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The Lakers won only their 2nd game of the season (in 11 tries) last night, taking out the Hawks in Atlanta. The game itself offered a glimpse at what anyone who was (even somewhat) optimistic about the Lakers being better than advertised envisioned they could be. Kobe was the focal point of the team’s attack and handled himself efficiently in the process, but in support of his effort came strong play from multiple other players on the roster. Carlos Boozer was efficient offensively and contributed a very good scoring output. Jeremy Lin was both a solid scorer and a good set-up man for his teammates. Ed Davis and Jordan Hill provided very good interior play, working the glass well and scoring enough to keep defenses honest. And Nick Young came off the bench to provide an offensive spark, but also an injection of fun and enthusiasm that helped propel the team. All in all it was a real team effort and the best the Lakers have looked all season.

Normally, this would be the part of the story where I would typically point to all the factors that make this not sustainable and why you shouldn’t get your hopes up. I mean, good for the Lakers and all that, but the Hawks aren’t exactly one of the league’s better outfits and why fool ourselves. Not today, though. Today, I tell you simply enjoy the win. The Lakers are still a bad team. They still project to win 20 some odd games and while there will be other nights like the one against the Hawks throughout the year, they won’t be here often. And while all that makes for a depressing turn, this is why you should enjoy games like the one against that one even more. The Lakers won’t always look this good and they certainly won’t win a lot of road games against projected playoff teams (not even eastern conference ones). So why not live it up and enjoy yourself some? That’s what I’m doing.

One last note on last night’s game. Kobe Bryant became only the 4th player in NBA history to reach 32,000 points in his career with a turnaround jumper last night. He joins Kareem, Karl Malone, and Jordan on this list. Kobe’s  taken a lot of heat this year for how he’s played, mostly from analysts who are doing their best to use statistics and analytics to portray Kobe’s play as a blight the Lakers are suffering from. Some of this is rooted in truth, some of it overblown, but most of it is a simplification of one player’s role within the very complex nature of a group of players operating within a team sport against other professionals.

I say all this not to discredit anyone’s thoughts on Kobe — we’re all entitled to our opinions and to use whatever “facts” we feel are on our side to spread our own gospel — but to instead bring the focus back to the fact that Kobe, for all intents and purposes probably shouldn’t even be playing basketball. After rupturing his achilles tendon, many thought his career could be over. When he returned only to break a bone in his knee after playing six games last season, many probably thought his career should be over. But, here Kobe is, achieving milestones. He’s not the most efficient player and some of the tendencies he displays on the court will continue to rub some the wrong way. But, through it all, one of the greatest players ever is still out here making amazing shots and hearing fans chant his name in the opposition’s arena. If only all of us could be that washed up.

As for tonight’s game against the Rockets, the Lakers will be hard pressed to replicate the performance they had last night. For one, playing a second game in as many days is hard. Further, the Rockets are a much better team than the Hawks, boast the league’s stingiest defense, still have a couple of all-NBA level players on their side, and are playing at home. These are ingredients that make for a difficult night for any opponent, but for the 2-9 Lakers this is especially so.

If there are three keys to the Lakers remaining competitive in this game, however, they are simple and straight forward:

  • Get Dwight in foul trouble. Regardless of your view of Dwight (and I know some of you Lakers’ fans view him rather unflatteringly), he is still the Rockets’ best big man and a premier two way player in this league. Less of him on the floor is a good thing for the Lakers chances. It will be on Jordan Hill and Ed Davis to make him work defensively and to be crafty and smart enough to put him in positions where he commits silly fouls.
  • Keep James Harden off the FT line. Harden (37.2%) shoots a lower percentage from the field than Kobe (38.9%), but makes up for those misses by going to the line a ton. Harden has shot 110 free throws through 11 games, or a tidy 10 per contest. Harden’s ability to bait defenders into reaching in and then getting the line (where he hits 90% of his shots) props up his efficiency. Make him shoot contested jumpers and keep him from making up the difference at the line and the Lakers will be in business.
  • Make shots from behind the arc. On opening night the Lakers were outscored from behind the arc by 27 points in a game they lost by 18. I’m no mathematician, but I think that latter number was influenced by the former. The Lakers have upped their three point FGA’s as the season has progressed and Nick Young’s return will help even more. But the Rockets will bomb away tonight and the Lakers will have a better shot of keeping the game close if they can keep up somewhat. I’m not saying the Lakers need to shoot 25 threes, but shooting 18 or 20 would be nice. Making eight or more would be really nice.

