After three straight wins, the Los Angeles Lakers lost to their little sister who are the better team for the last couple of seasons, and find themselves back on the losing end of a race for the last ticket to the NBA playoffs. Despite what some call a chance in their philosophy and approach, it seems that the things that will decide if they finish in the final 8 is the effort they put in on defense and how much Kobe Bryant trusts his teammates offensively.
The easiest thing to do is to look at the schedule, and try to project wins – The Lakers have five games remaining, currently playing one less game than the Utah Jazz. They have the same number of losses, but the Lakers need the Jazz to lose one more than they do because of the tiebreaker going the Jazz’ way.
So what’s up? A home game against the New Orleans Hornets, which should be a win, as the Hornets haven’t beaten a playoff bound team on the road since February 8. Next? The Portland Trail Blazers in Portland, which usually isn’t the toughest of match-ups, but the road is always a struggle for the Lakers (15-25), although the Blazers are in free-fall mode, losing their last 8 games. Then? a home-stretch, conveniently set up to finish the season, playing the Golden State Warriors, who are 1-2 against the Lakers this season but are hard to predict because of their streaky outside shooting and their ability to counter the size of the Lakers with Andrew Bogut. Next are the Spurs, who are the obvious favorites and better team, but it all depends on who’s resting for them. The Rockets are last, and their fast pace basketball plus Omer Asik in the paint gave the Lakers trouble before. The question will be how badly will they need that win, while the Lakers can’t afford to lose anything during the next 5 games.
The Jazz? They play the Oklahoma City Thunder in Salt Lake City. The problem for them? The Thunder lost their previous game, and want the first place in the West, while Russell Westbrook is on an absoulte tear at the moment. Then comes a double header with the Minnesota Timberwolves, first at home and then on the road. The Timberwolves are winning lately, but against relatively weak teams. They aren’t tanking, but a loss to them might be a playoff-killer, seeing as the Thunder game is a likely loss. The season ends with a trip to Memphis. The Grizzlies and the Jazz are similar in their size-dependence, but might not need the win, depending on how things turn out in the 3-4-5 race.
But there’s also the way the Lakers have to play, which has been mostly improvisational up to this point, with Kobe Bryant calling the shots on the floor. Pick n’ roll, effective ones, using both Gasol and Dwight Howard, should be the way to go, with occasional double screens for Bryant off the top seems to be another play the Lakers are liking at the moment. In truth? The crucial thing will be their defense, and not the method and system of switching on P&R’s (which the Lakers do) or going into some sort of semi-zone when necessary.
The Lakers have been slow and lazy in transition all season. Kobe Bryant sets the tone for this team, on both ends of the floor. A lazy performance from him on defense when it comes to making stops on the perimeter instead of trying to lead players into Howard’s blocks would be a disaster for the Lakers, who simply can’t afford to lose more than one game in the remaining stretch, seeing as how how the Jazz are at the moment.
Beyond tactics, X’s and O’s, it’s going to be about the effort the Lakers give. It might sound simplistic, but sometimes that’s all there is to it – something the Lakers have been failing at plenty of times this season. Kobe Bryant doesn’t need to become John Stockton, but he needs to look for other players the entire game, and not just when he doesn’t feel like shooting early on. The keys to the kingdom are in his hands, not because of his ability to score, but because he’s the leader and ruler of this basketball team, and will decide by his actions and examples if this season can still be salvaged or deemed a failure right now.