Posted on: April 17, 2011 7:08 pm
Edited on: April 18, 2011 3:10 am
The New Orleans Hornets delivered a stunning Game One defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers. How worried should LA be? Posted by Ben Golliver.
The New Orleans Hornets beat the Los Angeles Lakers, 109-100, in Game One of their first round playoff series, and coach Monty Williams couldn't have drawn it up any better. Everything he could have wanted to go right did go right, and even some things that no one could have expected fell in the Hornets' favor. The "Can lightning strike twice?" question hangs over this result like a thundercloud, but its worth cataloguing New Orleans' many triumphs before turning our attention to Game Two adjustments.
All-Star point guard Chris Paul, of course, leads any breakdown of this game. In the fourth quarter he was as unstoppable as he's been at any point in his career, scoring 17 points in the final quarter on a variety of jumpers, drawing fouls seemingly at will. You can't blame Lakers guard Derek Fisher too for the explosion, as he generally played textbook defense and made Paul work. The Lakers did switch a few high screen-and-rolls and Paul exploited mismatches with Lakers bigs -- particularly Pau Gasol -- to create space for jumpshots. But this was about an All-Star being locked all the way in, finishing with 33 points, 14 assists, seven rebounds, four steals and just two turnovers in 41 minutes, commanding New Orleans' offense with intelligence and using his quick hands and excellent instincts to full effect on defense. Los Angeles has made a habit of getting behind early and digging itself out late: Paul's two-way play made sure there would be no comeback.
It would be a mistake to call this a one-man show, though, as New Orleans' role players came up huge. Who could have expected the Hornets bench -- one of the weaker groups in the playoffs -- to combine for 39 points on an amazing 72% shooting from the field, led by a perfect 5-5 from reserve center Aaron Gray and 5-6 from guard Jarrett Jack. Every man on the Hornets bench finished with a positive +/- for the game, with Gray posting a whopping +25 in his 20 minutes. Will they play as well as a group again in this series? Probably not.
As big as those contributions was New Orleans' overall defensive effort, which can only be described as excellent. Trevor Ariza frustrated Kobe Bryant down the stretch, New Orleans' undersized bigs did an excellent job of managing Los Angeles' long frontline and the Hornets scored 17 points off of 13 Lakers turnovers, a critical difference-maker given that the Hornets turned the ball over just three times (!) the entire game. By comparison, New Orleans' season-low for turnovers in the regular season was five.
Again, everything went right for the Hornets. They dominated the possession game. Their bench badly outplayed LA's. Chris Paul won the match-up of superstars against Kobe Bryant (35 points, four rebounds, five assists, five turnovers). Improbably, both Carl Landry (17 points, five boards) and Aaron Gray (12 points) scored more than Pau Gasol (eight points, six boards).
That last sentence, more than any other reason, is why it's difficult to believe New Orleans' Game One stunner will be sustainable. The Hornets lost Gray in the game's final minute to a nasty ankle injury, and getting more from Gasol will be at the top of the list of Lakers adjustments. Gasol's face was cut and bloodied early in the game and he was an absolute non-factor down the stretch, attempting just two shots in the fourth quarter (one was a lay-up with the game out of reach). Without Gray, who looked like New Orleans' most capable one-on-one post defender aside from Emeka Okafor, the Hornets' frontline will be stretched to an even greater degree, with Carl Landry, D.J. Mbenga and Jason Smith called into greater service. If that trio winds up getting the best of Gasol over a seven-game series, he might need to consider entering the Witness Protection Program.
The Lakers can also get more from center Andrew Bynum, who scored easily around the basket, playing over the top of New Orleans after Okafor got into some early foul trouble. Bynum finished with a respectable 13 points and nine rebounds and the Lakers would do well to pound it into him more than they did on Sunday. Mbenga resorted to desperation hard fouls on Bynum multiple times and there's no reason the Lakers shouldn't be parading to the free throw line throughout the rest of this series.
Given how many breaks went New Orleans' way, it's not panic time yet for the Lakers. They'll need to re-think their defense on Paul, paying him extra attention and perhaps using Kobe Bryant to defend him more often. They'll certainly need to turn to Gasol more often and he'll need to show up. More than anything, Los Angeles simply needs to realize they likely took New Orleans' best punch. The same match-up advantages that made them prohibitive favorites entering the series are still there. And, pending Gray's availability, could be even more pronounced.
