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Records: Lakers 33-14 (2nd in West), Celtics 35-11 (1st in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 112.6 (1st in NBA), Celtics 108 (12th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.7 (9th in NBA), Celtics 100.1 (2nd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Celtics: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes (out); Celtics: Jermaine O’Neal (out)

The Lakers Coming in: Just when you start to think that maybe the Lakers have finally moved past their extended first half of the season malaise, they produce yet another confounding dud against the Kings last night. As Darius wrote in his preview yesterday, the game represented a typical trap game before tomorrow’s matinee showdown with the Celtics — and the Lakers fell for it, hook line and sinker. The loss itself wasn’t alarming considering the team’s shoddy defense from the outset; what has to make you question the Lakers’ current mindset, though, is the fact that this veteran team spoke candidly before playing Sacramento about how they refused to look ahead to Boston…then were guilty of doing exactly that. Luckily, that’s what magnified regular season games like tomorrow’s are for — to test their collective championship mettle with only two and a half months left until the playoffs begin. I fully expect that the loss to the Kings has long been forgotten already and for the Lakers to come out with a playoff mindset that’s been lacking for most of this season.

The Celtics Coming in: The Celtics, who have been ravaged by injuries to their front line throughout the first half of the season, received great news this week when injured center Kendrick Perkins — out for seven months after injuring his knee against the Lakers in last year’s Finals — was given the go-ahead to return to the court. With Shaq ailing of late and Jermaine O’Neal out indefinitely, the timing of Perkins’ return couldn’t be better for the player who Doc Rivers believes would have been the difference in Game 7 last year. He should also dramatically help the C’s on the glass, too, where they are currently worst in the league with only 38 boards a night. Even with Kendrick’s return, the Celtics were perhaps also guilty of looking ahead to tomorrow’s matchup, suffering their worst loss of the season, 88-71 against Phoenix. Still, at 35-11 and with a comfortable three game lead in the loss column over Miami and Chicago back East, this healthier Boston squad appears primed to officially begin their march to another NBA Finals.

Celtics Blogs: Celtics Hub always does a great job documenting the boys from Bean Town.

Keys to game:

Ah. And so we meet again. By now, every party involved knows the story between these two teams. The ending has shifted over the past few years, but the essential pieces remain the same.

Both the Lakers and Celtics can put the ball in the hoop, but as we all witnessed last June, the verdict between these rivals is almost always determined by defense and rebounding. Unlike last year’s Finals, the keys to both teams’ defenses are finally back and healthy. Andrew Bynum was limited throughout that series, but has made a sizable difference to the Lakers’ D since returning from injury this season. The same can be said for Kevin Garnett and as I mentioned above, Perkins, too. The presence of Shaq, almost specifically brought in to combat the Lakers’ front line, has the potential to change things a little, but we already know Bynum isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with the Big Fella. Pau Gasol — so clutch against these same C’s in Game 7 — seems to really elevate his level of play against Boston, especially on the defensive end, where his underrated defense against KG was a difference-maker in last year’s Finals. Kendrick’s return will no doubt help the Celtics on the boards, but one of the Lakers’ most valuable strengths in their recent title runs — and for tomorrow’s game — has been their ability to flat out rebound the ball.

The Celtics’ backcourt has run amok on the Lakers basically since the 2007-08 season. The plot line is usually similar: Rajon Rondo dominates extended stretches of games and Ray Allen seemingly gets wide open shot after wide open shot. Despite his improbable poor shooting in Game 7, how many point blank shots did he have in that game? Enough to make most fans crawl into the fetal position on more than one occasion. Though Kobe has had many adversaries over the years (Raja Bell, Bruce Bowen, Ron Artest, etc.), personally, I’ve always enjoyed his head-to-head battles against Allen. At least with Kobe, you know you have a player who has consistently displayed the requisite skills needed to slow down a guard of Ray’s caliber. If only finding a solution for Rondo — averaging a jaw-dropping 13 dimes a night — were so easy. I give all the credit in the world to Derek Fisher for his clutch play against Boston in Games 3 and 7 of the Finals. That said, he has not once proven himself capable of deterring Rondo from controlling the tempo of the game during the past three seasons against the Celtics. As a result, the Lakers team defense becomes even more important against a disciplined team like Boston. The key here, as always for L.A. (or anyone facing the C’s for that matter), is to try to disrupt Rajon’s flow by enticing him to shoot the ball. The game of percentages is simple here; who would you rather have shooting that eighteen-footer — Rondo or Allen/Pierce/KG?

