Archives For ron artest

During his eight-year run in Phoenix, Steve Nash led the NBA in assists six times, and five times in assists per game and Assist Rate, finishing in the top three in each category every year. He turned in a record four seasons in which he made 50% of his field goals, 40% of his 3-pointers and 90% of his free throws, missing narrowly on two other occasions –2006-07 (89.9% FT) and 2010-11 (39.5% from 3). Three times he quarterbacked the Suns to the conference finals, missing trips to the championship round consecutive years due to Joe Johnson’s face and Robert Horry’s ass.

For his trouble, Nash earned six All-star selections, three All-NBA First Team nods (and a pair of Seconds) and a pair of league MVP trophies. Additionally, he earned charter membership in the League Pass Hall of Fame, gained the inside track on entry into that other Hall and cemented his status as one of the great player representatives in NBA history. What… whah?

Yessir. We occupy a world in which Shawn Marion, Raja Bell, Jared Dudley, Leandro Barbosa, Channing Frye and Lou Amundson have pounded paychecks totaling more than $220 million. This figure will approach $250 mill by 2015. Tim Thomas has been paid nearly $25 million since 2006. Give kudos to the David Falks of the world if you must, but…

So three weeks ago, a Laker offseason soaked in questions and seemingly destined to hinge on an all-in play aimed at upgrading the always vital “occasional pain in the ass, sublimely gifted big man” spot took a dramatic turn with the acquisition of the aforementioned virtuoso. Nash’s arrival on the Lakers’ roster did little to quell the questions that swirl around this team.

In the weeks to come, we’ll continue to discuss Dwight Howard’s future home. We’ll question the ability of Kobe Bryant to coexist with an assertive, pure point guard (I say this ends extremely well. Nash is Kobe’s kind of player – tough, detail-oriented and a workaholic. Plus, fair or not, he could throw an MVP trophy on eBay and still match Bean’s tally). We’ll wonder aloud about Pau Gasol’s future with the Lakers (he was just gifted a playmaker for whom his game was seemingly custom made), as well as that of Andrew Bynum (who knows? I’m not comfortable handicapping his internal dialogue).

In due time, however. For me, since the announcement of Nash’s relocation to Staples, one recurring question has dominated… which completely average Laker will he Point God into national prominence and an eight-figure payday? A walk through Nash’s days in the desert reveals beneficiaries past, and provides a template for those to come…

Andrew Bynum/Amar’e Stoudemire (with a side of Tim Thomas) – Ok, so I tweaked this one. ‘Drew – like Amar’e before him – is already a star. Also like STAT, he’s got an injury record that’s too significant to ignore, but (in Stoudemire’s case, until the spring of 2011) has done little damage to his professional standing. That’s because, also like STAT, he has more talent than any reasonable person knows what to do with. So much in fact, that he occasionally becomes flummoxed, and does virtually nothing at all.

To extend the comparison, if Bynum is the Lakers’ starting center this season, Nash will extract more of his best than we’ve ever seen. Look for at least 20-12 from ‘Drew in 2012-13, along with a starting nod for the All-Star Game and (if you’d like to call me crazy, here is your first opportunity) a dalliance with MVP candidacy.

Unlike many former Suns for whom Nash has secured tens of millions of dollars, Andrew Bynum does not stand to benefit financially from Point God’s presence. Barring an unforeseen turn of events, Bynum is a virtual lock to be showered with max money, either by the Lakers or someone else. Thanks to Steve Nash, however, he’ll deserve those fat checks more than ever before.

Christian Eyenga/Leandro Barbosa (pipe dream: Shawn Marion) – Perhaps the biggest reach of the bunch. A 23 year-old whose career point tally (320) falls short of that any month churned out by Kobe Bryant in 2005-06, compared with a former Sixth Man of the Year who, at his best ranked among the game’s most incisive attackers, let alone a four-time All Star, who in six full seasons as the evolutionary James Worthy managed no worse than a 19.8 PER.

That said, since the start of 2009-10 (Barbosa’s last season as a Sun) and 2007-08 (the season in which Marion was dealt to the Miami Heat) neither has topped his worst True Shooting Percentage or PER mark of the “Seven Seconds or Less” era.

Though the comparisons are meant somewhat in jest, who’s to say that a super-athletic (again, 23 year-old) wing – albeit one desperately in need of on-court reps as well as a jump shot – is incapable of linking up with one of history’s great playmakers and developing into, say, two thirds of prime Barbosa?

Jordan Hill/Channing Frye – A pair of former Knicks’ #8 overall picks for whom the NBA transition proved tougher than originally expected. After an excellent rookie campaign in New York (12.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, 47.7% from the field), Frye fell off, leading to a trade to Portland following his second season. After a pair of increasingly lackluster seasons with Blazers, Frye found himself in free agency in the summer of 2009.

Fortunately for Channing, the Phoenix Suns – well, Steve Nash, really – were on hand with a lifeline. On essentially a one-year deal and presumably playing for his NBA future, he returned to the form that made him a prized prospect as a rookie, averaging 11.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, and connecting on a career-high 43.9% of his 4.8 3-point attempts per game… and scoring $30 million over the next five years.

Cut from a similar cloth, Hill took the floor a whopping 24 times for the Knicks (not terribly at that, averaging 14 and 8.7 per 36 minutes, with a 15 PER), before heading to Houston in a February 2010 trade. In 127 games between the trade and the spring of 2011, his (again) solid play (13 and 10.5 per 36; he averaged 15 minutes per game), and Hill was again sent packing, this time to L.A. In 19 games as a Laker, Hill provided a desperately needed spark, nearly pricing himself out of the budget in the process, with seven games of 6 and 6 or better (in just 11.7 minutes per game), averages of 14.6 points and 13.5 boards per 36 and an NBA best 18.9% Offensive Rebound Rate in 12 postseason games.

Metta World Peace/Raja Bell – Defensive stoppers with a propensity for, err, enthusiastically imposing their respective wills on the cranial region of opposing two guards, each with a headbutt of sorts with Kobe Bryant under his belt.

Having made at least 37% of his 3-pointers in nine of the last 10 seasons, compared with just two in 12 full seasons for Metta, Bell is pretty clearly the superior perimeter marksman. However, as the least potent member of a unit in which all remaining members command the attention of multiple defenders – but with a physical presence on defense that will keep him on the floor – Metta is in line for a steady stream of open looks, as both a spot-up man and a cutter.

