What’s Up With The Los Angeles Lakers?

It’s been a very up-and-down NBA season so far, with only a few teams rising to the top and looking like real contenders for when May rolls around. The rest of the pack either looks like bottomfeeders or are too inconsistent to really gauge how their season will turn out. But in looking deeper into that inconsistency, we might be able to make some sense out of the league’s most disappointing teams so far this season. In this series of posts, we’re going to take a look at why certain teams that should be contending are currently struggling. First, we have to start with the most underwhelming team in the NBA that constantly begs the question:

What’s up with the Los Angeles Lakers?

Kobe Bryant. Dwight Howard. Steve Nash. Pau Gasol. Ron Artest. Antawn Jamison. Those are the Lakers six best players. HOW THE HELL IS THIS TEAM NOT INSTILLING FEAR IN EVERYONE BY NOW? We gave the Lakers the benefit of the doubt when the incompetent Mike Brown was running his silly little Princeton offense, but there’s no excuse for the Lakers’ current 9-13 record. Granted, that’s not a terrible record, but it’s certainly not acceptable when you’ve got multiple Hall-of-Famers in your starting lineup. Whether or not you believe Mike D’Antoni is the solution and whether or not you think Phil Jackson would have been a better fit, the Lakers should not be struggling this much still, especially considering that they’ve fared worse under D’Antoni than Brown.

In the Lakers’ defense, injuries have prevented them from reaching their full potential or even develop chemistry yet. But with Kobe and Dwight on the floor at the same time, it’s hard to make too many excuses. Everyone keeps saying, “Once Steve Nash comes back, you’ll see!” or “They still have plenty of time to work things out!” But unfortunately for LA, Nash’s return isn’t going to fix the Lakers’ extensive problems on the defensive end. If anything, it’ll make those problems worse. Gasol’s injury would be another way to deflect how poorly the Lakers have played so far this year, but he really hasn’t done much when he’s been on the court. Gasol prefers playing closer to the basket but D’Antoni’s system has him shooting elbow and baseline jumpers. His complaints about adjusting to the system and the tendinitis that’s been ailing him all season spurred Kobe’s now infamous “put your big boy pants on” quote, one that speaks volumes about the team’s lack of unity, chemistry and yes, leadership.

How much longer before Kobe completely goes ballistic on his teammates?

How much longer before Kobe completely goes ballistic on his teammates?

You can disagree all you want, but Kobe is not the leader the Lakers need right now. And before you write me off as another Kobe hater, let me say that I’m entirely aware of how much more efficient he’s been this season, how he’s leading the league in scoring and how he’s the youngest (that’s YOUNGEST, not FASTEST) player to reach 30,000 points. Without Kobe, this team would have an even worse record. Then again, is Kobe’s leadership what this new, struggling team needs? Watch five minutes of a Lakers game and you can see the pure disdain on Kobe’s face every time Dwight Howard misses a free throw or every time someone misses a defensive assignment. For years, Kobe’s used the same kind of unrelenting, competitive, yelling-at-your-teammates leadership we saw out of Michael Jordan for the first half of his career, and so far, that’s gotten him five championships. But they were all with the best coach in basketball history. What happens now that Derek Fisher and Phil Jackson aren’t around to console teammates not strong enough or not accustomed to Kobe’s verbal beatings and melting staredowns?

Kobe may be leading the charge on the offensive end with more efficient scoring, but the Lakers are 1-10 this season in games in which Kobe scores more than 30 points. ONE. AND. TEN. I don’t care what anyone says, that kind of scoring is not effficient from a team perspective. I still believe the Lakers have time to figure things out, I think that Nash’s return will brighten the gloomy mood in LA right now and I know this team has too much talent to continue struggling like this. But the clock is ticking and saying, “We still have time to work things out,” isn’t as true when a quarter of the season’s already gone by. Gasol and Nash need to get healthy and a solution for Hack-A-Howard needs to be found soon, but the bigger problems are Kobe’s “Eff You I’m Just Gonna Do It Myself And Shoot My Way Into 30+ points” mode and an embarrassing defense. One of those things is fixable, but with D’Antoni and Nash at the helm, that defense might be a lingering problem. D’Antoni’s irritable answer and overreaction to the question of defense certainly helps illustrate how lost this team is on that end of the floor.

I’ve given the Lakers the benefit of the doubt so far. When every journalist in the country was ready to freak out that LA wasn’t winning games so early in the season, I held off. But after tonight’s embarrassing loss to Cleveland, it’s hard to ignore the fact that this is not a good basketball team. Kobe went for 42 points and Dwight Howard had 19 points and 20 rebounds, but NOBODY ELSE contributed. Having Steve Blake out has forced Chris Duhon to play the point, but there’s no excuse for Jordan Hill and Antawn Jamison to be so overwhelmingly average. The Lakers are facing problems with injuries, their bench and their defense, three areas that are hard to overcome, even with Ron Artest playing some pretty solid minutes. It’s still not impossible for this team to be a contender come April and May, but if this type of play continues, they’ll be lucky to make the playoffs.

They still have time and injuries have been a problem, but this team should be so much better.

They still have time and injuries have been a problem, but this team should be so much better.

Lakers Hire Mike D’Antoni

After the Lakers engaged Phil Jackson in talks for the past few days, they made a surprising decision to hire Mike D’Antoni instead. The negotiations with Jackson allegedly broke down, but one source said Jackson was ready to accept the job until he was told the Lakers had already chosen D’Antoni. The Lakers have said they believe D’Antoni to be a better fit for the current roster and there were lingering concerns about Jackson’s health and ability to travel to away games. There were also concerns about Jackson’s triangle offense, which had been very successful with Kobe and Pau Gasol in the past, but might not be effective for Nash and Dwight Howard.

