The Los Angeles Lakers headed into the the All-Star Break this year at 38-19. Not quite the record they were hoping for.
This was supposed to be the powerhouse team looking for its third straight championship. Just like last year, the Lakers were expected to cruise through the Western Conference and be one of the favorites to win the title again this summer.
This year has not gone how any of the Lakers expected though. Kobe has struggled with his shot, Pau has seemed to be tired all season and Andrew Bynum missed much of the first half while recovering from knee surgery in the off-season.
Now, everything has changed at the drop of a hat. They just pulled in another tough win over the Orlando Magic the other night and look to be in championship form.
The Lakers outscored the Magic 56 to 38 in the second half. They shot 53.7 percent from the field while dominating the defensive end. They simply looked like a team determined to win while the Magic looked like a team that couldn't figure out what was going on.
If you happened to catch the 2009 NBA Finals, you've probably seen this before.
The Lakers success after the All-Star break, winning 10 of their last 11 games, has seen them dominate both ends of the court. They have held the opponent to under 40 percent from the field in six of those games and under 90 points in seven of them.
Who is the most important player for the Lakers title hopes?
With all this success that we now know is possible, who was to blame for the Lakers early season struggles?
Phil Jackson? Kobe Bryant? Pau Gasol?
I don't think the blame can be on any of them.
Bryant has been struggling this season to play through injuries and ineffectiveness and continued to do so against the Magic. Bryant scored only 16 points because by the time he got a little confidence in his sprained ankle in the second half, the other Lakers had already taken care of business for him. Kobe will be Kobe for the Lakers when push comes to shove.
Phil Jackson never really plays his hand until the playoffs and that is what he will do this season. Until then we will see his patented "(Whistle) Triangle" call on repeat as always.
Gasol have never been able to handle the low post role himself and took on too much of a burden early this season. He should get some rest in the second half and be ready to go in the playoffs.
The biggest difference in the Lakers since the break is having a healthy Andrew Bynum to anchor them on offense and defense. Many people forget because of his injury woes that Bynum is likely the Lakers third best player. He is much more consistent than Lamar Odom and much better on the offensive end than Ron Artest.
Bynum gave Lakers fans a reason not to hope for a Bynum-for-Dwight Howard swap with his play against the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. He tied a career-high with 18 rebounds—nine offensive—and blocked 4 shots to go along with his 10 points in 28 quality minutes against Howard.
"It's really just going hard. You know, trying to get every rebound. That's all I'm focusing on, seriously" said Bynum to ESPN.
A healthy Bynum is what is going to make the Lakers the favorites heading into the playoffs again this season.
"He's giving us a force inside. That's hard to come by and he's doing it without even scoring sometimes, which not too many players in this league can do," said Lamar Odom according to ESPN.
The inside trio of Bynum, Gasol and Odom is something no one in the league can compete with if Bynum keeps playing at this level. Based on what we have seen so far after the break, no one should expect any less.
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