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It’s the middle of August and that means the biggest story of the day is…the NBA releasing the schedule. Yes, all teams will play 82 games and no, there’s not much analysis to be made about what any of this means regarding the team’s chances next season. But, there is some stuff to discuss.

With that, I’ve called on Rey Rey Moralde and Anthony Irwin to talk Lakers’ schedule in our latest edition of a 3-on-3.  On to the questions…

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1. With both Steve Nash and Steve Blake back, how do you think the Lakers should approach the rotation for these two guys specifically?

Darius: D’Antoni has already said that Nash will play the first 6-8 minutes of each half and that’s it. I think this is the smart move as it should help him remain loose after warm-ups and not have to go into the game cold after going to the bench for any extended amount of time. As for Blake, I’d like to see him ease his way back into the lineup and play 20-25 minutes. That said, I’d prefer Blake play more point guard than shooting guard if playing against any other lineup than the Rubio/Barea combination the ‘Wolves can throw out there. As we saw earlier this year, Blake performed much better when he was at the point and in trying to put him in the best position to succeed, I’d like to see his minutes come at that spot. Considering Nash’s court time should be around 15 minutes, Blake and Marshall should both be able to see extensive time at the point without it being an issue.

Phillip: It’s been reported that Nash likely won’t play more than 10-16 minutes tonight, and only the first few minutes of each half. With that said, I think the most ideal situation would be for D’Antoni to split the rest of the time at point guard between Steve Blake and Kendall Marshall. It wouldn’t make sense to play Blake a huge number of minutes in his first game back in about two months. Staggering the minutes Nash isn’t on the floor between Blake and Marshall should make things a seamless transition for all point guards involved.

2. Considering both Nash and Blake were immediately thrown into the starting role, what are you expecting from Kendall Marshall off the bench? Does his new role affect his mindset in tonight’s game?

Darius: I hope Marshall’s mindset doesn’t change at all. He is at his best setting up others, but he needs to continue to balance that with looking for his own offense when an opening is there. Considering he’s likely to see a dip in minutes, I would also like to see him extend a bit more effort on the defensive side of the ball. Marshall will never be a strong defender — his athletic limitations make it so he’ll struggle defending in space and against quick attacking players — but he can do a bit more to hustle back on D, look to make the extra rotation more often, and generally try to do more of the dirty work that is required of the guards when the big men are forced to help outside the paint. These have not been areas where Marshall has done well at this season, but with less responsibility to guide the offense for most of the game, maybe that can change.

Phillip: I’m obviously reaching here, but one of the benefits of having such a limited roster since Marshall joined the team is that there isn’t much of a disparity in talent from his court mates when he was starting to who he’ll be asked to lead when he enters the game as a reserve. From that standpoint, his mindset should remain consistent with what he’s had in the last month and do the things that have found him the most success. Keep his teammates involved, continue to initiate the offense and look for his shots when the opportunities present themselves. He’s been doing better with the latter in the last couple of weeks, but that’s going to continue to be his weakness on the offensive end because of the nature of his game.

3. What is the single most important factor in the Lakers recording a win tonight?

Darius: Can we make sure Kevin Love’s car doesn’t have snow tires? Because if he doesn’t show up tonight, the Lakers’ chances of winning go up dramatically. In all seriousness, getting Love to play a below average game is the team’s best chance to win. Ryan Kelly will need to do his best to stick with Love on the perimeter and the entire team will need to battle on the glass to make sure that he doesn’t have one of those 20 rebound nights with 8-10 on the offensive side. A 20 and 10 night from Love can be countered with production from enough Lakers to keep the game close. A 35 and 18 night and the Lakers are likely sunk.

Phillip: Keep the game close. One of the strangest narratives to follow this season has been the ‘Wolve’s inability to close out close games. This isn’t to say that the Lakers have been excellent down the stretch, but the Timberwolves propensity to lose those games has become a story this year. They’re currently 4-15 in games decided two possessions with seven of those losses being one-possession games and three of them losses by a single point. Neither of the previous games have been close (blowouts going both ways), but a close game could prove to be interesting and contribute to a story that’s been developing all season.

Where you can watch: 5 p.m. on TWC SportsNet or you can listen on ESPN 710.

The Lakers are heading into Salt Lake City without four guys who were expected to be in the top of the Lakers rotation this season with Pau Gasol out with upper respiratory inflammation. After three tough losses, the Lakers will see a Utah team that has struggled all season. Here we go 3-on-3 to preview tonight’s game.

1. The front court rotation has been in flux all season. With Pau out tonight, what guys should get minutes against this Jazz team?

Ryan Cole: I think that Robert Sacre should get the bulk of minutes in Pau’s place tonight. He’s played very well on defense this season, and has been a solid presence on the offensive end. He’s not going to go out there and score 20 points, but he’ll help in the other areas: rebounding, effort, intensity, and defense.

Andre Khatchaturian: After a 17-rebound performance at Golden State, Chris Kaman earned some playing time at Phoenix earlier this week. He went 0-for-2 from the field in 13 minutes, but did grab five rebounds and was a +1. Not making a bucket, though, was enough for Mike D’Antoni to fall into recency bias and not play him on Christmas. Instead, we saw Ryan Kelly who didn’t particularly play bad but Kaman could have been more effective against Miami’s biggest weakness – their front court. It would be nice to see Kaman get big boy playing time tonight against an awful Jazz team and show the staff what he can do.

Phillip Barnett: The starting lineup has Shawne Williams and Chris Kaman starting at the four and five, respectively. Even though he’s not back on the floor with the starting unit, I’d like to see Jordan Hill get somewhere between the 25-30 minutes if he can stay out of foul trouble. The Jazz are one of the few teams with a defensive rebounding rate as bad as the Lakers (Jazz ranked 28th, Lakers ranked 29th). This could be a night where we see Hill dominate on the boards and create some second chance opportunities for a team that will surely need it on the road and shorthanded.

2. Trey Burke has had games of 30, 20, and 18 points in his last five. He’s also had games of two and three during that same stretch. How do the Lakers ensure that Burke is closer to the latter?

