Assessing the Lakers' 4-0 start since the All-Star break
It was hard to believe them at the time, what with their lowly loss to Cleveland. But the Lakers' insistence that they'd play better after the All-Star break has turned out to be true. The Lakers (42-19) have won all four games since then and it's safe to bet they'll tack on another victory Tuesday at Minnesota (14-46), considering the discrepancy of records.
Sure, the Lakers haven't been immune to losing to sub-.500 teams, most notably that horrendous defeat to the Cavaliers that spurred talk about a trade, doubts about the Lakers' chances of three-peating and inquiries into whether Lakers sideline reporter John Ireland would follow up on his pledge to walk from Cleveland to L.A.
Here's a look below the jump at what's gone into the turnaround.
Rest: It's amazing what a simple weekend off from basketball will do to a team. The Lakers had shown during their seven-game trip how fatigue eventually contributed to them mentally and physically checking out. They opened up with a 4-0 start, including a signature win against Boston Celtics. Then they followed up with double-digit losses to Orlando, Charlotte and Cleveland. This doesn't exactly excuse the Lakers from their poor play, but it's a valid factor that the team failed to overcome.
Once the All-Star break hit, it seemed as if the players simply needed time away from each other and the game. That doesn't mean the All-Star break solely consisted of weekend trips to Mexico and the Caribbean, although that did happen. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol played in the All-Star game. But the mere fact that the team's routine changed from the day-to-day grind helped them reflect on their own performances and allowed them to recharge.
Anger over losing: Feeling bored and complacent during the Lakers' regular season is never anything new. It makes for a compelling soap opera every season, even if the personnel is different. But in a recent interview with The Times' Lakers blog, assistant coach Brian Shaw pointed out a few differences that suggested the Lakers' current stretch this season appeared worse. The Lakers have suffered two four-game losing streaks this season, a feat that hadn't happened since since 2007 and a stretch that never happened during the Lakers' three-peat from 1999-2002. That point certainly wasn't lost on Lakers Shaw, who played for L.A. from 1999-2003.
"That raises a flag with me in terms of, you'd expect for them to come out and be mad," Shaw said. "You don't always see that with this team."
Finally, it seems like the Lakers have responded to that. Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak hoped the Lakers' loss to Cleveland could prove to be a "rallying cry," though he admitted he wasn't so sure. It turns out to be the case thus far.
Kobe Bryant dominance: Before the All-Star break, Bryant came down with the flu, showed symptoms on the court and revealed plenty of frustration. After the All-Star break, Bryant has come back to normal. He's shown the kind of heroics he displayed in his 37-point, 14-rebound effort that secured him a fourth All-Star MVP. After a four-of-15 shooting mark in the first half against Portland, Bryant stormed out with 11 third-quarter points and hit multiple jumpers, grabbed a key defensive rebounds and made six consecutive free throws to secure the Lakers' 106-101 overtime victory Feb. 23 over the Trail Blazers.
Against the Clippers, Bryant provided another reminder that his determination can overcome many injuries. After injuring his funny bone on his right elbow in the second quarter, Bryant came out in the third quarter and scored 18 points on eight of 11 shooting. He altered his release so that he didn't have to extend his right elbow as much, but the rest of his play entailed only using his left hand, including dribbling, dunking and high-fiving teammates. And though he scored 17 points on only eight of 22 shooting in the Lakers' 90-87 victory Feb. 27 over Oklahoma City, Bryant hit a few critical shots, including a turnaround jumper that gave the Lakers that 90-87 lead with 56 seconds remaining.
Ron Artest has reemerged: At first, it appeared Artest would continue the same sort of problems that drive the Lakers and fans crazy. In the Lakers' 104-80 victory Feb. 22 to Atlanta, Artest opened the game by bobbling Derek Fisher's pass, airballing a three-pointer and committing an offensive foul. But he quickly overcame those mistakes by converting on a fast-break layup, stopping a fast break and making a pull-up jumper, ending with 11 points on four of seven shooting.
It was just the beginning.
Artest followed up the next night against Portland with a season-high 24 points on eight of 13 shooting as well as two steals, an effort that featured Artest making plenty of critical plays. After nailing a three-pointer that gave the Lakers a 95-92 lead with 2:46 remaining, he grabbed a crucial rebound that led to Bryant finding an open jumper off a curl. And to cap it off, the Lakers' victory against Oklahoma City featured Artest holding Kevin Durant to 21 points on eight-of-20 shooting. He also made two steals, including one when Artest swiped the ball away from Durant when the Lakers led 90-87 with 49.9 seconds remaining.
The Lakers' frontline is making its presence known: For Pau Gasol, posting three double-doubles in the past four games continues his best month of the season, ending February averaging 20.5 points on 59.2% shooting. For Andrew Bynum, his play after the All-Star break shows his ability to remain effective even as he's trying to improve his timing after jumps. Despite scoring only five points against Atlanta, Bynum grabbed a season-high 15 rebounds and provided the defensive presence that makes him a key ingredient to the Lakers' quest to three-peat. Gasol and Bynum have combined for an efficient 42 of 72 mark from the field, showing both of them are remaining engaged in their work in the post. But that mark could be even higher if the Lakers looked for them even more.
The Lakers are playing at a more deliberate pace: The Times' Broderick Turner explained in extensive detail how the Lakers' pacing has largely correlated to them holding opponents to 90.8 points per contest in the past four games. As much as this can be attributed to the defensive presence Bynum and Artest are providing, it also reflects more of the Lakers' awareness that they're not a fast-break team.
For far too long, the Lakers held the mindset they could outscore teams, and it prompted them to force shots and remain careless with the ball. That then exposed the Lakers' efforts in holding teams in transition. It remains an ongoing process since the Lakers committed 18 turnovers against Atlanta and 16 against Portland. But the Lakers' 29-of-64 mark from three-point range (45.5%) in the past four games shows a better rhythm in their shots. The Lakers in the past four games have combined with their opponents an average of 91.75 possessions, according to Hoopdata.com, which has demonstrated a more cognizant approach in controlling the tempo.
-- Mark Medina
E-mail the Lakers blog at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: Kobe Bryant reacts to a play in the second half of Sunday's 90-87 victory over the Thunder in Oklahoma City. Credit: Larry W. Smith / EPA
Photo: Ron Artest goes after the ball along with Thunder forward Kevin Druant in the first half Sunday. Credit: Larry W. Smith / EPA