Matt Barnes*/Matt Barnes – Though he suffered through his worst defensive season as a pro (per Basketball Reference, he allowed 111 points per 100 defensive possessions), Barnes’ 2008-09 campaign – his only one with with Nash and the Suns – was his best as a passer (3.7 assists/36 minutes; 14.5% Assist Rate), and his second best as a scorer (13.6 points/36), perimeter shooter (34.3% on 3-pointers) and defensive rebounder (18.5% DRR).

Whether it’s reasonable to expect a 38 year-old Nash to coax 28 year-old form out of a 32 year-old Barnes is debatable, but there few lead guards at any age I’d rather bet on to manage the feat.

Andrew Goudelock/Quentin Richardson – Ask the average fan about Q-Rich’s lone season with Nash and you’re likely to be regaled with anecdotal tales of knockdown shooting. The fact is, however, that while Richardson averaged eight attempts (freaking EIGHT), making 2.9, from beyond the arc in 2004-05, he connected at an above average (for a decent shooter) 35.8%, but shot just 38.9% overall from the field.

In 10 minutes per game as a rookie, despite connecting on just 39.1% of his field goals overall, Goudelock connected on nearly one (0.7) of 1.9 – or 37.3% – 3-point attempts per game. Per 36 minutes, that’s a Quentin-esque 2.4 of 6.4. Assuming nothing more than the normal growth in minutes than comes with a year of experience (to say, 15 minutes per) along with the benefit of spotting up for Steve Nash passes, off of Steve Nash penetration, and ‘Lock may in line for a payday that neither Derek Fisher, Ramon Sessions, Steve Blake nor his agent could have secured for him.

Josh McRoberts/Lou Amundson – A pair of unproductive but energetic “glue guys,” for whom an NBA paycheck will remain a thing longer than logic would dictate it should, thanks entirely (ok, in large part) to Steve Nash.

A season removed from having earned ~$210,000 playing for three different teams and failing to post a double digit PER in any stint with any of them, Amundson joined the Suns, where he enjoyed the only above average years of his career, earned another two years in the NBA and $4+ million.

A superior athlete of higher pedigree and spectacular finisher at rim, look for Nash’s lobability to not only turn McBobs into a highlight reel darling, but to bank the former Dukie seven, maybe eight figures he’d otherwise never see.

Devin Ebanks*/Jared Dudley – Dudley is an excellent Twitter follow and, by all accounts, a really nice guy. Running alongside Steve Nash, he’s established himself as a pretty above average player that can bury an open jumper.

However, in Nash’s absence, with faster, quicker, more athletic defenders no longer having to sag into the lane while protecting against picture perfect kickouts, it’s difficult to envision anything but a bruising fall to mediocrity.

Ebanks, on the other hand, while a decidedly inferior shooter (in far fewer opportunities), is precisely the type of young running mate that Nash raises to prominence. An atheltic 6’9″-215, Ebanks (who now, in his third year, should see the floor for 20-24 minutes per game) should present Nash with a excellent target on the break. Whether Devin’s got the all-around game to truly crack Nash’s stable of clients remains to be seen, but, again, if it’s going to happen with anyone…

*Assuming he remains a Laker

 

A New Role For Ron?

Darius Soriano —  June 21, 2012

When the Lakers traded Lamar Odom, they lost a lot of useful qualities. They lost a locker room leader. They lost an unselfish glue guy. Maybe most importantly, however, they lost a talented player with diverse skill that could play all over the floor on both sides of the ball; a player that could use his versatile skill set to effectively play off of his teammates. When looking back to 2011 (and years prior), some of the Lakers best lineups were ones where Odom played PF next to either Gasol or Bynum. His value, in that way, was really immeasurable.

In replacing Odom with Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy, and (later) Jordan Hill the Lakers went with more traditional archetypes of players and found mixed results. All three players proved useful for stretches, but none could truly approximate the skills Odom brought to the table in a single player (McRoberts came closest but he’s not nearly the talent that 2011 Odom was). This led to Mike Brown shuffling back and forth between them, ultimately settling on Jordan Hill down the stretch of the season as his defensive consistency and work on the glass proved most valuable out of what each brought to the table.

Moving forward, however, it’d be nice if the Lakers could approximate more of what Odom brought to the table in a single player. Interestingly enough, they may have that guy on their roster already. His name is (was) Ron Artest.

Once upon a time, Ron was one of the best two way players in the league and while his decreased athleticism has made him less effective, he’s still got all the facets of his game. He has a good handle, can create off the dribble for himself or teammates, is a decent shooter from the outside, and can post up and finish in the paint. Defensively, we know that Ron can still play well even though his foot speed isn’t quite what it was when he first came to the Lakers. But, overall, these are skills that could translate well to playing some PF if the Lakers decide they want to go small.

In fact, this past season it already started to happen. In some very small sample sizes, the Lakers performed quite well with Ron playing PF in small-ball lineups next to Gasol (mostly) and Bynum (much less frequent). The most standard lineups were those that used a PG (Fisher, Sessions, or Blake), Kobe, Barnes, Ron, and Gasol. Those lineups all produced efficiency differentials of over 10 and performed, on average, much better on both sides of the ball than the Lakers standard personnel groupings.

Of course, with samples as small as the ones I looked at, the results can’t be extrapolated out to longer stretches without taking into account how things could go wrong. Ron’s jumper has been inconsistent and that could compromise spacing. His lack of height and below the rim game would make it an even bigger challenge to post up against bigger players and still be effective. Rebounding could also become an issue should he be matched up against someone with superior quickness and leaping ability that could beat him to the ball.

However, even when considering those potential pitfalls, I’m of the mind that it could work. Simply by having Ron space the floor against traditional PF’s the Lakers could open up their offense more. His ability to knock down open shots or drive past slower closeouts could also boost his effectiveness as a play maker. He still shows good instincts when moving into open space, bodying up his man, and in chasing loose balls, which would aid him when rebounding on both sides of the ball. Defensively he has the foot speed to keep up with most PF’s and has the strength to battle anyone in the post. In the past two seasons the Lakers have switched Ron onto Blake Griffin and Kevin Love on key possessions late in games to get the stops they sought. He held his own against both players and they happen to be two of the better players at that position.

As the league moves forward there will be a greater emphasis on lineup versatility. We’re seeing it right now in the Finals with LeBron and Durant both staples of traditional and small lineups their teams deploy. And while Ron isn’t in those players class as elite talents, his skill set is varied enough and his tenacity more than enough that a part time role as a PF could be worth exploring more in the future. I wouldn’t expect Ron to replace what Odom brought to the team, but he could mirror some of LO’s skills and give the Lakers another option outside of the more one dimensional players they used this past season. And, as we look to what this team needs to be more successful moving forward, that’s surely on the list.