Major characters aside, how many times have we seen the Nate Robinson’s, Ron Artest’s, Glen Davis’ and Lamar Odom’s single-handedly alter the outcome of games between the Lakers and Celtics? Looking ahead to tomorrow’s matchup, Odom stands out to me as a player who could make a huge difference against Boston’s slower front line. With Shaq, Perkins and Davis already with their hands full with Bynum and Gasol, who is left to try and stop Lamar? While I whole-heartedly believe that both L.A. and Boston’s rosters are the most complete, evenly matched in the NBA, the Celtics don’t really have an athletic wing defender who has the length and speed to match up against the Lakers’ versatile assassin. From a defensive standpoint, I think that the Celtics’ inability to stop Odom is almost tantamount to the Lakers’ glaring weakness at point guard. As we saw during Game 7, it was Lamar who quietly triggered L.A.’s comeback from 13 down in the third quarter by using his long arms and dribble penetration to repeatedly get inside the lane or grab a pivotal offensive rebound.

Over the past four years, both the Lakers and Celtics have proven themselves capable of beating the other on the road. You want to believe that STAPLES Center will come to life and give the Lakers an edge as it did in last year’s Finals, but I’m not really sure that it even matters much at this point. These two battle-tested teams know each other intimately by now. It’s an unquestionably an important game for both teams; for the Lakers — who haven’t beaten a true title contender yet this season — and for the Celtics, who are finally almost whole again for the first time this year. Win or lose, tomorrow’s game already seems more like foreshadowing for a greater climax to come, though. But, if anything is going to jolt the comatose Lakers out of their extended 2010-11 nap, it’s a hard-nosed victory against that one-of-a-kind shade of green.

Also, be sure to check out the awesome fan-made promo vid at the top of the page to relive some of the greatest moments of the Lakers vs. Celtics rivalry, 2.0. I’ve got goosebumps; what about you?

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

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

The Lakers would never admit that they needed a win against a potential contender in the middle of January, which is precisely why that job falls onto people like us. This team, yes — the back-to-back defending champions — needed a solid, momentum-building victory over a strong playoff team and they got exactly that tonight, even if the kinks in their armor were still readily apparently throughout their balanced 101-94 win over Oklahoma City.

From the outset, Kobe primarily played the role of facilitator and did so adeptly, leading to five players scoring in double figures, led by his own 21. This game might be remembered more for Gasol’s resurgent effort than anything else, though, as the Spaniard matched Kobe’s scoring total, while also nabbing seven boards to go along with three blocked shots. I actually attended tonight’s game and can personally attest that the tension during Pau’s early possessions was palpable. Both his teammates and an an anxious crowd kept waiting for him to grab the bull by the horns so to speak and get back to playing a more aggressive brand of basketball. On offense, he finally came through in the clutch for the first time in a while, hitting a pair of buckets on consecutive possessions with under four minutes to go that swung momentum back in favor of the Lakers. That he only finished 8-19 isn’t really the point here; it’s more that he broke out of his shell and took 19 shots to begin with, instead of resorting to the tentative play we’ve become accustomed to for a number of games now.

The Lakers defensive story was a bit of a mixed bag tonight, but overall, it was a step in the right direction as they held one of the league’s most exciting, fast-paced offenses to 42.5% shooting, including a paltry 2-22 from beyond the arc. On the downside, Russell Westbrook absolutely terrorized L.A. throughout the night, repeatedly driving past Lakers defenders as if they were stuck in quick sand en route to a game-high 32 points and 12 assists. Anyone who’s still questioning his status as an All-Star this season need look no further than his performance tonight on a national stage. At this point, I’m not really sure the Lakers backcourt can whip up an antidote for point guards like Westbrook, but Bynum and Gasol can certainly do a better job of closing than they did tonight. While stopping Russell was a sore spot for the Lakers, Ron Artest’s outstanding defense on Kevin Durant was probably the difference in tonight’s game. The NBA’s scoring leader was held to just 24 points on a woeful 8-24 from the field. Aside from an early scoring burst in the first quarter and a brief reboot when Luke Walton was guarding him in the second half, he never really established any kind of rhythm, which ultimately hurt Oklahoma City when they needed him to come through down the stretch.