D’Antoni is known for his fast-paced offense and his time in Phoenix with Steve Nash and the high-powered Suns. However, D’Antoni’s career took a turn for the worse in New York as he was unable to properly manage Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. Now in LA, D’Antoni will get the chance to team up with his old point guard Nash and some other enticing superstars like Kobe Bryant and Howard.

Lakers fans should be happy that D’Antoni will be able to properly utilize Nash since LA’s star point guard will now be able to run the pick-and-roll to his heart’s content, but the D’Antoni hiring won’t solve all of the Lakers’ problems. There’s still the issue of how Kobe and Nash will share the ball since both need it in their hands to be effective. There are still health concerns as the team waits for Nash, Kobe and Howard to be fully healthy again. The Lakers will still have problems defending quick and explosive point guards. And even with a defensive-minded coach in Mike Brown, the Lakers struggled mightily on the defensive end. D’Antoni has never been a good defensive coach and abides by the philosophy of high-powered offense outweighing the need for consistent defense. It’s true that the Lakers do have two good defensive players in the post with Howard and Gasol, but one thing’s for sure: if you want to beat the Lakers, you’re going to have to outgun them and outscore them. Because with D’Antoni at the helm, this offense will start to turn around and put up big numbers. It’s just the defensive end that could be a cause for concern now.

Mike D’Antoni and Steve Nash will be teamed up once again, this time in Los Angeles.

Mike Brown Fired

After a disappointing 1-4 start to the season, many in Los Angeles were starting to panic that their star-studded cast wasn’t giving fans a very good Lakeshow. A lot of the blame was placed on Mike Brown, but most were expecting him to turn things around with the Lakers’ upcoming six-game homestand. Unfortunately for Brown, he won’t get that chance.

The Lakers fired their head coach today and are actively searching for an immediate replacement. The Lakers are considering the likes of Phil Jackson, Jerry Sloan, Mike D’Antoni, Brian Shaw, Nate McMillan and Mike Dunleavy. Jackson announced his retirement but certainly would have a hard time turning down such a tempting offer with so many superstars in place. D’Antoni would be superb in redirecting a struggling offense, especially considering his experience and know-how when it comes to coaching and utilizing Steve Nash, but for a team that’s been appallingly bad on defense, D’Antoni is certainly not the right choice for the job. Shaw would be a popular choice among the Lakers’ players given his prior time with the team as an assistant, but Los Angeles would need to request Indiana’s permission to talk to Shaw.

Brown was not the right coach for the job, no one will deny that. Last season, the Lakers failed to reach 100 points numerous times and were nearly unseated by the Denver Nuggets before the Thunder defeated them pretty handily. Brown is a great defensive-minded coach, but nobody saw any of that defensive impact this season. In fact, the Lakers were terrible on the defensive end. And when you combine that with the frustrating Princeton offense that completely slowed down the tempo and took the ball out of Nash’s hands, it’s easy to see why this day was coming. When the Lakers signed Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to join Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, everyone hailed them as the new Western Conference favorites and rightfully so. But Brown’s stubborn offensive sets completely ignored Nash’s elite pick-and-roll skills and slowed down the tempo. Brown’s incompetence completely negated the whole point of signing one of the best point guards in the history of the NBA and took away fast break opportunities for Howard and Gasol, bigs who are effective in running the floor.

I have to confess I never thought it’d be after five games. To the rest of us, firing a coach after five games seems like a ludicrous decision made out of panic. But this is the Laker nation we’re talking about and it didn’t want to be patient anymore. Fans had been calling for his head for some time now, and although there’s always a contingent of erratically impatient Laker fans calling for someone to be fired or traded, there’s been a large outcry at this talented team’s dismal start. Firing your head coach after five games might seem like a premature decision to the rest of the basketball world, but Los Angeles management decided to pull the trigger and start regrouping as soon as possible instead of waiting for the situation to play itself out. The Lakers are used to being successful and they’re used to having things go their way. It’s been a part of their history. Anything less than a title run is unacceptable to the majority of Laker nation. Brown didn’t fit that category and he was the wrong man for the job. So although it seems unfair to let Brown go so soon, Los Angeles is chasing another championship this year and didn’t have time to wait around for Brown to learn how to manage his superstars.

Mike Brown couldn’t figure out what to do with his talented roster. So LA fired him in 5 games.

LA’s Disappointing Debut

The Lakers opened their promising 2012-13 season up on a pretty underwhelming note: with a loss to a Dallas Mavericks squad without Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman. Kobe Bryant played through some foot pain, Dwight Howard played after having back surgery this summer and Steve Nash and Pau Gasol were both perfectly healthy. So what went wrong? And how worried should Laker fans be about such a disappointing and downright bad first game at home?

To sum it up quickly, not very worried at all. Yes, it’s true the Lakers went 0-8 in the preseason. And yes, there were a lot of evident problems on the floor that Dallas was able to take advantage of. But there wasn’t anything that can’t be fixed by the time April rolls around. But for the sake of being thorough, let’s walk through why the Lakers looked so terrible tonight.