Ryan Cole: They have to make a consistent effort to trap him in pick-and-roll situations. He’s yet to prove that he’s an amazing playmaker, so force him to make decisions rather than score. Scoring is easily his best asset as a player. Burke has the quickness and speed to penetrate effectively, and can stretch the floor from behind the arc with his shot. If the Lakers have any chance at winning, they must contain him in the pick-and-roll.

Andre Khatchaturian: The Lakers have been better at defending point guards this season than last year. Opposing PGs have a PER of 15.9 this year compared to 18.0 last season. Thank Jordan Farmar for that. Opposing PGs have a PER of just 6.5 with 4.1 turnovers per 48 minutes when Farmar is the counterpart PG. Farmar was rusty in his first game back from injury on Christmas, but the Lakers should still put him on Trey Burke and hope he shuts him down.

Phillip Barnett: Burke doesn’t do any one thing particularly well, but he’s been a decent shooter from deep (37.5 percent from three for a rookie is very promising) and has shown an ability to do some dangerous things in P&R sets. Rotations are going to have to be crisp to not allow him easy looks at the rim and Farmar is going to have to run him off the three point line in catch and shoot situations. Best case scenario is to have Burke shooting off the dribble out of the pick and roll.

3. Who gets the win tonight and why?

Ryan Cole: The Jazz. The Lakers simply don’t have enough offensive firepower sans Kobe and Pau. Maybe they can compete with Utah for a half, but eventually the size and athleticism of the Jazz is going to be too much for this team to handle.

Andre Khatchaturian:The Lakers have struggled at Salt Lake historically. They’re just 19-34 on the road against Utah since 1986-87. It’s a house of horrors. That being said, the Lakers need this one in order to stay in the playoff race. They played hard against the defending champions on Christmas and a similar effort will translate to a win against a terrible shooting team like Utah. Gasol will be out so it will be difficult, but expect Farmar to get his groove back and Jordan Hill to get big boy minutes with Pau out of the lineup. Prediction: Lakers win a close one. It also seems like Vegas may be overreacting a bit on the Gasol injury. The Lakers are 3.5 point underdogs. Take the bet.

Phillip Barnett: I think the Lakers win tonight. This is a team that seems like it’s frustrated with the recent losses and the Jazz could be the team they take their frustrations out on. Utah hasn’t been very good this season. They’re in the bottom five in offensive and defensive rating (dead last in defensive rating), and the Lakers have the youth, speed, and shooting to leave Energy Solutions Arena with another tally mark in the win column.

The Lakers enter game two with some key issues to work out. First is how they can score enough points to hang with the Spurs. That will involve shot making from multiple players and a refinement of how they work the ball into the post. Ball and player movement before an entry pass are key. As will be offering the type of release valves flashing to the middle of the floor to help beat a fronting defense. We’ll see what the Lakers have in store in this regard, but at least they seem to understand where some of their issues lie.

On the injury front, there is some good news to report. Jordan Hill has been cleared to play only 3 months after having hip surgery that was supposed to end his season. How (or if) Hill is integrated into the lineup remains to be seen, but it’s always good to have serviceable depth available to play, even if it’s at a position where many of the minutes are already accounted for. The other good news is that Steve Nash didn’t suffer any setbacks after game one and is slated to start tonight. Nash is still not 100%, but if he can find some of the rhythm he clearly lacked in game one it will be a boost to the Lakers’ offense. Jodie Meeks will also play tonight, though he too is not 100% as of yet. The swelling in his ankle has gone down, however, and that’s good enough for him to give it a go.

For the rest of our preview, we offer a 3 on 3 with myself, Ryan Cole, Rey Moralde and J.M. Poulard. (Yes, I know that’s 4 people. Work with me here.) Let’s get to it…

1. Are you more or less optimistic about the Lakers heading into game 2 than you were heading into game 1? 3on3 truehoopnetwork

J.M. Poulard: Less. Mike D’Antoni got next to nothing from his second unit in Game 1 and barely trusted them to give the Lakers any form of contribution. The Spurs on the other hand got terrific play out of Manu Ginobili and Matt Bonner. The scariest proposition in all this is that Tony Parker struggled a bit and the same holds true for Gary Neal. Playing at home, one has to think they bounce back with good performances.

Rey Moralde: More. The Lakers just seem to continue to go cold from the midrange and the outside. At some point, those shots are going to go in. Pau Gasol usually makes those midrangers. And Dwight will get more touches in the post. I think they’re in for a big evening.

Ryan Cole: Less. The Spurs are seemingly healthier than what we all thought, and I don’t think that they are going to shoot as bad a percentage in this game as they did in the previous one. I’d also expect some adjustments from Coach Popovich, which is a definitely something the Lakers should be concerned about in my opinion.

Darius Soriano: Neither, really. Game one went about as expected with both teams playing well in some areas, not so well in others, and the difference being one of the X-factors stepping up for the Spurs. I still think the Lakers have a shot in this series should they continue to play the type of defense they have over the last few weeks while also finding some efficient scoring from someone not named Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol. These will still be challenges and there will surely be others as the series evolves, but I don’t think the gap between these teams has widened after how both teams played in the first game.

2. Which player has to step up the most to help the Lakers get a win tonight?

J.M.: Metta World Peace. With the bench giving the Lakers next to nothing in Game 1, the onus is on MWP to help out Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol by spacing the floor with his shooting. Even if his shots aren’t falling, he must aggressive and look to put the ball on the floor for drives. A few post ups wouldn’t hurt either.

Rey: Where was Antawn Jamison in the first game? Basically invisible. Jamison is capable of putting up 20 points in a game, even off the bench; I would like to see him put up more shots than just three in a game.
Ryan: Steve Nash. I think Nash’s ability to create for others was not highlighted enough in game 1, so in tonights matchup the Lakers are going to have to feature his play-making ability if they are going to come close to stealing one on the road.

Darius: Steve Nash. The Spurs’ treated Nash as if he was just another guy in game 1, sagging off him in the P&R and in standard post up sets. And while Nash isn’t fully healthy, he has to do more to exploit the Spurs’ approach against him specifically (and the Lakers’ perimeter attack in general). Of all the Lakers’ wing players, Nash is the most skilled and the best shooter. If anyone is going to be able to make them pay for laying off the wings, it will be Nash and his ability to hit shots and/or get into the teeth of the defense and be a threat as a scorer or passer. Whether he has it in him physically to be that guy is questionable, but he’s the player who it needs to come from. 

