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Lakers' bench establishing a stronger identity

February 19, 2012 |  8:00 am

At first, the Lakers' bench remained nothing more than a liability.

In the Lakers' 111-99 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Friday night, they built a second double-digit lead.

Earlier this season, Lakers Coach Mike Brown shuffled his rotations as quickly as a real estate agent flips houses. In the last five games, he's mostly kept the same bench rotation intact.

For two months, Brown hardly knew how to describe his bench's identity. Following the Lakers' practice Saturday at the team's facility in El Segundo, he labeled it as an "energy unit."

Of course, the Lakers' bench could take a step back as early as Sunday's game at Phoenix. But in simply tracking the Lakers' progress, however small, the bench players showed some growth.

In the last five games, Brown has mostly featured a bench combination of Steve Blake at point guard, Andrew Goudelock at shooting guard, Matt Barnes at small forward and Troy Murphy at power forward. Bynum has mostly played with the second unit to ensure more spacing for outside shooters and for him to receive post-up passes. According to NBAStatsCube, that combination has yielded a net-rating of 6.5. Per 48 minutes, the unit shoots a combined 45.5% from three-point range, a sharp difference from the Lakers' 30.1% overall mark this season.

"When the rotations seemed to be stabilizing a little bit," Lakers guard Kobe Bryant pinpointed as the reserves' turning point. "That helps players going into the game. You know when you're going in, how much you'll be playing and who you'll be playing with. It helps build some consistency."

That couldn't happen until Blake returned to the lineup. He missed 13 games because of a rib injury, leaving Brown to experiment at point guard. Rookie Darius Morris disappointed the coaching staff with his overdribbling and tendency to shoot instead of set up teammates. Brown then opted for Goudelock because he possessed a strong outside shot and running floater while being able to feed his teammates. Blake's 5.6 scoring average on 30.3% shows a drop-off compared to the 7.3 points he averaged on 40.2% before his injury, but his presence alone better organized the unit.

"They make it easy on me," Blake said. "I wouldn't be anything without the way my teammates play. I depend on them a lot."

That starts with Barnes. His knack for cutting into passing lanes, moving off the ball and penetrating the paint for put-backs complements Blake's sharp court vision. It extends to Goudelock, whose 54.5% shooting mark in the last two games drastically exceeds his 33% effort in the previous three. And it applies to Bynum, whose improvement in playing off double teams partly correlates to Blake feeding him stronger entry passes than Derek Fisher. But Bynum's improvement on those reads also correlates to Murphy's improvement and spacing.

The Lakers applied that formula well in their 111-99 victory against Phoenix, a game that featured the unit scoring 34 points on 15-of-20 shooting. The reserves and Bynum also established a 24-9 run to open the second quarter.

"We know if we don't have anything we can always go inside to our big guy," Barnes said, referring to Bynum. "Having four shooters out there and me slashing opens up the floor for Drew. So it makes it really hard to double team them."

It also helps the unit fulfill another goal in producing easy baskets, a goal Brown described as "mandatory" considering the lack of practice time all teams have handled during a compacted 66-game schedule.

Hardly anything has appeared easy, however, for the bench. Devin Ebanks quickly fell out of the rotation after starting the first four games. Metta World Peace hardly offered anything as the bench's leader. After providing instant energy as a sixth man, Josh McRoberts soon fell out of the rotation since very few of his teammates fit in with that presence. Sharp shooter Jason Kapono has hardly offered much, with a 33.3% clip from three-point range. And Luke Walton has simply kept seats warm on the bench.

So it's a tad presumptuous say that the Lakers' current bench rotation will be permanent. But at least it's given Brown some comfort in tempering his adjustments.

"They're starting to find their way a little bit," Brown said. "But for me to sit here and say it's going to be like that forever for the rest of the season, I wouldn't be doing them justice. It wouldn't be fair to say that. Those guys are getting better every time they step on the floor together."


Lakers face tougher challenges on the road

Lakers show offensive improvement in 111-99 victory over Suns

Pau Gasol fights frustrations as he struggles in the win over Phoenix

--Mark Medina

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