over the hump (in his last 10 games, he’s averaging 19.6 points and 11.3 boards on 53% shooting). The Lakers have been ultra-prudent about keeping the cap sheet clear for the next few years in an attempt to make the rebuilding process a quick and relatively painless one. Pau will probably be a casualty of this strategy; the Lakers will look for younger players who will be able to produce at an elite level for years to come.

This season has been a disaster that’s been well chronicled on this blog and seemingly every form of basketball media. There’s been a lot to be disappointed about: the never ending injuries, the inability to compete in third quarters, the uncertainty of Kobe’s future to name a few. But for me, nothing has been more upsetting than watching Pau visibly disagree with Coach D’Antoni in a manner that is so distinctly un-Pau like. It’s the second consecutive year in which Pau has been dissatisfied with how he’s been used on the court, so this really isn’t anything new, but after the Pacers’ game was a new low. Though he tried to remain diplomatic, Pau essentially called out D’Antoni’s leadership ability and decision making when it comes to lineups. It seems the stress of losing constantly has worn on Gasol, who’s one of exactly two Lakers left over from the glory days of 2008-2010.

This isn’t the Pau I want to remember. Nope. Not interested in remembering Gasol as a complainer. Or as an over-the-hill big who shows flashes of his old greatness but appears at least a step slow. I prefer to remember #16 as the beast in the post that he once was, a player who could beat you with both hands, with his back to the basket, or torch a defense with a wet midrange J. I prefer to remember the Spaniard as the ultimate team-first guy who wouldn’t dare say a negative syllable about his team to the media. That’s the Pau I came to love.

This Pau:

I distinctly remember the day he was acquired. It was my seventh grade year, and as I came out of my pre-algebra class I saw my friend, a fellow Laker fanatic, literally screaming through the halls: “WE GOT PAU GASOL!!! WE GOT PAU GASOL!!!” The Lakers were off to a good start that year- the team’s promising young center, Andrew Bynum, was playing well before an injury (Bynum injured; who’d a thunk?) and Kobe was probably the best player in the world at the time. However, the Lakers weren’t anywhere near contender status. That all changed on February 3rd, 2008, when Pau came to Los Angeles. The Lakers made the finals that year, their first of three consecutive, and the purple and gold were back.

I genuinely fear that people will forget how good- and how instrumental to this franchise- Pau was. He was the undoubted second option on a team that won two championships and reached the finals three straight years. He made three straight all star teams from 2009-2011. Pau gave the 2012 USA team, who many believed could have given 1992′s Dream Team a run for their money, fits in the gold medal game to the tune of 24 points despite facing constant double teams.

Now, Pau’s on the trading block, or at least is reported by the media to be on the trading block, each and every season. He’s viewed as an overpaid cap-clogger who is probably a bit overweight and really doesn’t fit D’Antoni’s system, which favors athletic bigs who can roll to the basket effectively, a la Amare Stoudemire in his prime. I think it’s clear that Kobe doesn’t like the way Pau’s been treated by the organization in recent years, and I agree whole heartedly with him.

Gosh, Pau has given us so so SO many memories. Everyone Laker fanatic has a personal favorite Pau moment. For me, it’s him leading this fast break:

He’s got the long, flowy, probably greasy hair that he sported during his prime. He’s moving great; at 28, he was at, or near, his physical peak. And my oh my, look at how incredibly skilled he is for a legitimate 7-footer.

So when Pau makes his likely departure this offseason, don’t hold a grudge. Don’t remember him as over-the-hill, or a guy who’s detrimental to a locker room and complains to the media about his coach. Remember the championship player and the championship person who brought our beloved Lakers back to glory. Pau’s an all-time Laker great. His jersey may someday hang in the rafters alongside the #24 of his partner in crime.

And that’s how it should be.

The Nets will look to snap an 11-game losing streak against the Lakers tonight when the two teams, both performing well-below the levels they expected to before the season started, face off at Staples Center.

The Lakers offense should receive a boost tonight with the return of Swaggy P, who missed five games due to a right knee injury. He won’t start tonight, however, as the ever-rotating D’Antoni wheel of starting lineups churns on. Tonight, Marshall and Meeks will start in the backcourt, with new addition Kent Bazemore starting at the three. Wes Johnson and Gasol round up the starting unit. With MarShon Brooks available off the bench tonight, look for the Lakers to push the tempo early and often.

One person who will not be in the lineup tonight, or any time soon, is Kobe. He visited team physician Dr. Steve Lombardo on Friday, and received less than stellar news: he’ll be out a minimum of three more weeks before being reevaluated. It’s now a legitimate possibility that Kobe will miss the entire season- in three weeks, when he’s due for the next evaluation, there will only be 17 games left. However, like always, he won’t take no for an answer, and recently told the Boston Globe that he’s committed to returning before the season ends.

The Nets have righted the ship a bit after a horrid start, and sit at 25-28, which is good enough to be firmly in the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. But they’re 2-10 in the second game of back-to-backs and come into tonight fresh off a 93-86 loss at Golden State. It’s no wonder, really, as their roster is filled with stars who are well past their prime (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson, etc.) That makes today’s game very winnable; the Lakers should be much fresher, and faster than Brooklyn will be.

Keep an eye on the new Lakers tonight. Bazemore and Brooks both enjoyed stellar games by their standards in their first contest under D’Antoni. I’m interested to see if the increase in production and playing time (Brooks averages 6.2 minutes and played 23, while Bazemore averaged 6.7 and played 33) are a sign of what’s to come or just a function of having such few able bodies. If these two young, explosive players prove their worth, they could be one of the few pieces the Lakers will want to keep heading into the summer.

