It's nervous time for Los Angeles Lakers fans. Since beating the Seattle SuperSonics at KeyArena on April 6, the Lakers have lost their last four games, including an inter-city showdown with the Los Angeles Clippers Thursday at the STAPLES Center. The losing streak has allowed Golden State and the Clippers, both 39-40, to pull even with the Lakers in the loss column. The Lakers hold the tie-breakers and have just two games left, both of them against teams headed for the lottery, but a stumble could potentially mean the Lakers slip from a solid sixth seed most of the season all the way out of the postseason.
For today's special Insider Preview, Kurt Helin, proprietor of the outstanding Forum Blue and Gold Lakers blog and a contributor to the LAist blog, answered some questions about the Lakers slide and more. Many thanks to Kurt for his help.
Are Lakers fans getting nervous?
Yes, the nervousness is building (and if they lose to the Sonics it will be in full bloom). If the Lakers didn’t have the tie-breaker with both the Clippers and the Warriors there would be out-and-out panic, but as it is the magic number remains two (combination of Lakers wins and Clippers/Warriors losses). The Clippers still have to play the Suns, while Golden State still has a game against Dallas. So you’d think all the Lakers have to do is win one of their last two. But fans are beginning to wonder if that is asking too much of this team.
Since March 1, Kobe Bryant has averaged 47.6 points per game in seven Lakers wins and they've only won once when he's failed to reach 40 points. Can the Lakers win without a big game from Kobe?
This is maybe the most frustrating thing for Lakers fans - early in the season they were winning without Kobe scoring 50. Back in December (for example), the Lakers were getting balanced scoring with contributions from Lamar Odom, Luke Walton, Smush Parker and others. The spat of injuries disrupted the smooth offensive flow, and they have never gotten it back. Defenses are wisely keying on Kobe and nobody else seems able to step up. Odom is shooting 46% in the last 10 games and 24% from three, plus he just disappears for stretches. Smush is shooting 42% in the last 10. Walton, Andrew Bynum and the rest are not players who can take on a lot of the scoring load consistently. The end result is that at times the Lakers offense looks like a constant Kobe “heat check.”
This has been an unusual year for Phil Jackson: This is the worst defensive team he's ever coached and the first time any of his teams has had a sub-.500 record after the All-Star break. Any particular reason for that or is it simply about the way the team is constructed and injuries up front?
This team was constructed with almost no margin for error. When everyone was healthy the Lakers looked good, like a second-tier team - not as good as the Mavericks/Suns/Spurs but a team none of those three wanted to face in the playoffs. The injuries have forced guys to have to take on roles that are beyond their capabilities. The center position is the perfect example: Andrew Bynum is a 19-year-old who didn’t play a lot in high school, he should be coming off the bench for 10-15 minutes a game and learning at a comfortable pace; instead he’s asked to stop Yao Ming and Amaré Stoudemire to give his team a chance. Bynum’s confidence has been shaken, so now the classic “energy guy off the bench” in Ronny Turiaf, who is really a power forward, has taken over as starting center.
Bottom line, Phil Jackson hasn’t had the right pieces to move around the chess board this year, but there certainly are some questions about some of the in-game decisions and rotations he has decided to go with. The makeup of this team - especially after the injuries - does not play to his strengths as a coach (molding a team, getting guys to play certain roles).
You've written recently that the Lakers miss the injured Kwame Brown. How has his absence hurt the team?
They miss his consistency and defensive presence. Andrew Bynum is, like a lot of 19 year olds, a roller coaster; he’s had some great games but also some atrocious ones. Brown is a much better post defender than Bynum, giving the Lakers someone who can match-up better inside with some of the league’s top centers, and his defensive rotations and presence in the paint is better. Plus, he does a solid job every night.
Point guard has obviously been an issue for the Lakers this season. Do you see Jordan Farmar or Shammond Williams supplanting Parker in the postseason?
They already have, to a degree. Smush still starts the games but Williams and, as of late, Farmar and Sasha Vujacic have been on the floor more during crunch time at the end. Phil Jackson basically looks at how guys are playing over the course of a game then goes with the guy he sees playing the best for the fourth quarter. That likely will continue into the playoffs, with playing time being decided in large part by matchups (which is bad for Smush if he would have to cover Steve Nash).
What does a healthy snowboarder/forward Vladimir Radmanovic bring to the Lakers?
In theory, he’s a shooter that has to be covered by another big, meaning when Kobe drives into the lane and draws three defenders one of those will be a guy assigned to Radmanovic, who should have a good look from downtown. I say in theory because we’ve seen little of it this year, Radmanovic has almost never been healthy (even before that fateful trip to Park City) and because of that has been slow to find any comfort in the triangle offense. If he comes back healthy next season, he could be a big boost for the Lakers.
Are there still "wow" moments with Kobe for you as a Lakers fan?
It’s amazing, for all the Kobe games I’ve watched in person and on television, there are still a couple times a game my jaw just hits the floor. Especially in person. But what amazes me more and more is not some spectacular reverse dunk or off-balance three; it’s a little play where he sets up a guy with jab step, drives and, as the second and third help defenders rotate over, he just elevates for a deuce. It’s the little things, the fundamentally sound things you see all too rarely in the NBA these days.
With the outcome in the balance in the final two minutes of the April 6 game between the Lakers and the Sonics, Bryant made the key play. Bryant hit a fadeaway jumper over two defenders with 1:40 left to unbreak a tie. The Sonics committed turnovers on their next two possessions and Bryant got to the free-throw line, splitting two shots to push L.A.'s lead to three. With a stop on Nick Collison in the post and success at the charity stripe, the Lakers put away a 112-109 victory.
The Lakers were sluggish during the second quarter as the Sonics went up by as many as 12 early in the third period, but Bryant scored 20 of his game-high 46 points in the third to rally the Lakers. To counter, the Sonics went to Chris Wilcox, who scored a career-high 32 points. Wilcox shot 11-for-16 from the field and attempted a career-high 16 free throws. Damien Wilkins had 25 points, one shy of his career high. The Sonics lost Luke Ridnour in the first quarter to a lateral sprain of his left ankle that will likely end his season.
Today's Kia Surprising Stat - The seven-game Lakers losing streak to start March was the longest of Phil Jackson's coaching career.
View From Afar:Lakers.com
Los Angeles Times
Times: Lakers Blog
Orange County Register
Register: Locker talk Blog
LA Daily News
Daily News: Inside the Lakers
The Press Enterprise
Press Enterprise: Lakers Blog
Forum Blue and Gold
Sonics - Guards Ray Allen (bone spur, left ankle), Luke Ridnour (lateral sprain, left ankle) and Earl Watson (sprained left ankle) and center Robert Swift (torn right ACL) are out.
L.A. Lakers - Center Kwame Brown (sprained left ankle) is doubtful. Center Chris Mihm (right ankle surgery) is out.
For more analysis before tonight's game, listen to the Sonics Pregame Show starting at 6:00 on KTTH 770 AM and Sonics Radio Network stations.