What the Lakers need to get out of the four remaining regular season games
The tangible ramifications in the Lakers' current three-game losing streak makes it mathematically impossible for the Lakers (55-23) to surpass San Antonio (60-19) in the Western Conference standings, a carrot that everyone except Andrew Bynum said wasn't really important in achieving. It's a mixed message for sure. The Lakers are level-headed in that they're not being swayed by home-court advantage as this all golden prize that will suddenly dictate a three-peat (health and overall play proves more important). But with so many surrounding variables and the Lakers benefitting from having home-court advantage in the 2010 NBA Finals, why make it more difficult this time around?
Consider Phil Jackson's recent admittance on the his own contradictory views about home-court advantage. "That's something you always say, 'No you don't' when you don't have it," Jackson said about the importance of it. "Then you say it's really great to have when you do have it."
The Lakers have only four regular season games remaining, including Portland (Friday), Oklahoma City (Sunday), San Antonio (Tuesday) and Sacramento (Wednesday). With those games, the Lakers still have an opportunities to accomplish a few worth things heading into the postseason (explained below the jump).
1. Stay healthy - That's always going to be the most significant variable in determining the Lakers' three-peat. But don't equate the Lakers' recent skid as them simply pacing for the playoffs. Their even-keeled personality may show that these recent losses in the big picture may not mean much, but Phil Jackson's coaching decisions show he still wants to win these games. If they were really just pacing, Jackson wouldn't have played Lakers forward Pau Gasol Tuesday against Utah, knowing the MRI revealed he had a bone spur in his right knee. Jackson also wouldn't have played Kobe Bryant late in the fourth quarter against Golden State in hopes to come back. Still, Jackson's started to go down that path a little bit with sitting out Gasol for most of the fourth quarter against Golden State, letting Bryant rest for most of the second quarter and keeping Andrew Bynum out late in the game against Denver because of precautionary concerns on his right knee.
2. The Lakers can still get home-court advantage against the Eastern Conference teams and Dallas. The Lakers trail the Chicago Bulls (57-20) by 2 1/2 games, have a two-game advantage over Dallas (53-25), a 1 1/2 game cushion over Miami (54-24) and a one-game edge over Boston (54-23). The Lakers are rightfully not overly consumed by this, but it seems like they'e shown more of a concern about having homecourt against Dallas than any of the Eastern Conference team. It'd be harder to navigate the postseason on the road for three consecutive playoff rounds, but home-court advantage seems to pay off more in the Finals given the 2-3-2 format.
3. Use playoff matchups as a measuring stick. Surely both teams will hold things back as all of them do in the regular season. But games against Portland (Friday), Oklahoma City (Sunday) and San Antonio (Tuesday) are all games the Lakers could possibly meet in the postseason. There's no need to give opponents a dose of confidence heading into the playoffs by allowing them a victory.
4. The bench needs to improve. Through the books of a nearly full season, the bench underachieved. They started off the season with Steve Blake showing a great understanding of the triangle, Shannon Brown improving his shooting stroke, Matt Barnes playing efficiently and aggressively and Theo Ratliff at least providing a few minutes to rest the Lakers' front line. But then it all fell apart. Blake has lacked confidence in his role and shooting stroke. Brown's remained inconsistent with his shooting percentage. Barnes hasn't looked the same since returning from a knee injury a month ago. And Ratliff has been a non-factor because of a four-month rehab stint on his surgically repaired left knee. They haven't had a proven track record in maintaining leads. But if they're able to make any sliver of progress the last four games, it will at least give the starters some rest. They better make the most of their chances because Jackson will use his starters more during the playoffs.
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Photo: Warriors guard Monta Ellis tries to strip the ball from Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who is driving for a layup in the first half Wednesday night in Oakland. Credit: Ben Margot / Associated Press