Of the exit interviews I watched yesterday, I felt Ron’s was the most intriguing. It definitely wasn’t necessarily the most profound or the most eloquent of the interviews, but it may have been the most eye-opening and showed his ever-growing maturity as a man, basketball player and teammate. When I watched Ron’s interview, I saw a guy who has the ultimate confidence in his teammates, a guy who understands what a weird season this was, and a guy who was willing to take accountability for the Lakers inability to get over the hump in this year’s post season. Ron has come a long way from his younger years in the league, and his 20+ minute interview really highlighted who he is and the genuine care he has for his coaching staff, teammates and organization.

During the interview, there were a few segments that really stood out to me. One was on the fact that Mike Brown put the Lakers in a position to win this series against Oklahoma City, and the Lakers weren’t able to make the plays down the stretch during a couple of key games to pull it off.

“Mike wasn’t out there guarding Kevin, it was me, Kevin scored on me. Mike didn’t throw turnovers at the end of the game. Mike didn’t miss three-point shots, I missed three point shots. Mike didn’t come in out of shape — well he did come in out of shape (laughs). But it’s all mental for coach, it was the players.”

A lot has been said about Mike Brown this season. He was given a raw deal by Lakers fans before the Lakers even began training camp. After two pre-season games, folks were asking for him to be fired and after this post season, there were questions about whether or not Brown should be on the hot seat. These ideologies are generally ridiculous, especially considering the way this season began, the shortened training camp, the loss of Lamar Odom and eventually the loss of Derek Fisher. The Lakers were inconsistent on the floor this year, no doubt, but the circumstances in which Brown was dealt were equally as inconsistent. However, despite the slow start, the change in both offensive and defensive philosophies, the changes in personnel, this Mike Brown led basketball team was in position to win two playoff basketball games in which they’d ultimately go on to lose do to turnovers down the stretch. I often grew frustrated with Brown’s ability to make adjustments on the fly, he never really figured out his rotations this season and his offense unsuccessfully tried to gain steam more than once this season — but Brown had to learn the intricacies of this team on the fly just as this team had to adjust from Phil’s style of coaching to his with a shortened, condensed season with a nine-day training camp. This season, the odds were against Brown’s success before we even knew if there would be a season at all. Ron understood that and realized that this team had to take accountability for their play down the stretch of those two depressing losses that could have had the Lakers up 3-2 with a close out game in Staples. They had a 7-point fourth quarter lead in one game and a 13-point fourth quarter lead in another, and Brown deserves some credit for that considering most pundits felt the Lakers didn’t have a chance to beat this Thunder team.

More Ron:

“I think at the end of the game, guys gotta trust themselves more,” said MWP. “I think sometimes, not myself, but sometimes guys, they look to Kobe too much. I think they gotta understand Mitch (Kupchak) brought you here. Mitch also assembled teams that won championships, so he knows what he’s doing. And he brought you here for a reason. Because you’re good. So believe in yourself[…]

“You’re playing with a great player. Five championships. I don’t know how many people can say they got five championships in any sport. So no matter who the player is, you come to this team, you will look at Kobe as one of the greatest players ever. You know? But playing with Kobe for a long time, I understand I gotta chip in. I must chip in. So I think the young guys, not the older guys, a lot of young guys went through it this year. And I think coming back next year, they just have to understand, we gotta chip in.”

For those who didn’t get the opportunity to watch Ron’s exit interview, I think it’s important to note that he really emphasized how much he believes in the younger guys and how much he thinks the organization believes in the younger guys as well. He spoke a lot about self confidence and the the ability to chip in more often with said confidence. He talked a lot about Ramon Sessions who he said was a very good point guard and Devin Ebanks who he felt played great in limited, inconsistent minutes. I think the same applies to Jordan Hill should he come back. The operative word here is genuine, as there was no point where it felt like Ron’s answers were scripted (have they ever?) or that what he was saying wasn’t heart felt. He honestly believes that when the younger guys get over the fact that they’re playing with one of the greatest players ever (Kobe), that they’ll be able to “chip in” during the times when the Lakers need it most. I do find some truth to these sentiments, as Sessions, Ebanks, and Hill have all had some very good moments against some very good basketball teams when they’re playing with their head in the game instead of playing with their minds on Kobe. This must be reciprocal, of course, because nothing is harder than trying to play with out watching Kobe when Kobe is dominating the ball — but even in those games Sessions has looked off Kobe to penetrate or to dump it into Bynum/Pau for easy buckets; Ebanks has slashed off the ball and made tremendous defensive and hustle plays; and Jordan Hill was a monster on the boards for about 70 percent of the games he actually got real playing time with the Lakers. Ron has seen the positive in the younger role players (and even Steve Blake, who is a bit older, but is in a similar caste in the Lakers system), and chose to focus on those positives in hopes that they shine a bit more next season. This is admirable after a tough season.

The last Ron quote follows:

“The Lakers, they did a lot for me so I like it here,” smiled Metta “I like it here. But whatever is best for the Lakers. If it’s me not being here, if it’s good for the Lakers, it’s good for me because the Lakers, they did nothing but great things for me. I got a championship here, something I always wanted. And then being here is great also. I’ve liked it. I’d definitely would like to be here. I don’t really talk about myself. I always talk about what could make the team better. Whatever is in the best interest of the Lakers, that’s what’s important to me.”

You don’t hear these kind of sentiments from a guy who loves the position he’s in, but Ron is a different kind of fellow (understatement), and again, I felt that he was truly genuine when he said that he wanted whatever was best for the organization. It’s not a secret that the Lakers are going to try and cut down on salary for the upcoming season, and Ron could easily be one of the guys that ends up at Staples as a visitor at some point next season — and I’m sure he’s fully aware of that fact. There’s a certain level of respect I have for people who put others above their own well-being, and this is just another example of Ron doing just that. He hasn’t been perfect this year (the elbow to James Harden, intentional or not, brought back glimpses of “Indiana Ron), but if nothing else, he cares about his coach, his teammates and this Lakers organization even if one, or all three, don’t have his general well-being in mind. I personally would love to see Ron stay in the Forum Blue and Gold and get acknowledged for his contributions on the defensive end of the floor next season, fully aware of how much his contract is worth. I believe his maturity will being an element to this Lakers organization that’s just as valuable off the court than it can potentially be on the court if we can see him healthy for a full season again. With every risk, the reward isn’t always promised, but with Ron, I think we won’t only be rewarded by his presence as fans, but the coaching staff, his teammates and the whole Lakers organization will be rewarded with is knowledge of the game, the fire he’ll light under the younger guys and his dedication to being the best Lakers he can be on and off the court.