  1. Coaching – I’ve defended Mike Brown in the past for his focus on defense, but his implementation of the Princeton offense for a team with Steve Nash is just plain stupid. Nash is a point guard who needs to get out and run on the fast break. The pace of the offense needs to be up. The Lakers should be shooting with 10-12 seconds on the shot clock and dominate the tempo with fast plays. The Princeton offense is slow and dull. Slowing down the speed of the game completely negates Nash’s impact as an effective point guard, rendering him useless. Nash only had seven points and four assists. I can’t remember the last time I saw such an appalling statline for Nash. Steve Blake had more assists for crying out loud. It also hurts the impact Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol could be having: both big men are efficient at running the floor and Howard in a half-court offense allows teams to foul him and send him to the line, where his dismal free throw shooting (3-for-14 last night) hurts the team. This team’s entire starting five is comprised of superstars who have all been the best player on a team at some point in their careers. Not being able to get a win at home with Howard, Nash and Kobe against an injury-depleted Mavs team goes beyond a lack of team chemistry; that’s just poor coaching and management of your personnel.

    The next problem? The Lakers’ health. Howard had a nice statline, but he clearly looked rusty in his LA debut.

  2. Health – Mike Brown certainly has to change a lot of things to get the most out of his star-studded lineup, but he can only do so much while two of the Lakers’ biggest pieces are still healing. Although Kobe and Howard both played in LA’s opener, you could tell they were either rusty or still ailing. Kobe didn’t play as many minutes as we’re used to, although he still finished with 22 points on 11-of-14 shooting. Meanwhile, Howard looked like he was completely out of rhythm. He finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds, but his appalling free throw shooting and a few easy missed shots show he’s not quite back in his groove. Credit Brandan Wright, Elton Brand and Eddy Curry for their defense, but Howard still has to get back into the flow.
  3. Chemistry – Even if they were healthy and had proper coaching for their star-studded personnel, the Lakers need time to develop their chemistry. Steve Nash has to find his place in the offense and free up looks for his teammates. Howard has to figure out what his role on offense is. The offensive pace has to speed up. Kobe has to relinquish some ball control to his All-Star point guard. Pau Gasol was really the only one last night who needs to duplicate his performance every night (23 points, 13 rebounds, six assists).

So all in all, it makes a lot of sense for LA fans to be upset. That was an ugly loss to a team that’s not very good and it wasn’t pretty to watch (no offense Maverick fans, but if you think a Dallas team without Dirk or Kaman will beat LA a few months down the road, you’re dreaming). But as frustrated as fans must be with such an anticlimactic opening night,  it was still only game one. There are bound to be some speed bumps before this superstar cast finds its groove. There’s still a long season to go and Laker haters are kidding themselves if they think this is the LA team we’ll see all year. However, one stat is pretty telling and it’s one that the Lakers may not be able to help down the road: Darren Collison had 17 points for the Mavs tonight. Now Mavs fans were very excited for this acquisition, but I never really was. Here was a guy who was a scrub behind George Hill in Indiana. So if Steve Nash, an eternal defensive liability, is giving up 17 points to Darren Collison, what’s going to happen in the playoffs when the Lakers meet up with Russell Westbrook or Ty Lawson? Just something to think about.

If Nash is getting his ankles broken now, what’ll happen when he faces an elite point guard?

Thunder Storm Back Late In 4th, Take 2-0 Lead

After a 29-point rout in Game 1, it was fairly obvious Game 2 would be a little more competitive. But despite a drastically improved effort from Los Angeles and an off shooting night for OKC, the Thunder stormed back from a seven point deficit with two minutes to play and stunned the Lakers with a 77-75 win in Game 3. Oklahoma City took a 2-0 lead on the series after the Lakers crumbled down the stretch in the hands of the man they usually trust to hit game-winners: Kobe Bryant.

Kevin Durant led the Thunder with 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists, including the go-ahead basket with 18 seconds to go. James Harden was also critical for OKC down the stretch, driving to the basket after the Thunder had fallen in love with jump shots and hitting two critical, contested layups in traffic. In fact, Durant and Harden were the only two Thunder players behind OKC’s 9-0 run to close the game and send the Lakers back to LA facing a 2-0 deficit. Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka took too many shots away from Durant and Harden in this one, even if OKC should keep trying to exploit LA’s weakness guarding point guards (and even though Ibaka’s seven blocks certainly earned him some offensive looks). But as much as the Thunder came back and took this game, Los Angeles definitely helped them out a bit by offering such little resistance.

Kobe Bryant, who has been a hero and savior for the Lakers many times throughout his career, surprised everyone by making a few key mistakes down the stretch that cost his team the game. After a Harden layup cut the Lakers’ lead to five with just under two minutes left in the fourth quarter, Kobe quickly made a bad pass that Durant easily stole and turned into a dunk at the other end. On the next possession, Steve Blake threw a bad pass and it looked like it was tipped by Russell Westbrook, but after the officials looked at the replay, they discovered it really just went through Kobe’s hands and out of bounds. The Thunder didn’t convert on the ensuing possession, but the second turnover fired the crowd up and Harden got his hands on Kobe’s next shot that fell way short of the target. Then Harden made another layup and Kobe bricked a 3-pointer with 36 seconds left. Durant then gave the Thunder the lead with his floater over Pau Gasol, leaving LA with 18 seconds to try and reclaim the lead.

LeBron James is getting a lot of scrutiny for his recent fourth quarter struggles, but Kobe was no better down the stretch last night in Game 2.