3. Who wins tonight and why?

J.M.: The Spurs can survive for stretches without optimal production from their big guns. The Lakers cannot. Howard and Gasol were effective in the first game but coughed up the ball 10 times. If the Lakers are going to win, they need huge games from their Hall of Fame big man tandem and good performances from everybody else. The odds of this happening on the road are not impossible but they are quite slim.

Rey: With all that said, I still think the Spurs win this by a hair. At some point, Tony Parker is going to go nuts. Tim Duncan will do better than 6/15. And the Spurs will shoot better than 32 percent from three. We thought the Lakers blew a golden opportunity in the first game? This one will be even more frustrating in my view.
Ryan: Gut feeling has the Lakers losing a close one tonight. I think the Spurs will counter with some adjustments that will make the task of getting a road victory to difficult to overcome for the Lakers. Tony Parker didn’t have a terrific first game so I’d expect a better performance from him en route to leading the Spurs to a win.

Darius: I’ve been higher on the Lakers’ prospects than most analysts out there, so I think the Lakers steal this game. While I expect the Spurs to play better than they did in game one, I expect the same out of the Lakers. I think they take better care of the ball, hit a few more jumpers, and find a few cracks in the defense to get Dwight and Pau a few more cleaner looks than they got in game 1. Add it all up and I think this game is close at the end with the Lakers stealing it to tie the series heading back to Los Angeles.

With the Los Angeles Lakers losing against the Milwaukee Bucks tonight, the Forum Blue and Gold staff broke the game down in this latest installment of 3-on-3.

1. What’s the biggest takeaway from the game in Milwaukee?

J.M. Poulard: Sadly, Laker fans might recognize tonight’s team all too well. It’s the one they’ve seen for most of the early portion of the season that committed multiple turnovers and didn’t get back in transition.

The Lakers coughed up the ball 18 times and gave up a whopping 30 fast break points.3on3 truehoopnetwork

30 fast break points!

Philip Barnett: Sure, the Lakers lost another winnable game, but the biggest take away from tonight’s game for me was the fact that Steve Nash wasn’t healthy enough to play the fourth quarter. Nash said it was a hip spasm that has been a problem since the game against Golden State — which isn’t good any way you look at it moving forward for this team. They’ve already lost Artest for the rest of the season, Jordan Hill isn’t coming back any time soon and guys like Kobe, Gasol and Howard still aren’t 100 percent healthy. He said that he’d likely play on Saturday, but if Nash misses any time for the rest of this season, the Lakers playoff hopes would be in serious jeopardy, if they aren’t already.

Emile Avanessian: The main takeaway from the Lakers’ visit to Milwaukee is that consistently cranking out a full 48 against (in the case of the Bucks, just barely) playoff caliber opposition, under anything less than optimal conditions, is a bridge too far.

At times this season the Lakers have shown themselves capable of going toe to toe with the NBA’s best, but performances like the one we saw Thursday night highlight the difficulty this team will face in securing four wins in seven outings against top shelf competition – or even clinging to their now-half-game edge in the race for the West’s last postseason berth. Despite little contribution from the bench, prolific first half efforts from Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash had the Lakers poised to make relatively easy work of their hosts. However, after a stellar opening 20 minutes, they began to scuffle, allowing the Bucks to trim a 13-point lead to just three by halftime.

After the break, the Nash-less (for the last 17+ minutes) Lakers were done in by the inability to contain Monta Ellis (a near triple-double, with 18, seven rebounds and nine assists), Brandon Jennings (20, including three 3-pointers, and seven assists) and Larry Sanders (13 boards to accompany a career-high 21, 13 of which came in the third quarter), while also struggling to create and convert easy opportunities at the rim. The Bucks turned up the heat as the second half progressed, and on this night the Lakers could not find the extra gear that would have allowed them to prevail. Simply put, with the stakes raised and few soft patches remaining on the schedule, in the absence of Metta, the Lakers’ are ill-equipped to consistently trouble the league’s best.

2. Thoughts on Pau Gasol’s play tonight?

J.M. Poulard: Gasol looked like a bully at times on offense tonight, punishing Ersan Ilyasova on the low block. He hit him with a left hook, a reverse layup, a fall-away jumper and an overpowering basket right at the rim.

Defensively though, Pau was a huge liability. According to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool, most of the lineups the Lakers have used this season featuring Pau Gasol without Dwight Howard have been abysmal on defense. And this was obvious tonight.

The Bucks attacked the Spaniard repeatedly in the pick-and-roll with Howard on the bench and they produced scores with relative ease in these situations. Couple that with the three-guard lineup and the paint was wide open.

Philip Barnett: If I had to give him a grade, I’d give him a C+/B-. Since his return from injury, the game against the Timberwolves was easily his best showing. Tonight’s game was his second best, but wasn’t nearly as good as the game in Minnesota. I was more impressed with his passing acumen more than anything else, but he was able to get into the flow of the offense for a few possessions, knocked down a couple shots and finished around the basket.

Emile Avanessian: Pedestrian.

After a first half in which he played a vital role in building a double digit lead, Pau Gasol was relegated to little more than bit player status after the break – more appropriately, after Steve Nash’s back forced him to call it a night. Pau did connect on half of his twelve field goal attempts en route to 12 points, he did grab nine rebounds and hand out three assists, and he did hold Ersan Ilyasova to just four rebounds, but there is a case to be made that of the ten starters on both teams, only Jodie Meeks turned in a less impactful Thursday night at the office.

Pau’s opposite number (Ilyasova) outplayed him offensively, scoring 20 points (including a stealthily huge 3-pointer just before halftime) and swiped possession from the Lakers four times and, more importantly, with a sweep of the season’s penultimate back-to-back well within reach and Nash indisposed for the remainder of the game, Pau did not make a single meaningful second half play. Far be it for me to lay the entirety of the blame for Thursday’s come-from-ahead shortfall at Pau’s doorstep, but I would be remiss to ignore his conspicuous silence at the game’s vital moments.