Records: Lakers: 38-22 (3rd in the West), Mavericks: 34-26 (6th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers: 106.1 (8th in the NBA), Mavericks: 102.8 (23rd in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers: 103.6 (13th in the NBA), Mavericks: 101.4 (7th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Devin Ebanks, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Mavericks: Jason Kidd, Delonte West, Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood
Injuries: Lakers: Kobe Bryant (out), Jordan Hill (out); Mavericks: Rodrigue Beaubois (questionable)

The Lakers Coming In: The Lakers woke up Sunday winners of three straight (all sans Kobe Bryant, whose enflamed shin has sidelined him for the last four and will likely do so again on Sunday) and seven of their last ten, and in sole possession of the second best mark out West over that stretch. Sadly, however, the best mark (8-2) is shared by the team directly ahead of them in the standings (the Spurs) and the two (the Clippers and Grizzlies – 1 and 2.5 games behind, respectively) nipping at their heels.

On the plus side – setting aside concerns about the Lakers’ cyborg superstar (the dude that’s suited up, played and played well with virtually every manner of non-fatal ailment known to basketball-playing man) missing his fifth consecutive game in the midst of a playoff-positioning charge, because, well, y’know, the alternative is kinda freaky – the Lakers have received some outstanding play from the rest of the crew. As one would expect from the West’s most daunting frontcourt duo, Andrew Bynum (21.3 points, 16.3 rebounds and 2 blocks per game in the last three, including a silly 30-board explosion in San Antonio) and Pau Gasol (a tidy 20-10 and 2) have stepped up admirably in Kobe’s absence.

Additionally, however, the supporting cast has turned in a series of strong performances. In the starting lineup, while Ramon Sessions (11.3 and 5.7 assists) has remained steady and solid, Metta World Peace had brought nothing short of his A-game in the Lakers’ last two victories, netting a season-high 26 (including 5-of-8 3-pointers) against the Spurs, and following it up with 14 points, 8 rebounds and 5 steals Friday night against the Nuggets.

Meanwhile, Matt Barnes has provided a welcome spark to the second unit. Barnes has not only averaged 15.3 and 8 rebounds over his last three (including his best game as a Laker on Friday night – 24 and 10, including a perfect 4-of-4 on 3s), he’s locked in from the outside, making 8-of-13 (!!) from beyond the arc and is distributing the ball without turning it over, handing out 15 assists and committing just 7 turnovers in his last five games.

Assuming the extended absence is simply attributable to Kobe shelving the bulletproof act in the interest of peaking in the postseason, the past week will prove invaluable as this team moves forward. While sights would undoubtedly be set on a lower target were the Lakers to enter the postseason Kobeless, for the rest of the team to prove –to themselves and to the rest of the league – that they can win, sometimes comfortably, on the road, against playoff-caliber opposition without Kobe is a huge boost.

The Mavericks Coming in: The Mavericks take the floor at Staples in a situation similar to that of the Lakers. Like their Sunday hosts, the Mavs are firmly ensconced in their half of the West playoff bracket (unlike the Lakers, however, Dallas is in the bottom half), but not set in stone with regard to positioning. The Mavericks, currently the West’s #6 seed (and at the moment slated for a playoff rematch with the Lakers), trail the Grizzlies by a game and a half and lead the Nuggets and Rockets (who face one another tonight) by the same margin.

Currently 0-7 on the road against currently winning at a .600+ clip (great stat, via Arash Markazi on Twitter) and staring down the barrel of a 4-0 regular season sweep at the hands of the Lakers, the Mavericks will be beneficiaries of the opposing injury report (they were spared trying to stop LaMarcus Alridge on Friday) for the second straight game.

After a slow start, Dirk Nowitzki has rounded into form (maybe not the transcendent form of last spring, but definite All-Star form), with 51 points in his last two games on just 37 shot attempts, averaging 21.2 per game (on 46%/36%/88.5% from FG/3-pt/FT – how’s that for an off year?) after a month of March in which he hit nearly 45% of his 3-pointers and over 92% of his free throws en route to 25.2 per game. In the three previous meetings between these teams, Dirk is averaging 24 and 9.7 in just 35 minutes per game. Barring a cameo from the 2011 iteration, holding Dirk to these averages and focusing on shutting down the remainder of what is now an offensively challenged lot (Jason Terry is a threat, but Jason Kidd, a nicked up Roddy Beaubois, Shawn Marion, whatever is left of Vince Carter, Brandan Wright and Ian Mahinmi? Meh) should prove sufficient for a Laker victory.

Mavericks blogs: For the latest news and some great insight on the Mavs, check out the work done by The 2-Man Game and Mavs Moneyball.

Keys to the Game: FEED. THE. BEAST. It’s really awesome to see Brandan Wright’s career finally get rolling, Ian Mahinmi is a nice player and Brendan Haywood is, well, big, but Tyson Chalder ain’t walking through that door. The key to victory over these Mavs – as it would be with Kobe in the lineup, but particularly with him out – will be to dominate the paint through Andrew Bynum.

With Kobe in a suit, however, the Mavs will utilize their zone defense to pack the paint and force the Lakers to settle for the contested 3-point attempts that will be in far greater supply. This will ratchet up the pressure on the Lakers’ remaining wings (MWP, Barnes), along with Pau Gasol, to loosen that grip from the free throw line area, by both making mid-range jumpers to keep the defense honest and executing crisp, decisive entry passes to Bynum when the opportunity is present.

An additional challenge presented by Kobe’s absence is that Shawn Marion, the Mavs’ best defender (held Kobe to 29 points, on 10-of-37 in 2 games this season; Kobe scored 30 in the game Marion missed) and wing rebounder, will be afforded the opportunity to focus his effort on crashing the boards and shutting down the likes of MWP and Barnes, without fear of a Mamba strike. If he is allowed to dictate the terms under which he will be involved in this game, Marion will be a thorn in the Lakers’ side. It is vital that the Lakers a) keep Marion off the boards as best they can, while b) making him work as hard as possible on the defensive end, by running him off of screen, making him defend post-ups, run him off of screens.

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

Box Score: Lakers 109, Mavericks 93
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 123.9, Mavericks 105.7
True Shooting %: Lakers 68.2%, Mavericks 53.5%

On the heels of a brutal come-from-ahead loss in Houston on Tuesday night, the Lakers wrapped up their Texas two-step in Dallas, where the defending champs and administrators of last spring’s postseason humiliation awaited. More tough sledding ahead? Not so much.