But what will stand out the most after this game is the Lakers’ last possession. Everyone in the arena knew who Ron Artest would be looking for on the inbounds pass, and after Kobe’s last few possessions, there was a justifiable fear that he was going to somehow put the Lakers back on top in typical Kobe fashion. But the double screen they ran for Kobe didn’t work and Artest didn’t wait long enough for him to come off the flare screen. Why? Because Steve Blake was sitting wide open in the corner as Russell Westbrook momentarily forgot his defensive duties and moved further toward the paint where all the action was. Artest got the ball to a completely unguarded Blake, who bricked the wide open 3-pointer. Kobe couldn’t get the rebound, Thabo Sefolosha was fouled with one second left and the game was basically over. Kobe clapped his hands in disgust at not getting the chance to right the ship and make up for his mistakes down the stretch, but was Artest wrong for getting the ball to Blake? The answer to that question is absolutely not. Kobe had two defenders on him, Westbrook made a mental error and Blake was wide open. Blake was the dagger in Denver’s playoff hopes in the last series, so getting him a good look for the win wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Obviously Laker fans would have loved to see Kobe get the ball, but you should blame Mike Brown for not drawing up a better play to get Kobe open if that’s your main gripe.

The Lakers’ defense was a lot better, but a fair amount of that can be attributed to the Thunder’s poor shooting and terrible shot selection. Westbrook took too many shots (he went 5-for-17) and so did Serge Ibaka (4-for-11) while Los Angeles made sure its best players got all the looks (Kobe, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol took 55 of LA’s 78 shots). The Thunder will need to improve their shot selections and turnovers after committing 13 in Game 2, but other than that, they proved they can grind a game out when their perimeter shots aren’t falling, a real testament to Harden’s value driving to the basket. However, the Lakers are really running out of options. Bynum had 20 points and nine rebounds while Gasol had 14 points and 11 rebounds, so LA’s bigs were actually involved. The Lakers’ defense was fine and other than falling apart down the stretch, Kobe Bryant was fine too. But they haven’t been able to get anything out of their supporting cast. Blake missed a potential game-winner and had five points. Ron Artest went 2-for-10. Matt Barnes put up a goose egg. And Jordan Hill only had six. But the biggest disappointment has to be Ramon Sessions; Sessions was seen as the missing piece to the puzzle when the Lakers acquired him a few months ago, now he’s just a missing piece. Sessions put up two points last night and is averaging 2.7 points and 1.7 assists in his last three playoff games. Not what you want from your starting point guard. Kobe, Bynum and Gasol all have to step it up at home and be wary of how dangerous the Thunder can be at any time, especially in the fourth quarter. They also would really benefit from anything their supporting cast could provide, but at this point, all OKC needs to do to lock up this series is win one of the next two games at Staples Center.

Kevin Durant didn’t get many shots, but made the most of them and gave the Thunder a 2-0 lead.

Thunder Throttle Lakers In Game 1

The Oklahoma City Thunder unleashed their full offensive power on Los Angeles in Game 1 last night, throttling Kobe and the Lakers in a 119-90 victory that left no doubt OKC means business in the postseason in this growing rivalry matchup. The last time these two teams met, Ron Artest gave James Harden a concussion with a vicious elbow to the head that earned a seven game suspension. After tonight’s beatdown, there’s no doubt that the Thunder haven’t forgotten.

Russell Westbrook lit up the Lakers’ defense in the first half, finishing with 27 points, nine assists and seven rebounds while Kevin Durant came alive in the third quarter, scoring 13 points and leading the Thunder on a 15-2 that put them up by 29 points and left no hope of coming back for the weary Lakers. Durant finished with 25 points and eight rebounds while James Harden had 17 off the bench. Everyone came to play for the well-rested and clearly eager Thunder team in what quickly turned into a rout. Thabo Sefolosha had seven,  Serge Ibaka had six, Kendrick Perkins had four and the Thunder bench outscored LA’s by a huge margin, 50-26. Everyone contributed, with guys like Daequan Cook, Nazr Mohammed and Derek Fisher putting up a decent amount of points. The lead got to as many as 35 and it was such a complete blowout that the Thunder will able to rest their starters with a minute left in the third quarter and complete backups like Cole Aldrich and Royal Ivey got to play significant minutes in the fourth.

The Lakers had no answer for Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant and got smoked in Game 1.

For the Lakers, nothing went right. Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum led LA with 20 points each, Ron Artest had 12 and Pau Gasol chipped in 10. Unfortunately, Kobe went 7-for-18 and even though the Lakers out-rebounded the Thunder 43-41, they committed 15 turnovers while the Thunder only had four. The Lakers looked exhausted by the time the second quarter came around and the Thunder were relentless in knocking down jumpers. OKC shot 53 percent from the field on the night. But what should have been just a bad game got even worse when Lakers’ sub Devin Ebanks was involved in a tussle late in the fourth quarter and was ejected. As Ebanks walked to the locker room, he struck a chair on the bench and took his shirt off in a disgraceful manner reminiscent of Andrew Bynum in the playoffs last year. Ebanks’ actions seemed to be a slight reflection of what the entire Lakers team was feeling after getting thoroughly pounded in Game 1. Even though it’s just one game, last night’s rout showed just how vulnerable LA is and how deadly the Thunder can be, especially when they’re knocking down shots.

