Finals Exam: Have The Los Angeles Lakers Learned Their Lessons?

Tim CarySenior Analyst IMay 31, 2009

DENVER - MAY 29:  Carmelo Anthony #15 of the Denver Nuggets goes up for a shot between Andrew Bynum #17 and Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Six of the Western Conference Finals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at Pepsi Center on May 29, 2009 in Denver, Colorado. 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 Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Thursday night in Staples Center, the Los Angeles Lakers will begin their league-record 30th appearance in the NBA Finals, attemping to win the franchise's first championship since 2002. 

Although it's been seven years since Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson last won it all, the duo has made Finals appearances in 2004 and 2008, falling short both times.

The 2008 defeat (at the hand of longtime rival Boston) was especially painful, as the Lakers looked remarkably outclassed by the more physical, intense Celtics.

In fact, in his article, "Summer Schooled: What the Los Angeles Lakers Learned From the Boston Celtics", fellow Bleacher Report writer Andrew Ungvari termed the one-sided series a "six-game sweep, if there ever was such a thing". 

Ungvari listed three important lessons the Lakers learned from their Eastern Conference foes during the 2008 Finals beatdown:

1.  Defense, Defense, Defense

2.  You Are Only As Good As Your Bench

3.  Win Early, Win Often

Ungvari's conclusion was that for the Lakers to ultimately take the final step of winning a title, they would need to follow Boston's blueprint. 

So now, with this year's Finals upon us, there's no better time to look at the Lakers' season and evaluate the Purple and Gold's growth in Ungvari's three key areas.

Have the Lakers learned their lessons?

1.  Defense, Defense, Defense

Los Angeles is, without question, a better defensive team than last year's Western Conference championship squad. 

Adding Andrew Bynum and a healthy Trevor Ariza makes most of the difference, as Bynum's length changes shots in the paint and Ariza can hassle the other team's star perimeter scorers. 

We need to look no further than Ariza's game-deciding steals in not one, but two Western Conference Finals contests (30 seconds remaining in Game One, 36 seconds remaining in Game Three) to see what solid defense does for a club's championship hopes. 

If Ariza doesn't make those plays, who knows?  It might very well be the Nuggets, not the Lakers, winning the series 4-2.

Likewise, Bynum's shot-blocking ability (he and Gasol combined to swat 22 Nuggets attempts in the series) is a stabilizing force in the middle, and his return is a key to the Lakers' championship hopes.

The concern for Lakers' fans in this area is two-fold.  First, LA doesn't always seem to play with effort and intensity at the defensive end of the floor.  For a team with such skilled shot-blockers, giving up as many wide-open layups and dunks as the Lakers have (especially in the last two rounds against Houston and Denver) is simply unacceptable. 

LA seems to lack a bit of the "want-to" on the less-glamorous half of the court, and that has to be a scary idea for Lakers fans that are sick of finishing in the NBA runner-up position.

(How's the old saying go?  "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride?")

The second defensive issue the Lakers face is that it often takes them a few games to figure out how to slow down an opponent's offensive attack. 

With a trophy at stake, LA can't afford to take two or three games to learn how to neutralize the high-powered Magic scorers (Howard, Lewis, Turkoglu, etc.). 

Look at the number of points the Lakers allowed in each of their six Western Conference Finals games against Denver: 103, 103, 97, 120, 94, and 92.  The lowest two outputs allowed were in the final two games. 

The Houston series followed a similar script: LA gave up an average of 94 points to the Rockets in the first six games (each team won three), before clamping down and holding Houston to a series-low 70 in the deciding Game Seven.

Whether it's due to a lack of intensity (play defense only when it really matters) or a slow learning curve (finally figuring out Anthony and Billups after a week of seeing them every other day), Los Angeles still has room for improvement on the defensive end.

2.  You Are Only As Good As Your Bench

One of the big factors facing the development of the 08-09 Lakers' bench has been the fluctuation of the team's starting lineup. 

Due to injuries, a general uncertainty as to the best role for Lamar Odom, and a revolving door at small forward (remember Vladimir Radmanovic?), it's only been in the past few weeks that LA's substitutes have finally established their roles and a rhythm together. 

Odom was starting for Los Angeles as recently as the second-round series against Houston, but with Bynum finally playing at a somewhat consistent level, LO has returned to the second unit for LA. 

That means that Odom, Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar, and Shannon Brown are responsible for coming in off the bench to create or maintain momentum for Coach Phil Jackson.  

Odom and Walton especially have made a difference in recent action, with Odom posting a monster double-double in Game 5 (19 points and 14 boards) and Walton doing his part to check Carmelo Anthony (especially when Ariza got into early foul trouble).

The backup point guard has been a sparkplug to the Lakers as well, although it's been a different point guard seemingly every game. Farmar and Brown have flip-flopped as the first ballhandler off the bench, and both have done their part to ignite the Lakers past Utah, Houston, and now Denver.

I still believe that the ultimate key to success from the bench players will be three-point shooting. 

Vujacic and Farmar are both capable of single-handedly shooting LA into or out of a game, depending on their percentage from behind the arc.  Also, with the Lakers' glut of scorers (Bryant, Gasol, and Odom), the opposing team generally affords Walton a wide-open look at whatever shot he wants. 

If LA's bench is hitting threes (along with Fisher and Ariza, who will get their fair share as well), the Lakers should be in good shape for hanging yet another banner in Hollywood.

3.  Win Early, Win Often

Ungvari's third key to the Lakers' championship dreams was winning enough during the regular season to secure home-court advantage. In the 2008 Finals, Boston captured all three of its home games by an average margin of over 18 points per game, and the Lakers entered the 2008-09 campaign with a renewed focus on doing enough from November-April to have home court when it mattered most.

Although LA fell short of its ultimate regular-season goal (as Cleveland secured the league's best record), the Lakers' 65 wins turned out to be enough to do the trick, as Cleveland was upset in the Eastern Conference Finals by third-seeded Orlando. 

The Magic won only 59 games during the regular season, so it will be LA hosting Games One, Two, Six, and Seven if necessary. 

With home-court advantage firmly in their grasp, I think it's crucial for the Lakers to make a statement by sweeping the first two games at home.

After all, LA also had the home-court edge in the 2004 Finals against Detroit, but only mustered a split of the opening two contests. 

That series moved to the Motor City for Games Three, Four, and Five—and it never returned.  Detroit went a perfect 3-0 in the Palace to win the Finals in five games, and due to the league's interesting 2-3-2 scheduling format, LA played more games on the road than at home, despite their so-called advantage.

Defense, bench play, and protecting home-court: Andrew Ungvari called it the "Boston blueprint".  Now that the Lakers are facing their Finals exam, beginning with Game 1 against the Magic on Thursday night, it's time to see exactly what they've learned—and if it's enough to win a title.


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