The Good: Practically everything. For starters, you know how all season the “Bad” and “Ugly” sections of these reviews have lamented the Lakers’ inability to a) connect from the outside and b) generate any kind of meaningful production off of the bench? Well, on Wednesday night, the Lakers made a phenomenal 50% of their 18 3-point attempts, six of them by bench players. Speaking of which, the Lakers’ bench was outscored by its Mavs’ counterpart by just two points, 38-36, staggering given we’re talking about, y’know, the Lakers’ bench.

In the starting unit, deadly efficiency ruled the day, as Kobe Bryant, operating within the confines of the offense, scored 30 on 11-of-18 from the floor (and 7-of-7 FT), peppering the Mavs from mid-range all night. Meanwhile, Pau Gasol was absolutely masterful. Pau played one of, if not his best game of the season, connecting on 13 of his 16 shots en route to 27 points (to which he added 9 rebounds). Gasol was unstoppable on Wednesday night, not only making 6-of-7 in the paint, but doing significant damage from the outside as well, shooting 8-of-10 from outside the key, including a perfect 7-of-7 from 17-20 feet between the elbow and success on his only 3-point attempt.

Finally, we have Ramon Sessions. Much to the chagrin of the fans of Cleveland, Sessions has sent shockwaves through Lakerland, providing us with a glimpse into a life that heretofore might as well have existed in another galaxy. Not since the days of Nick Van Exel have Laker fans had a young and explosive point guard at the helm. On Wednesday night, Ramon Sessions played the point guard game that this fan base has desperately been waiting for. In 29 minutes, divided into two extended stretches, Ramon was a revelation, connecting on 7 of 8 shots, including 3-of-4 from beyond the arc for his 17 points, grabbing 5 rebounds and handing out 9 assists.

Every bit as impressive as his phenomenal stat line was his role in the Lakers’ offense, which only really came to life when he was on the floor. Sessions’ greatest assets are his quickness and speed off the dribble, which he utilized beautifully, starting almost immediately after entering the game with just under five minutes remaining in the first quarter, knifing into the lane and, with excellent decision-making, setting up open jump shots for teammates for each of his 9 assists, including four in a two-minute span late in the first quarter.

We’ve got a point guard!

The Bad: With the third member of their underperforming trio now spending his evenings trying to reign in Russell Westbrook, the “subpar stat line” onus was on Metta World Peace and Steve Blake. Now, truth be told neither of these guys was a complete disaster against the Mavs – MWP managed 4 rebounds, 3 assists and a blocked shot in 25 minutes, while Blake, Mike Brown’s starting point guard “for the foreseeable future,” had two pair, assists and steals, in 17 minutes on the floor – but a combined 7 points on 2-of-9 shooting, even with no turnovers, in 42 minutes is, how can I put this gently, kinda stinky.

The Ugly: Thanks to his averages of 23.7 points and 12.3 rebounds over the last 10 games, Andrew Bynum was obviously a focal point in the Mavericks’ defensive game plan. In the game’s opening minute Bynum grabbed a defensive rebound and converted a pretty reverse layup at the other end. However, rather than building on this dominating this contest the way he has so many of late, that play was the last one of consequence from the big man for some time.

Bynum was (understandably) the target of aggressive double and triple teams on every post touch from that point forward, and was unable to deliver the ball to the open man in a timely or effective manner. This strategy proved particularly effective for the Mavs in the first half, as the Lakers’ perimeter players frequently cut baseline after delivering the ball to Bynum down low. This tactic actually simplified the Mavs’ task, as they doubled aggressively off of the cutter, giving ‘Drew fits and preventing the Lakers from ever establishing him as an offensive threat.

However, the ugliness in Bynum’s performance on Wednesday night is not the result of Mavs’ defense pressuring him into an inefficient offensive game (he was 4-of-5 from the field) or sloppy effort passing out of the post (he didn’t turn the ball over once), but in Andrew’s generally lackadaisical effort. Far too often on Wednesday, Bynum was boxed out on both the offensive and defensive glass by smaller player that have no business doing so. Far too often he jogged back on offense, often not setting up inside the 3-point arc until 10+ seconds of the possession were gone. Perhaps the best example of this lackluster effort came in the first quarter, when, attempting to guard Dirk Nowitzki on the perimeter, Bynum not only failed to get into a defensive stance, but barely had a chance to turn around as the Mavs’ (by far) most potent offensive threat blew by him for a layup.

This is by no means a chronic issue and all’s well that ends well, but for a guy whose untimely ejection set the stage for crushing come-from-ahead loss the night before, Andrew Bynum spent far too much time on Wednesday play with little-to-no spark at all.

Play of the Game: With all of that said, Andrew Bynum linked up with fellow big Pau Gasol with about eight minutes left in the game – this time successfully passing out of a double team – firing a cross-court kick-out to the right corner, from which Pau buried a three-point dagger that put the Lakers ahead 90-76.

On its own this play would not be worthy of PoG, but the brazen, villainous confidence of ‘Drew made it truly memorable. In front of the crowd that is more eager than any other to see him fail (he did, after try to break their gelled-up midget 10 months ago), after making the pass to Gasol, Bynum made his way back down the floor with the ball still in the air, three fingers held aloft for all to see.

Badass.

Unfortunately for the Laker bigs, however, the top spot belong to one Kobe Bean Bryant, who, midway through the third quarter, received a lob from Pau Gasol and finished in a manner that can only be described as sublime.

Records: Lakers 20-13 (5th in West), Thunder 26-7 (1st in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.3 (15th in NBA), Thunder 108.9 (2nd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.7 (11th in NBA), Thunder 102.4 (14th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Thunder: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Daequan Cook
Injuries: Lakers: none; Thunder: Nick Collison (questionable), Thabo Sefolosha (out), Eric Maynor (out for the season)

The Lakers Coming In: As Darius pointed out yesterday, on the floor the Lakers have fared pretty well of late, and will be looking to kick off All Star Weekend with what would be their biggest victory of the season.

Not coincidentally, the bigs are in great form, with Andrew Bynum averaging 16.1 (on 56.3%), 13.9 rebounds, 2.3 blocked shots and just two personal fouls per game in February, while Pau Gasol has averaged 17.9 and 13.1, while connecting on 47% of his field goal attempts. Kobe continues to be Kobe, delivering roughly 26- 5- 4 this month, though he’s struggled with his shot, as evidenced by field goal and free throw percentages of just 40.6% and 79% (compared with his season averages of 43.9% and 82.5%, respectively). And the bench – deservedly much-maligned all season – has been not-atrocious (small victories, people), led by Matt Barnes (8.5 points, 5.8 rebounds in his last 8 games) and Steve Blake, who’s recorded 3+ assists in 6 of his last 7, the lone exception being his 5-triple, 17-point outburst against Portland Monday night.