For OKC, they really don’t have many areas to improve, although an injury to Kendrick Perkins might raise some concern. Perkins left the game after a dunk that left him gingerly limping down the court. Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Perkins could have returned but he’ll be reevaluated today just to be safe. But that was really the only negative of the night and considering how well Nick Collison played on the defensive end against LA’s inconsistent bigs, the Thunder don’t have much to worry about at this point. For Los Angeles, there have to be a lot of major improvements for Game 2. Kobe has to play lights out. Bynum and Gasol can’t disappear and have to have big games. Ron Artest has to keep knocking down outside shots and find a way to limit Kevin Durant. Steve Blake has to be useful like he was in the first round, which will require him to take more than one shot. But most importantly, Ramon Sessions has got to show up. Sessions has been a complete no-show for the Lakers this entire postseason. What happened to the guy that was supposed to be the missing piece to the puzzle? Sessions has been non-existent on offense and even worse on defense. It’s a tough job to try and stop guys like Ty Lawson and Russell Westbrook every night, but LA has been getting abused by quick point guards so far and Sessions and Blake are the direct cause of that. Mike Brown has got to find a way to emphasize the defense he is so well known for and the Lakers have got to completely regroup for another tough Game 2. But if the Thunder shoot like they did in Game 1, this series could very well be over in four or five games.

James Harden got a little revenge out of the Game 1 rout, but the Thunder aren’t just looking for one convincing victory.

Nuggets Dominate Lakers At Home

The Denver Nuggets finally came out and played with some energy and competitive fire at home in Game 3, jumping to an early lead that they kept throughout the rest of the game, winning 99-84 and cutting the series deficit to 2-1. Ty Lawson had a breakout game with 25 points and 7 assists and Denver held Andrew Bynum to zero points in the first half. The Nuggets actually outscored the Lakers in the paint and once they finally started a game on a fast note, they looked like a tough playoff team that could potentially give LA a run for their money.

A huge factor in Game 3 (and the series as a whole) was how the Nuggets handled being outsized in the post by Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. But JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried had phenomenal games on both ends of the floor. McGee had 16 points and 15 rebounds off the bench while Faried had 12 points and 15 boards. Preventing Bynum from getting involved early was key in Denver expanding their lead to 24 points in the first half as they used a variety of double teams and off-the-ball pressure to keep him from getting looks. Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 22 points, but outside of Bynum, Kobe, Gasol and Ramon Sessions, no one else contributed much for the Lakers. Arron Afflalo still failed to have a great game, but he pitched in 10 points to go along with Danilo Gallinari and Andre Miller’s 13 points apiece. The Nuggets did everything they needed to to compete: they limited the Lakers’ post scoring, got off to a fast start and overwhelmed LA with their overall depth.

JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried were monumental in getting Denver a much-needed win.

Whether or not Denver can keep this up is a different story. The Lakers were able to cut the lead to eight in the fourth quarter and Bynum isn’t going to let himself be taken out of the series just because of a few double teams. If the Nuggets can take care of business at home and tie the series at two games, they could pose a threat to the Lakers. But knowing Kobe Bryant and how well LA has been playing lately, Game 3 can’t be just be a one-time thing for Denver; the Nuggets have to come out strong and play with the exact same energy to let Mike Brown’s team know they mean business.

Ty Lawson’s electric play in Game 3 has to continue for Denver to have a chance. Keep in mind that Lawson has had a speed advantage over Sessions this whole series, but it wasn’t until the Nuggets frustrated Andrew Bynum that Lawson was able to put it to good use. If Denver can get swarm Bynum and prevent him from getting touches again, he will get frustrated and lose interest on both ends of the court. That means that only Kobe Bryant can beat Denver, especially based on how poorly the Lakers’ bench has played in the last two games. Kobe beating a team by himself isn’t impossible, but as long as the Nuggets focus on Bynum and have a decent shooting night, they should at least be in the game at the end.

Kobe Bryant is dangerous in the playoffs, but he can’t do it without Andrew Bynum.

Western Conference Predictions

The West always seems to come right down to the wire in determining its eight playoff teams, and this year is no different. Only 3 and a half games separate the fourth seed in the Western Conference from the tenth spot, meaning that these next few weeks will be critical, not only to determine postseason matchups, but also which teams even get in. Here are my predictions for who will end up in seeds one through eight, including which last three teams will be left out in the end.

1) Oklahoma City Thunder – This one is fairly easy since the Thunder currently have kept their distance from the rest of the West all season long and have now won four straight. It would take a meltdown for OKC to relinquish its number one seed to San Antonio, especially since Gregg Popovich will likely rest his older players as his team’s position in the West becomes more set in stone at the two spot. And despite the fact that OKC has a formidable schedule down the stretch (Chicago, Miami, LAL twice, LAC twice, and Indiana), this is the time of year they could send a message by finishing strong and locking that first seed down. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are playing great ball as always, but if James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins continue to play the way they have been, no one’s going to beat the Thunder in the postseason.

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest of their supporting cast are too good to not lock up the number one seed.

2) San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs could make a push for the first seed, but knowing Gregg Popovich and his older players, San Antonio might just coast in their last few games unless the Lakers and everyone else in the West puts serious pressure on them for the second seed. This seems unlikely since the Lakers are still four and a half games behind the Spurs. San Antonio usually cruises into the postseason and tries to make the switch as soon as the playoffs start, and this season should be no different since the Spurs have a pretty favorable path to the end of the regular season. Plus, Stephen Jackson’s promising play and the recent signing of Boris Diaw and backup point guard Patty Mills should add further depth to an already impressive San Antonio bench. I don’t see the Spurs letting the gap dissolve with such a favorable remaining schedule and they should easily take the two spot.

The Spurs have added valuable role players recently, including Boris Diaw.

