Lakers anticipating playing Utah with a depleted lineup
The picture will become much clearer Wednesday regarding the Lakers' roster.
After missing the last two games because of a sprained left ankle, Kobe Bryant will travel with the team for Wednesday's game against Utah, but he remains a game-time decision. Center Andrew Bynum, who missed Monday's game against San Antonio because of a bruised right hip, will also travel with the team, but Coach Phil Jackson doesn't expect him to play. Then there's forward Lamar Odom, who missed Tuesday's practice and received a CAT scan and MRI because of a sore right foot suffered in the Lakers' win against the Spurs. Though the team has listed him as probable, Odom told The Times' Broderick Turner he will play against the Jazz.
Though Jackson has largely left it up to Bryant on whether he'll play Wednesday, Jackson's and Bryant's comments in the past few days definitely indicated that the nature of his ankle injury seemed pretty cut-and-dry.
"I’m not an idiot," Bryant told reporters after the Lakers' win over San Antonio. "I’m not going to just run through a wall to run through a wall. If it’s an injury I feel like I can play through and it happens to heal while I’m playing, then I’ll play. But if it’s a type of injury where it’s going to get worse when I play, I won’t."
In a way, I would imagine that makes it a little bit easier to manage than his fractured right index finger for one huge reason. Bryant's fractured finger didn't necessarily need to be "healthy" for him to be good enough to play. You need healthy legs to run up and down a court. You don't always need a healthy index finger to handle a basketball, there are three other fingers and a thumb on each hand after all. And because of that reality, every time Bryant continued his poor shooting, that inevitably raised more questions from the media on whether his splint was good enough, if he should decrease his shots and if he should sit out all together.
During Bryant's absence, Jackson said it has been "a time for ourselves to back each other up." And because there's no clear cut go-to guy without Bryant in the lineup, Jackson said that "simplifies things" since opposing defenses don't have a consensus on who they're going to double team.
Jackson has taken a largely deferential approach to Bryant's decision on whether to play. But he couldn't help but get this dig in when asked if Bryant should suit up for the All-Star game.
"That's something the league has put such a priority on," Jackson said. "They're trying to draw 150,000 people to a game. It's a big deal. It's a revival meeting."
Lakers forward Pau Gasol agreed with Jackson's assessment that Bryant's absence can alter how defenses lock in on the Lakers. He also acknowledged that Bynum's absence brings a few changes to Gasol's game because he's moved to center, "something that puts me in the post a lot more." Gasol has struggled with his shooting the past two games, going 14 of 34 from the field (41%), but he's been a big director in the offense even when those shots weren't falling.
He didn't think there was any magic formula why Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar exceeded their season averages in both contests, other than "running the triangle" and ensuring constant "ball movement." That's something that Gasol says the team has had a mixed bag in executing. "Sometimes we accomplish it, sometimes we don't," he said.
Because of Gasol's recent complain on getting a lack of touches last week when Bryant surpassed Jerry West as the Lakers' all-time leading scorer, some will read that as an indirect dig at Bryant, saying the team doesn't run the triangle and lacks ball movement when Bryant's directing the offense. I actually think Gasol is just addressing the indisputable reality - there have been games the team has played together and there have been games where they lacked that cohesion.
The Lakers clearly would like Bryant and Bynum in the lineup, but the last two games have vividly illustrated why Odom is so valuable to the team. When Bynum missed the second half against Portland, Odom grabbed a career-high 22 rebounds. Against San Antonio, he often provided glimpses of what Bryant and Bynum provide on a normal basis. He aggressively looked for offensive opportunities from up top and he also worked his way in the post, finishing with 16 points and 10 rebounds. It's that "versatility" as Fisher puts it as the reason why Odom's clearly stood out when in most cases he prefers playing a secondary role.
Odom's play connects to a larger picture Fisher was painting in that every player in the lineup can provide a spark in their own little way.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Kobe Bryant, left, grimaces in pain after teammate Lamar Odom accidentally steps on his ankle late in the first half of the Lakers' 99-97 victory over Charlotte on Wednesday night at Staples Center. Bryant returned to start the third quarter but lacked his usual quickness. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times