Debating whether Laker practices were intense enough
The message was more than just a warning that he's going to hold his teammates accountable the next practice session to ensure proper execution. Considering Bryant had abstained from practice all season so he could rest his surgically repaired right knee, the statement also revealed the Lakers' play had become so bad that Bryant felt compelled to sacrifice the needed treatment surrounding his knee to jump-start the team.
Lakers center Andrew Bynum argued that that wasn't enough, saying the lack of "intensity" in practice proved to be the difference between the Lakers' falling in a sweep in the 2011 Western Conference semifinals to the Dallas Mavericks and the team's back-to-back championships the previous two seasons. But frankly, the Lakers didn't have much of an alternative.
Three years ago, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson talked with Bryant about scaling back his practice time, knowing that he currently logs at 40,163 regular-season minutes and 8,163 postseason minutes would eventually take its toll. With Bryant's high odometer reading and entering the 2010-2011 season having had arthroscopic surgery, Bryant abstained from full-court scrimmages and conditioning drills, limiting his practice time mostly to weight training, individual shooting drills, half-court drills and receiving treatment on his knee. The same logic applied to other starters, such as Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol, all of whom mostly were told to restrict their practice court activity following a game because of the heavy mileage they accumulated during three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals.
Add Theo Ratliff's 74-game absence because of left knee surgery, Matt Barnes' two-month absence from January to March because of right knee surgery and Devin Ebanks' two-month absence from March to the end of the season because of a stress fracture on his left tibia, and the Lakers fielded a team split with players wearing ice bags on the sideline and others trying to compensate for the lost bodies. "I'd love to do it," Jackson said of having more intense practices. "We're not physically capable of doing it, but it would be great to do it."
Still, Bynum held his ground even when I pressed him on how it was even possible for the team to have intense practices when it barely fielded a healthy roster and tried pacing itself for another long season.
"We have to practice. I can't address anyone's health. Certainly, no one can address mine. I haven't been the most healthy person," said Bynum, who, incidentally, missed all of training camp and the first 24 games of the regular season while rehabbing his surgically repaired right knee. "I do know that in order to win, we need practice and we need to be out there going through things together."
He said that issue is at the root of the Lakers' "trust issues" and the team's inconsistent defensive execution, two areas that showed players constantly expressing confusion and pointing fingers during a faulty rotation in plenty of postseason games. But the Lakers' practice on April 11 illustrated why Bynum's argument was faulty. The Lakers just soiled their 17-1 mark following the All-Star break with a five-game losing streak that eliminated their home-court advantage over the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference. Even though Bynum had argued immediately after the loss that the team needs to have a lengthy and intense practice to correct their defensive rotations, the Lakers' lack of depth proved faulty once again. In addition to Bryant remaining sidelined, Barnes was still recovering from his surgically repaired right knee, Ebanks learned his left tibia hadn't fully healed and Steve Blake was informed he had the chicken pox.
Instead, Jackson began the practice dividing the frontline and backcourt and went over the defensive rotations step by step, hoping that would prevent any miscommunication and misunderstanding. Having a full lineup would've been a better option in correcting the Lakers' 120-106 loss the previous night to Oklahoma City where they allowed the Thunder to close out the game with a 17-2 run and force nine turnovers. But the disconnect also pointed to the Lakers' unwillingness to adapt to imperfect scenarios involving their limited lineup.
"It played a part in the fact guys felt like they don’t take days off because I’m not there," Bryant said. "It’s like your big brother not being around, you feel like you can go around the house and do all these things with the toys and that kind of stuff because I’m not on the court with you. It’s upsetting to me. They knew going in what my knee situation was. We communicated that with them and me not being able to practice and them taking the responsibility with the intensity in nature because of my knee. It’s upsetting and disappointing to me because I wasn’t able to get out with them every day. But at the same time, you can’t use that as a crutch or excuse because I wasn’t out there."
When to ratchet up the intensity became a balancing act and had mixed results. The Lakers had longer sessions before the Heat game and they yielded very little, as did Bryant's intense practice session immediately following the Christmas Day loss. But when Jackson held a 2-1/2 hour practice in early January to go over the team's new defensive scheme, the extra time helped plant the seeds of what became a 17-1 start.
The Lakers lacked any sort of foundation, however, with Derek Fisher noticing that their shortened training camp because of the team's trip to Europe marked just the beginning of an ongoing saga in which the team lacked good habits. Whenever they did make progress, such as in their 17-1 mark following the All-Star break, the Lakers immediately floundered once complacency settled in. As much as increased practice time may have helped, particularly because the Lakers had newcomers Blake, Barnes, Ebanks and Derrick Caracter didn't have those issues last season. When Bryant and Bynum sat out a whole week last year to rest their knees leading up to the Western Conference Finals against Phoenix, the Lakers used that as a rallying cry to push harder, knowing they may need to fill in for Bryant and Bynum. This time around, Lakers forward Luke Walton acknowledged the difficultly of intense practices, noting that the coaching staff made up for it by offering extensive film study and walk-throughs. But the Lakers didn't adapt.
"I don't like to make excuses," Lakers forward Ron Artest said when asked if the lack of intense practices led to the team's downfall. "If I said that was the reason we lost, that's an excuse. We got swept."
-- Mark Medina
Top photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant sat out most practices during the 2010-2011 season so he could rest his surgically repaired right knee. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Bottom photo: Lakers center Andrew Bynum argued that the Lakers' lack of intensity in practice was led to the team's short playoff run in 2011 after championship runs the previous two seasons. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times