Los Angeles sits an arm’s length from the post season. Three and a half games represent the barrier between the NBA Playoffs and a first round matchup with the number one team in the West, the Spurs as of today. Although a manageable distance, the Lakers cannot overcome their ‘12-13 season woes without closing the gap. The Lakers have a chance to finish off the month with some wins and, at 25-29, get closer to .500 over these remaining days of February.
The Rockets, the current 8th seed in the West, have an interesting schedule, including a home game versus OKC, back-to-back on the road at Brooklyn and Washington, and a home game versus Milwaukee to finish their month. Houston should drop the OKC game, considering the Thunder hold a 2-0 advantage so far this season. But, James Harden, averaging 21 points in their two meetings, could have his “I told you so” game. Against their other opponents, Harden enjoyed significantly more success. He led the Rockets in Brooklyn for their 12th consecutive over the Nets, helped them run away from the Bucks in the 3rd in Milwaukee, and dropped 31 on Washington at home. The Rockets could easily post a 3-1 record before March.
The Lakers, however, cannot chase their opponent’s record. They simply need to win, regardless of style, strategy, or identity. They need to defend, rebound, and score more efficiently. Over their next 5 games, they have to win 4, which is a reasonable goal.
Home against Boston
The C’s ran LA out of their gym on February 7th, so it only stands to reason that the Lakers respond in kind. They have to take advantage of the paint and get some fouls on the frontcourt. Then, actually drive to basket or post up their smaller backcourt. Do not by any means shoot from distance. 5-23 from three killed the Lakers in Boston, and too many misses from three has been their downfall all season. The Lakers should impose an agreed upon cap, if the front office continues to refuse to get any more front court help to work the boards, on three point attempts. Risk a charge and drive the ball into the paint. At least there will be a stoppage of play, and the other team cannot run the ball back for highlight reel dunks and confidence building layups. Take a hard dribble left or right and pull up for a jumper, so a guard can rotate back to avoid the inevitable 3-on-1 fast breaks teams have been burying the Lakers with.
Home against Portland
Thank the heavens the game isn’t in Portland, or chalk that up to a lock of a loss. In the 31 regular season games at the Rose Garden since ‘96-97, the arrival of Kobe Bryant, the Lakers are 6-25 while guests in Oregon, losing the last three. Fortunately, the Lakers have a reciprocal record in LA, winning 25 out of the 31 contests, most recently a 17-point victory on December 29th. The Lakers could really use this win to gain a game on the Blazers, whom they sit behind by half a game and must play in Portland on April 10th.
Two on the road
A back-to-back roadie at Dallas, then Denver doesn’t make the prospect of 4 wins any easier. Both are extremely tough places to play, even though the Lakers have won the last six straight in Dallas. The Nuggets left the Lakers a lump of coal the day after Christmas as Corey Brewer scored a career-high 27 points off the pine. MDA needs to utilize his bench and limit the overall minutes of his starters. Without Pau, Dirk will draw a smaller defender in Clark and Metta, and will likely live in the post until Jamison comes off of the bench. Do not let Dirk shoot over 50% on 10-12’ fall aways, and then hit dagger threes in the 4th quarter. The Lakers should counter this by putting Dirk in the opposite post and make him either defend or get screened by Dwight, Earl, or Metta, especially Metta. Put him into pick and rolls and make him move when they go small, so he has to cover Dwight. In fact, this would be an excellent game to give Sacre some run since the Mavs are nursing Chris Kaman back from a concussion. This would allow some rest for Dwight and the ability to rotate him back in when Dirk moves to the 5, or a shot at Bernard James, their rookie center that has been starting in Kaman’s place.
As for Denver, they are going to try and run the Lakers out of their gym again.It worked last time on the 2nd night of a back-to-back following extended minutes by Nash (37), Dwight (38), and Kobe (43). They will use their depth, which is precisely why MDA needs to expand his 8-man rotation the night before against Dallas. Kobe hasn’t had a big game in the Mile High city lately, so expect him to spend the first quarter in the post trying to shake Iguodala. With Blake back, he can at least force Andre Miller off of the block and make him play some defense. The real problem is who will keep The Manimal, Kenneth Faried, from replicating his 21-point and 15 rebound previous performance, especially after dropping 40 and winning the MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge at All Star Weekend.
Home against Minnesota
After two days off, the Lakers look to extend their 20-game win steak versus the T’Wolves. This cannot be an L. The Lakers so far this season have cornered the market on playing down to their competition. Minnesota, minus Kevin Love after hand surgery and possibly without Andre Kirilenko due to a strained quad, must not be taken lightly. Dwight should have a big game, as Pau did to begin February in his stead. He has performed much better coming off of a good rest. His activity can counteract the impact of Pekovic and Williams. Kobe should run point, forcing Rubio and Shved to chase him around the court. Nash should play two-guard and shoot at least 12-15 times, since he won’t expend too much energy chasing Ridnour on D.
The Lakers’ approach in these games must reveal a realization that time is short. They have a chance to rectify a few poor performances, as well as to demonstrate a renewed sense of purpose after the ASB. It starts with a classic match up with an age-old combatant and ends in the city where it all started. Those teams fought with their backs firmly against the wall. It remains to be seen what this version of the Lakers will do.