The Los Angeles Lakers began defense of their title yesterday at home against the New Orleans Hornets, a team they should dispose of in four or five games. The Lakers also started the series more than a little banged up, battered, bruised and out of sorts. So out of sorts that they lost the first game, 109-100.
So what else is new? These are the Lakers after all and drama seems to follow them around like a little puppy tagging alongside its owner in search of his or her next meal.
Phil Jackson has never been one to use a lot of players during the post season but he may have to this year, simply because of injuries and illness. Steve Blake could be sidelined for the entire first series against the Hornets as he recuperates from a rare adult outbreak of chicken pocks.
Andrew Bynum, Matt Barnes and Ron Artest all were suffering from various knee and leg ailments heading into Game One. And Kobe Bryant created a distraction after uttering a homophobic slur directed at an official in the Lakers' home game last week against the Spurs. He quickly apologized the next day and since then he and the team have been proactive in trying to diffuse the uproar the comment caused in various circles around the country.
Still, these are the two time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and this is their time of year. The regular season was a warm up for the main attraction. There’s a reason most experts continue to favor the Lakers (Vegas included) to win a third consecutive title: They have the experience, poise, length and depth to win it all.
The Lakers also have a couple of X-factors no other team can claim. Will it be enough to three-peat. Let's take a look.
Matt Barnes underwent the first major surgery of his career in January and is just now getting back to normal. He had his sore knee drained earlier this week and was cleared to play yesterday against the Hornets.
Barnes averaged close to 20 minutes playing time this year, despite his sitting out almost 30 games. When he's healthy, Barnes gives the Lakers something they desperately lack -- hustle points. He plays with unrelenting energy and abandon, moves extremely well without the ball and never gives up on a play.
Barnes will come off the bench usually to give Ron Artest a break at the small forward position. He actually was playing more minutes earlier in the season when Artest struggled.
Matt Barnes can play an integral role for the Lakers this post season. They really need his enthusiasm and toughness.
Steve Blake has had a very strange year for the Lakers, both on and off the court.
The veteran point guard averaged 20 minutes and four points per game for the team during the regular season, but has been sequestered at home for the past week with a case of rare adult Chickenpox. Although he is recovering, Blake may still be a week or so from returning to the lineup.
The Lakers rely on Blake to spell Derek Fisher and give them reliable perimeter shooting. For much of the season, he's been tentative about taking shots, preferring to dish off to teammates and find the open man.
Blake got into an altercation with the Maverick's Jason Terry during a home game April 1 after Terry shoved him out of bounds on a play late in a losing affair to the Lakers. If nothing else, Blake displayed a tough side that some may have earlier questioned by standing up to Terry as if to say "not in my house."
For the playoffs, the Lakers are hoping a healthy Blake will give them at least 15-20 minutes and a few more attempts from outside. His field goal percentage of just 36 percent was not a highlight; it was one of Blake's worst as a professional.
Any improvement over those regular season numbers will be welcome by the team.
Despite his sometimes erratic style of play, Shannon Brown has been remarkably consistent the past two seasons. He has averaged about 20 minutes each of the last two years and his scoring average of 8.7 in just 19.1 minutes this year provided the Lakers with some much needed instant offense off the bench.
Brown struggled in the playoffs last year, averaging just 4.9 points in 14 minutes for the Lakers. His three point shooting percentage dropped to 28 percent from 33 percent during the regular season.
This season Brown has improved his outside shooting and was averaging 35 percent on long distance attempts when the season ended last week. He is a streaky shooter who can get hot in a hurry and score points in bunches.
The downside is that Brown can get cold in a hurry too and has a tendency to start jacking up three point shots and getting away from the Triangle Offense at critical junctures.
Phil Jackson is counting on Brown to spell Kobe Bryant at the end and beginning of quarters and also give the team some offensive lift. If Brown gets it going and remembers to play mostly within the system, the Lakers overall production will become that much more prolific.
Derek Fisher doesn't score a lot of points. He scores points at the right time.
Almost no other Laker player in the team's glorious history has done more for their team with his range of talent than Derek Fisher.
Fisher starts for the Lakers and, at age 36, is still logging 28 minutes per game. And though he only scores about seven points, Fisher averaged 40 percent on his three point attempts during the regular season.
He shines in the post season. In the team's playoff run a year ago, D-Fish jumped his scoring average to 10.3 from 7.5 during the regular season and increased his shooting percentage from 38 to 45 percent.
Fisher has made more big plays for the Lakers during his career than one can remember, including his coast to coast drive, score and foul versus the Celtics last year in a Game 3 win at Boston. He's also famous for the catch, turn and prayer of a shot that went in to beat the San Antonio Spurs with .04 seconds left in a 2004 playoff win.
Derek Fisher will not score 30 or even 20 points a game during the playoffs. But what he will do is lead his team with a passion to win that runs deep. It's no coincidence that Fisher has five championship rings, the same number as his teammate and good friend, Kobe Bryant.
For the Lakers to make another serious run deep into the playoffs, they'll need Ron Artest to play the kind of defense that has earned him accolades throughout his career.
Five times during his career Artest has been in the league's top five in steals. He's been named to numerous All Defensive Teams and was the league's Defensive Player of the Year in 2004.
