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Los Angeles Lakers and the play-off dream

Atlanta Hawks v Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers faithful are busy celebrating the fact that for the first time in this season, the Lakers are 2 games beyond .500. The 8th seed is theirs for the time-being and with Utah struggling, a play-off spot does look possible. Yes, the Lakers showed a lot of character to rise to being the 8th seed, standing true on Kobe’s guarantee.

Actually, if I were to quote Kobe, he said, “It’s not a question of if we make the playoffs. We will. And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone — Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver, whoever. I have zero nervousness about that.”

They do look destined to make the play-offs and maybe the latest post All-Star run has shown signs of what the team can and should have been playing like, but there are still many superstar intangibles that ride along with this team. Even though Kobe may say that he has zero nervousness about facing the top 4 teams of the Western Conference, the truth is that the team is still a paltry 2-12 against the top 4 teams. The Lakers still remain what D’Antoni says,“An All-Star Team”. They still haven’t played consistent basketball for 48 minutes, and have solely banked on the individual heroics of their All-Stars to get them through. Whether it was Howard against the Hornets and the Bulls or Kobe against the Raptors, it has not been a team effort at any end. Such singular superlative efforts can hardly snuff out the deficiencies and the chinks that the Lakers carry.

The Lakers still remain one of the worst defensive teams in the league, despite the presence of the likes of World-Peace, Howard and Bryant. Now, between them they have 4-defensive player of the year trophies to go with numerous All-NBA defensive team inclusions. Bryant, even at his age, can play great perimeter lock-down defense, Howard is one of the best at protecting the rim and World-Peace can flat out knock any offensive player off his game. And there have been moments when they have actually done that, be it snuffing out the 18-point deficit against the Hornets in the 4th quarter, or the defensive effort against the Bulls. The problem is that they just don’t seem to do it consistently enough, and lack the urgency and the drive on defense for long stretches of the game. Stretches like the last 7 minutes against the Heat or the 3rd quarter against the Thunder, those changed what could have been a possible contest into an easy victory for the opponents. And the blame for this has to go to Coach D’Antoni.

Sure, every team goes through stretches in the game when nothing seems to work for them. All seemingly minuscule contact get called for fouls, open shots rim-out, defensive communication breaks down, and the whole world seems gloomy. All this in front of a crowd of 10,000 vociferous fans, and under such huge pressure and intense spotlight many players do fade out. It is then the responsibility of the coach to stand up and drive his team on. Put in a motivational speech, call out plays, get them moving, make some changes, and just shake things up a bit. What do the Lakers get? A forlorn, smug-looking coach who seems uninterested in their defensive woes, and is calling out plays for the players to run the floor and share the ball. I am sorry, but a player who has just been crossed-over and dunked on would actually like a moment to get his composure back, rather than having to run the floor and shoot a three.

Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets

But the past few weeks may have seen an ever so slight change. D’Antoni has actually been trying to give more emphasis on defense and has tried to tweak his philosophy. The signs haven’t exactly been very encouraging, but the effort seems to be there and coupled with the emergence of Howard, things are surely looking up at the defensive end. The worrying thing is that it still doesn’t look good enough. They still slack on defensive rotations, their pick-and-roll defense rides solely on Howard’s shoulders and with teams deploying a high screen and roll against the Lakers, Howard gets pulled out of the paint too often and with almost nobody to cover for him, the Lakers have been giving up many points in the paint. The issues with transition defense still remain, but considering the back-court that the Lakers have, I don’t see it being solved ever. The only hope for them is to take care off the ball and avoid giving up easy transition points. All of these are chinks that one can easily expect teams of the caliber of the Thunder, Nuggets, Spurs and the Grizzlies to exploit. Despite what Kobe may say, this is something that the Lakers should be very nervous about.

