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Lakers have extra incentive to close out series with New Orleans early

April 23, 2011 |  6:38 pm

61094398While the Lakers enjoyed a light practice Saturday, Portland and Dallas duked it out in a frenetic finish.

While the Lakers appear in control with a 2-1 lead over New Orleans in their best-of-seven, first-round playoff series, the Blazers rallied from 23 points down in the second half to defeat the Mavericks, 84-82, on Saturday, evening the series at 2-2 and putting Dallas in the uncomfortable position of possibly exiting the playoffs before making it to the second round for the fifth consecutive season.

While the Lakers could enjoy as many as three days of rest between games, the winner of the Mavericks and Blazers series could have as little as one day to make the flight to Los Angeles to prepare for the Lakers in a Western Conference semifinal series.

The Lakers should view that framework as they enter Game 4 of their series on Sunday at New Orleans. A victory would give the Lakers a 3-1 lead and a chance to close out the series on Tuesday at Staples Center. Should that scenario play out, the Lakers would have at least two days of extra rest before a possible deciding sixth game Thursday between Dallas and Portland. Should that series go to a seventh game, however, Dallas and Portland would play on Saturday, giving the Lakers an extra four days of rest and preparation while their future semifinal opponents have to exhaust themselves just to arrive in the next round.

The benefits in doing this are obvious, but the Lakers only have to look at last season to see just how much it made a difference. After the Lakers swept Utah in the West semifinals, they enjoyed an entire week of practice before meeting Phoenix in the conference finals. During that stretch, both Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum sat out and enjoyed treatment, which significantly helped minimize the swelling in both of their right knees. It resulted in Bryant averaging 33.7 points a game in the series and Bynum being prepared to grind it out through pain, a huge reason why the Lakers secured an NBA championship against Boston.

It's not a stretch to say how the Lakers take advantage of this opportunity could prove to be a turning point in their quest to three-peat.

Prolonging a series against the Hornets wouldn't just prove taxing from an anxiety and energy standpoint. Making another trip to New Orleans doesn't sit well with players already monitoring injuries, a reason why Bynum abstained from most trips during his 24-game absence in favor of continuing rehab efforts at home on his surgically repaired right knee.  Even though Bynum says he'll be ready to play in Game 4, there's no question conserving his energy for more important series would prove significant. Even though Bryant's in nowhere near the amount of pain he suffered last year and his threshold to play through it remains high, there's no use in making him rely on his competitive instincts against New Orleans. And even though Matt Barnes is only a reserve, two days of treatment between Games 1 and 2 against New Orleans proved instrumental in his effort in helping the bench carry the Lakers during an off night for Bryant, Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher, whom combined for a seven-of-29 shooting clip.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Lakers don't win championships by flipping a switch. They pave their way to a title by seizing on favorable outcomes, such as an advantage in scheduling. More important variables such as execution and overall effort will ultimately determine whether the Lakers attain a three-peat. But with the main area of concern always involving health, there's no use in making that more difficult to maintain by prolonging an unnecessary series.

--Mark Medina

Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant cuts off the drive of New Orleans point guard Chris Paul during Game 3 of their playoff series on Friday night. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / April 22, 2011

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