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After finding out on game day that they’d be without Kobe Bryant, the Lakers promptly went out and dismantled the Orlando Magic on Friday night. Of course, the Magic aren’t a much better, if at all, team than the Lakers but the team put on a strong performance down their centerpiece player and a further diminished wing rotation with Wes Johnson also sitting out.

Tonight, it’s not yet clear if Kobe will be back in the lineup — he’s listed as questionable — though Wes will reportedly return after missing several games with a bad hip. Wes’ return will help with depth and will likely bring some normalcy back to Byron Scott’s rotations as he will likely return to his normal spot in the starting lineup.

In saying that, though, I’d be lying if I said that I believe that is all for the best. The Lakers are not good enough to make the playoffs and hunting wins on a nightly basis may not even be the best strategy considering the draft pick implications. And while that doesn’t change the fact that the team is clearly trying to win games, they’ve not been very good at that, besting only the Wolves in the Western Conference and sitting a tidy 13 games under .500 with a 12-25 record.

At this point, then, why not try to find more minutes for the less established players on the roster and see if they are pieces who can improve this year while also getting a better look at them as potential long term fits. On the wing, this means finding additional minutes for Jordan Clarkson and Ryan Kelly while down low it means finding some additional minutes for Tarik Black. Byron took a nice step towards that on Friday when Kelly played a team high 35 minutes and Black displaced Sacre in the lineup in the 3rd quarter and ate into Davis and Hill’s minutes in the 4th. If he could do the same for Clarkson (maybe sitting Price or even giving him some of Ellington’s minutes), it would not be the worst thing in the world. After all, what does the team have to lose? More games? They’re doing that already with the strategy they currently have in place.

As for tonight’s game, the Blazers are again on the docket for the second time in four games. The last time these teams played Kobe sat out, the Lakers were on the 2nd night of a back to back, but played them surprisingly tough up in Portland. In that game the Blazers missed a lot of shots they normally make and the Lakers did a good job of sharing the ball offensively, keeping the game close in the process. The Blazers, however, showed their class late, with Damian Lilliard dominating the fourth quarter and pulling out a win.

Tonight, honestly, I expect to see much of the same. Portland is the better team and that is true whether Kobe plays or not. If the Lakers want to remain competitive, they’ll need much of the same things that worked for them in the last game to be there again, but to be completely honest I do not expect the Blazers to shoot as poorly nor for the Lakers to be able to generate the really good looks they did the last time they faced off. All I am hoping for, then, is what I mentioned above — for the younger players to get a bit more burn and for them to show some strides and ability in those extra minutes.

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

After the Lakers had their tails kicked by the Clippers, their head coach poured a bit of salt in their wounds by calling them soft (equating that to a slap in the face) while noting that he’s interested in seeing how his team responds after getting beat so severely. He essentially made it seem that the Lakers should come out and play much harder and not get rolled on like they did by the Clippers.

Well, tonight is their chance to do just that. The Orlando Magic visit Staples Center tonight and will try to improve on their 13-25 record that has them only two games behind the Miami heat for the 8th seed in the East. Orlando offers a nice young roster with some talent that is improving and, with some more seasoning, could form the foundation of an interesting team moving forward.

While they lack that transcendent superstar player in the Shaq/Penny/McGrady/Dwight mold they’ve had in the past, they have several quality youngsters who I like a lot. It starts in their backcourt with Victor Olidipo and Elfrid Payton. Both lottery picks, the young guards offer some athleticism, smarts, and most of all hard work. And in the front court they have Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic who, have developed into nice rotation players in the past couple of seasons. It’s a shame that rookie Aaron Gordon is out for the year or I truly believe that this group, along with Channing Frye, Kyle O’Quinn, Evan Fournier, and Luke Ridnour have a nice mix of youth and experience to try and take a step forward this year. Though, to be fair, some of this may simply come down to coaching as Jauque Vaughn hasn’t really shown the creativity and savvy hoped for coming out of the Spurs’ organization.

In saying all this, in a way, it doesn’t really matter who tonight’s opponent is. If you’re a Lakers fan, what you’re really looking for is some sort of bounce back effort from Wednesday’s game against the Clipps. The Lakers are better than they showed and, in losing the way they did, brought back some of the bad feelings they’d experienced early in the year when they were getting their hats handed to them regularly. So, while X’s and O’s matter, I guess what I’m really eyeing tonight is how the team responds and whether they can find some of the better play they’d achieved during the previous four games.