Kudos to Derek Fisher for setting the tone early by coming out of the gates firing, on his way to a season-high 15 points. The second unit also did a solid job of holding the lead while Kobe and Artest sat for almost the first six minutes of the fourth quarter with the lead wavering around six or seven points at the time. Lamar Odom (16 points, seven rebounds) deserves the bulk of praise for that, though, as he nailed two tide-changing threes and cleaned up around the hoop, too. Even though it’s silly to look too much into one made shot, Steve Blake’s lone three-point attempt and make looked more confident than anything he’s thrown up toward the hoop in the past week. Though L.A. got away with it tonight, relinquishing another second half lead — this time, a 15-point third quarter lead — will eventually come around to bit them hard against talented teams like the Thunder. The fact that the clearly undersized Oklahoma City bigs (40 rebounds) were able to match the Lakers (41 boards) on the glass is also cause for concern.

In the playoffs, there are gonna be grueling, grind-it-out types of games like we saw in tonight’s affair. The Thunder had their chances down the stretch and very easily could have escaped STAPLES Center with a big road win, with L.A. dodging several bullets in the final two minutes. We’ll focus on the positive, though, and credit the Lakers for taking a punch from one of the better teams in the Western Conference and finally delivering a knockout blow of their own. It’s a cautious sign of optimism as they embark on a brutal season-ending stretch, beginning with a tilt in Big D this Wednesday.

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

The inconsistency that has plagued the Lakers all season long reared its ugly head in today’s matinee affair against the upstart Clippers, resulting in a 99-92 loss to end the forum blue and gold’s seven-game winning streak. Going into today, much of the focus was on the NBA’s newest darling, Blake Griffin. Unfortunately, for the Lakers, it was his less heralded, but equally impressive teammate Eric Gordon who stole the show, scoring a game high 30 points on 13-20 shooting, including a bevy of clutch shots in the fourth quarter.

After Derek Fisher stole a game away from the Clips in the teams’ first meeting of the season, you knew that Griffin, Gordon and Co. were going to put up a fight. For more than two and a half quarters, the Lakers met their energy, with Kobe heating up early, Bynum proving why he too is one of the league’s most promising young big men and Odom energizing the second unit through the first eight minutes of the third quarter. That’s right around when things — mainly a 12-point lead — started to go awry for the Lakers, though, as the Clippers guards thoroughly dominated the fourth quarter. From Gordon’s brilliance, Baron Davis’ continued resurgence to even a Randy Foy sighting, the Lakers anemic defense down the stretch proved little match for the Clippers’ athleticism.

Give credit to L.A. for holding Griffin in check for most of the game, leading to an uncharacteristic 7-20 shooting day that ended Blake’s streak of 14 consecutive games with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. Even on an off day, the burly forward still wound up notching 18 points and 15 rebounds, finally asserting himself in the paint when it mattered most in the latter half of the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for the Lakers, the Clippers front line is two dimensional now with the rapid growth of center DeAndre Jordan, who was the perfect mop-up man all game long (eight points, 15 rebounds). Most games, the Lakers offer a similar two-pronged attack with Bynum and Gasol, but only one — Andrew (18 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks) — decided to show up in the second half of the game in what was probably his best effort since re-joining the starting lineup. I think you can assess blame to both the Lakers guards (Fisher, Brown and the still struggling Steve Blake) for going away from their big men in the final 16 minutes and also to Gasol, who had another one of the bizarre non-factor performances that have happened all too often after his hot start to the season.

Despite their offensive and defensive inefficiencies, this game was more than winnable had the Lakers executed with any decency in the fourth quarter. Down the stretch, it was the suddenly confident Clippers — not the Lakers — who played with the poise of an elite team. The box score tells part of the story here as the Lakers only tallied 12 assists to the Clippers 28. They also outrebounded the Lakers by a 50-45 margin, led by the Jordan/Griffin tandem. It was the latter player who was involved in a tussle with Lamar with 5.7 seconds to go in the game that resulted in ejections for Griffin, Davis, Odom and Artest. Looking at the replay, the entire sequence seemed pretty unnecessary, but these are things that happen when you’re a frustrated team on the verge of losing a game you should and could have won.