Again, I don’t see the Lakers pulling this game out. But, unless you’re Philly, you can’t lose all your games.

Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet and ESPN nationally. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

After losing their first five games of the season and winning their next, the Lakers have again lost four straight games. This lands them with a 1-9 record, last in the West and only one win better than the awful 76ers. While pundits thought things could be this bad, to actually see the team struggle the way that they have has been is a punch to the gut. The losing — and how they’re going about it — is clearly starting to affect the players too.

After Sunday’s drubbing at the hands of the Warriors — a game that saw Kobe take a lot of shots en route to a 44 point night — both Carlos Booze and Jeremy Lin were vocal in the need for the team to strike the right balance offensively. Kobe Byrant commented on his shooting too, noting that he’d prefer not to shoot this much but acknowledging, in his own way, that he will fill the vacuum if that’s what it takes. Byron Scott also spoke on the matter, commenting that the team can function this way, but he is not sure if the team can function well.

Of all the comments, I think Scott’s are the most important. While the players can (and should) grumble if they think things should change (while also doing better to act out those changes on the floor), it’s the head coach who needs to be the one to set the tone on how he thinks the team should play. In his latest column, Kevin Ding writes that Scott needs to be better in setting that tone, especially in relation to Kobe. An excerpt:

There is a fundamental problem with the template.

You want to build the team around Bryant’s free rein on offense while he is encouraged to “rest”—Scott’s own word—on defense, yet every other guy is being held to fantastic standards that must be met for the team to overachieve?

How is anyone besides Kobe ever going to think that’s cool? Resentment is bound to build, especially when Bryant is so unabashed in competitive zeal that he described his view on his teammates’ passivity Sunday night thus: “Can’t just sit back and watch crime happen.”

It might work every once in a while, as Bryant’s shooting and scoring against single coverage has inspired his teams to compete harder and rally in games of the past—though certainly not Sunday night.

Boozer and Lin, two guys who believe deeply in Kobe, were left grumbling late Sunday night about the difficulty of finding offensive rhythm next to him.

It most definitely isn’t easy to learn to play with him. As such, Scott must make that process easier, not harder.

With all the perks that come with coaching the Lakers and Kobe Bryant, what Scott must manage now is clearly one of the hard aspects. Getting all the players on the same page and effectively building a cohesiveness from a roster that isn’t familiar with each other nor familiar with how Kobe responds in any given moment is difficult. Add a bunch of losing to the equation and things only get harder. But this is the job he signed up for. It’s time for him to put in the work or fail trying.

In terms of tonight, the Lakers are again on the road and facing a team who is much better than them. The Hawks aren’t some powerhouse, but they have Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, a good coach and a winning record on the year. If the Lakers hope to win, there are surely X’s and O’s things they can do — limit Korver’s 3 point attempts, keep Horford and Milsap off the glass, slow down Teague (and Dennis Schoeder) in transition — but mostly they just need to play harder and smarter.

There needs to be less loafing defensively. The help needs to be there quicker and with more purpose. They must cut out the turnovers, set better screens, and be more attentive on when and how to cut against defenses gearing up to slow down many of their pet actions. They also need to hit some shots. The return of Nick Young may help with the latter and it will be interesting to see how much burn the swaggy one gets in his first game back after tearing a thumb ligament in his shooting hand. The Lakers sorely need Young’s scoring punch as a bridge between their starting and bench units, so it’d be great if he could hit the ground running — even if we shouldn’t expect that.

The best way to cure frustrations from losing is to get a W. The Lakers, after dealing with defeat nine out of ten times to start the year, are clearly frustrated. Some adjustments from the coach, some better decisions from the players (including Kobe, who can give more defensively and cut out some of the over-shooting he’s done), and a few lucky bounces would go a long way in making that happen.

Where you can watch: 4:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

One of my favorite parts of the old Lakers’ telecasts on KCAL Channel 9 was Chick Hearn interviewing players from the Lakers and the opposing team. The interviews would often air during the pre-game or halftime show and would always give some insight or an anecdote that you likely weren’t going to get from anywhere else. Credit Chick who, along with his brilliance as the game’s best play by play man, was also as personable and pleasant as could be when chatting with the players.