Because, if they can’t bring some of that tonight, it may really be time to make some of the changes many (including me) have been hinting at over the course of the first 30 plus games. And with the trade deadline coming up in a month and several western teams making moves recently to solidify their lineups in the hopes of making a strong push in the lead up to the run towards the playoffs, the Lakers may need to join that action and shape up their roster in a way that better promotes long term planning.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.

Whenever the Lakers play the Clippers, intrigue follows — especially now that it’s the Clips who are the “contender” expected to win the matchup. The story shifts from big brother beating up on its historically bad younger sibling to ideas about “whose town it is” and what the Clippers have to do to take center stage in Los Angeles.

These storylines can be fun and be a nice way to pass the time, but I don’t really invest a lot of value in them. As Doc Rivers has noted several times — and he would know, well, in fact, due to his ties to the Celtics — that key is to not just win games or, even, this particular game, but to win championships. Not just one, but multiple ones. Just yesterday Doc spoke of the “head start” the Lakers have in this area and other players at different times have acknowledged that L.A. remains a Lakers’ town. (As an aside, with Clippers players still getting booed at Dodgers games, it’s hard to have a different opinion on this matter.)

This “argument”, then, is best tabled for a later date when the Clippers achieve at a higher level. This isn’t to knock them, I think they’d say the same thing themselves, not just because this topic is tiring, but because they have higher aspirations that, frankly, have little to do with what the Lakers have done. They want to win titles for them, not because of an ability to say “scoreboard” when it comes to a cross-town rivalry.

So, what he have left is the game itself. And it’s one that the Clippers should win handily. Yes, as Nick Young said, this can be viewed as a rivalry game and that brings an extra level of emotion that can translate to some actions and outcomes that aren’t easily predictable. But basketball is still a game of talent and the Clippers have more of that than the Lakers do. This is reflected in the team’s respective records.

In saying that, however, the Lakers can make this game interesting in a couple of ways. First is the fact that the Clippers have not been where they need to be defensively this season. Part of the reason for this is that they do not have many (any?) strong perimeter defenders beyond a totally engaged Chris Paul (who still does so much heavy lifting offensively his defensive attentiveness isn’t where it once was). This should allow Kobe, Jeremy Lin (when going against the Clips’ 2nd unit), and Nick Young to create offense from the wing. If they all remain aggressive, they should be able to not only create shots for themselves, but force the defense into help situations where easy shots for the rest of the team can be generated with good, crisp, passing.

Second, the Lakers’ big man rotation isn’t the best in the league, but they do have some quality and have multiple bodies to throw at the Clippers’ pair of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Griffin, of course, is a monster and must be accounted for at all times. But a combination of Hill, Davis, and, even, Boozer can work to try and wear him down. If they can keep him out of paint and do a good job of contesting his jumper (and force some misses), his efficiency will suffer. As for Jordan, his athleticism trumps anything the Lakers can throw at him, but if you play him smartly by bodying him up on the glass and by taking good angles against his moves to the paint, you can limit his ability to control the restricted area via lobs and offensive rebounds.

Of course, none of this accounts for Paul’s brilliance or the shot-making Jamal Crawford brings off the bench, but, again, there’s a reason why the Clippers are as good a team as they are. Even if you can limit some of their weapons, you can’t take them all away. The Lakers will just have to hope that those two aren’t on and that the rest of their game plan works in their favor. It’s a tough hill to climb, but that is the blueprint.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.

The Lakers won a slugfest of a game in thrilling fashion against the Pacers last night, with Kobe Bryant leading them down the stretch. Kobe scored the Lakers final 9 points of the game, including the game winner with only a handful of ticks on the clock — a classic drive and half hook from the dotted line that he’s made more than a few times over his career.

That shot capped another efficient night from #24, giving him his 20th point on 7-14 shooting (including 2 of 3 from behind the arc) to go along with six rebounds and six assists. Kobe, as he has since returning from his three game absence, mostly took what the defense gave him and hurt the Pacers with smart shot-pass decisions all night. His passes were so good most the night, in fact, that after the game he even commented how the Pacers started to play him for the pass and that opened up some of his buckets (including the game winner) as the defense stayed home with their own men, opening up the lane in the process.

The night wasn’t just filled with victory, however. Starting small forward Wes Johnson was hurt in the first half, straining his hip flexor. He did not return in the 2nd half and has been ruled out indefinitely. With Johnson out, the Lakers are likely to turn to Ryan Kelly to play some small forward while also giving more minutes to Wayne Ellington, Nick Young, and, potentially, Jordan Clarkson with Kobe playing a bit more “SF” in the process. And while more of those guys isn’t necessarily the worst thing, missing Wes will test the Lakers depth — especially on nights where Kobe doesn’t play due to his newly modified game schedule where coach Scott decides to rest him more.