In many ways, this game reminded me of the early season game against the Nuggets (who the Lakers will face in Denver this week, by the way) that ended the season-opening eight-game winning streak; a 36-minute effort against an eager, more athletic team. There are several people — many who’ve commented on this site — who believe the team’s now dismissed seven-game winning streak was a mirage of sorts; a product of slightly improved play against still primarily mediocre to poor teams. With an inconsistent effort like today, it’s easy to see why. If the Clippers have proved anything over the course of the past month or so, it’s that their own play during the first month and a half of the season was similarly a mirage . They’re far from raising any trophies, but make no mistake about it, this is a team to be reckoned with in the second half of the season. Ultimately, it’s also a team the Lakers should be able to beat, knowing full-well that one of the league’s easiest schedules promptly ends with tomorrow night’s showdown against the third-seeded Thunder and games against Dallas, Denver and Utah looming.

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Give the Lakers credit for what they haven’t been able to do in so many of their recent losses — close out games effectively. When playing the lowly Nets, though, this of course begs the question of why L.A. went down to the wire against them in the first place. As has been the case for far too many games this season, the Lakers were unable to build on their leads, relinquishing a 10 point halftime lead almost immediately and never pulling away from New Jersey until the final minute of the game.

Kobe didn’t shoot the ball well (9-19 for 32 points) in the first half, but his play in the third quarter and latter half of the fourth quarter was the big difference in the game. Bryant seamlessly shifted from scorer to facilitator down the stretch, including two momentum-shifting dimes to Gasol and Odom in the final two minutes. #24 said in his post-game interview that he felt like he needed to put his stamp on the game in the second half, which is exactly what he did.

Lamar also played exceptionally well in the first half and in the final minutes of the game (22 points, seven rebounds), showcasing all facets of his versatility, driving to the hoop with ease and connecting on a dagger three pointer that essentially iced the game for the forum blue and gold. Despite a few nice plays in the final minute and a half, Pau (15 points on 6-19 shooting) was mostly ineffective against Brook Lopez and the rest of the Nets front line. He still managed to pull down 11 rebounds, but the Lakers as a team were out-rebounded 45-42, including a 15-9 disparity in offensive boards.

Neither Pau nor Odom were particularly adept at stopping much of anything in the lane as the Nets held a 30-14 edge in points in the paint just by halftime, led by Lopez’s 25 points. The front court tandem of Anthony Morrow and Devin Harris didn’t shoot particularly well (6-17 each), but still combined for 31 points against minimal resistance in the lane. Not that this should come as surprising news for the Lakers as this has stood out as a weakness all season long. More disturbingly, L.A. allowed the Nets guards to dictate the pace of the game and the Lakers almost wound up paying for it in the end.

Overall, this game was more or a less wash in the grand scheme of things; little gained other than a W in the standings. Neither team shot well (42% for L.A., 40% for New Jersey) and the underachieving Lakers were lucky to walk away without suffering another early season loss to a subpar team. More than anything, I’d like to see them recapture some desperately needed momentum during the rest of this road trip, beginning with Washington on Tuesday.

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Records: Lakers 16-6 (3rd in the West), Bulls 12-8 (4th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 114.5 (1st in NBA), Bulls 104.8 (20th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.6 (11th in NBA), Bulls 103.6 (9th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Bulls: Derrick Rose, Keith Bogans, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah
Injuries:Lakers: Andrew Bynum, Theo Ratliff (out), Derrick Caracter (day-to-day)

The Lakers Coming in: Both the Lakers have and Bulls come into tonight’s matchup riding three-game winning streaks, following a down stretch for both squads. More troubling for Chicago where tonight’s game is concerned is their seven game losing streak to L.A., dating back to over four years ago. The Lakers, meanwhile, come into the United Center on a high note after Derek Fisher’s buzzer-beater preserved a grind-it-out victory against the Clippers on Wednesday night. With five more tough road games looming after tonight’s affair, the hope is that the Lakers can ride the momentum from Fisher’s latest heroics to a successful trip.