Artest has not had a very good year on the offensive side of the ball. His 8.5 points in 29.4 minutes marked the first time that the 31-year old small forward averaged below 10 points for a season. Still, he doesn't lack for confidence and will continue to put up shots when he has the opportunity. He simply needs to play within the system to be effective.
The Lakers probably would be fine with Artest scoring around 10 points a game during the playoffs -- what they really want is for him to clamp down on the opponent's best players, keeping them in check as he is still so capable of doing.
Artest made the biggest shot of his career in Game 7 of the Lakers-Celtics series when Kobe Bryant passed to him on the right arc and he connected for three points late in the game. Artest scored 20 points, had five rebounds and a career playoff record five assists in that series clincher that brought him his first and only World Championship ring.
Artest auctioned off the ring for the charity this past December -- L.A. is hoping his drive for a replacement will spread to the entire team.
Lamar Odom had his finest season as a professional basketball player. His importance to the rotation is as critical, if not more so, than any of the starters except perhaps Kobe Bryant.
Odom shattered career highs in both three point accuracy (38 percent) and field goal percentage (53 percent) while playing just over 32 minutes and scoring 14.4 points per game, most of that coming off the bench. His efficiency rating was 19.7.
Odom has always shown flashes of brilliance on the court -- an ability for a 6'10" power forward who can bring the ball up the court against a pressure defense, shoot from virtually anywhere, pass with the skill of a point guard and drive to the basket with either hand. This year he put it all together on a consistent basis and, in the process, became a most valuable player for the Lakers.
In Game One yesterday, Odom had only one rebound in 31 minutes of play, eight below his season average. He also was held to just 10 points on 3-6 shooting, with five of those attempts coming from beyond the arc.
For the Lakers to thrive in the playoffs, Lamar Odom must be more power forward and less perimeter shooter. His play may determine just how far the team goes this spring.
The Lakers have been attempting to bottle the elixir that Andrew Bynum injested just prior to starting the second half of the regular season after the All Star break. If they can figure out that potion, L.A. may very well waltz its way to the finals for the fourth straight year.
To say Bynum caught fire in a bottle is an understatement. His determination to rebound (in more ways than one) from another serious knee injury was something to behold as the Lakers won 17 of 18 games following the break.
During that span, Bynum grabbed every rebound he could get his hands on, to the tune of more than 15 per game. That included a 23 rebound performance against Utah and nine offensive boards against Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic, both career highs.
With Bynum back in the lineup, the Lakers suddenly became the toughest team in the NBA to score on, allowing teams less than 88 points per game during that long winning stretch.
On Sunday, Bynum scored 13 points but only pulled down nine rebounds. It was a decent performance by the 7'0, 285 pound center. The Lakers truly need Bynum this post season -- his defensive presence changes the makeup of the team, allowing them to double team and take more chances.
Despite a very poor performance in their Game One loss to New Orleans yesterday, Pau Gasol remains an essential piece of the Lakers' playoff picture. If they are to win it all for a third consecutive time, the big Spaniard must play up to and above his potential.
Gasol scored eight points on 2-9 shooting in 38 minutes Sunday. If he scores his average of 18.8, the Lakers probably end up winning this game.
Gasol will rebound from this weak performance; he has a very consistent history of scoring close to 20 points per game and hitting on about 53 percent of his shots. He also pulls down close to 10 rebounds a game though he had just six in the game against New Orleans.
Pau Gasol is now a very experienced playoff performer, having gone to the Finals each of the three years he's been a member of the Lakers. He averaged 19.6 points in close to 40 minutes of action in last year's post season run.
Gasol is known for his deft shooting touch and tremendous passing skills. He is regarded as perhaps the best power forward in the league. Those skills were M.I.A. against New Orleans yesterday but they'll return soon enough. The Lakers need Gasol's consistency to capture another title.
He came to play on Sunday -- the only problem was that his teammates didn't get the memo and stayed home.
Kobe Bryant was nothing short of brilliantly efficient in his first game of the 2011 playoffs; 34 points in 42 minutes on 50 percent shooting. He also had five assists, four rebounds and one blocked shot.
The problem is that Bryant cannot do it all by himself. The Lakers are their worst enemy when they collectively stand around and wait for Kobe to do something wonderful.
Bryant will do whatever he feels needs to be done to win playoff games and championships. He's coming of an MVP caliber season in which he averaged 25 points on 45 percent shooting for the 2010-11 campaign.
At age 32, Bryant is still the best conditioned athlete on the floor, is still making incredible shots from all angles and is in better shape today than he was a year ago when the team entered the post season.
Motivation is the least of Kobe Bryant's concerns as the team looks to beat New Orleans Wednesday and even the first round series at one game apiece. He's won five world titles and beaten the Boston Celtics in a Finals, something few former Lakers can say.
But what motivates Bryant is an opportunity to get a sixth championship ring, an incredible feat that would tie him with Michael Jordan and be a parting gift for Phil Jackson, who will hang up his clipboard in June when the season is over.
Kobe Bryant will lead -- the rest of the guys just need to follow. And all will be well in Lakers Nation.