Which brings us to tonight. After playing last night with travel planned for after the game, it was predetermined that Kobe would not play against the Blazers this evening. That leaves the Lakers down both their starting wings and shallow at that spot in general. If I were to guess, I’d expect Ellington and Kelly to start for Kobe and Wes with an uptick in minutes for Lin and Young to compensate. I’d also expect to see Clarkson play about 10 minutes at SG as filler on the wing.

This would be an issue on any night but playing against one of the better teams in the conference makes it that much more difficult. In case you weren’t monitoring the standings closely, the Blazers possess the 2nd best record in the league, trailing only the Warriors. They are have an incredibly balanced and productive roster and have not missed a beat since losing Robin Lopez to injury last month. Powered by Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge their offense can get good shots all over the floor. And in the event that those two struggle, they can turn to Nic Batum’s all-court game or Wes Matthews’ three point and post-up oriented game to get buckets too.

In other words, don’t expect much from the Lakers’ tonight. While they’ve shown a nice ability to compete hard on most nights, traveling to Portland and playing this team on the 2nd night of a back to back without Kobe (especially the version who has shown up lately) and diminished wing depth is a nearly impossible hill to climb. I do expect them to battle, but do not be surprised to see a double digit loss by night’s end. Portland is just that good.

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

Regardless of what changes the Lakers make, the losses continue. Friday was another example of this as the team battled the Grizzlies for 48 minutes and nearly pushed the game to overtime, only to fall short due to some late game clock management issues and a last second shot that did not fall. The team is now 1-2 since Kobe returned from missing three games which is pretty much the level of results the team achieved before he took the time off.

This is not to say the team does not look better, however. Since Kobe’s returned he’s taken a more balanced approach to his game, moving the ball much more freely after taking a more lead guard role as the primary offensive initiator. Taking this tack has created a more inclusive offense that has allowed the rest of the team to find a better rhythm when playing with Kobe and lessened the burden Kobe had been shouldering earlier in the year. After the game, Kobe spoke about this shift and elaborated on what necessitated it. Via the Kamenetzky brothers’ Facebook page:

“I don’t know if my body can take it. I don’t know if it can. I think in this situation, where teams just just double me all over the floor, it’s not like I’m passing up shots, I don’t have them. Because you stack up, you trap. Back in my younger days, I could go through that stuff and still have 30 or 40 points. Now, my body can’t take it. So I dominate the game in a different way.”

Kobe acknowledging that he may no longer be physically capable of simply overwhelming defenses is a level of self-awareness he’s typically not credited with. It will be interesting to see how he continues to adjust, however, when defenses start to play him more for the pass by playing him in single coverage and not converging on him with multiple defenders the way that defenses have been over the past 3 games.

Which is exactly what could happen in this game. The Pacers play a disciplined brand of defense where Roy Hibbert hangs back in the paint in order to try and keep the offense in the mid-range area. David West is another big body who would prefer to not defend too far from the painted area while muscling players as they get closer to the rim. This style should present an interesting challenge to Kobe and the rest of the Lakers as they likely shouldn’t see too many traps while also leaving open the type of mid-range shots the team has taken far too many of this season. If the Lakers fall into the trap of settling for too many of these 18 foot jumpers they may find themselves struggling to put up points in an ugly slugfest of a game.

Defensively, the Lakers will be facing a team down some firepower.

With Hill and Watson both out, the Pacers’ offense will become even more reliant on their big men to generate points and to draw enough defensive attention to open up shots for others. Look for the Pacers to play even more inside out offensively than normal with West and Hibbert looking to get deep post position where they can either score or kick the ball out to open shooters should the Lakers need to help. The onus, then, will be on Jordan Hill and Ed Davis to do their work early defensively, battling their counterparts for position and keeping both Hibbert and West from getting two feet in the paint before making a catch. This will require them fighting through cross-screens and not letting up physically when working off the ball.

This game represents one of the rare occasions when the Lakers enter the game favored. The Pacers are short handed, on the road, and are coming off a road game in Milwaukee on Friday. That said, Indy has won two straight games and are one of the better coached teams in the league and always seem to play the Lakers’ tough regardless of personnel or circumstance. If the Lakers think this game will be a win simply by showing up, they will lose. We’ll see early on how they approach this game.

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