I think the Lakers will win tonight, which may upset those who are fully on board with Team Tank. I always like D’Antoni’s chances against teams that like to play slow and emphasize the half court offense. Whatever the outcome may be, it should be an entertaining game to watch- Paul Pierce should give a little extra at Staples Center, where he has made so many memories.

Where you can watch: TWC Sportsnet, 6 p.m. start time

Don’t Call it a Tank

Daniel Rapaport —  February 17, 2014

This season has been a nightmare. There’s simply no denying that. The Lakers come out of the All-Star break at 18-35 and have a better record than exactly three other teams. The injury bug has taken the form of a tarantula who’s robbed the team of any opportunity to develop anything resembling a rhythm (when you’re without five of your top six scorers for multiple games, building chemistry on the court isn’t realistic). To put it bluntly, it’s the worst season in recent memory for the purple and gold.

From a purely basketball perspective, the most beneficial move for the future of the franchise would be to tank the rest of the season in hopes of landing a top-3 pick (Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins of Kansas, as well as Jabari Parker of Duke are considered by scouts to be capable of turning a franchise around quickly). Holding Kobe out for the rest of the season makes sense; the team has gone 5-22 in their past 27 games and have shown no signs of being able to put together a winning streak.

That’s why it’s easy for those who don’t watch this Lakers squad to diagnose them as tankers. Kobe’s been out much longer than he expected, and the Lakers recent form suggests a conscious shift from trying to sneak into the playoff picture to trying to sneak into a top pick. But for those of us who watch this team on a nightly basis, it’s remarkably clear that this team isn’t tanking. Not one bit.

I’m proud of this squad. Sure, their record is bad, but they’re significantly outmatched talent-wise on each and every night (except when they play the Bucks, the most difficult NBA team to watch that I can remember). When you watch them play, you can’t help but root for them – and root hard. They fight, they battle, they play with pride – something last year’s team was incapable of. For all the crap head coach Mike D’Antoni has taken from fans, I can’t imagine any coach getting much more out of this group.

Last Thursday’s game against Oklahoma City is perfect evidence as to just how wrong it is to say that this team is tanking. The Thunder came into the game having won 20 of their last 27. Kevin Durant has been nothing short of sensational this season and all signs point to him winning his first MVP in a few months. The Lakers, on the other hand, had eight available players. Eight.

It would have been the perfect opportunity for a tanking team to pack it in and try and head to the all-star break without any additional injuries. Well, that’s not what happened. The Lakers played inspired and incredibly hard, and it took a 35-21 fourth quarter for OKC to finish with its nose ahead. Both coaches’ quotes from after the game are telling as to the identity of this Lakers squad.

“I thought the effort was terrific,” D’Antoni said. “They battled the whole game.”

It’s been a common theme this year. The team just doesn’t have one ounce of quit in them. Sure, it’s important to remember that D’Antoni wants to keep his job and is in the business of justifying losses. But for a coach of an 18-35 team, he’s been unusually proud of his team and has voiced that opinion often. That’s because he knows what everyone should know by now: it’s simply not feasible for the team that the Lakers put on the floor tonight to win more games than they lose in today’s NBA.

“When you play against an NBA team that’s prideful like the Lakers, they’re going to have a good game,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after Thursday’s game.

Prideful. Sound like a team that’s tanking?

Look, I’m not sure tanking even exists in the NBA. It’s a weird notion, isn’t it? That players would try less than their hardest so that their team can lose more games and reward the players who took part in the tanking effort by replacing the with new top-draft picks? Imagine this scenario: at the end of every year, your office participates in a draft for new talent where the order is determined by the profits your company makes. Your company has been struggling in recent years and believes the only way it can return to past glory is by reloading with fresh, young faces. Would your natural reaction be to participate in the tanking effort? Wouldn’t your competitive nature kick in, prompting you to want to prove your worth so you can survive the rebuild?

The vast majority of this Lakers squad is only guaranteed one year in purple and gold. The Nick Youngs and Wesley Johnsons of the world aren’t in the business of helping the organization acquire Andrew Wiggins. They’re in the business of showing the Lakers’ (and other NBA teams’) front office that they are valuable contributors who warrant playing time in the NBA.

Some have pointed to the Lakers’ lack of in-season personnel moves as evidence that the team prefers losses to wins. While it’s true that Mitch Kupchak has been relatively inactive this season, it’s important to remember that this season is distinctly different. In the past, there’s been an emphasis on winning, and winning now. Keeping that same mentality wouldn’t be smart from a basketball or a financial point of view. This past offseason, the front office assembled a team of rentals that, when fully healthy, are probably good enough to be in the hunt for one of the final playoff spots. The team hasn’t been healthy all year, so it’s easy (and convenient) to point to the roster and say “hey, this team is designed to lose.” But that’s simply not so.

If the Lakers really wanted to tank this season, they would have traded Pau Gasol already. It’s as simple as that. They’d have shipped him to Cleveland for a package that would have provided additional financial flexibility, but wouldn’t be worth what an aging Pau still has left to offer. That would really bottom the Lakers out and turn them into one of the worst teams in the league even when fully healthy. But that’s not the Laker way.

This team has given us plenty to be proud of. Their record just isn’t one of those things. But to say that they’re tanking is an insult to the team’s effort and to an organization that has as much pride as the Lakers do.