However, as Darius also pointed out yesterday, the Lakers’ recent run of solid form is not the main story swirling around this team. If it’s not one with this team, it’s sure to be another. Between The Veto, the charitable contribution of Lamar Odom to the Dallas Mavericks Repeat Fund, incessant Dwight chatter, Kobe’s divorce and Metta’s media squabbling with Mike Brown, there’s arguably been more to monitor off the floor with these guys than there has on it. And now we have the latest episode of The Adventures of Team Turmoil.

An ugly, remnant of December’s near-acquisition of Chris Paul (y’know, other than the lack of a point guard worthy of NBA starter status), the Lakers’ desire (or lack thereof) to part ways with Pau Gasol – and everyone’s thoughts on the matter –are the hot topic du jour. However, as speculation about the Lakers’ need (and preparedness) to make a major move have ramped up, a more troubling issue seems to be simmering just beneath the surface – the Lakers’ front office, once the NBA’s paragon of stability and leadership, has begun to more closely resemble Gob Bluth’s gaming ship, anchored to past greatness only by an increasingly embattled Mitch Kupchak.

We know for a fact that the Lakers are willing to surrender Pau Gasol in exchange for a young franchise cornerstone. We also know that Pau, one of the league’s top 15 players and arguably its most skilled big man, always the consummate professional, is at least slightly (I’d wager more) upset by this. Finally, Pau Gasol remains a Laker, and a damn good one at that. That’s about it.

Meanwhile, however, this episode has greased the tracks for Kobe, who – in both a show of support for Pau and a desire to maximize his chances at Ring #6 – has hinted at his growing frustration with the organization’s new regime. Since, we’ve gotten a “you do your job and let me do mine” rebuttal from Kupchak and a players-only meeting (usually good for a short-term boost), but nothing to suggest that calmer waters are imminent.

With all of that said, the Lakers have now won 6 of their last 8 outings (including 4 of the last 5), including wins over the Blazers and Mavericks in their last two, and at 20-13, sit a single game behind the greatest Clipper team ever for the West’s #3 seed. It’s conceivable (if not likely) that given the torrent of frustration and distraction that continually washes over this team, moments spent on the court are among their least stressful these days. With the All-Star break (and a few days to refuel) imminent, look for the Lakers, win or lose, to put forth maximum effort against the class of Western Conference.

The Thunder Coming In: I feel like there is an inordinate amount of chatter these days centered on the Thunder’s flaws and the “wide openness” of the West come playoff time.

It’s true. This is by no means a perfect team – they are turnover-prone (a league-high 15.9% of the time), mediocre on the boards (15th in Offensive Rebound Rate and 24th in Defensive Rebound Rate), lack a traditional low post scorer and have seen their second unit hamstrung by injury, but make no mistake, these guys are good. Really, really good.

For starters, only the Miami Heat are more efficient offensively (by one point/100 possessions) and boasts a higher True Shooting Percentage (57%, v. 56.9%) than the Thunder.

Next, and I feel like we are beginning to take this a bit for granted, OKC’s 1-2 punch is nothing short of devastating. In Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (or, in the interest of staying neutral, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant), OKC features a top-two duo that is an absolute nightmare for perimeter defenders, getting to the rim at will (11.8 attempts per game), finishing once they get there (66.1%) and delivering from distance (47.4% on long 2s; Durant is 36.7% from 3).

Once you’ve got your brain wrapped around that pair of potential 40-pointers, it’s time to deal with the NBA’s best bench player, (I cannot remember where I saw this comp – apologies to whomever I am stealing this from) this era’s Manu Ginobili, James Harden. In addition an extremely impressive stat line (16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game, 47/37/86 from FG/3-pt/FT and 21.1 PER), Harden is the ultimate glue guy, as Royce Young describes:

It’s really hard to explain to people how important Harden is to the team. He’s not just a great sixth man. He’s like the mediator between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. What he provides is just so necessary to the flow of the team. It’s like he’s a pressure-release valve so that Durant and Westbrook don’t have to do everything. He scores, passes and operates a terrific two-man game with Nick Collison. He plays well with Durant and Westbrook and plays really well running the Thunder’s second unit by himself. It’s hard to say he’s more valuable than Durant or Westbrook, but it’s closer than you think.

And finally, while OKC does not rank among the NBA’s elite at the defensive end, the shortcomings of a susceptible perimeter defense (27.4 FGA at the rim – 2nd worst in the NBA) are masked effectively by Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and (when healthy) Nick Collison, a last line of defense that effectively defends the rim (7th lowest FG% allowed at the rim; #1 Block Rate) and does not give away points at the free throw line (a league-average .215 FT Rate allowed).

Flawed? Yes. But warts and all, this is the best team in the West.

Thunder Blogs: Daily Thunder consistently cranks out some really excellent work (check out some of Royce Young’s thoughts on tonight’s matchup here), as does Welcome To Loud City on SB Nation.

Keys to the game: It’s impossible (well, maybe not impossible, but pretty tough) to predict what the Lakers’ roster will look like following the trade deadline. What we do know, however, is that Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are here now, while Dwight Howard, Deron Williams and Gilbert Arenas are not. All BS aside, let’s see where this Laker team is at. For all of the gaping holes on the roster and turmoil surrounding this team, the Lakers have managed to win more than 60% of their games thus far and remain well-positioned to finish in the top half of the West playoff picture.

OKC represents a brutal matchup for, well, anyone. While it would be silly to expect Thursday night to deviate much from that script, there are a couple of factors that could play out in the Lakers favor.

First and foremost, the Lakers must rely on their interior defense and rebounding, particularly at the offensive end, to control the tempo of the game (at 93.8 possessions per game, OKC plays at the third-highest pace in the league; at 89.9, the Lakers are 21st) and keep the West’s most potent offensive attack under control. This entails keeping Gasol and Bynum, both of whom are rebounding at an elite level and are playing excellent defensive ball this season, out of harm’s way, with harm in this represented by OKC’s pair of whistle-drawing projectiles.

To this end, the perimeter D will be called upon to challenge OKC’s perimeter scorers. In addition to providing the clamored-for offensive spark that too-often has been missing, this is an area in which the Laker bench, namely Matt Barnes (and, though not a bench player, MWP), must provide value. If MWP still possesses any of the elite defensive skill he exhibited in the 2010 playoffs against Durant, this would be an opportune time to conjure it up. Another defensive matchup that could loom large is Barnes on Westbrook, as RW’s speed, power and perpetual motion are too much for Kobe to deal with while also trying to offset OKC’s firepower at the offensive end, and Derek Fisher and Steve Blake… HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!