Ron Artest continues to under perform for L.A., scoring a combined 16 points during the Lakers’ winning streak. Matt Barnes hasn’t exactly been heating it up from outside lately either, though, missing his last 12 three-point attempts. Jackson actually utilized Barnes in favor of Artest when the Lakers last played Chicago, particularly down the stretch of what was a closely-contested game.

The Bulls Coming in: Chicago has been infused by the return of marquee free agent acquisition Carlos Boozer, who in five games is averaging 15 points to go along with six boards in 26 minutes of playing time. The longtime Jazz forward has been inconsistent so far, following up his masterful 29 point, 12 rebound performance against the Thunder earlier this week with only four points against Cleveland in the Bulls’ most recent win. While Chicago certainly needs Carlos if they want to make any kind of serious run at the Eastern Conference crown, they were more than able to steady the ship with him out. Once he works his way back into playing shape and fully integrates himself with his new team, the Bulls figure to be as dangerous as just about any team that side of the Mississippi.

The last time these two teams met just a little over two weeks ago, the Lakers gutted out a 98-91 victory thanks to some timely shooting down the stretch of the fourth quarter and a difference-making performance from the Killer B’s. Derrick Rose was an absolute menace for Chicago, seemingly scoring at will against the Lakers’ Bynum-less defense on his way to a huge night (30 points, eight assists). Joakim Noah also outhustled Bynum and Gasol throughout the night, securing a game high 13 boards in addition to scoring 19 points of his own.

Bulls Blogs: Check out the fantastic work at Blog-a-Bull and By the Horns for more on what’s been going down in Chi-town.

Keys to game: It’s too bad the Lakers won’t have Bynum back in the lineup for a few more games because they could really use him against a team like the Bulls whose personnel allows them to penetrate deep into the lane and often out-muscle teams down low despite having an undersized front line. We wrote about it prior to the Lakers’ last meeting with the Bulls and the same is true in tonight’s game — stop Derrick Rose’s patented drives to the hoop and you likely stop the Bulls too.

Gasol and Odom in particular will need to step up on defense, both against Rose and Chicago’s new-and-improved front line. Boozer isn’t known as an especially strong rebounder, but Noah is a beast down low and was repeatedly able to beat Gasol to the glass the last time the Lakers and Bulls met. The Bulls also got a surprising performance (16 points, 12 rebounds) out of Taj Gibson in that game too. Now relegated to a bench role with Boozer’s return, Gibson still figures to be a wild card down low for Chicago. Odom actually had one of his better games of the season last time against Chicago, scoring 21 points to go along with eight boards. L.A. needed every bit of it too as Pau was completely ineffective that night, only putting up 12 points on a lousy 3-10 from the field. A similar effort against a healthy Chicago squad simply won’t cut it tonight.

The Lakers bench outscored Chicago’s by a whopping 29 points (39 to 10) in November, with Shannon Brown leading the way with 21 points to tie Odom for the team lead in that game. Despite the bench scoring gap, the Bulls’ core bench trio — Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson and Kyle Korver — are more than capable of influencing a game for Chicago. Add Gibson to that mix and you have the makings of a very potent bench.

Other than Chicago, the teams the Lakers play on this trip — New Jersey, Washington, Indiana, Philadelphia, Toronto — are all more than winnable. L.A. admittedly lost focus a bit during their recent four-game slide (not that that they have looked particularly impressive during their last three wins either…) and their place atop the standings, but there’s no better cure for such ails than dominating a road trip. The Lakers are already accustomed to their annual extended Grammys trip in February, but this quarter season trek could provide a perfect tune-up. It all starts with a win against the Bulls tonight, though.

One last note to look for tonight…according to the Elias Sports Bureau, Kobe (26,375 points) only needs 20 points to match John Havlicek’s career total (26,395). Havlicek ranks 11th among the NBA’s all-time leaders scorers, but he’s the only player who spent his entire NBA career with one team to score more points than Bryant. Kobe only scored 20 against Chicago the last time around on a measly 8-18 shooting from the floor, but my money is on #24 passing Havlicek tonight.

Where you can watch: 5 p.m. PST start time on KCAL and ESPN. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710 a.m.

