How the Lakers can make up for a possibly limited Kobe Bryant
Whenever Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is listed as a game-time decision, most fans interpret that as believing Bryant will indeed play. They see it as code that an injury indeed is hurting Bryant but won't prevent him from stepping out on the basketball court.
With The Times' Mike Bresnahan noting that Coach Phil Jackson described Bryant's left ankle as "much better" since landing off balance late in the third quarter Saturday against Dallas, it's conceivable Bryant will play Monday against the Orlando Magic.
"He feels a lot better," Jackson said.
But don't strictly rely on Bryant's über competitiveness and ability to play through injuries as your compass. After all, Bryant entered an early February game against Portland last season as a game-time decision but then sat out the next five games, ending his 235-consecutive-game streak because playing through a sprained left ankle would've severely affected his movement. Even if Bryant has made progress since landing off-balance after Shawn Marion's block, it's all relative considering Bryant's admission to reporters after the Lakers' 96-91 victory Saturday over Dallas that the latest episode served as the the "scariest" sprained ankle of his career.
So whether Bryant suits up and has no effects, plays in limited fashion or sits out entirely, there are several things the Lakers can do.
1. Use the Lakers' size advantage. It's a distinguishable feature few other teams have. That's why it's not surprising that both Jackson repeatedly emphasizes to his team and that Laker Hall of Famer Magic Johnson recently tweeted, "Let’s see if the Heat learned anything from being blown out by the Spurs, & if @Lakers will go inside, use their size advantage over Orlando." The Lakers' 9-1 mark since the All-Star break have shown that the team has done that on a consistent basis, with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum cracking double digits in all 10 of the games. It's been well documented that Bryant's trigger-happy tendencies helped contribute to the Lakers' 94-88 loss last week to Miami, but that game also featured Bynum only grabbing one rebound in the first half. That rare lapse can be forgiven considering Bynum has increased his production and defensive effort during the Lakers' 9-1 stretch (12.1 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.5 blocks) and continuously showing signs of improvement during the team's four-game trip (averaging 13.8 points, 15 rebounds and 1.8 blocks.) Bynum loves matching up with Orlando center Dwight Howard because it provides him a measuring stick on where he stands among the NBA's elite. Bynum served as the lone bright spot when the Lakers lost to Orlando in mid-February, posting 17 points, nine rebounds and a block. But he and Gasol may be asked to do even more, while Bryant paces his ankle injury.
2. The Lakers' bench needs to show more production. Jackson spent part of the preseason pointing to Bryant's five-game absence serving as a confidence boost for Brown as he took advantage of the starting role and boosting his scoring averages and minutes from 8.2 points in 20.4 minutes to 14.6 points in 37.7 minutes. If Bryant sits out against Orlando, Brown will start in his place. But ESPN Los Angeles' Stephen A. Smith highlights legitimate concerns whether the Lakers' bench, let alone Brown, can consistently provide such a service. Brown's shooting mark in the last 10 games (43.8%) also represents the streaky shooting he's exhibited all season, including a scoreless effort against Miami. Steve Blake's nine points on three-of-five shooting from three-point range against Dallas marked his highest point total in 1½ months, but it continues a stretch in which he hasn't scored in double digits since the Lakers' 113-80 victory Dec. 3 against Sacramento. And Barnes returned from a 25-game absence while rehabbing his surgically repaired right knee displaying obvious signs that he's not anywhere near the efficient and aggressive player he was before experiencing a lateral meniscus tear Jan. 7 against New Orleans, averaging 3.5 points on a four-of-10 clip. The playoffs will feature Jackson using his starters more, but it's games like Monday's that will show whether the bench can offer the sort of production that will help relieve pressure from the starters.
3. The Lakers should continue thriving defensively. This proves to be the main reason why the Lakers have been so successful since the All-Star break. In that 10-game stretch, the team has held opponents to 88.1 points (second best) and grabbed 44.3 rebounds (fifth best). This of course goes back to the defensive scheme the Lakers implemented in early January that stressed the front line staying at the basket, the backcourt manning the perimeter and the team forcing drives baseline instead of the center of the lane. Bynum, in particular, lost focus in that effort during the Lakers' three-game losing streak entering the All-Star break, but it's something Jackson stressed to him as a priority afterward. As a result, the Lakers have a more disciplined identity in which they remain engaged and communicative, rather than worrying about how they can outscore their opponents.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Kobe Bryant goes down with a sprained left ankle as the Mavericks' Jason Kidd dribbles away during the third quarter of Saturday night's Lakers' victory in Dallas. Credit: LM Otero / Associated Press.