3.  The Lakers faded late in the fourth quarter because…

J.M. Poulard: They simply could not make shots. Antawn Jamison was the only player to convert more than one field goal in the fourth quarter against the Bucks.

Everybody else struggled from the field.

Kobe was a mere 1-for-5 in the final period and complicated matters a little by forcing a few isolations. He invited the double team but only attracted Pau Gasol’s defender, which for the most part was a win for Milwaukee given that Pau camped out on the perimeter.

In the same breath, Bryant himself gave the Lakers a fighting chance by virtue of all the fouls he manufactured. Kobe attempted 10 freebies in the last quarter alone, but it just wasn’t enough.

Philip Barnett: The turnover issue has gotten out of hand in the last two contests. The Lakers recorded 15 turnovers in the first half of the game against the Timberwolves. Tonight, the Lakers recorded eight in the third quarter, which ultimately decided the game. The Lakers made a short push early in the fourth quarter, but didn’t lead again in the last seven minutes of the game. Had the Lakers kept things a bit cleaner in the third, their fourth quarter woes might not have come to fruition. Other than that, it was pretty much a matter of young legs v. old legs. The Bucks essentially ran them out of the building in the last half of the fourth quarter. Couple that with some bad shots, and you have a Lakers loss.

Emile Avanessian:            The Lakers simply lacked the horses to go the distance against a quality opponent. Kobe characteristically tried to engage Mamba, but his effort fell short. This, combined with the absences of Steve Nash and Metta, and with no one markedly outperforming expectations, is little more than a one-way pass to disappointment in Lakerland.

1. Kevin Durant had one of the most effortless 40-point games we’ve ever seen in his last trip to the Staples Center. What can the Lakers change to slow him down today?

Dave MurphyEffortless is right. He’s got the slinkiest game in the NBA. My initial and most ridiculous thought is to live with the easy outside shots but he’ll just rise up and rain down 3’s. The only prayer is to try and deny him the ball and that’s nothing new. Metta’s had some luck in the past – body him, crowd him, show him your hands. You obviously need help off his post-ups and spin-moves. Duhon’s actually pretty good at rotating over when a teammate gets beat off the dribble and smaller guards can sometimes get up under him. Also, Dwight was out of action the last time around so that should help at the basket.

Emile AvanessianCeltic Pride West? Seriously, no clue.

I love the use of “effortless” in the question, because no term better describes that which makes KD so devastating. However it happens, getting slapped with 40 is disheartening. Feeling like the dude that torched you barely broke a sweat doing it? That’s backbreaking.

My inclination here is to suggest that the Lakers look to one end or the other of the strategic spectrum. Either hyper-aggressive overplaying – I’m talking doubles, triples, traps, tasers, whatever – in the hope that Durant’s resulting loss of rhythm (and, hopefully, production) takes the rest of the team out of its comfort zone. This is something of a tightrope walk, as, unfortunately, Russell Westbrook remains in the Thunder’s employ, but, hey, it’s worth a shot. Right?

On the other hand, the Lakers might look to make an all-out, almost comedic commitment to neutralizing the rest of the OKC attack and casting Durant as ’06 Kobe.  Problems arise here as, for any difference in wiring between Kobe and KD, give either 50, and he’s a good bet to take 65. And, again, Russ is liable to serve up 25 of his own.

If pressed, I’d pick the former option and hope it lures out the Lakers’ greatest ally in their quest to slow down Durant – Bad Russ.

Phillip Barnett: I, unfortunately, got to witness Durant’s 40 points live. Effortless may be an understatement as it only felt like he had 20-something by the time I got a text asking what it was like watching Durant score 40 through three quarters. Ron did pretty much everything within his power to keep Durant at bay, but it simply wasn’t enough. Forcing him to work harder off the ball could help. Have guys bump him off of screens and having Ron over play passes on the perimeter and deny passes everywhere else should help. Also, there was no Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard or Jordan Hill in the previous match up. While there will still be no Hill today, forcing Durant to shoot over our length should help in keeping his numbers ungodly.

2. Both Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook had season highs in assist in their last game (14 each), which team would be better off with their man playing the facilitator role?

Dave: Off the Utah game I’d say Kobe. It wasn’t simply a matter of the number of assists, although that was outrageous. But, team chemistry has been a problem and we all know it. Kobe completely invigorated the guys at a time when they needed it most and it’s still the case a couple days later. The win was nice but this is a team that has a ton of uncertainties hanging over them and that kind of commitment would be huge. It also causes some coaching confusion for Brooks – you’ve got to deny Bryant the assists?
Emile: The Lakers. I will never not expect 25+ a night from Kobe, but the dire situation in which the Lakers find themselves is largely a function of subpar effort. By ensuring that his teammates are appropriately engaged offensively, Kobe increases the odds of getting their best on the defensive end. Plus, in addition to savant-like floor generalship, Steve Nash brings to the Lakers’ table perimeter prowess on par with anyone that’s ever played the game. Any opportunity to alleviate the considerable pressure Nash faces in trying to orchestrate this offense, while affording him the opportunity to play to another Hall-worthy strength is decidedly a good thing.Plus, at the end of it all, it just means less constrictive defenses against which “scorer Kobe” gets to work.

Phillip: It’s hard to expect Kobe to record a near triple double every night, especially not that many assists. In a perfect world, Kobe would have somewhere between five and eight assists on any given night with Nash taking the brunt of the load facilitating the ball — but Kobe being able to make plays against Utah really opened things up for Nash to get his points. For the Lakers, a happy medium of Kobe facilitating and Kobe shooting would be the best. For Oklahoma City, at least against the Lakers, they may be better served with Westbrook looking for his shoot. With Durant scoring 40 through three quarters the last time they met at Staples, the Lakers defense is likely going to be keying in on KD (not like they weren’t before) and could mean some easier scoring opportunities for Russ — and you don’t want a guy turning away easy looks just to be able to get the ball to his teammates.