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Records: Lakers 13-2, Jazz 11-5
Offensive ratings: Lakers 116.9, Jazz 100.6
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.4, Jazz 104.7
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Jazz: Deron Williams, Raja Bell, Andrei Kirilenko, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson
Injuries: Lakers: Andrew Bynum, Theo Ratliff
Jazz: Mehmet Okur

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers are coming off a solid win against the Bulls on Tuesday and should be well-rested for tonight’s affair, Thanksgiving food comas excluded. As been the case for much of the season so far, the Killer B’s have buoyed the Lakers, most recently led by Shannon Brown’s 21 points. Even without the injured Boozer, Chicago’s gritty style was a good test for L.A. after a couple of expected gimmes against Milwaukee, Detroit, Minnesota and Golden State.

The Jazz Coming in: The Northwest Division-leading Jazz are on the up-and-up after defeating early season titan New Orleans by a 105-87 margin on Wednesday night for their third win in a row. Utah was led by the sturdy Deron William’s 26 points and 11 dimes, but also got 40 points combined from Paul Millsap and newcomer Al Jefferson. Speaking of Jefferson, Carlos Boozer’s de facto replacement at the center-forward spot has pretty much picked up where his predecessor left off, averaging 17 points and nine rebounds on the season. Overall, the Jazz are still a bit hard to read at this point — they had some great come-from-behind wins a few weeks ago and have had a tough opening schedule, yet the jury is still out on where they’ll ultimately fall in the Western Conference pecking order. Either way, any game against a Jerry Sloan-led squad at Energy Solutions Arena is bound to prove challenging.

Blogs: Follow Jazz news out of Salt Lake City on Salt City Hoops.

Keys to game:

You could have written this 15 years ago and it still would have been true — the Lakers need to get out to a fast start to quickly take Utah’s rowdy crowd out of the game. As much as you think that noise couldn’t possibly bother a back-to-back championship team, especially one that has actually showed they’re more than capable of beating the Jazz on their home floor in recent playoff runs, Utah’s crowd is a factor that must never be ignored.

Another key to the game we would have been discussing 15 years ago is how to manage Utah’s production from the one spot. The personnel has changed from the Stockton era, but Deron Williams’ ascension to elite status continues to provide the Lakers with all kinds of matchup dilemmas. Williams ran a potent pick-and-roll with Boozer for several seasons and even though, Jefferson doesn’t have the same range, the duo has shown increasingly more chemistry in recent games. Williams has particularly killed the Lakers in the past with his ability to drive deep into the lane, so the onus will be on Gasol and Odom to provide some form of resistance down low.

Paul Millsap’s continuing emergence is one of the main reasons that Utah has been able to jump out to a strong 11-5 start despite losing some key pieces in the offseason. There was a lot of talk of whether or not the undersized four would be able to step up once Boozer eventually departed and he’s answered resoundingly through 16 games with a career-high average of 20 points, plus nine boards. Millsap is a hustler and always seems to be near any loose ball, so Odom, Artest and Barnes will need to make sure they have active hands tonight.

Statistically speaking, the Jazz, are a middle-of-the-road defensive team. Williams is solid from the one, Millsap can’t be overlooked despite being undersized in many matchups and Kirilenko remains one of the league’s bigger defensive pests. Where L.A. can really take advantage of Utah is with its depth — something the Jazz seemingly just don’t have the personnel to match at this point. C.J. Miles is averaging 11 on the year off Utah’s pine, but the drop-off is steep from there with offensive mainstay Okur out.

Where you can watch: KCAL at 6 p.m. or ESPN Radio 710 AM

Tick Tock, Tick Tock…

Jeff Skibiski —  November 15, 2010

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The natural reaction after consecutive disappointing losses is to look around and assess blame. The truth is, even after the Nuggets and Suns made a mockery of the Lakers’ defense, this ship isn’t anywhere close to sinking and is actually going to get a whole lot more durable with Andrew Bynum’s inevitable return. The Lakers strong start to the season, buoyed by an easy slate of opponents, did however mask several of the early season issues that the team will still need to work through on its way to a hopeful three-peat. As I logged onto my Facebook this weekend, I was greeted with an interesting question from my friend and regular FB&G visitor Jay who wanted to talk about one of those issues — minutes distribution. The conversation started like this…

Does Matt Barnes deserve more minutes? Check out his PER (16.44) compared to Artest’s (14.57).

