The regular season bores the Lakers.
Every year, the Lakers lose focus like a five year old in an algebra class. While it’s frustrating to the fans, the Lakers have proven that they know what they’re doing. Better to start slow and finish with a flurry.
Maybe they just mirror the laid-back lifestyle of their hometown, and maybe they have a flair for the dramatic, but the 2011-12 Lakers have saved their best basketball for the playoffs – when it matters most.
Coming off an abbreviated training camp, with a new coach, new system, and seven new players, the Lakers battled through relentless trade rumors, an injured Kobe Bryant, and an infamous MWP elbow to finish strong and confident heading into the playoffs.
The Purple and Gold have scratched the surface of their potential at times, but those scratches have turned into open wounds lately. Whether is a triple-double from enigmatic Andrew Bynum, or useful production from the bench, the Lakers are starting to realize what they’re capable of.
Until the “elbow felt round the world,” MWP was playing more like the Ron Artest of years past. Oftentimes the target for the amnesty clause, MWP had a horrendous start to the season. Not only was he out of shape – he was just bad. MWP shot 28% from the field and 16% from behind the arc in the month of January, averaging a paltry 3.6 points per game.
MWP was a black hole at the small forward position. He was too slow to defend and a detriment to the offense. But, as the season wore on, MWP got in shape and made more shots. He averaged 5 points per game in February, 8.3 points in March, and 14 points per game in April.
Another knock on the Lakers during the early parts of the season were that they are too old and slow to compete with the run and gun Thunder. Then the trade happened.
The Lakers shed Derek Fisher, Luke Walton, and Jason Kapono for Ramon Sessions, Jordan Hill, and Christian Eyenga. Not only did they get younger, but they got quicker and more skilled at the point guard position.
Older teams like the Lakers suffer the most in a shortened season with a compacted schedule. Especially when they play 17 games in the first full month of the season. The monthly breakdown for games is as follows: December (5), January (17), February (13), March (17), and April (14).
Now compare that with the number of times the Lakers scored over 100 points. Dec (0), Jan (3), Feb (3), March (9), April (7). Let’s go even deeper and see how many 100-point games the Lakers had with Sessions on the roster. Before Sessions, the Lakers scored 100 points in 11/43 games. With him, they reached 100 points 11 times in 23 games.
And keep in mind that Bryant missed seven of those 23 games.
It is also worth noting that the Lakers were completely spent last year when they met their demise in the second round. Continued deep playoff runs and offseason basketball commitments finally caught up to them. Kobe and Pau learned from that and are focused and fresh.
The new system, new coach, new players, limited practice time, and a condensed schedule combined for a slow start. At that time, Fisher and MWP contributed next to nothing in terms of offensive output and perimeter defense.
But in the final two months of the season, the Lakers started to figure it out. MWP played himself into shape and wasn’t an offensive liability. Sessions added quickness and scoring, while taking some of the pressure off of Bryant. What used to be the worst point guard/small forward tandem in the NBA became productive and efficient.
A Team Effort
As for the bench, there’s no coincidence that they found their game around the time Bryant sat out seven games with an injury. Go back to the 2000-2001 season where Bryant missed a plethora of games toward the end of the year. When he came back, that squad went on to dominate the playoffs winning 11 consecutive playoff games, and 15/16 overall.
When Bryant is out, the Lakers move the ball more and the rotation opens up. Devin Ebanks and Jordan Hill get more minutes, and minutes breed consistency and confidence.
Most teammates naturally ceed their shots to Bryant. They are pressured to make their limited shots because if they don’t, Kobe won’t be happy. When he’s out of the lineup, players get a chance to be themselves and generate offense using the entire team. The seven games Bryant missed this year allowed the rest of the team to remember what it was like to be basketball players.
By sitting out of games, Kobe witnesses what it’s like to be a part of the offense, and not the offense itself.
Transition is tough and breaking old habits can be painful, but the Lakers have found their identity and trust each other now. It’s a good thing because if there’s one thing that Lakers fans have learned over the years, is that it is not how you start the season, but how you finish it.