3. If the Lakers are going to win, who is going to have to be the x-factor, and in what way?

Dave: I never thought I’d refer to Pau Gasol as an X-factor but if he’s coming off the bench than it is what it is. Like Dwight, he was out of action last time against the Thunder and he’s going to be needed. Pau had a strong game offensively on Friday – seven out of eight in 25 minutes. I’m not sure when or if D’Antoni is actually going to embrace the strengths of this team, rather than simply tolerating them in short-minute situations. Gasol has faced OKC as much as anyone in the league – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. But he’s got the experience and if that somehow makes him an X-factor against this team, so be it.

Emile: Nash. A lot is made (rightfully) of his inability to defending opposing lead guards. Russell Westbrook has that effect on pretty much every defender, everywhere, so suffice it to say the situation here is somewhat exacerbated.

Let’s not kid ourselves, the idea that Steve Nash’s defense will effectively slow Russ – Good or Bad – is more hallucinogenic than it is quaint. There is, however, a way in which the Lakers’ #PointGod can slow his opposite number. Literally.

For all the talk of whether or not Westbrook is a “true” point guard and the constant, ongoing judgment of his floor generalship, Russ never seems to have an issue controlling the tempo of a game. If the Lakers are going to stay competitive and have a legitimate chance of stealing this game, Nash must dictate the tempo at which it’s played.

Phillip: For me, I think the X-Factor has to be Earl Clark. The Last time these two teams met, Clark was one of the bright spots, recording his second double-double of the season (10 points, 10 assists) during that stretch with the Lakers top three bigs all out with injuries. If Clark can come off the bench with similar production with both Howard and Gasol in the lineup tonight, that can go a long way in terms of the Lakers keeping this close and ultimately winning. At this point, a Lakers win is a long shot, but if Clark can come off the bench and be an energy guy who cleans up the glass with the second unit, the Lakers could find themselves in a position to win this game late in the fourth.

With the nation’s annual State of the Union address approaching, as well as the midpoint to the NBA season, we thought we’d take a moment to reflect. The subject at hand of course, the Los Angeles Lakers and their state of being. This certainly isn’t the team’s finest hour but it is what it is – a few of us offered observations within a basic context of past, present and future. It’s not surprising that there’s a commonality of disappointment and sharp criticism at play in the following capsules. There is also pragmatism, thoughtful analysis and possible ways out of a morass that nobody would have predicted during a summer that now seems long ago. Settle in for some good reading and commentary from J.M. Poulard, Emile Avanessian, Zephid (Jeff King) and Rey Moralde:

J.M. POULARD

Where Lakers Have Been

Forget Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain; or Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton, Karl Malone and Shaquille O’Neal, these new Lakers would be by far the best collection of individual talent on one team in franchise history.

But that wasn’t to be.

Steve Nash fractured his leg and thus missed a huge chunk of the season and consequently the Lakers had to manage without their superstar point guard steering the offense.

Things looked promising despite a few early setbacks because Kobe Bryant was shooting the heck out of the basketball and looked 28 again on some nights.

Dwight Howard was a little different; check that, plenty different because his back injury that sidelined him the previous season affected his mobility.

And well, Mike Brown got fired.

In came Mike D’Antoni, and out of the post went Pau Gasol.

Things looked bad for a stretch, but everything would be fine once again as soon as Steve Nash would rejoin the team.

Nash came back and the Lakers defeated the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena and everything in Laker Land was fine…

Until the team started losing again. Thus bringing us to…

Where Lakers Are Now

Lost.

It’s the one word that perfectly characterizes what’s happening with the team at present time.

The offense is statistically good, but we expected it to be miles ahead of everybody else’s and because it hasn’t been, that’s been somewhat of a disappointment.

The defense has been awful. The communication has been non-existent and the rotations just aren’t there. The trust on this side of the ball just seems broken more often than not.

Consequently, every player is operating in ways that they think serve the team best, but no one is quite sure.

Nash is turning down shots to get others involved but is actually hurting the team in doing so at times, while Pau is camped out on the perimeter doing his best to emulate Dirk Nowitzki.

Kobe is Kobe while Dwight is not quite himself but certainly acting as such. This leads us to…

Where the Lakers are Headed

There’s no obvious answer here:

·         Staples Center?

·         Trades?

·         Phil Jackson?

·         NBA Finals?

·         Western Conference Finals?

·         Western Conference Semifinals?

·         First round?

·         10th seed in the Western Conference?

All of those answers come in play. The Lakers could figure things out and go 30-10 the rest of the way by virtue of the performance of their stars, make the playoffs, catch the right matchup and make some noise in the postseason, or simply go 16-24 as their winning percentage (.405) suggests and then the front office might just throw a stick of dynamite at the coaching staff and the scouts and blow it all up on that front.

No team in the NBA has a higher ceiling or lower floor level than the Lakers right now. And really, that’s what makes them the Lakers.

Always keeping you on the edge of your seat.

EMILE AVANESSIAN

Where We’ve Been

The top of the mountain.

With the exception of the New York Yankees, no team in the annals of American sport has so consistently taken up residence at the pinnacle of its respective game. You’re likely acquainted with the numbers: 59 playoff appearances in 65 seasons of existence, including 34 in the past 36 years, and appearances in 31 of 64 championship series since inception – 16 of the last 32, with 16 victories. On another 11 occasions they’ve stumbled at the postseason’s penultimate hurdle. And consistent within that staggering consistency has been generational greatness.

From Mikan, to Baylor, West, Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Shaq and Kobe, not a chapter of NBA history can be written that does not prominently feature the Lakers’ talisman of the day. This summer, the 2012-13 season seemed destined to be the opening stanza of yet another glorious entry in the Lakers tome. Following a pair of substandard (by Laker standards) campaigns in which they’d failed to advance past the postseason’s second round, the new-look Lakers – a new Buss at the helm, Phil Jackson on a ranch (again), Magic no longer officially in the fold – as they are wont to do, pulled off a retooling for the ages, filling a long-running void at the point with the greatest playmaker-shooter in NBA history and not only upgrading an already strong center spot, but putting in place a cornerstone that would make seamless the transition from this dynasty to the next. That was the plan…

In roughly three months (how has it only been three months?) since the season’s inauspicious come-from-ahead loss to the Mavericks, Steve Nash broke his leg, Mike Brown got the boot, the salad days of Bernie Bickerstaff came and went, Phil Jackson was wasn’t was wasn’t brought back to anchor a minefield roster seemingly created to test his mastery of Zen, in favor of Nash’s Phoenix co-mastermind…

Ok, you know what? I’m tired. I am tired of doing this, rehashing the laundry list of missteps, shortcomings and indignities for which this season will – in all likelihood – ultimately be remembered.

