The Lakers’ playoff fortunes fluctuate with the same predictability as the stock market.
One bad game seriously dents those chances. One good game gives the Lakers more optimism. But there’s proven to be one key figure ensuring that balance doesn’t completely veer off course.
The Lakers (42-37) enter tonight’s game against the Golden State Warriors (45-34) at Staples Center enjoying a one-game lead over the Utah Jazz (41-38) for the eighth playoff spot with three games remaining mostly because of Bryant’s heroics. He’s averaged 28 points in 45.6 minutes per game in the last six contests.
Yet, the Lakers recognize the delicate balance between leaning and allowing Bryant to take such a large scoring load, while ensuring the fluid ball movement they believe will ensure a deep playoff push. But with the Lakers just trying to make the postseason first, Lakers’ coach Mike D’Antoni concedes that’s clouded his thought process in both handling Bryant’s production and playing time.
“Right now our horizons are short term,” D’Antoni said. “I’m not looking at long term. I don’t think anybody can think long term. We’ll monitor it every game. He said it’s fine and it’s no problem. The difference of 3 or 5 or 10 minutes, we’d like to get him rest, but we’re not in that position. We have too many injuries and too many guys that we need to win.”
In the 113-106 win Wednesday over the Portland Trail Blazers, Bryant finished with 47 points on 14-of-27 shooting, eight rebounds, five assists, four blocks and three steals, and he made all 18 of his free throws in a full 48 minutes.
“He’s been feeling fine. He’s not complaining. So why should we?” Lakers forward Pau Gasol said. “That’s the bottom line. He’s experienced enough where he shows he can handle it and handle it himself. We’re not worried about anything at this point. We’re all trying to give it our best and he’s doing his part.”
Instead, Gasol’s worried about the balance itself.
The Lakers’ win against Portland still featured plenty of points for Gasol (23 points) and Dwight Howard (20 points). Gaso, for one, has averaged 18 points on 58.8 percent shooting in the past five games. But with Bryant taking such a large load just to ensure wins against sub. 500 opponents this week in New Orleans and Portland, Gasol wonders how that dynamic will play out should the Lakers make the postseason. They would either meet the San Antonio Spurs or the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“I’m Kobe’s biggest advocate and I love him to death,” Gasol said. “It’s extremely impressive what he can do as a basketball player. But again, I’d still like to see a couple more ball movement and better flow. Downt he road, that will help us beat the better teams. I’m looking at the big picture.”
The big picture reveals the Lakers have gone only 1-5 against San Antonio and Oklahoma City. Both teams could absorb Bryant scoring at a high volume so long as they tap into their superior depth and speed.
So how do the Lakers ensure the balance between benefitting from Bryant’s immense talent while ensuring he has enough support? To what degree does that fall on Bryant’s responsibility? To what degree does that fall on his teammates?
“That’s up to our coach. He’s the coach for a reason,” Howard said. “You can ask coach those questions. I’m going to do my job. If I don’t get it, I’ll find ways to score. But the biggest thing is not the offense. It’s team defense. You can’t rely on one person on defense. It has to be a team effort. It takes five people to stop a team. We have to do a good job on defense.”
D’Antoni offered a nuanced response, but not with a lot of clarity on how he will handle the dynamic. After all, it’s hard to argue with the results. The Lakers have gone 5-1 in the past six games since Bryant has taken on a larger workload.
“We’re trying to work on that,” D’Antoni said. “That’s always the thing. Obviously we have to get everybody involved. It has to be that way. You have to have faith in everybody. At the same time, I want him to be aggressive. If he plays like he does against Portland, that’s pretty good. But that’s an ongoing thing. That’s something you have to always watch and make sure guys aren’t excluded. But at the same time, you have one of the best offensive guys in the world, maybe the best. You have to exploit.”
Meanwhile, the Lakers hope to center more of their energy on improving on defense. They are in a six-way tie for 21st place out of 30 NBA teams by allowing 101.1 points per game.
“I understand where Pau comes from. I understand where Kobe comes from,” D’Antoni said. “Our biggest focus should be defensively. Offensively we’re going okay. Whether you like the way it’s going or not, we’re going okay. Defensively we can get a lot more better. We can get a lot more activity and a lot more energy and be better there. That’s where we’re going to win, lose or seal our doom. That’s going to be on the defensive end.”
There’s one problem, though.
Gasol and Howard believe the Lakers’ offense influences how they play defense. The Lakers average 14.6 turnovers per game (26th overall), while the Lakers allow 15.9 fast-break points a game (29th).
“That’s something that we’ve been trying to work toward this season,” At first it was all about run and gun, let’s [play] fast pace and score 120 points. That didn’t really fit our personnel that well. We’re trying to slow the game down a little bit by putting the ball inside off actions. It doesn’t always have to be featured directly. It helps our chances against younger and more athletic and faster teams.”
“When you slow the game down, teams can’t run,” Howard said. “When they run, they put you in tough positions because guys have to come out and help in different spots and everyone is scrambling. When the defense is set, everybody knows where they need to be and they’re able to navigate it through an offense, especially for guys like me when I’m back and I can see everything. It’s good for our defense. I’m able to talk and tell guys where to go. But when you’re trying to get back in transition, the floor is spread and everybody can dirve down the lane. It puts pressure on the bigs. For me, I’m trying not to get in foul trouble. I’m a very important piece of the defensive end.”
Either way, D’Antoni said he will still defer to Bryant on his playing time and believes the offensive dynamic will work itself out naturally.
“It’s not an ideal situation for sure,” D’Antoni said. “Nobody wants it. But right now we’ve put ourselves in a position where we have to have it and he’s able to give it.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org