3) Los Angeles Lakers – Despite Kobe only shooting 37.8% from the floor in his past six games, the Lakers are currently two games ahead of the Clippers and Mavericks for the third seed. Although Vinny Del Negro received a vote of confidence from his owner and GM and the Clippers no longer have to worry about a firing tearing the team apart, they still have to worry about the negative effect of the fact that Del Negro is staying: the fact that Del Negro is staying. The Clippers will still lose some games because of his poor coaching and a lack of floor experience (Chauncey Billups), and the Mavs have been too hit-or-miss this season to put a run together. So I don’t see LA falling to the fourth spot unless this whole Mike-Brown-benching-Kobe-Bryant-and-now-Andrew-Bynum thing gets blown even more out of proportion to the point that there’s disunity in the locker room (which would eventually lead to Brown getting the axe). Bynum shouldn’t have shot that ridiculous 3-pointer, but Brown needs to tread carefully; the Lakers have been looking like contenders recently, so there’s really no reason to create drama now.

If Andrew Bynum continues to make a big deal about getting benched, there will be problems in Los Angeles.

The last five seeds are really a toss-up at this point, but here’s how I think things will unfold:

4) Dallas Mavericks – Dallas has one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NBA and has been hit-or-miss all season. However, Dirk Nowtizki has been on a tear lately, averaging 25 ppg this month, and another team with a tough remaining schedule is the LAC, who is their biggest competition for this spot. Jason Terry and Dirk bring the leadership necessary for this veteran team to start peaking at the right time. Terry, Jason Kidd and Rodrigue Beaubois have all increased their offensive production in March. Dallas has a horrendous lineup waiting for them, with a particularly rough upcoming stretch (Miami, Orlando, LAC, and Memphis). But if they can get through it with a few wins they get a slight break before taking on the rest of their challenging schedule (Utah, Houston, LAL, Chicago and Atlanta).

Dirk has been putting up big numbers for the Mavs in March.

5) Los Angeles Clippers – LAC’s tough remaining schedule and Vinny Del Negro’s job security will prevent the Clippers from keeping their current spot as the fourth seed in the West. The Clips’ remaining schedule includes OKC twice, LAL, Dallas, Memphis, Atlanta and New York. Chris Paul brings playoff experience, but I don’t think it will be enough to guarantee this team the fourth seed compared with Dallas’ veteran experience and superior coaching. Mo Williams being out for a few weeks is also a big blow to LAC’s bench that Randy Foye and Nick Young might not be able to fill. The Clippers won’t fall apart, but I don’t think they have the chemistry and floor leadership without Chauncey Billups to net that four seed.

Can Chris Paul and Blake Griffin carry the Clippers any higher than a five seed?

6) Memphis Grizzlies – As much as I like Memphis to make some noise in the playoffs this year, their remaining lineup of opponents does not favor the Grizzlies. This season, Memphis is 17-18 against teams in the Western Conference and 12-17 against teams .500 and above. Of the Grizzlies’ remaining 18 games, 13 are against teams in the West and 10 are against teams at or above .500. So despite Zach Randolph’s return and the signing of Gilbert Arenas (which I’m still waiting to be excited about), I don’t see the Grizzlies out-winning the Clippers or Mavs. However, they should grab the six seed and pick up wins against the lesser teams they play thanks to their solid 15-4 record against teams under .500.

Does Zach Randolph have any playoff magic in store for us this year?

7) Denver Nuggets – The Nuggets have struggled this season and never lived up to the West powerhouse they looked like they would become, but their remaining opponents aren’t too intimidating. Denver really only plays the Magic twice, LAL, LAC and OKC to close the season, and their matchup with the Thunder comes at a time when OKC should be resting their starters. However, the Nuggets have been too inconsistent lately to put them higher than a seven seed for now (they beat the Derrick Rose-less Bulls and then lose to the Raptors?). Kenneth Faried stepping up with Nene gone has been huge, but injuries have crippled this team’s chemistry at times (Danilo Gallinari, Rudy Fernandez, Kosta Koufos), and no one has been able to fill the void left by Gallinari.

Kenneth Faried has been a pleasant surprise for the Nuggets this year, but Denver needs Gallinari back.

8) Utah Jazz – I’m still not entirely convinced about Utah. They had a nice winning streak but the biggest reason I’m putting them in the final spot is that I don’t like Houston without Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin and Phoenix is too far behind to catch up. The Jazz have an 11-19 record against teams above .500, and 9 of their last 15 games are against teams that fit that description. The Jazz have definitely turned their season around, becoming one of the hottest teams in the NBA, but I still don’t think they will get the wins they need to pass Denver or Dallas.

The Jazz need Al Jefferson to just keep plugging away.

Didn’t Make the Cut: Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves

9) Phoenix Suns – The Suns are currently only two games back in the playoff race at the ten spot, but I don’t see them closing the gap in time. The Suns have an incredibly tough remaining schedule: Utah twice, Denver twice, LAL, Memphis, OKC, LAC and San Antonio twice. There are too many other teams in the driver seat that the Suns need to lose for me to have any confidence in their playoff chances. If the season wasn’t shortened to 66 games, they’d have a better chance, but there are no guarantees that Phoenix’s hot streak is anything but a desperation push for the postseason. With Utah and Denver looking to turn things around and hold on to their current standings, the Suns will be hard-pressed to beat those teams along with the other powerhouses coming up, so even though I think they will make a run at it thanks to their dramatically improved bench play, I don’t think there’s enough in the tank for Phoenix this year.

Sorry, fellow Suns fans. I just don't see it happening this year.