This video, however, is one that I’d never seen. After starting his first career game the night before — a game in which he’d scored 12 points on 5-11 shooting — Chick sat down with rookie Kobe Bryant for a chat:

Some good stuff in this clip, but the thing that stands out is Kobe’s youth and, even at only 18 years old, the charisma and charm that, along with his prodigious talent, made him one of the league’s most popular players very early in his career. This clip also brings out a fair amount of nostalgia. This was before Phil Jackson, before the heartbreaking playoff losses, before the championships, and before the feuds that saw it all end. This was just the beginning.

With Kobe’s career nearing its end, it really is something to see him so young, so long ago, as a bright eyed rookie. In a way it makes me sad. It also makes me feel extremely grateful that nearly 18 years later he is still wearing the purple and gold. Oh, an by the way, that night against the Spurs on the 2nd night of a back to back, Kobe started his second straight game and scored 19 points on 6-12 shooting to help the Lakers win their 5th straight game.

(H/T to Andy Kamenetzky and Jon Weisman for the clip)

After losing to the Spurs on Friday night, the Lakers are off to a 1-8 start to the season. This is the worst start in franchise history. In other words, things couldn’t get much worse.

Oh wait. Did I say that out loud?

Early reports are that Kobe will try to play tonight, but after suffering from the flu over the last couple of days, that is not a certainty. My guess is that he’s in the lineup, but after dealing with these issues in the Spurs game and being decidedly ineffective — to the point that he mentioned after the game that not being able to push through his illness and play up to a certain standard was something he was not used to — who knows if this is even a good idea. After all, as I noted on twitter (look to the right hand sidebar if you don’t know what I’m talking about), it’s the coach’s job to recognize if a player is up to performing and then sitting him down if he is not. Allowing him to fail — and do so spectacularly in a nationally televised game — was the opposite of that.

In any event, a closer eye on Kobe will be needed in this game and if he’s not up to playing well, the Lakers’ slim chances to win this game will be downgraded even further. Counting the preseason, this game will be the 4th time these teams have faced off this year and every single time the Warriors have shown to be the vastly superior team. Thinking that could change tonight with a potentially hampered Kobe wouldn’t be wise.

What this leaves is a very good Warriors team and a banged up Lakers’ team squaring off. If this doesn’t sound very exciting to you, I don’t blame you. To be honest, the things I am most interested in aren’t even X’s and O’s or how the Lakers can make this game competitive, but rather whether Byron Scott starts to make small tweaks to his rotations to try and get some of his younger players on the floor for longer stretches.

For example, Ryan Kelly is now back and healthy enough to play. And while Carlos Boozer has been putting up some good numbers of late, I would not mind seeing Kelly steal some of those minutes to see if he can contribute to the team’s offense and altering the team’s spacing on that end. Sure, Scott could decide to play Kelly some at SF, but his best position is still at big forward and the only way you get him on the floor more is at the expense of the veteran Boozer. The same is also true of Jordan Clarkson. Against the Spurs with Ronnie Price serving his one game suspension for his flagrant foul the previous game, Clarkson got some minutes at back up PG and looked alright. He still has a lot of learning to do, but the best place to get that experience is in games against live defenses. Might as well give him some burn at the expense of Price rather than simply keeping the rook at the end of the bench.

Ed Davis also needs more burn, whether at Center (hopefully with Kelly flanking him at PF) or at PF next to either Hill or Sacre. Davis has proven to be the team’s most efficient player to start the year and that’s not by accident or, really, a fluke. Davis isn’t going to wow you or overwhelm opponents with his skill set. But he is going to work hard and play well within his skill level while not being wasteful of his offensive opportunities. Further, he’s the team’s best (and most dynamic) defensive player who has shown an ability to play well within Byron Scott’s scheme. At this point, the only thing holding him back is his foul rate but he’ll need more minutes to sort that out so he can learn to play without fouling.

Again, I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say that the Lakers will be hard pressed to win this game. With that being the case, why not start to try and grow some of the younger players and let them get their feet wet by playing some more minutes. I’m not talking about throwing these players to the wolves — as with the Kobe discussion above, I  think Scott will need to monitor these players’ minutes and try to put them in positions to succeed — but some extra, controlled, burn wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Maybe it happens tonight. At least I hope it does.

