Lakers Success Going Forward Hinges on Defense

It’s unclear exactly what fans might have expected out of the Lakers come Sunday, after two pre-season loses to the Clippers, no Andrew Bynum, a relatively consistent history of Christmas Day blunders, and only two weeks of practice. All indications that completely justified any uneasiness felt at Staples—indeed, Laker fans had a right to be indifferent at season tip-off. Then the worry turned to discomfort as the Bulls took a seven-point lead going into halftime. It wasn’t until the Lakers were able to turn things around in the second half, holding the bulls to 5-of-24 shooting during the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter, that Staples started rocking and rolling as the Lakers capped off a 9-0 run to lead the Bulls by 10 with about four minutes to play.

Just as the mood had shifted, four missed free throws, untimely fouls, and a couple of key turnovers later, the Lakers found themselves down by a single point with four seconds left in the game. Kobe Bryant had his chance to salvage the game, and got his shot blocked.

Another Christmas Day blunder for the Lakers.

The Lakers probably should’ve won this game. They put forth a concerted effort against the Bulls, perhaps more so than anyone had expected. The hustle around the rim was excellent, even without Bynum, they were able to score 42 of their points in the paint, and create enough pressure for Derrick Rose around the perimeter, preventing him from causing havoc off the dribble. Both teams were a little sloppy on offense, the Lakers committing 17 turnovers to the Bulls 14, but the Lakers transition defense, for the most part, looked rather solid. Moving forward, the Lakers can take away some positives from this game—Pau Gasol’s overall resurgence, Devin Ebanks’ progression on both ends of the floor, Steve Blake actually taking (and making) shots, and Bryant not doing any further damage on his wrist. No amount of positives, however, will turn this loss into a tally mark on the win column.

Despite how the game ended, the Lakers game plan for the season couldn’t be more crystal clear. Defense, defense, and (oh hey) more defense. Perhaps it’s to be expected, considering Mike Brown’s track record as a defense-first coach, but with all of the Lakers offensive fire power being a year older, no true point guard to run the show, and very little assurance for Bynum’s knees, building a reputation for getting stops may be the Lakers best bet to contend for a title. Once Bynum gets inserted back into the lineup, it’ll only make the Lakers that much better defensively.

We’re not used to seeing the Lakers muscle and grind out every rebound, point, and loose ball, but times are changing, and the usual white collar on the Laker players is turning a light shade of blue. If under normal circumstances, the regular season is a marathon, and not a sprint, then a shortened 66-game season is a half-marathon, and the Lakers will have to adjust accordingly.
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Additionally, the coaching staff will have to figure out a way to manipulate the lineup in order to keep everyone healthy and fresh come playoff time, especially when considering the number of back-to-backs (17), and back-to-back-to-back games (1).

They’ll have to figure out a way to stay highly motivated on defense, since it appears they’re no longer a team (and quite frankly, haven’t been for some time) that possesses enough weapons to generate quick offense. Yes, Bryant will still likely get his share of points in the 20-25 point range (on average), he’s still the go-to guy in the fourth quarter, and regardless of who draws up the plays on the clipboard, will likely have the ball in his hands with the game on the line. Yes, Gasol, despite shying away at times from the paint, opting instead to shoot long range jumpers and three-point shots, looked like the old Gasol on offense, and that’s a great sign. Even still, the Lakers ebb and flow this season hinges on defense.

Making free throws would’ve helped the Lakers. Making shots in crunch time also could’ve altered the end result of the game. The fact of the matter is, the Lakers played solid defensively for the majority of the second half, but didn’t finish off the job with only minutes remaining. The loss wasn’t necessarily a moral victory, but instead hopefully a lesson learned.

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