Sorry. Moving on…

Provided the Lakers are able to keep Bynum and Gasol on the floor for big minutes, the massive duo in the middle will be vital to the team’s success on the offensive end as well. Bynum has a decided size advantage over any front line defense the Thunder can put forth, and the Lakers will do well to feed the beast in an attempt to control tempo, collect some easy buckets and use the aggressiveness of OKC’s bigs (particularly Ibaka) against them to lure them into foul trouble. This become double important with Nick Collison banged up – he will be limited by a biceps injury if he plays at all, as with AS break looming, and no worse than 26-8 in the bank, this may be a good opportunity to get him an extended period of rest.

In spite of all that’s gone (and continues to go) wrong, the Lakers still rank among the NBA’s better teams. These trying times, rather than tearing the team apart, appear to be having something of a galvanizing effect on this crew. Even so, it is admittedly a tall order ask any team to roll into OKC and down the Thunder. However, I would not put it past this frustrating, but talent, but oh so exasperatingly frustrating team to notch a signature road wins against a legitimately elite opponent when no one expects them to do so.

Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TNT and KCAL.

Box Score: Lakers 88, Celtics 87
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 91.9, Celtics 90.4
True Shooting %: Lakers 44.1%, Celtics 43.9%

The Good:
First and foremost, any win on the Parquet is sweet. That the Lakers, coming off a tough loss in Philadelphia, have now won four straight regular season contests in Boston, this one on the heels of yet another crushing Patriots’ Super Bowl defeat… brings a little extra something to the table, no?

As far as the actual game is concerned, the most praiseworthy performance, on either side, was turned in Pau Gasol. Consistent throughout, Gasol connected on 12 of his 20 (!!) field goal attempts (3 in the first quarter, 3 in the second, 4 in the third and two in the fourth), 10 times converting from inside the lane, en route to 25 points. Additionally, he was a force on the glass, collecting 14 rebounds, four on the offensive end (more on this in a minute), handed out three assists, blocked a pair of shots (more on this in a minute) and made every play the team needed from him down the stretch.

A mere 13 seconds after reentering the game in the fourth quarter (at the 7:13 mark) Pau hit a 17-footer to put the Lakers up by two points. A quiet six minutes later, with the Lakers down a bucket, on a play in which Steve Blake’s hustling offensive rebound netted the Lakers a second shot, Pau followed up a 10-foot jumper from Kobe, tipping in the rebound to tie the game at 82. It was his fantastic closeout on a beyond-the-arc Ray Allen that derailed the ensuing Celtics possession, forcing overtime. In OT, despite missing his only field goal attempt, Pau continued to make his presence felt, grabbing four defensive rebounds and, most important of all, swatted away a point blank, potentially game-winning put-back attempt by Ray Allen to secure the Lakers’ 15th win of the season.

Tonight, Pau eats first.

Deserving of an honorable mention here is the effort of the entire Laker team on the boards. In addition to Gasol’s 14 rebounds, Andrew Bynum was a monster on the glass, with 17 of his own, including a massive seven offensive rebounds. Also deserving a shout are Troy Murphy (9 in 24 minutes), Matt Barnes (4, 3 ORB, in 17), Kobe Bryant (5) and Steve Blake (3), all of whom helped the Lakers to a 55-45 rebounding edge on the night.

The Bad:
As this is the first Laker victory I have recapped for FB&G, I’d like to keep the negativity to a minimum.

With that said, I would remiss if I didn’t mention the Lakers’ work from downtown on Thursday, which I will generously describe as “putrid,” only because a sincere assessment might result in Darius amnestying me from the site. I realize that at this stage of the season, having gotten to know our personnel and watched them fight tooth and nail to barely escape the 3-point shooting cellar (at a blistering 29.4%, just edging out Utah, at 28.9%), having any expectation of a potent attack from the perimeter is an invitation to disappointment, but seriously guys? 1-for-15? 1-for-f*$^ing-15?? That’s 6.7%.

For those of you keeping score at home, Metta World Peace has now made nine of his 53 3-point attempts on the season (17%), Derek Fisher is 11-for-41 (26.7%), Matt Barnes is 8-for-37 (21.6%) and Kobe Bryant, raising the team’s percentage, is 38-of-129 (29.5%). Ugh.

The Lakers’ stalwarts on the perimeter are Steve Blake (18-52; 34.6%), Andrew Goudelock (12-30; 40%) and Troy Murphy (13-32; 40.6%), all of whom are hitting at rates ranging from “respectable” to “pretty good,” but do not yet inspire confidence in crunch time.

The Ugly:
By and large, Kobe Bryant enjoyed an efficient and productive game on Thursday night – 27 points, on 11-24 FG and 5-5 FT, five rebounds and four assists. At halftime he’d attempted just six shots, making four, and had 11 points. He added another 10 points in the third (on 4-of-9 FG, plus a pair of free throws) in third, including an extremely contested fadeaway – a harbinger of things to come. After making one of three in the fourth quarter, we moved to overtime, where Bean produced a pair of possessions, one actually successful, that are best described as “cringe-worthy.”

A minute and a half into OT, Kobe received the ball on the left wing with ~15 (don’t remember exactly) seconds remaining on the shot clock. At this point he proceeded to pound a dead spot into this Garden floor, attempting a couple of times to probe the defense, before (in a move I deemed “aggressive Usage”) letting go of a contested 20-footer… which found the bottom of the net.

Net result? Good. Process? Not so much.

Three minutes later, after an Andrew Bynum putback had given the Lakers an 88-87 lead, Kobe brought the ball up the floor, and with a four-second difference between shot and game clock, had an opportunity to time his attempt in such a way that the Celtics would be lucky to gain possession with more than three seconds remaining. Rather than doing this, however, Kobe began to back down his man on the left wing with about seven second left on the shot clock and, in a move diametrically opposed to the off-the-charts basketball IQ we’ve come to expect from him, launched a 17-foot turnaround that was off the mark, and recovered by the Celtics with six seconds remaining. Now, all’s well that ends well, but…

I love Kobe Bryant. With the exception of Magic Johnson, no player has meant more to my basketball life. Having Kobe as a member of the Lakers for 15+ years, and having the opportunity to watch 75%+ of his career games has been nothing short of a gift.

However, this season, and seemingly increasingly with the passage of time, Kobe has stretched the role that he’s defined for himself – “I eat first” – to obscene lengths. That he’s earned his free rein on the floor is, in my mind, beyond question, but there is something a problem festering. What is at times troubling is not the fact that Kobe is clearly unwilling to subjugate his role on the team, but the fact that he is becoming increasingly brazen in reminding the world, and I mean the world – fans opponents, his teammates, coach Mike Brown – of this fact.

