Will the Lakers respond in appropriate fashion to Boston?
A typical Laker practice starts off with the team reviewing both the good and the bad from the previous game, with Coach Phil Jackson finding constructive areas the team should consistently excel and poor areas the team needs to sharpen.
In the case of the Lakers' 2 1/2 hour practice on Saturday, usually an hour longer than usual, there was plenty of ground to cover. That's because the Lakers (33-14) are coming off a sub-par performance in a 100-95 loss Friday to the Sacramento Kings and enter a marquee matchup with the Boston Celtics (35-11), which boasts the Eastern Conference's best record.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that the Lakers would rebound with a sharpened focus and wanting to prove they can match with the league's elite and won't tolerate embarrassing losses against sub. 500 opponents. But this is the Lakers, a team that's gone 3-3 in the past six games, have lost in effortless fashion against the likes of Milwaukee, Memphis, Indiana and Sacramento and have lacked a definitive pattern on whether they'll showcase either the enormously talent they have or reveal their boredom for the regular season.
Jackson for one didn't voice a lot of confidence for the Lakers.
"I think that our players have to be better students of the opponents that they are playing," Jackson said. "I think that [Sunday] they will have a lot of attention. Whether they play well or not is debatable, but they [the Celtics] do have the attention of the Lakers."
There's also inconsistent signs that the Lakers appropriately responded in big games, most notably when the Lakers followed up a clunker against a sub. 500 team in Milwaukee in another clunker in front of a national audience on Christmas Day against a marquee opponent in Miami. That led to this exchange from Jackson: "I think that was last year, wasn't it last year? That was last year. This is a new year." But when told it's the same season, Jackson simply said, "it is but that's a long time ago for basketball." Even if a month later has yielded a more resurgent defense thanks to a new scheme that emphasizes close outs on the perimeter, frontline players remaining at the basket and forcing drivers baseline, the Lakers have still continued that see-saw pattern.
Consider the Lakers followed a blown double-digit lead against the Clippers with a well-executed effort against Oklahoma City. Remember they opened a two-game trip with poor defense against Dallas, but excellent defense against Denver. And reflect the Lakers put together this week their most dominant performance against Utah followed by an undisciplined effort against Sacramento.
As Lakers forward Lamar Odom admitted, "We haven't played any Game 7s."
Fair enough. The Lakers prevailed in that effort by winning the 2010 NBA Championship, thanks to a miraculous finish against the Boston Celtics. But that's why Sunday's game will prove so revealing. The stakes are incredibly lower, but the Celtics anger will have something to prove, especially after a poor shooting Friday against Phoenix. Their personnel boasts the same unit with speedy guard Rajon Rondo ("He's the catalyst and makes things go on both ends of the floor," Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said), sharp shooting guard Ray Allen, a talkative Paul Pierce (thought Ron Artest might put a stop to that) and a physical frontline that includes Glen Davis, Kendrick Perkins, Shaquille O'Neal and Kevin Garnett ("he's a guy who's active and gets himself going in different ways," Lakers forward Pau Gasol said). Add all those combinations together and you have a team with a league-leading 49.9% mark from the field and a third-best 43.8% mark it yields to opponents from the field,
"They're going to play hard," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said. "They're going to defend. They're going to help each other and share the ball on offense. Very rarely will they beat themselves. You have to beat them in order to win."
Whether the Lakers will do that is hard to predict, even if they put in all that preparation.
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Photo: Kobe Bryant leads the Lakers' celebration after beating the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the NBA Finals back in June. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)