Internal motivation remains the biggest issue for the Lakers, who played flat through stretches, particularly in the first half, on Sunday. New Orleans delivered a wake-up call to a team that's lacked focus for a few weeks now. LA needs to respond in Game Two. And, given their talent advantages and enhanced motivation following the loss, it would be shocking if they didn't.
Posted on: April 17, 2011 6:29 pm
Posted by Royce Young
I don't think the Hornets could've pictured a more perfect result in Los Angeles Sunday. They walked in to Staples without anyone giving them any kind of a chance and upset the defending champs 109-100 behind a huge day from the best point guard in basketball, Chris Paul. (Yeah, remember him?)
But with a minute left, the Hornets perfect day got a small smudge put on it as center Aaron Gray went down with a nasty looking rolled ankle. Gray had to be helped off the floor and appeared to be in a great deal of pain. Obviously he'll have X-rays and all the like, but I'm assuming he's doubtful for Game 2, and potentially the rest of the series. The way he grabbed high up on his leg said high ankle sprain and those are no fun.
This is a bigger blow than you might initially think. Yes, I realize we're talking Aaron Gray here, but the seven-footer was very productive Sunday for New Orleans scoring 12 points on 5-5 shooting in 20 minutes. His value inside on Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol definitely didn't show up in the box score. And with the Hornets already missing David West, they're very thin on the interior already. So subtracting Gray will definitely hurt them going forward.
It's an injury though that's a lot more important than it seems at first glance but when Chris Paul plays like Chris Paul, the Hornets can pretty much plug in anyone. Jason Smith and D.J. Mbenga will be called upon in bigger ways now to back up Emeka Okafor.
But the Hornets lead 1-0 though and if you'd have handed them at least a split in L.A. a week ago, they probably would've said, "OK, we'll trade a win in Game 1 for Aaron Gray, straight up."
Posted on: April 15, 2011 7:52 pm
Edited on: April 15, 2011 7:55 pm
Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum practiced on Friday despite a knee injury. Posted by Ben Golliver.
Back on Wednesday, we noted that Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum hyperextended his knee during a Tuesday night game against the San Antonio Spurs but that an MRI revealed he had only suffered a bone bruise and no structural damage. At the time, Bynum was cleared to play for the Lakers once the postseason started.
The Lakers open their first round series with the New Orleans Hornets on Sunday and the Associated Press reports that Bynum will be ready to go after going through a full practice on Friday.
"I'm fine," Bynum said. "It's nothing that's not normal for me at this point."
Bynum believes he'll be back to normal when second-seeded Los Angeles hosts the Hornets in the first-round opener Sunday, even while acknowledging "my normal is a little bit skewed."
Coach Phil Jackson isn't quite so optimistic, saying he'll see how Bynum reacts from Friday's practice on Saturday before guessing how effective he'll be against New Orleans.
"Actually, I was a little concerned," Jackson said. "He started out practice and felt like the knee was a little loose, a little different, but he proceeded and played fine."As noted in our CBSSports.com Hornets-Lakers preview, Jackson should have the luxury of managing Bynum's minutes carefully, as New Orleans has an undersized and thin frontline that Pau Gasol has feasted on all season. Assuming everything goes as planned and LA continues its dominance of New Orleans, all the Lakers need from Bynum is for him to use the series as a tune-up for later tests.
Posted on: April 15, 2011 2:32 am
Edited on: April 15, 2011 2:37 am
A preview of the first round playoff series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the New Orleans Hornets. Posted by Ben Golliver.
I. Intro: No. 7 seed New Orleans Hornets (46-36) vs. No. 2 seed Los Angeles Lakers (57-25)
The difference between the two teams in this series is simple. The Los Angeles Lakers think they have it bad. The New Orleans Hornets actually do have it bad.
The Lakers enter the postseason just 2-5 in their last seven games, they lost a backup point guard to chicken pox and nearly lost their starting center to yet another knee injury. Only a Kobe Bryant last-second three-pointer on Wednesday night saved the Lakers from slipping to the West’s No. 3 seed and a much tougher series with the Portland Trail Blazers. The Hornets, though, actually do have it bad. After beginning the season 11-1, the Hornets have played exactly .500 ball (35-35) since late-November. They’ve lost their best interior player, David West, to a season-ending knee injury and their franchise point guard, Chris Paul, has dealt with fluid in his surgically repaired knee, closing the season averaging just 7.3 points per game and shooting 31% from the field in the team’s last four games.
One team's problems are clearly much weightier.
