Poll Question: Would the Lakers be better off as the No. 2 seed?
It might sound like a stupid question, knowing the Lakers have been fighting for Western Conference supremacy as soon as they saw San Antonio reeling.
It's also not in the Lakers makeup to want to lose games, especially during April when the playoffs near and the team's sharpness and development proves more crucial than during those ho-hum regular season games in mid January.
And even if it is a legitimate question, the Lakers certainly aren't going to concede it, preferring that sports writers avoid this storyline and that they don't want to come across as being disrespectful to the game and to its opponent.
But it's still a topic many are debating even among several corners in this forum with the interests in mind that the Lakers three-peat. Would they be better off allowing San Antonio to take the No. 1 seed in the West and settle for second place? Predictably, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson appeared to find the logic absurd as he finished preparation for Sunday's game against the Denver Nuggets in hopes that they can close the Spurs 1 1/2 game lead for first place. He simply offered coachspeak. "We're playing every game for what it's worth," he said. "Tomorrow is Denver and then we'll move on from there. We want to win every game we can win."
Here's why, however, even the staunchest Laker fans are having this debate. Assuming the Lakers advance past the first round, whether it's Portland, New Orleans or Memphis, having the No. 2 seed would setup a semifinal matchup with the Dallas Mavericks. Meanwhile, securing the top spot in the Western Conference would pit the Lakers against Oklahoma City in the semifinals. The Lakers just proved last week in a double-digit victory against Dallas that Dirk Nowitzki, a depthful bench and Shawn Marion may be enough to absorb Caron Butler's season-ending knee injury, but by no means matches up with the Lakers in several categories. That includes toughness as Matt Barnes stood up for Steve Blake after Mavericks guard Jason Terry shoved him to the ground, while no one came to Terry's defense. It includes size, as 7-1 Tyson Chandler and 7-0 Brendan Haywood are no match for two seven-footers in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol and versatile 6'10" swingman Lamar Odom. And it includes playoff prowess, with the Lakers coming off two consecutive titles and the Mavericks facing first-round elimination in three of the last four years.
That's why Barnes sounded giddy in possibly seeing Dallas again in the postseason, remembering when he was on the 2007 Golden State Warriors team that knocked the Mavericks out of the first round as a eighth seed.
"In Golden State, we showed how to beat Dallas," Barnes said. "You go in there and take it right to their chin and they back down. I don't see anything has changed since then, so hopefully we'll have a chance to see them again."
And if the Lakers see Oklahoma City instead? Sure, they can draw on their 2-0 regular-season mark this season, their vastly superior playoff experience and the fact they held them off in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. But last year's matchup with the Thunder is the exact same reason why the Lakers would want to avoid them. As talented as the Lakers are, the Thunder has everything the defending champs don't, including youth, speed and athleticism, led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The fact the Thunder acquired Kendrick Perkins from Boston gives some answer to the Lakers' size and experience. So if it took Kobe Bryant to go on a scoring spree to secure Game 2 and a Gasol tip-in to secure Game 6 after suffering embarrassing blowouts in Games 3 and 4, imagine how difficult the stakes will be this season. That's not to say the Thunder will beat them this time around. But they'll at least make the navigation toward the title more difficult.
The Lakers are correctly not allowing this topic to consume them.
"It really doesn't matter," Lakers forward Lamar Odom said about the seeding. "You want to play your best basketball. Who you meet and where you meet in the playoffs, I think that's what scared teams do. They try to position themselves. You're going to have to play them or play a team that beat them somewhere down the line. So it really doesn't matter. We're not going to run from a team not to finish first. That's what it's all about. That's the problem with some teams. Not to take a shot at anybody, from being around Phil, Kobe and Derek, we look up at the banners. We don't put division titles up and things like that.
"Our goal is to be the best team and if we can finish as the beat team in the West, that's an accomplishment. We're not going to run from that.
Instead, the Lakers are embracing in perfecting the various nuances that have led to a 17-1 mark since the All-Star break. Jackson said he's increased practice time to sharpen the team's focus. Bynum's become a defensive lynchpin and rebounding machine, the reason why Jackson characterized his presence the "difference between a really good team and a team that could be a championship team." Lakers forward Ron Artest has appeared more engaged offensively. Bryant and Gasol have kept their usual consistency. And so has Odom, who fought through a stomach flu in the Lakers' 96-85 victory Friday over the Utah Jazz by simply forgetting about the pain and avoided the temptation to skip Saturday's practice because he wanted to prepare for Denver.
That kind of mindset helped ensure the Lakers overcoming a 17-point deficit against Utah and helped them realize that putting together a nine-game winning streak goes beyond playing perfect basketball. It also involves them figuring out how to grind out and play through bad stretches.
"You're going to have bad games in a stretch when you win and people have to able to win because of it," Jackson said. "I think that's something this team's recognized. We're not going to play 100% every night, but we have a defense that holds us in."
Falling into the trap in worrying about playoff positioning and seeding takes away from that mindset. But what about as a Lakers fan? Should fans think the same thing that the Lakers will be unstoppable so long as they play quality basketball? Or would you rather have the Lakers go through an easier terrain in facing the Thunder instead of the Mavericks, in hopes that's one less variable they have to worry about in securing a championship?
Vote in the poll and explain why in the comments section below.
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Photo: Kobe Bryant guards OKlahoma City forward Kevin Durant during the Lakers' 90-87 victory in February. If the Lakers move into first place in the Western Conference, they could get a tough matchup against the Thunder in the second round of the playoffs. Credit: James Schammerhorn/Associated Press