Lakers address plenty of issues after All-Star break
In no mood to spoil his All-Star festivities, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant kept his analysis on the state of the team to a minimum.
Questions about the Lakers' struggles, their three-game losing streak entering the break and their most recent loss to the league's worst team in Cleveland mostly elicited one-word or one-sentence responses.
Consider this exchange between a reporter and Bryant on the Lakers' loss to the Cavaliers: You forgot the last game? What last game? You forgot it then? What game Exactly. That game's been flushed."
Behind the scenes, however, the Lakers (38-19) thought plenty about their current state as they enter Tuesday's game against the Atlanta Hawks (34-21) in third place, trailing both the San Antonio Spurs (46-10) and Dallas Mavericks (40-16) and only holding a 1 1/2 game lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder (35-19).
Even though many outside of Bryant and Pau Gasol kept their basketball activities to a minimum, there was certainly plenty of dialogue. The Lakers held a team meeting just before the break stressing that individual play has hurt team chemistry. In between media appearances, practices and parties, Bryant and Gasol talked frequently about the team's need to minimize mistakes. And though Lakers Coach Phil Jackson put off film study until Monday's practice, he often touched base with his assistants, Brian Shaw, Jim Cleamons, Frank Hamblen and Chuck Person.
That left the Lakers with plenty of ideas to address during Monday's practice, which lasted 3 1/2 hours, a length of time Lakers forward Pau Gasol acknowledged lasted a "little longer than usual." There were plenty of messages the team emphasized, but Jackson summed up the main one. "Just that we have to put ourselves in a good position," he said, "in going into the playoffs."
With 25 games remaining, the Lakers would have to put a stronger string of performances than what they've shown recently. The main issues no longer reside in failing to beat elite teams, fighting fatigue and worrying about securing home-court advantage in the Western Conference. That's because thee Lakers won two weeks ago in Boston, the Lakers say they're well rested after the ALl-Star break and it's mathematically unlikely the Lakers would surpass the Spurs in the standings considering it would require San Antonio to lose nine of its 26 remaining games. That's discounting the scenario that a string of losses or an occasional slip up won't happen with the Lakers whatsoever.
"We can’t afford to keep on dying in the standings," Lakers center Andrew Bynum said. "We need some wins to try to get better position than where we are because we still want to have home court against everyone else except San Antonio."
The Lakers shared plenty of ideas on how to get to that point. Jackson chopped up film showcasing both the good and the bad on the team's defensive schemes. The main disconnect pointed to the team's help defense, which Bynum pointed to the team's positioning and slow reaction as reasons why the Lakers have ranked 13th in team defense (96.7 points per game), 15th in opponent's field-goal percentage (45.9%) and 17th in opponent's three-point field goal percentage (34.3%) in the past 10 games.
But there's more. The Lakers' last-place standing in three-point shooting (29.6%) and 15th ranking in turnovers (13.8) per game have exposed the Lakers' poor ability to get back on transition for various reasons, namely age, fatigue and overall hustle. Beyond the wins and losses, Bryant's holding limiting mistakes as the main variable he's measuring the gauge the team's development for the rest of the season.
"I'm concerned, but it’s no different than the season before or the season before that," said Bryant, who's averaged four turnovers per game through nine games in February. "There’s always a concern. With San Antonio, I’m sure with them there’s the same level of concern as we do. Just as things are rolling, things can fall apart. There seems to be things in dire straits but you wind up picking it up and having a great end to the season. Everyone is concerned at this point."
This season's proved a tad differently. The Lakers suffered double-digit losses both to sub. 500 teams (Milwaukee, Memphis) and elite teams (Miami Boston). They suffered a four-game losing streak for the first time in Feb. 2007 and suffered two other three-game losings streaks, a feat that happened only once since the Lakers acquired Gasol in Feb. 2008. Jackson and Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said they don't expect the team to make a deal before Thursday's trade deadline, let alone a blockbuster move. And Jackson declined to share any rotation changes he might make.
"I wouldn’t discuss that," he said. "We’ll wait until Matt [Barnes] gets back and that will change our rotation.
But that's a decision for another day. Barnes participated in non-contact drills Monday for the first time since having surgery six weeks ago on his lateral meniscus tear on his right knee, and he said he needs at least three more practices before returning to the court. Whether that entails reducing Ron Artest's role or removing him from the starting lineup completely remains unclear. What continues to remain clear is that Artest's aloofness is no longer seen as him lightening up the mood, but viewed as his continuous detachment from the team's struggles, including his own.
Consider Artest's non-answers in the video below including his explanation on why he's not providing much explanation these days.
"Coach had a system when he came in 10 years ago I guess," Artest said. "The triangle, he brought it from the Bulls. Just run the same system. You have to ask coach for more detail. He has better answers. They have a better answer. I’ve been here for two years so they can answer more of the triangle and team type questions better than I can."
At least he's honest, but that's not going to cut it with all the issues mounting the Lakers. After all, the Lakers aren't going to be the only team finding it easier to focus after the All-Star break. "You see the finish line," Bryant said, "you tend to pick up the speed a little bit.
The Lakers aren't going to be the only team playing as if every game is more important. "We have to understnd that it's ‘pretty tight," Gasol said. "We want to finish in the best way possible."
And the Lakers aren't going to be the only team feeling like they'll be in good shape. "We’re very comfortable with where were’ at right now," Jackson said. "We’re not happy with it, but we’re comfortable that we’re going to be in the playoffs and we have a position and we want to make it the best we have it."
That's because as the Lakers expect to increase their attention and effort, so will everyone else.
"It’s going to be a fight and every team is looking to dethrone us," Lakers forward Lamar Odom said. "Nobody wants us to watch us win a third straight championship. It’s going to be a fight and fun and competitive. I’m looking forward to it
"We’ve become accustomed to playing until June. We don’t feel like anything should change. But if you ask the other teams, I’m pretty sure they don’t want to hear that. I’m pretty sure they want to us bump us off. It will be a fight."
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