II. What Happened: A look at the season series
It’s fair to say that the two-time defending champs dismantled the Hornets during their regular season match-ups, sweeping all four games. The Lakers averaged 101.8 points per game in the victories while holding the Hornets to just 91.0 points per game, making for a colossal 10.8 point average margin of victory. All four wins came since the end of December so they are fairly representative.
Remarkably, the Lakers have shot poorly from deep – just 29.7% as a team – and yet still managed to shoot 51.0% overall from the field, a testament to how many easy buckets they've generated thanks to the interior advantage LA’s big men possess over the short-handed and undersized Hornets front line. Meanwhile, New Orleans has shot just 43.7% from the floor and really struggled from deep in three of the four meetings. Nothing came easy for the Hornets even though they did a decent job of taking care of the basketball. Add all of those numbers and it just screams "blatant talent disparity."
III. The Easy Stuff: The Laker bigs are overwhelming
First: credit where credit is due. New Orleans’ two best big healthy big men – Emeka Okafor and Carl Landry – have both fared pretty well against the Lakers this season. Okafor slapped up averages of 12.3 points and 10.3 rebounds while Landry added 14.8 points and 6.8 rebounds. Combined, that’s pretty solid production for a team that’s lacking a go-to inside scorer now that West is done for the season.
But LA’s three-headed monster of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom makes those numbers look puny by comparison. Together, the trio has averaged an eye-popping 51.8 points and 25.6 rebounds per game against the Hornets this year. Really, that's enough said. Gasol, in particular, has been a tough cover for the Hornets, as he’s put up 22.3 points and 12.8 rebounds per game by himself and figures to be the most difficult match-up for New Orleans given his length, versatility, mobility and skill. The only thing that could possibly stop Gasol in this series is if his teammates forget to pass him the ball.
IV. Secret of the Series: The Lakers need to show up
Los Angeles has every motivation to make quick work of the Hornets as a second round series against either the Dallas Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers is looming. It’s quite possible that LA could get a significant amount of rest given that Dallas/Portland will likely go six or seven games. Late-season motivation has been a problem recently, as coach Phil Jackson has called out his team’s professionalism and the Lakers nearly blew a 20+ point lead against the Kings on the final night of the season, despite playoff implications being on the line.
Ultimately, the responsibility for showing up falls to Jackson and Kobe Bryant. Not only is that pair familiar with winning, they’re familiar with the boredom that comes from winning often. They also know where the light switch is located. Expect them to flip it sooner rather than later.
V. The Dinosaur Narrative: "Andrew Bynum’s knee injury could be a game-changer"
That particular line of thinking is old and familiar, due to Bynum’s lengthy injury history, but it’s also a bit too early. Against the Hornets, the Lakers could likely win without him, shifting to a smaller lineup that would still possess a talent advantage at virtually every position. At the top of the list of reasons that New Orleans is an ideal match-up for Los Angeles is that Jackson should be able to manage Bynum’s minutes with ease, ensuring he’s fully ready for potential later round match-ups with guys like Tyson Chandler, Marcus Camby or Tim Duncan.
Bynum is only said to have a bone bruise, anyway, but it's worth monitoring his progress and playing time in this New Orleans series.
VI. The Line-Item Veto: Who wins each match-up?
PG: The Hornets have one match-up advantage, and it’s a massive one. Even though he’s not playing at the top of his game, Chris Paul is a nightmare cover for any team, especially one who will rely on Derek Fisher and Shannon Brown to play more minutes than usual in Steve Blake’s indefinite absence due to chicken pox. Advantage Hornets.
SG: Kobe Bryant is the best shooting guard in the game and Marco Belinelli is not. No further discussion necessary. Advantage Lakers.
SF: LA’s small forward of the past, Trevor Ariza, faces off against LA’s small forward of the present, Ron Artest. Ariza has better numbers on the season but Artest and all of his antics and physicality will surely make his life miserable. Call this one a push.
PF: As documented above, Pau Gasol against Carl Landry is likely to get ugly in a hurry. Big advantage Lakers.
C: Okafor’s individual numbers against the Lakers are better than Bynum’s individual numbers against the Hornets, but Gasol will spend time at the five to clear minutes for Lamar Odom off the bench. Even a Herculean performance from Okafor won’t help the Hornets keep pace here. Advantage Lakers.
Bench: Odom, a sixth man of the year candidate, plus Brown, an athletic tempo-changer are better than New Orleans’ bench, which is essentially a scrap heap up front with Wilie Green and Jarrett Jack capable of making some noise in the backcourt. Advantage Lakers.
