Kobe Bryant Leads the Lakers in the Push for the Playoffs

Victoria SterlingCorrespondent IMarch 7, 2011

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 03:  Pau Gasol #16, Andrew Bynum #17, Kobe Bryant #24 and Derek Fisher #2 of the Los Angeles Lakers head to the bench after a time out trailing the San Antonio Spurs during the second half at Staples Center on February 3, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Lakers?  I take back every bad thing I said about you before the All-Star break.  Holy smokes was that domination over the Spurs.  THAT is championship basketball.  But before we look at Lakers/Spurs, let's take a look back at last week. 

I was a little worried about Lakers/Thunder.  OKC is fast.  But the Lakers demonstrated why they are the two time defending champs.  They controlled the tempo of the game and even when they were down by 14 they did not panic.  They fought their way back and exposed the one flaw the Thunder have right now.  The Thunder cannot close.  When they learn how to do that (and it will be sooner rather than later) they will be a championship contender.  But the Lakers hung tough, especially in the last couple of minutes, didn't panic and got the win.  This is not the last LA has seen of OKC, trust me. 

Lakers vs. Minnesota—I expect nothing less than a win this time of year.  Same with Charlotte.

But before we get to San Antonio, I have to talk about Miami.  In my opinion they are not the Lakers' biggest threat out of the East, but rather the Celtics and the Bulls.  

The Celtics need no introduction.  However, the Bulls are playing terrific basketball lately. They have a legitimate star in Derrick Rose, and you under-estimate Joakim Noah at your peril.  Trust me, my Bruin teams have been on the losing side against him more than I care to admit.  But I have to give him credit for terrific hustle and an emotional engagement in each game that carries over to his teammates. They are working hard, playing hard and it shows.  

And then you have Miami.  Talk about karma catching up to you.

Miami is never going to win a championship they way they are now.  Every time I've seen Miami play and they are in a crunch time position, there are a couple of plays where you can see Dwayne Wade and LeBron James trying to decide who should take the final shot.

Hesitation is the kiss of death.  The other teams exploit it, and the Heat lose. 

Listen, I love Wade.  He is the reason the Heat won the title in 2006, but James still doesn't get that you are not entitled to a title.  At his postgame press conference he said that he needs to be the guy with the ball at the end of the game with it all on the line.  Um, LeBron?  You WERE the guy they ran the play for at the end of the game.  Guess what?  You missed, and then Wade tried to save the game and you, but no luck. 

What is fascinating, however, is how attuned to public sentiment Wade is.  He basically admitted at his post game press conference that he understood the schadenfreude against the Heat.  He did not look happy admitting that, but I give him credit for being honest.

I don't know how this gets resolved.  I like Erik Spoelstra.  But boy has he had a tough time.  First he has to work through all the hoopla at the beginning of the season and somehow get this team to work together.  Now it's crunch time.  San Antonio destroyed them to the tune of 30 points Friday night, and now you lose to Chicago? 

First of all Heat, you're not paying attention.  Chicago is good and if you ask me (assuming health), it's even money between them and the Celtics with regard to who will win the East.  But now you have the specter of Pat Riley (who was instrumental in engineering this experiment) looking over your shoulder.  First time I can recall him sitting in the stands in a while.  Ask Stan Van Gundy about that, Erik.

Speaking of Van Gundy—I thought for once, the three idiots who call the Sunday marquee ABC basketball games would actually stick to calling the game.  Their announcing drives me crazy.  It's like they think they're auditioning for the chuckle hut.  No one wants to hear your inane chatter.  Just call the game (many times I have muted them and listened to the Lakers’ LA radio team Spero Dedes and Mychal Thompson self-simulcasting the radio announcers instead; the LA TV and radio folks for the Lakers are superlative).  

On Sunday, the ABC talking heads got off to a good start.  But then with a little less than four minutes left in regulation, they went off on the most ridiculous tangent in the world and completely neglected the game. 

The Spurs were actually pushing toward a desperate comeback to the point where Phil Jackson re-inserted his starters!  They were acting as if the game was over and they were already back at the hotel bar.  What the…?  I can't ever imagine Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth lapsing into this kind of nonsense.  You can do better, gentlemen.

OK, back to the Lakers—solid, solid effort.  Andrew Bynum has been playing lights out lately.  Just tremendous.  Great to see Matt Barnes back in the game. 

ABC's production crew also caught some terrific shots of something Kobe Bryant does regularly but doesn't get a lot of recognition for, which is being the in-game coach.  He did it on the court a couple of times and the cameras also caught him as he was sitting on the bench explaining to his younger teammates what to watch for and what was going on. Almost a live film study.  This is a side of Kobe's maturing game that goes under-reported.  I'll give you another example and it's in direct relation to what the Heat are going through now. 

When LA acquired Pau Gasol, everyone knew that Gasol was a star, but he had a terrible habit of being deferential to Bryant in crunch time.  It cost them, but Bryant knew how good Gasol could be.  But let's face it; the Mamba can be intimidating.  So what did Bryant do?  He publicly told Gasol (and I’m paraphrasing here),  "You're one of the best professional basketball players in the WORLD.  If you have the shot, take it. Don't defer to me.  I have your back."  The Lakers have only won back to back world championships since then, so you know....no big deal.

That's pretty incredible if you think about it.  

Finally the Lakers are playing the scary, no mercy hoops that I love.  Best thing about Sunday; they didn't take their foot off the gas.  Somewhere Bill Belichick was proud.  The bench wasn't great at the end, but they didn't cost the Lakers the game.  However, when the big lead started slipping away, I liked how Phil Jackson put the starters back in to impress upon the bench that it was time to play and score now.  Just because the starters hand you a big lead, doesn’t mean you can phone it in.  We need everyone’s best effort from here on out.

So now what?  Three more games on this road trip.  By the Lakers' own admission, a good measuring stick for where they stand right now.  

Lakers—stay rested, stay focused, play smart and we'll see how the landscape looks at the end of the week.


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