The Offense seems to be working fine post the All-Star break, as Kobe is playing at a supreme level, and seems to be carrying the team along with him. Over the past 10 games, Kobe has averaged over 32 ppg to go with 7 apg and 6 rpg. He has managed to do everything right on defense and has maximized the scoring potential of almost every single player in the team. Howard is getting his lobs at the rim, and is averaging over 16 ppg. Nash is getting open looks from beyond the arc and is knocking down crunch shots. Even Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison seem to have benefited from the play-making skills of the Black Mamba, or Vino as some now call him. The problem is that Howard and Nash, despite putting up good numbers, aren’t doing what they do best. Nash is a great 3-point scorer, and in the past 10 games he has averaged over 53% from beyond the arc. But with Kobe playing creator, the sorcerous guard from Canada hasn’t had much time on the ball, and has been relegated to being a spot-up shooter. Steve Nash, the best PG of his generation (maybe amongst the greatest all-time in deploying the pick-and-roll and dishing the basketball), has just not had the ball enough to make an impact. Howard may have been scoring a lot through his signature dunks and throw-downs, but he has had almost no chance to post-up, and that kind of kills his supreme play-making ability from the post; the same ability that saw the Magic decimate the LeBron James-led Cavaliers and reach the 2009 NBA Finals. It is calling for sacrifices that these players may have acceded to, but surely couldn’t be happy with. Superstar intangibles, which may at some point further in the season, kill the already delicate Lakers chemistry.

And talking of causing disharmony to the team chemistry, there surely seems to be very little to build on. The major story-line of the Lakers campaign has actually been the fact that almost every single player seems to be on a different page. Nash is confused and is still trying to find an identity for this team. Gasol is skeptical about his role and whether he is actually needed by D’Antoni. But the worst of it all is the seemingly ludicrous tirade between the two alpha-males in Bryant and Howard.

Bryant was having issues with his team not being bothered as much as he was, and not being ready to sacrifice enough. And as the Black Mamba has done all throughout his career, he called out Howard to play through the pain and the injuries. Howard, for the first time in his career, was playing with someone as driven and intense as Bryant and just seemed shocked at the treatment that he was getting. Kobe wanted Howard to step up, but the ever-pleasing Howard just chose to play diplomatic and play through it all. Howard Sr. may have needlessly stepped up, but that was solely because Howard just chose to remain silent and play the Chandler Escapist mode. He made fun of Kobe, jibed at his remarks, and was more than happy punning his way out of it. Eventually the need to be loved and appreciated got to him, as in a recent public conference Howard stated how Kobe motivates him and helps him be a better player and a better man. The comments seemed perfectly timed as the on-court chemistry seemed to have gotten much better in the past 10 games. The duo were again back to high-fiving each other in time-outs, and seemed to talk enough to call out rotations and plays. Seemed perfect PR maybe, but while Kobe was smart enough not to kill the delicate chemistry, he surely couldn’t be impressed.

Los Angeles Lakers v Boston Celtics

And he did make his views clear when he heard about the recent comments made by Dwight about his experience and his time at Orlando. Kobe understood that it was bound to be emotional for Dwight, as the all-pleaser in him would have been killing him for whatever transpired in Orlando for the better part of the Dwightamare year. Kobe, being the cold-blooded winner, was having none of that, and was not prepared to have anything that could dismantle the winning run that the Lakers had put up.

Bryant said, “Emotional?! I’ll talk to him. Just go out there and bust they a!@. Show them what they’re missing. Save the emotional s#$% for when you retire. It’s like me going back to Philadelphia for the Finals. They hated me for it, but it is what it is, you know what I mean? They’ll appreciate him at the end of his career when it’s all said and done. But right now, no matter what he says, they’re going to boo him and they’re not going to like him right now. There’s nothing that he can say that’s going to alter what they’re going to do. So why bother? The best thing to do is to go out there and stay focused on what we’re trying to accomplish and what we’re trying to do. It’s water under the bridge. It may be tough for him. He’s a very, very nice kid. He wants to say the right things and please as many people as he can. You can’t please everybody, and I’ll talk to him about it a little bit before we get down to Orlando and try to put a little of that in him for the game.”

And that is where the problem lies. Howard still remains the nice kid who is trying to please everyone. Kobe is the bully who just marks his territory and owns it. And yes, it will surely take a toll on Howard, unless he learns to speak up and take a stand. Howard needs to feel like a leader on this team and dictate terms. Kobe isn’t going to be easy on him and hand over the reins directly. Howard needs to be a beast to earn the right, and that is something that we haven’t seen from Howard over the whole season.

Will it happen during the play-offs? I am an idealist and a Lakers fan, and though the fan inside me would want it to happen, the pragmatics and the rationale defy it. Thus, for the Lakers to be able to keep up this run and make some forays in the play-offs, I would be expecting stuff that the Lakers haven’t showcased all season long. Even if they do make the play-offs, they would have to play out of their skin to go any further.

Expect them to make the play-offs and bow out in the first round.

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