My initial reaction:

It’s an interesting question, for sure, but ultimately, I like where both are at right now. Barnes is well-accustomed to playing a bench role and his confidence isn’t an issue regardless of whether or not he plays big minutes. Ron Ron’s confidence, on the other hand, still — even after his heroic Game 7 play — has a tendency to waver on certain nights. A well-integrated Artest is also much more of an impact player over the course of a 48 minute game than Barnes, who is better used as a spark plug off the pine. Plus, it’s hard to see where the additional minutes would come from if not from Artest’s bucket, especially when Bynum comes back. Without Andrew, the team can go with a smaller lineup and even slot Ron in at power forward if they want, but once he returns, they won’t need to. At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s so much of an issue of whether Matt is deserving of more minutes, but which pool they’ll come from. This is a good problem to have. (Of course, this all changes if Lamar Odom’s mystery foot injury proves more troublesome than expected…)

Another friend added their two cents to the debate:

Artest’s Game 7 was (arguably) L.A.’s most clutch postseason performance since Kirk Gibson’s home run in ’88. If he doesn’t have that game, the Lakers lose in the finals two out of three years, and both times to the Celtics. The implications of a loss in that game were horrifying: I lose $1,000 bucks and I have to listen to Boston fans, not only for an entire year…but forever. Does that grant him blanket approval for increased playing time over Barnes? At this point…yes. We’re still only eight games in; I just put out my post Championship cigarette. Barnes has adapted early and well, but Artest has tenure, a championship and sweet hair. Should he start to falter and cost us games mid-season, then absolutely a change should be made.

Facebook diatribes aside, the discussion got me thinking about the larger issue of how Coach Jackson has distributed minutes approximately one-eighth of the way through the season. For as much flack as Jackson gets about coaching stacked, championship-ready rosters, he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his often masterful job of keeping all of his players happy with their allotted minutes. So far, this season has been no exception as I’m generally pleased with the minutes each of the players has averaged so far. I especially like the fact that Kobe is only averaging 33 minutes a night, which bodes well for his aging legs as the season goes on. At 39 minutes, Gasol is right about where I expected him. Lamar Odom’s minutes are a little higher than normal at 34, but that’s to be expected considering he’s taken on a starting role in Bynum’s absence. I, like many observers, was a bit concerned about an eventual burnout from Odom after playing for Team USA, but so far, we haven’t seen any signs of slowing from Lamar. To the contrary, he appears to be in the best shape of his life, though a more accurate indicator of his energy supply might not come ’til later on in the season.

I expected Fisher to play a little less than he has (28 minutes), considering the rampant preseason speculation that Steve Blake (18 minutes) would eventually unseat Derek as the starting one at some point this season. I do still expect Blake’s minutes to steadily rise as the season progresses and he becomes even more comfortable running the triangle. However, I mostly attribute the somewhat unexpected minute distribution at the guard slot to the remarkable consistency of Shannon Brown. Brown has firmly entrenched himself as a go-to scorer off the bench this season, averaging 10 points on 49% shooting from the floor. Shannon’s improved play isn’t without consequence, though, as Sasha Vujacic (six minutes) had barely seen the light of day prior to (temporarily) moving up the charts last night thanks to Blake’s illness. Again, as is the case with Artest and Barnes at small forward, this is one of those problems that the coaching staff is happy to have on their plate.

The rooks — Devin Ebanks and Derek Caracter — have both seen some early season floor time, more so in the case of the former. Caracter (six minutes) had a golden opportunity to engender the trust of the Lakers coaching staff (or as much trust as Jackson will place in a rookie) with Bynum out early, but has yet to show the consistency needed to become a regular contributor in his first year. Ebanks’s relative preseason success hasn’t exactly translated to his regular season play for the Lakers as he’s shooting a woeful 17% from the field in just under eight minutes of playing time. There’s plenty of time for the pair of second rounders to learn the tricks of the trade, though, so I’d rather focus on the fact that both have at least seen some playing time so far.

As far as (early) early season progress reports go, I think Jackson’s astute management of minutes through 10 games and the emergence of Brown, Blake and Barnes off the bench have set the Lakers up well to absorb the grind of the next 72 games and hopefully an extended playoff run. Are you happy with where everyone’s at minutes-wise so far?