Used to be that a game between the Lakers and the Spurs was appointment viewing. Back in the day, this was a battle between perennial contenders and a preview of what could be a heated playoff match up that would determine which team would likely represent the western conference for the league championship. And while some of the principles remain — Kobe, Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, Popovich — this game is no longer that. Instead, you have the Spurs, still one of the league’s best and the reigning champs, against the 1-7 Lakers. Just typing that made an already depressing season even more so.

While they are still the champs, the Spurs don’t come into this game at anywhere near full strength. Yes, their big three + Kawhi Leonard (more on him in a bit) are all healthy, but starting Center Tiago Splitter and key reserves Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli are all out. This may not seem like a big deal to the Borg-like Spurs, but these guys are all key contributors who make several of the Spurs’ key lineups hum. Mills’ absence has seemed to especially affect this team as his scoring and ability to run Gregg Popovich’s motion-weak offense has been a major asset whenever Tony Parker is on the bench.

In saying all this, however, let’s not get all weepy for this team. While their record is only 4-3, they are coming off back to back road wins over the Clippers and the Warriors — two of the supposed contenders to the Spurs’ supremacy. In the game versus the Clipps, the Spurs offered a clinic on closing, coming from behind with a furious run in the final minutes to show once again that they cannot be counted out under any circumstances. The Warriors’ game, meanwhile, was simply the Spurs being the Spurs as shooting, key defensive stops, and overall smarts turned what was a close game into one that was decidedly not by the time the final whistle blew. In other words, this team may be missing some pieces and is not yet firing on all cylinders, but they are still very dangerous with an ability to turn it on at a moment’s notice.

What this means tonight is that the Lakers will have even less margin for error than their normally nearly nonexistent one. There is probably no team who is less inclined to forgive mistakes than San Antonio, so the Lakers mustn’t make many (any?). This starts with Jeremy Lin and Kobe Byrant.

Lin will need to avoid turnovers while still playing fast enough to try to compromise the Spurs in transition defense. He must push the ball and have nearly flawless decision making when getting into the teeth of the defense to attack. His shot/pass choices must be quick and sharp; his passes must be on time and on target. There are few teams who can be as disciplined within their team defensive schemes as the Spurs, so Lin will need to be aware of not just his man or the second line of defense, but of how his movement influences the Spurs’ defensive rotations and then make the right choices instantly. If this sounds hard, it’s because it is. We’ll see if Lin is up to it.

As for Kobe, he too must be at his best. The Spurs will throw Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard at Kobe all night and both offer quickness and smarts. Green will try to pester Kobe into taking tough shots all night and will hedge off and recover with speed to try and keep Kobe off balance. Kobe may have success against Green in the post, but will need to act quickly lest the help come and throw off his attack. As for Leonard, he brings everything Green does but with more size, better length, and extreme dexterity. He can challenge Kobe’s shots without having to be in great position but has the foot speed and anticipation to always be where he is supposed to be. Kobe would do well to try and get Leonard off balance in the P&R, but even that isn’t likely to deter the reigning Finals MVP from defending well.

What this means is that the Lakers will need to get some strong performances from others to be able to score enough points to stay in this game. Jordan Hill will need to knock down his jumper and do his normal work on the offensive glass. Ed Davis will need to be his normal efficient self, but while finding a way to use a few more possessions. Carlos Boozer will need to hit his jumpers and try to get to the line more than his normal output. It would also be nice of the “new” Wes Johnson hit a few threes.

Even if all this happens, however, the Lakers will still need to get stops. The Spurs punish defenses with expert ball and player movement. They make passes in rhythm and score at ease when defenses sleep off the ball. Further, when plays break down, Parker, Ginobili, Duncan, and Leonard can all isolate and score at an efficient clip. For every team in the league, this can turn into a nightmare scenario. For the worst defensive team in the league, they may be done before the game even gets started.

In saying all this, however, the Lakers will need to compete and let the chips fall. Every night this group plays hard. If they can combine that with more smarts than they have displayed in obtaining their 1-7 record, this game could be closer than anticipated. But even if it’s not, at least I get to see Kobe and Timmy on the floor together again. After all these years, that will still get me to tune in.

So maybe it’s still appointment viewing after all.

Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on ESPN and TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.