Other than Kobe Bryant playing extremely well (at times, even by his own standards) and Earl Clark showing himself worthy of a place in an NBA rotation (yep, we’re there), literally nothing has gone right this season.

At the time of Mike Brown’s ouster, I, like most, believed that in a vacuum, Phil was the best candidate to assume the top spot on the bench. However, I also understood the Busses refusal to be held over a barrel by a smug now-in-law-to-be that they cannot stand. I will also admit, however, that the hiring of Mike D’Antoni to coach Nash-run team with the preapproval of Kobe Bryant did not trouble me one iota. Granted, the expectation of smooth sailing was buoyed by the assumptions that Dwight Hoard would have regained more of his trademark dominance by this point, and that a healed Steve Nash would be back to being Nash, pulling solid, sometime spectacular play out of otherwise middling guys, while burying 40% of his numerous 3-point attempts per game, and that D’Antoni’s first order of business would not be a scorched earth campaign against Pau Gasol’s psyche.

It felt safe to assume that the Lakers under MDA would be just fine.

Where We’re At

Old as sh*t and completely adrift.

As much as any team in recent NBA history, the 2012-13 Lakers are a monument to instant gratification. Sure, the talk of eras to come and Dwight’s expectant place in the pantheon of legendary Laker big men put a forward-looking spin on the situation, but no team that trots out a pair of starting guards that have each been playing professionally nearly as long as Kyrie Irving has been alive – one that severed its final remaining ties to the first round of the draft for the foreseeable future to do so – is not overly concerned with the long term.

And now halfway though (seriously, how is this thing only halfway over??) what was to be if not a coronation then a slow, tantric build to title contention, has spiraled out of control. On the floor, the offense, though statistically effective, is disjointed and inconsistent. Turnovers continue to be a bugaboo, both when the Lakers have the ball, as only 10 teams are giving the ball away more frequently, as well as on the defensive end, where only the Orlando Magic have proven more inept at taking the ball away from the opposition. There is no communication on defense, nor, on most nights, is there a good faith effort. Keeper of the effort flame, Jordan Hill, is lost for the season, and Steve Blake might as well be.

Meanwhile, off the floor, the not-so-good ship Laker is taking water at an alarming rate. Closed-door meetings have barely concluded before they are in the press. The Lakers are contemplating flipping Dwight. No, they’re not. But are they really not? Dwight hates D’Antoni. If not for the fiasco of two months prior, D’Antoni would likely not last the season. To placate Dwight, he might not make it to the summer. Dwight might hate Kobe. Kobe asks Dwight if Dwight hates Kobe – Dwight gets the sads.

Midway through a season for which #4 or 5 seed that “no one wanted to see in the postseason” seemed a worst-case scenario, the playoffs are becoming a pipe dream.

On the bright side, I hear that whole tanking thing has worked out well for some teams. We could try that…

Where We’re Headed

In times of crisis, fixation on a single tree often diverts attention from the forest. Other times, so transfixed are we on said forest that the loss of a tree here or there is overlooked. Whatever your perspective, right now, it’s all burning.

Outside of the occasional kneejerk outburst, I tend not to be alarmist about the Lakers struggles. Too many times history has taught me that to trust those at the helm, and that there is, in fact, a plan in place.

The problem is, this thing working out was the plan.

In this bleakest of times, I will, as I always have, trust the guys upstairs to unearth a trump card. I must, however, wonder aloud, what exactly that card will look like. There are no draft choices for which to tank. The Phoenix-bound unprotected first-rounder – over the summer a lock to ensure no better than a mid-20s pick – accumulates ping-pong balls by the game. Hell, should they so choose, Dallas has the right to swap second-rounders with the Lakers. There’s always assessing the young guys for next year. Well, with Hill on the shelf, Earl Clark stands alone among those to be assessed. Maybe some of the NBA’s underexposed, ascendant commodities can be convinced to part ways with cap relief or picks in exchange for some of the Lakers’ 15 remaining national television appearances…

And then there’s the question of Dwight Howard. Wishy-washy on his best day, and with a right to blow town on July 1 should he so choose, the Lakers are likely in store for an Orlando-esque Dwightmare of their own, one whose happiest ending will involve a healthy D-12 sticking around, though probably only after the appointment of a third full-time head coach (fourth overall, counting Bernie) in under a year, with the best candidate for the job still waiting for the stitches in back from his last run-in with Dwight to heal – and the second choice his brother.

On the bright side, we’re probably in store for some vintage 2006 Kobe the rest of the way, right?

ZEPHID

Where the Lakers Have Been

To fully answer this question, recent historical context is necessary.  Where have they been?  Winning championships.  2009 and 2010 are still very much fresh in the minds of Lakers fans, many wanting to recapture the magic of those seasons and somehow transfer it to the here and now.  It is why there was so much fervor to bring back Phil Jackson.  It is why many lament the loss of Lamar Odom.  It is why Pau Gasol is viewed with such vitriol, unable to reproduce the skills and energy he had in those seasons.  It is why so many lament the Lakers lack of depth, energy, and youth, crying for names such as Trevor Ariza, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Shannon Brown, etc.  And there are even some who decry the sabotage of the Chris Paul trade, seeing his success on the Clippers and claiming that his success should be for the Lakers.

Where the Lakers Are Now

But as it always is, the past is colored by rose lenses.  Could Phil have brought out the potential of this team of all-stars and cast-offs?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  Frustrations with D’Antoni stem from so many things: an unwillingness to alter his system, an inattentiveness to defense, constantly altering rotations, lacking the gusto to lead a team of strong personalities.  Many of these could be said of Phil, many are the opposite of what was said about Phil.  Phil was also unwilling to bend his system, albeit his was the result of 9 NBA championships.  Phil’s teams weren’t necessarily known for their defense, but generally played well on that end.  Phil refused to alter his rotations on a whim, sticking with guys long after fans would have abandoned them.