Coach: Phil Jackson has won 11 titles as a head coach and has won 225 playoff games. Monty Williams, as talented and respected a rookie head coach as you’ll find in the NBA, has won zero playoff games as a head coach. Williams deserves some love for Coach of the Year and could become a mainstay on the sidelines for decades, but the two men don’t belong in the same sentence right now. Advantage Lakers.
Los Angeles got its dream match-up – finally – when it put away the Kings away in overtime on the last day of the regular season. The Hornets enter the series without their All-Star forward, David West, and with question marks surrounding Chris Paul, who recently had his knee drained of fluid and was held scoreless for the first time in his career. The Hornets don’t have much of a bench and certainly can’t compete with LA’s monstrous, versatile frontline trio of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. Forget about it. Prediction: Lakers in 4.
VIII. CBSSports.com Video Preview
Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers will look to defend their title as they take on Chris Paul and the New Orleans Hornets in this round 1 playoff matchup. Ian Eagle and Ken Berger preview this upcoming matchup.
Posted on: April 13, 2011 4:51 pm
Edited on: April 13, 2011 4:54 pm
Andrew Bynum's MRI reveals only a bone bruise, and he is expected to play this weekend in first-round playoff series Game 1.
Posted by Matt Moore
And the good luck for the Lakers keeps on rolling. Andrew Bynum dodged a major bullet after going down with a knee injury last night. The Lakers released a statement today informing media that Bynum's MRI only revealed a bone bruise, and no structural damage. He's probable to play this weekend in the Lakers' home playoff opener.
Getting Bynum back will boost the spirits of fans who were fearing the worst Tuesday night. With Bynum in the lineup, the Lakers still feature the longest frontcourt three-man rotation with Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom which make them nearly impossible to guard and keep off the offensive glass. The Lakers had been on a five game slump until Tuesday night's win over a starter-resting Spurs club. But the losing streak is over, the team can lock up the 2 seed against the Kings Wednesday night, and Bynum will be back for the playoffs.
Additionally, an MRI for Matt Barnes reveals no damage following knee surgery. He's good to go for the playoffs as well.
Everything's coming up Lakers, as usual.
Posted on: April 13, 2011 12:54 am
Edited on: April 13, 2011 1:57 am
Andrew Bynum injures knee against Spurs, diagnosed as a hyperextended knee, MRI tomorrow.
Posted by Royce Young
Update 1:40 a.m.: Kevin Ding of the OC Register tweets, "Bynum says he will be fine and will be ready for playoff opener this weekend." Obviously the MRI will tell the real story, but that's at least some encouraging news.
Update 12:53 a.m.: Phil Jackson told TNT during a third-quarter interview, "I went in and talked to (Andrew Bynum) at half-time, and he said 'I'm (going to) be allright." That's what you'd expect to hear out of Jackson regardless, but it's still a better sign than Jackson spouting off a parable or starting to cry.
Original report : Things may be much different heading into the playoffs for the defending champs. All of Laker nation will be holding their breath for the results of an MRI Wednesday morning.
Andrew Bynum hyperextended his right knee (that's the one with the brace) during the second quarter of the Lakers' game against San Antonio on Tuesday. He sat on the floor grimacing a bit, then immediately went to the locker room.
Bynum was hurt midway through the second quarter when he stepped on DeJuan Blair's foot. Bynum awkwardly fell to the floor but did walk on his own off re court.
Bynum won't travel with the Lakers to Wednesday night's season finale to Sacramento the team said. The center will have an MRI on Wednesday morning.
Bynum is averaging 11.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and almost two blocked shots in 54 games this season. His presence alongside fellow 7-footer Pau Gasol is one of the things that make the Lakers so darn dangerous. That size makes them almost impossible to match up with. And then you Kobe Bryant as well and it's easy to see why they've won two titles and are a favorite going in this year. Plus, Bynum has quietly put together a nice season on the interior, especially on the defensive end. All of that changes a great deal if Bynum is out.
But Bynum missed the first 28 games of the regular season following surgery on his right knee and has really become pretty fragile. He partially tore the meniscus in his right knee last season, but postponed surgery until summer to start all 23 playoff games in the Lakers' championship run. (And to make a trip to the World Cup in South Africa.)
He tweaked his knee a week ago in a game and just seems ready to go down at any moment. With him, the Lakers are a dominant interior team. Without him, they're a whole new story.
If he's hurt, things change. But we'll have to wait and see.
Posted on: April 12, 2011 11:22 am
Edited on: April 12, 2011 11:28 am
Los Angeles Lakers All-Star guard Kobe Bryant says this year's Lakers are in a better spot than last year's version. Posted by Ben Golliver.