Play of the Game:
In Andrew Bynum’s beautiful, hard-nosed and-1 just before halftime – in which he recovered a loose offensive rebound and flipped the ball back over his head (and in!) while getting hacked – and Pau Gasol’s game saving blocked shot at the end of overtime we have a couple of extremely deserving honorable mentions. However, a play in the dying moments of regulation combined hustle, excellent fundamentals, equisite skill and grace under pressure.

Trailing by two with roughly 15 remaining, Steve Blake, from the left wing, attempted to feed Andrew Bynum in low post. Bynum had the “chair pulled” on him, resulting in a loose ball along the baseline. Rather than a potentially game-sealing turnover, however, the Lakers retained possession, thanks to some fantastic hustle by Steve Blake. At this point, Kobe Bryant made a beautiful cut toward the basket along the left edge of the key. Seeing Kobe, Blake, now on the baseline about 15 feet from the rim, made a slick pass of no more than five feet to Kobe, who elevated for a 10-foot jumper, which rimmed out.

HOWEVAH…

In keeping with the play’s heady/hustle theme, Pau Gasol attacked the offensive glass, skying over a pair of Celtics that had inside position and, avoiding a loose ball foul, tied the game (ultimately forcing overtime) with a left handed tip-in.

If ever a reminder is necessary of Gasol’s sublime combination of grace, body control, otherworldly length and basketball IQ, this is it.

Box Score: Lakers 90, 76ers 95
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 106.1, 76ers 112.5
True Shooting %: Lakers 50.1%, 76ers 53.7%

The Good:
It’d be criminal to simply gloss over Andrew Bynum’s performance. ‘Drew was, for the most part (the five turnovers are a bit ugly), sensational on Monday night, posting the second 20-20 game of his NBA career, and generally dominating the paint at both ends of the floor. ‘Drew poured in an efficient 20 points (8-of-13 FG, 4-of-6 FT) and absolutely owned the offensive glass, tallying as many offensive rebounds (8) as the entire Sixers team. He added three assists – including a beauty to Pau Gasol (who had an impressive 16 and 11, with 6 offensive boards of his own) early in the third quarter for a dunk – and swatted three shots at the defensive end. Like I said, criminal.

Well, here’s hoping it’s a misdemeanor, because as they tend to, this evening belonged to Kobe Bryant.

Needing just 23 points to surpass former running mate Shaquille O’Neal on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, it stood to reason that Monday would mark the last time (for several years, at least) that Kobe would rank outside the top-five in career scoring. That he quickly and aggressively set about amassing those 24 points should also come as no surprise. The manner in which he did it however, while hardly foreign, never ceases to be the rarest of treats for Laker basketball fans the world over.

The numbers (24 points on 8-of-14 FG and 4-of-6 from beyond the arc), while impressive, simply do not do justice to the deadly precision with which Kobe Bryant struck in the opening half of Monday night’s contest. With arguably the world’s best perimeter defender draped all over him, Kobe was, as he always is, undeterred. This was his night, in his hometown, with his continuing march toward immortality front and center, and Kobe came out throwing haymakers.

Call it what you will – Kobe doin’ work, going Mamba, going nova, one of those Kobe games – Kobe Bryant’s first half in Philly on Monday night perfectly encapsulated everything we’ve come to expect from the Lakers’ superstar – an unabashed, almost delusional sense of self-confidence made to appear sane by the brilliance of one Kobe Bean Bryant. No matter how many such performances we see – and we have been privy to a great many – it’s debatable whether we will ever truly understand the heights to which we have consistently seen the game elevated.

Congratulations, Kobe. And thanks.

The Bad:
Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before: the Lakers turned the ball over too frequently, failed to force turnovers and did not receive nearly enough help from the second unit.

Despite boasting the league’s top mark for defensive efficiency (by a considerable margin), when it comes to forcing turnovers, the Sixers are completely average, equaling the league average by forcing 14.3 turnovers every 100 possessions. Not to worry. Regardless of opposition, there is not a team that these Lakers, in a careless and lackadaisical manner that is all their own, cannot elevate to upper reaches of ball-hawkery on any given night. In this case, the Lakers turned the ball over 16 times, a majority coming in the second half, while managing a pathetic four takeaways at the defensive end, and losing the “points off of turnovers” battle by a 20-6 count.

A bad pass by Troy Murphy. An ill-advised jump pass from Kobe. Andrew Bynum’s third quarter entry into the “laziest post-up ever” sweepstakes. Each of these, along with any of 13 other giveaways, represents an opportunity missed. This is a team that has neither the depth nor the firepower to justify cavalierly frittering away a half-dozen or more possessions, game in, game out. The margin of error is simply not there.

Speaking of which, Monday night is yet another in a long line of subpar performances by the second unit. On a relative basis, Monday’s performance by the four Laker reserves that took the floor (Troy Murphy, Andrew Goudelock, Matt Barnes and Jason Kapono) was actually not that bad. What’s sad, however, is that what constitutes “not that bad” ‘round these parts lately is a 71-minute, 7-of-15, 16-point, 11-rebound, 6-assists outing. Throw in sadly characteristic 1-of-6 for four points from Metta Wrold Peace and a six-point, six-rebound outburst from Derek Fisher, and… sigh.

The Ugly:
After playing an excellent first 43:30, for the second time in three nights, the Lakers were done in by lackluster late-game execution. On the heels of his sublime first half performance, Kobe Bryant took the floor in the second half in “facilitator” mode – running the pick and roll beautifully, looking not for his own shot, but for the proper pass. This was vital in helping the team find a rhythm on the offensive end and seemingly take control of the game with 4:37 left, when Kobe found Bynum with a beautiful lob pass that the All-Star big man hammered down to stretch the advantage to seven points.

At this point, although turnover differential and hot 3-point shooting by the Sixers had prevented the Lakers from capitalizing on their best stretches of play and opening up a sizeable gap, the Lakers still appeared to be the superior team. From that point forward, however, all semblance of rhythm was taken out of the Lakers’ offense, as Kobe Bryant grew weary of his facilitator role and opted to attempt to recapture the magic of the first half – without success – slamming the brakes on the team-oriented ball with which they’d built the lead in favor of attempting seven shots in the final 4:37, of which he made just one, and putting the finishing touches on a 2-of-12 second half shooting display that undermined the near-perfect game he’d played until that point, and will be remembered for being as fruitless as his first half was brilliant.

Play(s) of the Game:
I’m guessing you don’t need to ask.

Kobe Bryant now has more regular season points than Shaquille O’Neal. This is how it came to be.