I spent Christmas Day at a family dysfunction on the ex’s side, a hearty mix ranging from crazed teens to bible-thumping grandparents (common denominator being plentiful booze), parading in a shouting mass in front of the HD Wall of Television. Such distractions tend to be a filter, leaving unvarnished truths seen as if through a picture window: Steve Blake seemed to be the only Laker not wearing Kobe’s new Green Lantern shoes and Pau simply hasn’t looked right lately. There were warnings of a trap game before the embarrassing loss to the Bucks and equally convenient complaints about having to shed one’s Big-and-Tall Snuggies in order to play a little ball on Christmas. The latter didn’t seem to affect those hailing from the eastern quadrant of the country - the steadily improving Heat steam-rolled us four quarters straight.
In a previous post, I noted that the Spurs game on the 28th worried me more than Miami. There’s an obvious long-running history between the Spurs and Lakers, I don’t know that I’d call it a rivalry in the hatred sense, there’s always been mutual grudging respect and not a lot of trash talking (save for that aimed at Bruce Bowen’s ever active scissor-hands back in the day). At any rate, offered up is SfS’s first and perhaps only game preview, X's and O's not being my strong suit. I’ll try and avoid whimsical references to the Ukraine’s favorite son. Whoops.
The Spurs simply weren’t themselves last season. They looked old, beat-to-crap, and never seemed to gain traction with off-season acquisitions Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess. DeJuan Blair was a second round steal and George Hill also showed rookie promise but by-and-large, the team limped through the season, managing to get to the second round in the western conference playoffs before being run-and-gunned by the Suns.
This year’s been a whole different deal, Duncan’s channeling Ponce de Leon, Jefferson’s located his confidence, Manu’s the wily points leader and Parker’s showing why he's still an elite point, dishing 7 dimes a game. Undersized Blair’s been starting at center in short effective minutes with Bonner and McDyess filling in the gaps. The big off-season move was bringing in Tiago Splitter who’s been parked under the overseas umbrella for some time. He came to the team the worse for wear after a busy year of Brazilian ball capped by FIBA and a thigh injury. He’s being integrated gradually at a little over 11 minutes per game. Coach Popovitch has these guys playing with purpose, a few clunkers here and there but their league-leading start can’t be ignored, even if it sometimes seems that way with the media blitz that is the Heat and the entitlement that too often sabotages my own beloved Lakers.
L.A. reloaded in the off-season, hoping to deliver a fourth 3-peat for Phil Jackson in what he’s consistently termed his last stand. Fish re-upped his contract as did Shannon Brown. Steve Blake and Matt Barnes signed on for a pittance, Theo Ratcliff for even less. We got a couple good projects in Caracter and Ebanks but they’ll likely see their minutes reduced to a shiny spot as the season progresses. With Andrew Bynum recovering from knee surgery in painfully slow fashion, Odom slid back into a familiar starting slot and the team was off and running - an impressive start to the season until the wheels started wobbling. We’ve now taken up residence in a series of back-to-back losses buffered by win streaks that keep us looking solid in the standings, if not the eyes of seasoned observers. The oft-mentioned on-switch is in serious need of attention, we’re currently five games back from the Spurs and the question of home court advantage starts to loom.
A few random observations, sans typical bullet points, headings or other things organizational:
The game’s on Spurs turf, the Lakers need to show up early and not let the crowd get carried away. I don’t know what shape Bynum’s really in but if there ever a time for him to get the starting nod again, it would be now. Use the Bynum/Pau tandem to control the paint, take advantage of the Blair size mismatch, go strong to the basket. The Spurs are masters of the pick-and-roll which has historically been a hurdle for the Lakers. - they’re too often a step slow with rotations, getting burned on the back end. Communication and trust are key. Ball movement looms large - Parker’s an active distributor and there’s a myriad of options with Manu, Jefferson and Duncan. The Lakers on the other hand have been a bit stagnant lately, I’d like to see the triangle flowing again, hoping for better reads, more effective screens, less loading up on one side.
Bench-wise, Bonner’s been deadly from outside as has second-year guard Hill. The Lakers’ Killer B’s have fallen off the map a bit lately and need to get their mojo back. Odom on the other hand has been one of the Lakers’ bright lights lately - whether he starts or plays 6th man, he needs to continue cleaning the glass and splitting the seams. Motivation - in the aftermath of the Heat loss, Kobe appears to be extremely pissed off. There’s not a lot in the way of direct quotes from practice but he participated quite strenuously from all accounts and Ron in particular is acknowledging the message. While on the subject of Artest, one of the good folks over at PtR mentioned the ‘can’t teach height’ adage and added the hope that Blair would switch off Odom to guard the corpse of Ron Artest. My own sincere hope would be that Ron catches wind of this before game time. That's motivation!