10) Houston Rockets – I labeled the Rockets as playoff pretenders a long time ago, so Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin missing extended time during the most critical stretch of the season doesn’t help. Goran Dragic definitely stepped up in Lowry’s absence, but now he sprained his ankle and I don’t see this team having enough to get back into the playoff picture. Houston has a much more likable remaining schedule than their competition for a playoff spot, but the Rockets have shown they’re just as capable of beating anyone as they are losing to anyone and I don’t see them grabbing a spot. Unless Phoenix falls away and we see a complete Denver collapse, that is. And the Nuggets’ loss to the lowly Raptors last night shows there’s definitely a possibility of that happening, so Houston fans shouldn’t despair just yet. But I still don’t see it happening for Houston this year.

Dragic filled in nicely until he got injured. Houston is running out of offensive options.

11) Minnesota Timberwolves – Rubio is down. Nikola Pekovic is going to play in pain. JJ Barea is out for the time being. The Timberwolves are 2 and a half games back. Kevin Love is playing out of his mind and Minnesota is still having problems getting much-needed wins. It would take a miracle at this point for the T-Wolves to make the necessary push for a playoff run.

So there are my picks for the Western Conference. Do I have them right? Who did I leave out unfairly and who should be higher or lower on the list?

One man. One beard. One playoff dream barely still alive.

News Around The League

In the past few days there have been a few minor headlines in the NBA worth noting. First of all, the Spurs signed Patty Mills yesterday. Mills has spent this season playing in China because of the NBA lockout. He averaged 5.1 ppg as a backup point guard for the Portland Trail Blazers the past two seasons and will fill the gap left when T.J. Ford retired a few weeks ago. The Spurs have made small, but significant moves leading up to the postseason that should improve their already impressive bench. Stephen Jackson has played well off the bench so far and San Antonio also signed Boris Diaw last week.

The Spurs signed Patty Mills as their backup point guard yesterday to add to their depth.

Another piece of news that has made major headlines (and been blown WAY out of proportion) is Lakers coach Mike Brown’s decision to bench Kobe Bryant in the fourth quarter of LA’s loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday. Brown substituted Metta World Peace for Kobe down 14 with less than six minutes to play, drawing boos and “Ko-be!” chants from the crowd. The media and some fans have blown this move way out of proportion, suggesting Mike Brown’s incompetence as a coach and Kobe’s anger with his head coach. Kobe said he was frustrated with Brown’s decision, but that the decision was ultimately Brown’s to make. Anyone thinking this move was a big deal needs to stop. Kobe has been shooting terribly in the past few games, including that loss to Memphis. Despite the fact that Kobe is considered one of the most clutch players in the league, statistics say otherwise, and Mike Brown is the coach. It was his decision to make, and if a player isn’t playing up to their standards, it’s a coach’s job to put him on the bench. Notice that the Lakers cut the lead to nine at the 1:51 mark without Kobe in, and it clearly wasn’t a personal move against Bryant because Brown put him back in the game at that point. Chalk it up to a dumb yet semi-defendable coaching decision and move on.

Enough of the Mike-Brown-benching-Kobe drama. It's been blown WAY out of proportion.

Meanwhile, the Knicks have put some distance between themselves and the Bucks for the eighth seed in the East, but how long will that two-game gap last? Amare Stoudemire is out indefinitely after the results of an MRI on Monday showed he has a bulging disk in his lower back. The Knicks were able to get a win over the Bucks Monday without Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin, who sat out with a sore knee, but if not for Carmelo Anthony’s elevated performance and an appalling shooting night for Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, things might have been different. To make things worse, Melo, who is the Knicks’ biggest offensive threat without Lin or Amare on the court, tweaked his groin in that game and is listed as day-to-day. Melo said he will be reevaluated and hopes to be ready for the Knicks’ game against the Magic tonight. But if Amare, Lin AND Melo can’t go, New York could be in serious trouble.

Speaking of injuries, LeBron James might have a dislocated finger after injuring it in the Heat’s loss to the Pacers on Monday. He had already been playing with a sore elbow, seeing his field goal percentage drop from 53 percent down to just 40 in the past five games. The fact that he injured his ring finger makes the jokes all too easy, but if LeBron continues to struggle, so will the Heat. However, Miami has plenty of time to turn things around and be contenders in the playoffs even if they don’t finish the regular season on a strong note.

The irony of LeBron dislocating his ring finger is overwhelming.

A few more recent injury headlines. First, Daniel Gibson will likely miss the remainder of the season after an MRI revealed a torn tendon in his left foot. Gibson has averaged 7.5 ppg for the Cavs, who are reeling as it is. Gibson isn’t a huge contributor, but Cleveland needs all the help it can get it at this point. With another loss like this, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cleveland starts to tank. Next, Jerryd Bayless partially tore his left oblique muscle in Monday’s game against the Magic and will be out for the rest of the season. Bayless has averaged 11.4 ppg and 3.8 apg this season for Toronto and averaged 21.8 ppg and 7.6 apg in the five games he started in this month. This is a big loss for an already floundering Raptors team.

To wrap things up, after a week of speculation about Vinny Del Negro’s job security as coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, reports emerged that the Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling and GM Neil Olshey are both behind Del Negro, who will finish the season as head coach. Previous reports had stated that Del Negro had lost support in the locker room and that his job was in jeopardy after a Clippers losing streak, but it appears that for now, Del Negro is here to stay. So you can expect the Clippers to continue to underachieve this year.

Vinny Del Negro is here to stay for the rest of the season. So are the Clippers' problems.