The magic of players like Odom and 2009 Gasol is alluring to so many, but these players are simply not as they were those few years ago.  Odom is now a shell of himself, with absolutely no outside shot, and even though many see similarities between he and Earl Clark, Odom’s unique skill set will almost certainly never be reproduced on this current incarnation of the Lakers.  Even more frustrating is those who have seen the greatness of Pau Gasol first hand, and are now stuck with this poor imitation we see now.  The truth is that Gasol is now several years older, with several years of 40+ mpg season and several years of international competition.  His lateral movement has eroded to the point where anyone who would call him a power forward would be absolutely ridiculed.

And the vaunted Lakers depth of 2009 and 2010?  How many years did we spend claiming the bench mob was useless, giving up huge leads and forcing the starters to play huge minutes?  We soon forget how awful Farmar, Vujacic, Brown, and even Ariza could be at times.

But mostly, we the fans remember the winning.  And we miss it dearly.  Kobe is still Kobe, doing Kobe things, but Dwight Howard and Steve Nash have not been the saviors they were heralded to be, not the knights riding to carry the Lakers back to the heights we so desire them to achieve.

Where the Lakers Are Headed

To some quantum state that we cannot even begin to predict until it has already happened.  Could this team be blown up and split apart for youth and draft picks?  Absolutely.  If management fears Dwight will leave in free agency, they would be remiss not to try and get something for him.  If Dwight does re-sign, his massive contract along with Pau Gasol’s $19M will be on the books for next year, totaling a whopping $185M in salary commitments for next year.  Remove Gasol and his contract, and that payment goes down to $116M.  Nash also isn’t getting any younger, and if his abilities to control the offense continue to not offset his defensive woes, it would be wise to trade the remaining years of his contract elsewhere.

Could this team turn it around and be the most feared 8th seed in the history of the NBA?  Absolutely.  Maybe Dwight miraculously heals and gets back to being the dominant athletic freak we all thought he would be.  Maybe Nash turns on the offensive savant switch, slicing and dicing defenses in a way that we do not see now.  Maybe Kobe starts to actually give a shit about off-ball defense, and begins to seek the ball in better positions instead of just asking for it in better positions.  Maybe Gasol accepts his role off the bench, and somehow regains enough lateral movement to make our 4 All-Star lineup work.  Maybe our supporting players come together, using the talents of Jodie Meeks, Earl Clark, Metta World Peace, and Antawn Jamison to their fullest extent.  Maybe the Lakers begin to trust, depend, and work for one another on defense, being the swarming inside-outside defense we know they can be.

Maybe everything that has gone wrong so far this season will go right.

REY MORALDE

Where The Lakers Have Been

Good? Excellent? Championship Material? That seems long gone now, doesn’t it? 2009 and 2010 were good times. Heck, even 2008 was looked at as good times as people fondly remember that team because that’s when the Lakers came back to life. So revisionist history makes fans pine for the days of Jordan Farmar. Sasha Vujacic. Trevor Ariza. Lamar Odom. The good Pau Gasol. The Lakers and its fans are spoiled; we expect nothing but success for this squad.

Where The Lakers Are Now

Which is why this losing has been so hard to take. Maybe Farmar could help. Maybe Vujacic could, too. But the problem is that the Lakers did put together a team that we mostly wanted, it’s just that the pieces did not fit together as we envisioned. I was a staunch defender of the Mike D’Antoni hire, too, and I thought that would’ve fit but I didn’t think he’d be one stubborn son of a female animal. They did have one good game against Utah but the Lakers are in a quagmire. All they can really do is work through this (and we’ve seen flashes of BRILLIANCE with this team) because I don’t believe a trade can fix this team unless they get a transcendent player in Kevin Durant or LeBron James. While it’s not out of the possible realm to get these guys in the future, they’re certainly not going to get them this season.

Where The Lakers Are Headed

I am not the best prognosticator. After all, I thought they would go to the NBA Finals with this squad. Of course, many thought so, too. Nevertheless, who really knows where they’re headed? Are they going to stick with this team? Are they going to trade somebody? Are they going to go deeper into the abyss? Are they going to make a run for the postseason and suddenly catch fire there? Will Kobe Bryant piledrive Dwight Howard next week? Will Pau Gasol cry in the middle of the court? Will Earl Clark suddenly find more mythical powers and become a 30-10-10 guy? This is what makes the Lakers who they are: full of intrigue and full of drama. Whether we like it or not, we’re going to tune in to the next episode.

DAVE MURPHY

Where We Were

We were at or near an elite level for a long time. There has been much talk around the league about the Lakers’ coaching woes and it’s important to understand that the Phil Jackson years were unique. I am sometimes puzzled by those who preach advanced metrics on the one hand and so easily dismiss 11 NBA championships in 22 seasons. If Jackson had been hired instead of D’Antoni there would have been no guarantee whatsoever that he would have won his 12th coaching ring. There is certainly a guarantee however, that if he had, it would have been easily explained away – he had the talent and was simply along for the ride. That particular journey never happened but the talent’s still here, spiraling into an abyss that nobody but a fringe conspiracy theorist would have considered.

Where Are We Now

After a sublimely disastrous road trip the Lakers returned to Staples center last night and demolished the Utah Jazz, a very solid team. It’s not surprising at all – this year’s model has made a habit of tossing us tantalizing glimpses of greatness when we least expect it. The Oklahoma City Thunder will be in town tomorrow and Sunday matinees have never been the Lakers’ strength. The immediate path ahead will be challenging to say the least – the Pelicans visit on the heels of the Thunder and the Lakers then head back out on the road for the seven-game Grammy trip. Forget all the previous ‘season starts now’ mantras – this is the moment you know, you know, you know.

Where We’re Headed

The current roster for better or worse is an anomaly – a star-studded roll of the dice that is here for the short term. The rebuild years lie ahead because you simply can’t continue to cheat time. Plus there’s the small matter of the new NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement. Forget for the moment the positional questions – the need for athletic defenders, outside shooters and a younger point god. Of course the player needs are important for without them we have nothing. But the union is made of many parts and operates at its best through common belief systems and adaptability and the willingness to buy into a common purpose. It takes forward thinking and leadership and what that looks like for the Lakers is anybody’s guess. Uncertainty is the great equalizer in sports.

