Cracks the Lakers must Seal Before the Playoffs Begin

With the 2012 NBA Playoffs just around the bend, the Los Angeles Lakers are riding a huge wave of momentum that many people will believe can carry them through to the Finals. It’s always great to be optimistic, especially when a veteran team like the Lakers has a full head of steam heading down the home stretch.

Don’t be fooled, though. No matter how strong the foundation for their playoff run may seem, there are still several cracks that need to be filled and smoothed over before any dreams of another ring can begin.

First and foremost, the Lakers need to figure out where Andrew Bynum is mentally. Sure, the 24-year-old center believes he’s suddenly reached enlightenment and found the maturity that has eluded him for so many years. However, considering Bynum’s recent temper tantrums, it’s hard not to take his words with a grain of salt.

If the Lakers hope to make a run at the NBA championship this year, they’re going to need Bynum to be at his best. Especially with teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies as potential opponents in the later rounds of the Western Conference playoffs, the Lakers can’t afford any mental meltdowns a la Bynum’s showing against the Dallas Mavericks in 2011. They need their dominant big man; failure is a guarantee if he doesn’t have his head on straight.

One way or another, Lakers head coach Mike Brown is going to have to put the youngster in his place and get the message across that playtime is over. If Brown can instill some discipline in him and harness the beast that Bynum has become over the past few games, the possibilities are limitless.

The next crack that the Lakers must take a putty knife to is their inconsistent defense. Resembling Swiss cheese at times, this season, the defense has been a key reason for their inability to close out games and maintain big leads.

When Brown was hired as the Lakers new head honcho, the biggest worry was what would become of the offense. Known for his defensive coaching, Brown was ready to install a defense that would stifle opposing shooters and force the Lakers’ offense to win games. That, however, hasn’t really been the case.

The stats don’t truly illustrate just how ineffective the Lakers’ defense can be at times. Although they’ve held opponents to a 43.5 field goal percentage (23rd in the NBA) and 34.6 percent from three-point land (19th in the NBA), their deficiencies have lingered beyond the shooting aspects of the game.

The Lakers have forced a league-low 11.18 turnovers per game. The second-lowest team in the league, the Orlando Magic, has forced almost two more turnovers per game. Even with the defensive prowess of players like Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace, turnovers have become scarce for the purple and gold. The Lakers are also among the league’s worst in assists allowed per game, which ties in perfectly because they aren’t clogging the passing lanes and pressuring ball-handlers the way they should be.

Although their turnovers-per-game number has risen in recent weeks as the Lakers continue to win more often than not, it’s going to be a huge area of concern heading into the postseason. The return of Bryant and sudden resurgence of World Peace (once he returns from suspension) as a defensive ace will help, but the defense will undoubtedly need some adjustments unless the Lakers plan on watching the second round from the comfort of home.

Need an example of the difference a good defense can make? Take a look at the Lakers’ latest game against the Mavericks.

In the first half, the Mavericks continued to drop bombs on the defense because they weren’t closing out on shooters and left too many lanes to the paint open. Fast forward to the second half and you see a different defense. Bynum did a tremendous job of stepping up and contesting shooters when they shot mid-range jumpers and the defense as a whole did a better job of rotating as the ball moved around the top of the arch. Even though the high screen continuously put the Lakers defense in bad position, they did enough to close the halftime gap and eventually came away with a win.

If the Lakers can harness some of that defensive energy that they displayed in the second half against the Mavericks and carry it over to the playoffs, they’ll stand a much better chance against the top offenses in the West.

FYI: a clear-headed, motivated Bynum will do wonders in alleviating their defensive woes.

The final glaring gaps that must be bridged before the playoffs begin are the lingering injury issues.

The most obvious injury that needs to be overcome is Bryant’s shin injury, which kept him on the pine for seven of the past eight games. It’s pretty obvious, regardless of their recent success, that the Lakers don’t stand a chance in the post-season without Bryant. The only lingering worry is whether he’s going to be battling through pain the whole time.

Although Bryant’s shin injury has hogged the headlines over the past two weeks, the shoulder injury currently hampering Ramon Sessions has been frequently overlooked. Sessions hasn’t been kept out of the lineup like Bryant, but his minutes have been cut as the Lakers attempt to give him some rest before the real fun begins.  Even though questions have arisen regarding his defense and ability to be the Lakers’ long-term answer at point guard, he’s going to be invaluable in the Lakers run at another NBA championship.

Other than the injuries, the biggest crack the Lakers must now fill is the void left by Metta World Peace’s suspension. After elbowing Thunder forward James Harden last Sunday, World Peace was given a seven game ban that began on the final night of the regular season in Sacramento. This leaves six post-season games where the Lakers will be without their top defensive stopper, which could prove to be quite the problem. World Peace had recently become an invaluable addition to the team since the All-Star break, and there’s no doubt the Lakers will miss his production on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.

They may not be favorites to win the West, but the Lakers are definitely going to put up a fight once the post-season arrives. There are certainly cracks to fill heading into the playoffs, but the Lakers should be able to find a way to seal those cracks and make a splash in the NBA post-season.

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