On Monday, we argued that the Los Angeles Lakers are still the favorites to come out of the Western Conference -- despite their five-game losing streak -- because they possess the most talented and tested group among the West's elite. For the Lakers, though, it appears to be less about how they stack up to their competition this season rather than how they compare to last year's title-winning group.
Indeed, Lakers All-Star guard Kobe Bryant tells the LA Times that he's not worried about the team's recent struggles because this year's team is in a better spot than last year's.
"Everybody wants to put the nail in the coffin," Kobe Bryant said. "We've all been there before."
"Last year we didn't know what the hell was going on," Bryant said. "We had a lot of injuries. My knee needed to be operated on. A lot of question marks.
"Here we really don't have any question marks. These are executional things, these are correctable things. From that standpoint, we all feel comfortable about it. You don't even see anybody here feeling like it's doom and gloom because these are problems that can be corrected and will be corrected."A few of last year's question marks, in addition to Bryant's knee, included center Andrew Bynum's health, the integration of Ron Artest into the Lakers' system and how Derek Fisher would fare against the West's elite point guards.
Is Bryant right to say that this year's group has less question marks? Without a doubt. A fully healthy Bryant, even if he's a year older, outweighs all other concerns, especially because the rest of the Lakers' core -- Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Bynum, Artest -- remains intact. There are still questions about Artest's role but he clearly proved his worth during the post-season last year and Bynum has been playing some of the best ball of his career over the last few months.
The biggest question for this year's team was a concern last year too: motivation. The Lakers closed last season 4-7 in their last 11 games and have lost five straight this year. But, just like last season, they enjoyed a dominant stretch in March that should ease those concerns. Last year, the Lakers won seven straight in March; this year, LA ran off 12 victories in 13 games in March. LA has already clinched the Pacific Division title and should they win out -- against the San Antonio Spurs and Sacramento Kings -- they'll finish with an identical record to last season: 57-25. We know how that turned out: the Lakers went 16-7 on their way to a second consecutive title.
In other words, don't bury the Lakers yet.
Posted on: April 11, 2011 2:12 pm
Edited on: April 12, 2011 4:21 pm
Can the Los Angeles Lakers survive the Western Conference for their chance at a three-peat? Posted by Ben Golliver.
The last thing that the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans are thinking about on Monday is the NBA Finals. The team has lost five straight for the first time in years, getting outrun by the slowest team in the NBA (the Portland Trail Blazers) on Friday night and out-executed down the stretch by a bunch of youngsters (the Oklahoma City Thunder) on Sunday. It’s never panic time when you’re the most talented and most tested team in the NBA, but things feel a lot different in mid-April than they did as recently as March, when the Lakers looked unbeatable, running off nine straight wins and briefly making a push for the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed.
To his credit, Lakers coach Phil Jackson is saying all the right things, calling out his players’ professionalism in Portland, saying that any talk of the Finals is “ludicrous” and stating very simply according to ESPNLA.com : “We're not concerned with anything in the Eastern Conference at all. Nothing.” Jackson didn’t win any of his 11 NBA titles as a coach by looking ahead, and he certainly isn’t going to jeopardize his run at a fourth three-peat by allowing his players to skip a step.
While it’s Jackson’s job to keep the focus tight, it’s our job to break out the wide angle lens. And the panoramic view of the Western Conference still looks much like it has for the three seasons: It’s the Lakers, and then everybody else. Whether you prefer a more subjective approach or a numbers-based outlook, the Lakers make dominant arguments.
LA sports the league’s fiercest competitor, Kobe Bryant, who at 32 years old is still cranking out 25 points per game and maintaining his 45% percent or better shooting percentage for the sixth straight season. He’s the best one-on-one offensive player in the Western Conference and he lives for the moment. His resume says it all: five rings, two Finals MVPs, countless game-winners. The Lakers’ story starts and ends with his ability to impose his will on both ends of the court, extract maximum effort from his teammates and make the key plays down the stretch.
Inside, the Lakers have the best trio of bigs in the game: Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. Each has his weaknesses: Bynum is slow in transition, Gasol gets knocked for being soft and floating and Odom has dealt with questions about his consistency and focus for years. But together they are an overwhelming force, particularly when L.A.’s ball movement is humming. Gasol, who averaged 18.8 points and 10.1 rebounds, is a multi-dimensional threat, a skilled, fluid, long big man who is a nightmare match-up for all of the other top Western Conference teams. Bynum fills the space-eating and finish-at-the-rim roles well, while Odom can attack off the dribble, make effort plays defensively and gives L.A. some versatility in defending combo forwards.