 

Records: Lakers 6-6 (Tied for 7th in the West), Grizzlies 8-2 (1st in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.5 (5th in the NBA), Grizzlies 104.0 (8th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 99.8 (13th in the NBA), Grizzlies 98.2 (8th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Darius Morris, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Grizzlies: Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Nash (out), Steve Blake (out); Grizzlies: Darrel Arthur (out)
Where you can watch: 5pm start time out west on TWC Sports Net. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Rather than go with a traditional preview, we’re going 3-on-3 with me, J.M., and Emile on tonight’s game. Feel free to give your take on the three questions below (or add your own) in the comments.

1. Who needs to step up tonight besides Kobe for the Lakers to win? 3on3 truehoopnetwork1

Darius Soiano: The easy answer is Pau or Dwight Howard as their individual matchups vs. Randolph and Marc Gasol are ones that require they play well if the Lakers are to win. But I’m going to go with the PG duo of Darius Morris and Chris Duhon. Mike Conley and Jerryd Bayless offer perimeter playmaking, defense, and scoring punch to a post-centric Memphis attack and if the Lakers’ point guards do little to counteract and/or offeset the Grizz duo’s production, it will be very difficult for our guys to pull out the win.

Emile Avanessian:  Pau Gasol. Dwight Howard’s quiet game in Sacramento was a one-off. He’s not getting four shots again. Pau, however, got a more characteristic 10 field goal attempts. What he did with was disappointing. Aside from the 3-pointer he made in the second quarter, Pau missed seven of nine shots – all four of the jumpers he attempted in the game, and three of five in the paint. As secondary facilitator, top-thee (on a top heavy team) scorer and (against as good a power forward/center combo as there is in the league) key interior defender, Pau Gasol has got to hammer the boards, really dig in on D and, simple as it sounds, make more shots.

J.M. Poulard: Dwight Howard isn’t D12 just yet, but he will have to look a little like the player that once hoisted the Defensive Player of the Year award in order for the Lakers to be victorious tonight. His ability to change shots at the rim, defend big men one-on-one as well as help in the pick-and-roll and then retreat back to the paint need to show up just a little in order to take away the biggest advantage the Grizzlies have: their interior scoring.

2. What part of Memphis’ style of play concerns you the most?

Darius: Their ball-hawking defense is particularly worrisome tonight. The Lakers have been better at taking care of the ball since the Princeton offense was scrapped, but against the Kings the giveaways returned and the Lakers suffered for it. Kobe had 7 turnovers on his own against Sacramento and a repeat-type performance would be a disaster against a Grizzlies group who loves to play the passing lanes and turn steals into easy baskets. Every Laker will need to be aware of Memphis trying to force miscues and will need to be more aware when making passes of any kind. Also very important is that the bigs are cognizant of double teams in the post as guards digging down can quickly turn into a lost possession.

Emile: The front line. Style aside, Rudy Gay plays well against the Lakers. Plain and simple. And he’s the least of the Lakers concerns up front. As things stand today, the Grizzlies feature the best power-forward-center combo in the NBA. The Lakers duo is not far behind, but to argue that Dwight and Pau have performed at the level of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in 2012-13 is incorrect. Zach Randolph has been a terror or the boards – averaging 13.8 per game and ranking third in both Offensive and Total Rebound Rate – while hanging 16.7 points per game on 47% FG and a 21.3 Usage Rate. Gasol, meanwhile is averaging 15, 7 and nearly five assists per game. As a center. He’s got a 20+ PER with a Usage Rate of 16.3. We see maestros at the point guard position regularly. Marc Gasol is playing that type of game – offensive catalyst, but not primary scorer – from the paint.

J.M.: The Grizzlies play at what occasionally seems like a breakneck pace – especially at home – because they clamp down, getting into passing lanes, force turnovers and fly down the court for transition baskets. If the Lakers fail to properly space the floor and deliver pinpoint passes, the Grizzlies will force a multitude of mistakes and capitalize on them.

3. If only choosing one key for the Lakers to win, what would it be?

Darius: Rebounding effectively on both ends of the floor will be key tonight. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph feast on the glass on both ends and their ability to extend possessions can be a major factor if the Lakers allow it to continue tonight. On the other end, the Lakers’ bigs must be better on their own offensive glass than they were against Sacramento by securing extra possessions and converting them into second chance points. Memphis wants to grind you down on both ends but controlling the glass can limit their ability to do so.

Emile: The front line. Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard have generally played pretty well in these early goings, but we’ve yet to see a dominating performance from the Lakers’ bigs. Sure, Dwight’s not 100% yet and Pau’s not normally the type of player to actively take over a game, and plus, Bean’s killing it, but if the Lakers are going to win at a contender clip and consistently beat good teams, it can’t solely be on the back of Kobe Bryant. Tonight the need for such a performance is heightened, with the Grizzlies boasting the best 1-2-3 front line in the NBA, and an in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph have literally a do-it-all duo at the bigs. Pau and Dwight will not only have to produce at superstar levels at the offensive end, but challenge perhaps the most skilled big man combo in the NBA.

J.M.: Rebounding. The turnovers will go a long way towards determining the tempo of the game, but nothing controls a contest quite like a rebounding edge. Memphis loves to feast on offensive rebounds but has trouble when opposing teams crash the boards on them as evidenced by their most recent loss to the Denver Nuggets. Own the boards, own the Grizz.

———

Lastly, I just wanted to add that the Lakers are entering a difficult part of their schedule with a back to back tonight and tomorrow against the Grizz and the Mavs and four straight games against playoff caliber opponents. Now that the season has started there is no rest for the weary and the Lakers will need to claw their way up in the standings while adjusting to their new coach and learning another new system.

They will be fatigued — mentally and physically — and it will show in their play. And while it’s understood the season is a marathon with time to find their stride, it will be better for them if they can rack up some wins in the process. The other teams will not wait for the Lakers to become the juggernaut we all hope they can become; opponents will try to get their licks in now. This team will have to fight their way out of the corner while they’re learning to play together and dealing with injuries. Here’s hoping they’re up to it.