As the Lakers embark on a journey that promises to be harder than the passage of the healthcare bill, one has to wonder if Los Angeles can retain the championship it won last year. The Lakers finished the season on a terrible note, with the team losing six of its last 10 games. The Lakers are also banged up, with three of the five starters dealing with numerous injuries. From Kobe Bryant’s nagging injuries (swollen right knee, broken finger on his right hand, sore ankle) to Shannon Brown’s hand and Sasha’s strained ankle, the Lakers are not healthy entering the postseason. However, Andrew Bynum is set to return from his Achilles injury and Kobe of course will play tomorrow after missing the last two games in the season.
Gloomy as it may seem, all hope is not lost for the Lakers and their fans on the road to a repeat. First, the most important injury is that of Kobe Bryant. If Kobe Bryant is healthy enough to do such superman things as we have gotten accustomed to, then the Lakers can certainly win a championship. The Lakers have to use the first round matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder to get into a good rhythm that should carry over to the other games in the playoffs. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that when you have the best basketball player and the best basketball coach in history on your team you have a chance to win. However, below are factors and areas that would determine if the Lakers would win a championship. They need to address these issues to retain the championship they worked so hard to get. They are: 1. Defense 2. Triangle-Offense 3. Energy 4. Kobe Bryant
Problem: The Lakers finished the season at the top of most statistics regarding their defensive efforts, especially being No. 1 in defending three pointers. However, perhaps because of injuries or just boredom the Lakers have a lot of times during the season been a step slower than the opponent. They have failed to meet the intensity of the opponent. They have had problems guarding the pick-and-roll with quick point guards having their way with Derek Fisher, Kobe at times has gambled on defense, Ron Artest has looked slow in some games (see Christmas game against Cleveland), and Gasol and Bynum have just not contested shots or grabbed rebounds properly. The Lakers also have had a tendency not to get back on defense. This will be costly against a team like Oklahoma City that has young guys that love to run.
Solution: What it comes down to is that the Lakers don’t seem to be communicating well on defense. I expect this to change during the playoffs as the game slows down. I would want to see Kobe Bryant guard the quicker forwards (i.e. Kevin Durant) and have Ron Artest guard those players he can really use his strength against (i.e. Carmelo Anthony). Artest is more effective against strength players as opposed to players who use their craftiness and quickness.
Bryant would also have to cover for Derek Fisher, as he has gotten slower over the years because of his age, and quicker guards take advantage of him. Finally, Gasol and Bynum have to show on pick-and-rolls and also deny the entry passes to centers. They have to do their work before the centers catch the ball deep. They also have to act as erasers and cover for the mistakes of the guards and go after every incursion into the paint. The Lakers boast two all-time great defenders in Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest, two seven-footers in Bynum and Gasol, and a lanky guy in Lamar Odom, thus communication on defense will be key. If they communicate well on defense, regardless of who they play, the Lakers' length and defense of Kobe and Artest should get them through.
2. The Triangle-Offfense
Problem: The last few weeks of the season, the Lakers' offense has often stalled, and it seems like Ron Artest is lost on offense sometimes. The problem here with the Lakers is the lack of ball and body movement. The success of the triangle offense is predicated on ball and body movement, it is the element of surprise where the offense is not scripted but whoever is open takes the shot. When this fails, the ball goes into the superstar, a la a Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant to bail them out. In the past few weeks the ball has ended in Kobe’s hands too quick before it is moved around a little.
Solution: The Lakers need to establish the inside game and soften the defense of the opponent up before taking jump shots. The Lakers have jacked up too many threes in the last few games of the season. What the Lakers need to do is move the ball, get it inside to Bynum and Gasol and have cutters and bodies moving. This makes it more difficult to defend Kobe Bryant as the defense does not know what to expect.
The success of the Lakers in defending the championship will be dependent on how much ball movement they are getting so that cutters can have easy baskets and shooters like Fisher and Artest can get open three-pointers. It will be important to the Lakers' success that Derek Fisher and Ron Artest make their open shots. But the key would be ball movement and player movement and not depending on a Kobe bailout on every possession. They surely have the talent to do it if Bynum and Gasol touch the ball on every possession.
Problem: The main problem of the Lakers in their last few games has really just been energy. The other teams play really hard, as they know they are playing the champions and get really excited. The Lakers have been unable or unwilling to match this intensity.
Solution: This is the playoffs, and the intensity will be even higher. The Lakers have to play hungry like they did last year, because the other teams are always going to be more motivated with an opportunity to beat the champions. The Lakers are virtually unbeatable if they match their talent with energy.
Having home-court advantage through the Western Conference should help, since they start every playoff series at home. I believe the Lakers, being a veteran team, would have the intensity, but they need to have that energy beginning Sunday against Oklahoma City, a much younger, energetic team, and have it through the playoffs. One thing the Cavaliers do well is play with hunger and energy—give me the energy of Anderson Varejao anyday. If the Lakers can play with energy, the Larry O’Brien Trophy will be coming back to the City of Angels come June.
4. Kobe Bryant:
Problem: The last and most important factor will be the play of Kobe Bryant. Are we going to see the best offensive force in basketball history, or are we going to see the guy who has been hobbled and struggled with injuries and had a flat shot in the last few games of the season? Do we see the unstoppable Kobe Bryant who can score from anywhere, putting fouls on opponents, making plays for his teammates and leaving them wide open because he now has to be double-teamed? If Kobe Bryant is on his A-game, coupled with the rest of the talent on this team, the Lakers are unbeatable and would repeat this year.
Solution: Kobe Bryant needs to be extremely aggressive from the get-go. This would have the opponent paying attention to him if he is on fire early, and he can then dish it out to the other players when he is being double-teamed. If he isn’t double-teamed, he can make them pay. Also this fills his team with swagger. When they see Kobe on fire, they get confidence and his swagger rubs off on them and all of a sudden Lamar Odom is showing all facets of his game. Kobe also has to make quick decisions when double-teamed and kick it out.
In addition, he should try to make plays for Bynum and Gasol and get them going. If we see the Kobe Bryant who scored 81 points, the same one who averaged 50 points a game in five games straight, the one who scored 62 points in three quarters, who scored 61 points at MSG, setting a record, then it's over and the Lakers repeat and other challengers like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard will be forced to be spectators in Kobe’s world. The bottom line is, if Kobe’s injuries do not bother him and he can play like the Kobe we have come to be accustomed to, the Lakers will repeat.
In the end, the Lakers can repeat, but they would have to communicate better on defense and not lose defensive assignments, and they have to execute the triangle-offense better and play with more energy. More importantly, Kobe Bryant has to be very aggressive and set the tone early so that he is double-teamed and triple-teamed, leaving his teammates open for three-pointers or other easy shots. The Lakers can do this, and they need to do this now in the first round and finish up the series quick to send a message to other teams in the next 10 days. If they do so they will surely repeat.
In a nutshell, this is how the Lakers can win a championship in ten days by cultivating a lasting habit in this series that would carry over to June.
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