NBA Sunday Recap – 3/25/12

Oklahoma City Thunder 103, Miami Heat 87 – Kevin Durant made his case for the MVP award known loud and clear Sunday night, outplaying fellow MVP-frontrunner LeBron James in the Thunder’s dominant victory over the visiting Heat. Durant finished with 28 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists in a matchup many predict to have been a preview of this year’s NBA Finals. James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins had key contributions as well, especially during the Thunder’s second quarter run that established a lead OKC never relinquished. Despite 7 turnovers, Harden finished with 6 assists, and 19 points, 14 of which came in Oklahom City’s second quarter spurt. Perkins had a season-high 16 points while Ibaka had 19 points and 10 rebounds. Dwyane Wade led the Heat with 22 points and LeBron James pitched in 17, but the Heat never came close in the second half in a thorough win for the Thunder.

Durant's near triple double sent a message to the Miami Heat and the rest of the league

Atlanta Hawks 139, Utah Jazz 133 (4OT) – Utah’s impressive six-game win streak came to an end in a hard fought quadruple overtime game in Atlanta, the first quadruple overtime in the NBA since 1997. The Jazz fell short and were outlasted in the fourth overtime, wasting opportunities to close out the Hawks after having possession on the last play of regulation and each of the first three overtimes. Paul Millsap missed a floater in the lane in regulation. Devin Harris missed a fall-away 3-pointer in overtime. Then Harris’s shot barely rimmed out in double overtime. Finally, Millsap missed a tough 18-footer to close triple overtime. Joe Johnson led the Hawks with 37 points and 8 rebounds and hit a big three to tie the game at 113 with 7 seconds left in double overtime. Josh Smith fouled out with 22 points and 10 rebounds while Zaza Pachulia had 15 points and 20 rebounds. Al Jefferson led the Jazz with 28 points and 17 rebounds while Millsap finished with 25 points and 13 boards. Both fouled out in the final overtime. Utah still holds on to the seventh spot in the West thanks to their prior win streak, holding a tiebreaker over Houston and Denver, who also have a 26-23 record. The Hawks moved ahead of the Pacers into the fifth spot in the East and have won four straight.

Joe Johnson hit big time shots in the clutch for the Hawks

Minnesota Timberwolves 117, Denver Nuggets 100 – Kevin Love followed up his 51-point game against the Thunder with a 30-point, 21-rebound effort in the Timberwolves’ blowout victory of the visiting Denver Nuggets. Minnesota, despite losing Ricky Rubio for the season and playing once again without Nikola Pekovic, is only 2 and a half games out of the eight spot in the West thanks to the recent colossal play from Love. Luke Ridnour added 25 points in the rout of a Nuggets team that is currently in the 9th spot 10 and a half games back and has lost two straight. The Nuggets played without Danilo Gallinari once again, as well as Arron Afflalo who was suspended by the league for one game for throwing an elbow at Gordon Hayward in Friday’s blowout loss to the Jazz. Denver needs to regroup if it wants to make the postseason and doesn’t look anything like the impressive squad we saw at the beginning of the year.

San Antonio Spurs 93, Philadelphia 76ers 76- Philadelphia’s lead in the Atlantic division seems to be slipping away after being routed in San Antonio. Because of Boston’s big win over the Wizards, the Sixers are only a half game ahead of the Celtics and 3 games ahead of the Knicks. The Spurs played without Tim Duncan (rest) and Gary Neal (foot sprain), while the Sixers went without Andre Iguodala (left patella tendinitis). Tony Parker led the Spurs with 21 points and 7 assists. No one from the Sixers had more than 14 points and Philadelphia only scored 27 points in the second half. The Sixers have only hit triple digits 14 times in 49 games this season.

Los Angeles Lakers 96, Memphis Grizzlies 102 – The Grizzlies got a much-needed road win in LA against the newly revamped Lakers thanks to Rudy Gay’s 18 and OJ Mayo’s 16, including a one-man 7-0 run in the fourth quarter to stretch the lead to 13. Andrew Bynum led the Lakers with 30 points and Ramon Sessions added 18, but Kobe Bryant’s slow start prevented LA from building momentum or shortening Memphis’ lead. In fact, Lakers coach Mike Brown benched Kobe for four minutes while being down 10 in the fourth quarter, drawing boos and  “Ko-be!” chants from the crowd. Brown finally obliged, but not before the game was out of reach.

Kobe struggled to find a rhythm and was benched in the fourth quarter for a stretch of time by Mike Brown

Cleveland Cavaliers 83, Phoenix Suns 108 – The Suns are only one game out of the eight spot in the West after throttling the Cavs on the road. Marcin Gortat finished with 22 points and 8 rebounds while Markieff Morris had 22 points of his own off the bench. Phoenix jumped out to a 59-38 lead at the half and never looked back. Cleveland’s Antawn Jamison was injured with a bruised left leg and ankle in the first quarter and left the game. He returned later in the game but was completely ineffective and finished with only 2 points. The Suns have now won six of their last eight.

Boston Celtics 88, Washington Wizards 76 – Avery Bradley’s offensive outburst of 23 points led the Celtics to a needed win over the Wizards, bringing them within a half game of the Sixers in the Atlantic division. Boston played without Michael Pietrus, who sustained a head injury against the Sixers. Ray Allen also sat out with a sore right ankle, while the Wizards went without Nene (back spasms).

Portland Trail Blazers 90, Golden State Warriors 87 – A close contest with the lowly Warriors proved to be a challenge for the Blazers until LaMarcus Aldridge stepped up in the game’s final minute. Raymond Felton lead Portland with 24 points and Aldridge finished with 18 points and 9 rebounds, including a go-ahead jumper with 39.9 seconds left and a pair of free throws to get his team a 3-point victory. Golden State rookie Charles Jenkins led the warriors with 27 points and David Lee added 16 points and 16 rebounds.