Five things we learned last weekend (March 8-10): Numbers may lie for the Lakers, Liberty and the pursuit the Amazing Race

To help you get through the water-cooler talk back at the start of a new work week:

The Lakers’ ability to climb two games above .500 and win eight of 10 since the All-Star break already has Magic Johnson on the TV set challenging them next to climb up and nab the No. 6 spot. Hang on a sec. We just finished reading Peter Keating’s “The Numbers” piece in the latest ESPN magazine (it’s been on the ESPN.com site since March 6), and we’re not convinced all this adds up to the Lakers hanging on long to this No. 8 spot in the West as it is. Keating’s crunching based on the research by Indiana University professor Wayne Winston exposes a huge hole in Mike D’Antoni’s philosophy when it comes to putting the right combo of players on the floor together. Without Pau Gasol these days,D’Antoni may be limited in what he can do anyway. But with Gasol and Dwight Howard both in the lineup at the same time, the data shows huge inefficiencies. Same when D’Antoni takes both Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace off the floor at the same time. “Smart teams find ways to rest their key guys instead of just putting lineups on the floor,” Winston is quoted as saying. “D’Antoni hasn’t done that. And it’s really hurting the Lakers.” The only thing D’Antoni says these days about the injured Gasol is that he’s “coming on” and “if there are no setbacks, he should be back” before the end of the regular season. Unless D’Antoni finds a way to screw it up.

Tiger Woods’ latest approach to his climb toward the most career PGA wins is pretty TV-friendly: Built a huge lead after three rounds, then dodge and dart your way to the finish to keep the audience transfixed. He’s won 41 of the 43 times when he’s gone into the final round with an outright lead. It’s just that the last two — a few weeks back in San Diego, and this weekend at Trump’s Doral Resort — has come with some extra strands of drama. How could he possibly derail a sure win? He tried playing faster at times Sunday, walking up the fairway just seconds after his shots to stop thinking so much about what was possibly happening.  He’s also got new putting tips from Steve Stricker. Whatever works.

Give us Liberty, at 15-20, as an NCAA Tournament automatic qualifier already. The Big South says so. Where ever that may be. We just know the school that the late Jerry Falwell built and now his son runs as its chancellor has a .429 winning percentage – the lowest for an NCAA tournament team since Oakland (Michigan) was 12-18 (.400) in 2005. Must be some divine intervention at play here. If this is a sign of the things to come as the rest of the conference tournaments play themselves out for kicks and giggles, we’re all for it. It’ll only make the NIT that much stronger.

Denny Hamlin says he doesn’t want to be a “Denny Downer,” but NASCAR’s new Gen 6 rigs aren’t all that great he said after finishing third a week ago in Phoenix. Then NASCAR fined him for violating their rules against saying bad things publicly about the sport. Then Hamlin said he’s not paying the penalty because he was “severely disrespected.” NASCAR doesn’t need any Freedom of Speech issues on its docket, considering it’s trying to figure out how to navigate its way through the news that its April 13 Cup race in Texas will be sponsored by the National Rifle Association. It should all sort itself out before the circuit comes to Fontana on March 24.

Dave and Connor O’Leary deserve to win the 22nd run of “The Amazing Race” based on how many legs they’ve finished first despite dad (58-year-old Dave) competing essentially on one leg. Honestly, they’ve put hockey brothers Bates and Anthony (now in seventh place) and Roller Derby moms Mona and Beth (just ahead of them in sixth) to shame with their grit and endurance, the latest journey that ended with them grabbing the right surfboard on a Bali beach and taking it to the finish line. The promos for next week shows Dave wearing a Lance Armstrong “Livestrong” yellow T-shirt as they continue on — did you know the two Salt Lake City residents are each cancer survivors, and the 21-year-old Connor is a pro cyclist for the Livestrong team, as well as competing for the Under 23 USA National Team? Please, don’t let any kind of banned substances scandal somehow derail this inspirational story before they end up on the Oprah Channel confessing it was all a hoax.

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