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Records: Lakers 8-1, Suns 4-4
Offensive ratings: Lakers 116.1 (1st), Suns 111.5 (2nd)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.3 (10th), Suns 110.9 (28th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Suns: Steve Nash, Jason Richardson, Grant Hill, Hedo Turkoglu and Robin Lopez.
Injuries: Lakers: Andrew Bynum (out)

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers are looking to rebound big after their first loss of the season to the Nuggets on Thursday. With a few days off between games, the Lakers should be well-rested against Phoenix, which is probably a good thing since Phoenix will look to use their smaller lineup to spread the court and turn tonight’s matchup into a running game. It’s no secret that L.A. didn’t play well down the stretch against Denver, but the loss hopefully served as a reminder that talent alone isn’t going to help the Lakers execute down the stretch of close games.

The Lakers hit the road for three games after tonight, beginning with Milwaukee on Tuesday. Looking ahead to the month of December when they’ll play a majority of road games, I expect L.A. to come out with a focused business-like effort tonight.

The Suns Coming in: At 4-4, Phoenix is just about where most insiders expected them to be this season — a borderline playoff team, capable of beating a strong team on a good night, but equally susceptible to losing to the league’s lesser half as well. In their defense, they’ve had an extremely difficult schedule so far, already playing against L.A., San Antonio, Portland, Utah and Atlanta.

The seemingly ageless wonder Steve Nash is doing more than ever for the Suns, absent another marquee superstar a la Amar’e Stoudemire. On the season, the Canadian is averaging 20 points and 10 assists in just 34 minutes per game, with a PER of 24. In fact, in the Suns most recent win against the Grizzlies on Friday night, Nash came within three rebounds of notching his fourth career triple double, scoring a season-high 28 points to go along with 14 assists and seven rebounds. Jason Richardson has also emerged as a more consistent scorer for the Suns this season, averaging 21 points and scoring at least 15 in Phoenix’s first seven games of the season. While Hakim Warrick’s 13 points have helped ease the burden some inside, the Suns are still a team woefully lacking in that department. That and the fact that they give up just about the same amount of points as they score (107) has resulted in a mediocre start to the season.

Suns Blogs: Be sure to check our Valley of the Suns for the latest updates from the desert.

Keys to the game:

The Lakers will want to avoid the track meet they got into the last time these two teams met on Oct. 29 — a 114-106 win for the forum blue and gold. In that game, Grant Hill went off for 21 points on 10-17 shooting and Robin Lopez had one of his better games of the season with 18 points and 14 rebounds — numbers well above his season averages.

The Lakers need to control the battle of the boards against a much smaller Suns squad. I’d especially look for Pau Gasol to take it upon himself to dominate inside tonight after his largely lifeless second half against the Nuggets on Thursday. Lamar Odom always seems to play well against Phoenix and I’m sure the coaching staff wouldn’t mind a repeat of his 18 point, 17 rebound performance when L.A. beat the Suns earlier this season.

I’d also look for Kobe to have a strong rebound effort after shooting just 11-32 from the field against Denver and seemingly choosing to revert to 2006 Kobe in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. The Lakers have an enormous size advantage against the Suns and Bryant would be wise take advantage of that and play more of a facilitator role, at least early on in the game.

The Suns are a deep, but ultimately imbalanced team who rely too much on outside shooting and not enough on defense and rebounding. In seasons past, their bench has caused problems for the Lakers, but thanks to the Killer B’s, L.A. has hardly missed a beat when resting its starters through nine games. Phoenix’s energy has also been an issue for L.A. in past seasons, but Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Shannon Brown have injected new juice of their own into the Lakers lineup. Perhaps most surprising on that front for Phoenix this season has been the aforementioned Nash’s resurgence. As he goes, so go the Suns, so the impetus must be placed early on stopping Steve from going on one of his signature hot streaks. As is always the case anytime L.A. plays Phoenix, they’ll need to control the flow of the game from the outset. For that reason, I’d look for the Lakers to come out of the gates with a strong first quarter, quickly establishing control of the game and ensuring that it is played on their terms.

Even without Stoudemire, the Suns play L.A. with confidence and have enough pieces leftover from their Western Conference Finals run to give the Lakers a strong challenge before they head out on the road for their first mini-trip of the season.

Where you can watch: Fox Sports West at 6:30 p.m. or listen live on 710 ESPN Radio.