After Three Games Lakers Take One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

What’s encouraging:

Say what you want about Mitch Kupchak not having made a landscape altering move yet, but the pieces he has acquired look great so far. After years of being underexposed in Indiana, McRoberts had his coming out party in front of a national audience on Christmas day. McRoberts reminds me a lot of former Laker forward Ronny Turiaf. His strength, athleticism and hustle address three key areas the Lakers lacked last year.  His stat line on opening night (six points, eight rebounds and two blocks) doesn’t jump out at you, but for everyone who watched the game they noticed Josh McRoberts had his fingerprints all over that game.

Troy Murphy has also quietly made an impact for the purple and gold, filling in admirably for Gasol whenever he gets into foul trouble. Yes, I’ll agree that Murphy is not a permanent solution, but he’s a pretty darn good band-aid.

Two players who might as well have been free agent pickups based on how they were essentially non-existent last year are Steve Blake and Metta World Peace. Both players look like their old selves under the less constraining offense of Mike Brown. Blake has looked to be more aggressive, pushing the ball in transition and looking for his own shot. We all expected big things from him after he hit the go ahead three pointer in last year’s season opener against the Rockets but he simply couldn’t get it going all year long. This year, Blake looks like the player who the Lakers’ management expected him to be when they first signed him.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Metta World Peace not only has a new name but a brand new role. Brown has promoted him to the bench, hoping he’s able to be the primary scoring option for the Lakers’ new bench mob. In the first three games, we’ve seen Peace receive the ball in the post 80 percent of the time; his brute strength gives him a sizable advantage while backing down other small forwards. After admitting he came into training camp a little out of shape, Metta has found peace in his re-invented role. Let’s hope by getting more touches on offense, he’ll be more interested in playing the lockdown defense he’s been revered for throughout his time as Ron Artest.

What’s not surprising:

Just as Phil Jackson was known for his triangle offense and his unorthodox motivational techniques, Mike Brown has a penchant for his defensive strategies. I’ve been more than impressed with Brown’s ability to get a bunch of average athletes to play exceptional team defense. As I mentioned before, Brown’s boys limited the potent Chicago offense to 25 percent shooting in the second half. On Tuesday night they held the Jazz to 71 points off 32 percent shooting.

But let’s not ignore how the Sacramento Kings exposed the flaws of the Laker defense on Monday. Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thorton and even rookie Jimmer Fredette made the Lakers’ perimeter defense, especially Derek Fisher, look like pylons over and over and over. To make matters worse, once the Kings waltzed past the initial line of defense they got whatever they wanted in the paint with the Lakers’ most intimidating post presence being the 6’11 Troy Murphy, who isn’t known for his shot blocking (McRoberts injured his toe early and Gasol was in foul trouble often).

In the closing minutes of the game, due to the lack of length and size, the Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins bullied his way to a handful of offensive rebounds. At one point, Matt Barnes resorted to shoving Cousins to the ground in order to prevent another offensive board off a missed free throw.

What makes me lose sleep:

The closing minutes of that Chicago game mirrored Game 1 of the Dallas series in May. The Lakers blow a double digit lead in the second half, they’re up 11 against the Bulls and 16 against the Mavericks, yet with numerous opportunities to close the game out they fail to do so. On Christmas, the tandem of McRoberts and Gasol missed four straight free throws that should’ve put the nail in the coffin. That’s all fine and well, but with 12 seconds left in regulation (and the Lakers up 87-86) the ball is inbounded to Bryant, who, rattled by a double team, attempts to find Gasol but the pass is intercepted. Almost the exact same thing happened seven months ago when Gasol tried to hand it off to Kobe before Bryant stumbled and turned it over. Kobe had a final opportunity to redeem himself and win both games at the buzzer but was unsuccessful.

Old habits die hard, and our boys’ inability to close games could haunt them as the margin of error is much slimmer in a shortened season.

If the Lakers are to climb back to the top of the mountain they’re also going to need to find their range. They shot 1-16 from beyond the arc in the loss to the Kings. Little kids shoot better on rigged carnival rims.

Look on the positive side though, while sitting at 1-2 is a frustrating start for a franchise so accustomed to success, things could be worse. The defending champions in Dallas look like they’ve already entered a transitional phase this year and are strictly focused on this upcoming season’s crop of free agents. They have lost their first two games in embarrassing fashion by a combined margin of 33 points.

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