The Bryant, Gasol, Bynum, Odom core is supplemented by Ron Artest – a physical wing who excels at playoff head games and making stars uncomfortable – and veteran guards Derek Fisher and Steve Blake – a heady, tested floor general and a knockdown shooter. Toss in Shannon Brown for some backcourt athleticism off the bench and Matt Barnes for more bullying hijinks and that’s the squad.
This group is the West’s favorite because they can beat you in every way. The Lakers are the No. 7 offense in the league through Sunday, a number that’s a little misleading because they’ve slipped a bit during this recent slide. Make no mistake: they can carve you up or pound it down your throat on any given night. Defensively, the Lakers are No. 6 in the league and currently rank as the Western Conference’s top unit. They excel at controlling the backboards – the No. 4 overall rebounding team – and protecting the basketball – the No. 2 team in terms of limiting turnovers. Despite all the harping on Bryant for breaking out of the team’s offense and doing his own thing, the Lakers are even a top 10 team when it comes to assist rate, a measure of what percentage of a team’s baskets come via assist. To boil it down: other than staying motivated late in the season, the Lakers simply don’t have a true weakness.
For this reason, they are the nightmare match-up for each of the West’s other contenders.
If the playoffs were to start today, the Lakers would have their dream first round match-up: they would be the No. 2 seed facing the No. 7 seed New Orleans Hornets. The Hornets have had a great run under first year coach Monty Williams, but they’ve essentially played .500 basketball over the last few months and lost starting power forward and go-to inside option David West. To make matters worse, franchise point guard Chris Paul is dealing with knee issues, as he had fluid drained last week and failed to score against the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday night, the first time that’s happened during his NBA career. If that series goes five games, consider New Orleans lucky.
The Lakers are most likely to face the Dallas Mavericks, another team that’s stumbled in recent weeks, in the second round. Any way you slice that one, and regardless of who has home court advantage, the match-ups come up in LA’s favor. The Lakers have plenty of guys to harass Dirk Nowitzki, while Bryant is fully capable of making life miserable for any of Dallas’s perimeter defenders. The only tough cover for LA is Jason Terry, but that’s a secondary concern. A recent Lakers blowout of the Mavericks, in which Dallas lost its cool, felt like a fairly accurate playoff preview. This series wouldn’t be a landslide, but the Lakers are simply too skilled, top-to-bottom, to trip up.
Things get more interesting, though, when we get to the Western Conference Finals discussion.
Against the Spurs, the Lakers clearly have an overwhelming frontcourt advantage, with Tim Duncan unable to compete single-handedly with LA’s trees. His colleagues either too small or too old to provide an adequate counterbalance to the Gasol/Bynum/Odom triad. San Antonio will turn to its new-look, super-efficient offense to make up for their lack of size, but it’s unclear whether they will be able to consistently generate the pace necessary to make it work. The Spurs will also be seriously out-manned by the size, length and strength of LA’s wings with no good match-up for Lamar Odom. As long as Tony Parker doesn’t completely dissect LA’s perimeter defense, LA should be able to survive what is always a serious test.
The most intriguing Western Conference Finals match-ups, though, would come if either the Oklahoma City Thunder or Denver Nuggets are able to slip through that side of the bracket. As the Thunder showed on Sunday, they’re not afraid of the Lakers and they are talented enough and boast enough star power, in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, to make life really, really difficult for anyone they face, including the defending champions. In Denver, it’s a new-model approach to success in the NBA: a star-free, all-quality rotation that never lets up and executes extremely well. Both the Thunder and the Nuggets are riding high coming into the playoffs – both are 8-2 in their last 10 – and both are very well coached teams that play very well at home.
But even with the Thunder and the Nuggets, the arguments for the Lakers advancing are easier to make than the arguments against. This group of Lakers has beaten a super-efficient offense: the 2009 Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. This group of Lakers has beaten a hard-working, team-centric group with great balance: the 2010 Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. This group of Lakers beat the Thunder last year and beat a good approximation of the Nuggets when they downed the high-octane, hard-charging Phoenix Suns in last season’s Western Conference Finals.
LA has everything you need to be a true contender: good health at the moment, experience, top-end talent, solid coaching, a go-to scoring option a recent track record of success against their biggest threats and, of course, the rings. The Lakers certainly can’t take anything for granted, not with the quality of competition in the West this season, but they take our title as “Finals Favorite” with ease.