Things to watch in Lakers-76ers matchup
1. Will the focus still be there?
The Lakers (22-10) return to Staples Center for a game tonight against the Philadelphia 76ers (13-18) in much higher spirits than when they left home. The Lakers had just come off an embarrassing Christmas Day effort against Miami, and even if the effort improved against San Antonio, the result still appeared as ugly.
Fortunately the Lakers held a meeting that proved instrumental in a 103-88 victory Wednesday at New Orleans. It doesn't sound as cliche as you might think. The Lakers didn't have any dramatic speeches or anything of that sort. They simply went over tactical changes the team needed to make, ranging from focusing more on the paint presence than firing from the outside as well as Phil Jackson's decision to return Andrew Bynum to the starting lineup sooner than expected.
The Lakers showed against New Orleans how focus and team chemistry can make a difference. But it's a false notion to equate that to the Lakers' ability to flipping the switch. The true measure of any change involves how much it is sustained through a long period of time. There are a few variables such as the 76ers' record and New Year's Eve festivities that might be stumbling blocks in the Lakers' effort to keep that focus and chemistry.
But the Sixers' record is misleading. Philadelphia has won 10 of its last 16 games, including signature wins against Orlando, Denver and Phoenix as well as competitive games against the Lakers and Celtics. Even if Andre Iguoudla's status for tonight remains uncertain because of right Achilles' tendinitis, Evan Turner has averaged about 13 points in his absence, a sharp increase from the five points he normally averages. And to complement the 14.8 points former UCLA product Jrue Holiday averages, Philadelphia boasts seven other players scoring at least eight points a contest.
2. How will Andrew Bynum respond in his second start?
Bynum passed a significant test when his body responded well in Thursday's practice, despite appearing in back-to-back games, including a 30-minute performance on the latter end of that set. Jackson's always looked at the next practice as a good indicator how well an injured or rehabbed player absorbed the workload the previous game. Bynum's planned start against Philadelphia will also prove a good indicator on what his 18-point performance on eight-of-12 shooting actually means.
That's not to take anything away from Bynum. He's cracked double figures in three of the last five games. After shooting 21.4% in the first three games after rehabbing from offseason surgery on his right knee, Bynum has averaged a 70.9% clip in the next five. It's impressive that Bynum established a rhythm despite limited touches, something he said contributed to poor outings in previous seasons. But his 12 field-goal attempts against New Orleans far surpassed the four shots he averaged in previous games, showing the Lakers stuck to their plan in feeding him and that the strategy likely threw New Orleans for a loop. In addition to Spencer Hawes and Elton Brand proving to be more defensively skilled than Emeka Okafur, Philadelphia will likely emphasize limiting Bynum more than the Hornets did.
No doubt, Bynum's presence immediately bolsters the Lakers' defensive rotations, post presence and Pau Gasol's chance to rest no matter what teams do. But if nothing else, Bynum will have a clearer measuring stick, a snapshot he currently says involves him having little pain though he still feels limited with his explosiveness.
3. Can the Lakers cut down on the turnovers?
In the last five games, the Lakers have averaged 16.8 turnovers a contest, a clip that ranks fourth worst in the NBA. Surely, the Lakers' poor offensive chemistry during their three-game losing streak contributed to those numbers. But the Lakers still committed 20 turnovers when the offense flourished against New Orleans, including seven from Kobe Bryant. That's a byproduct of the Lakers beginning to hone in again on ball movement and team fundamentals after resorting to isolation plays for much of the last month. But it also raises questions on whether Bryant's pinkie and right index fingers are really hurting him more than he's admitting.
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Photo: Lamar Odom finished with 28 points in the Lakers' 93-81 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday. Credit: Barbara Johnston / U.S. Presswire.