The Los Angeles Lakers have won their last five games, and in them Kobe Bryant played an average of 38 minutes, scored 27.4 points, pulled down 6.4 rebounds and dished out 4.2 assists. He was the team's high scorer in four of the five games. On Wednesday night, the Lakers play host to the Sacramento Kings, who are 51-20 after a 112-101 home loss to Milwaukee on Tuesday. In all probability, Bryant won't play in this game because of a mandatory court appearance in Eagle, Colo. The Lakers are 0-2 against the Kings already this season, with one game left between the bitter rivals in Sacramento after Wednesday's showdown in L.A.
Bryant is not only the Lakers' principal scoring threat from the perimeter and on penetrations -- and forms, with Shaquille O'Neal, the most dominant inside-outside pair of scorers in the game -- but he's also their best defender. Both Kobe and Shaq played in only one game against the Kings this season, and although they played well (Bryant: 35 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists; O'Neal: 24 points, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots), it wasn't enough to win a close, 103-101 battle at Staples Center. It is significant to note that neither Brad Miller nor Chris Webber played for Sacramento in that game, and Karl Malone had not yet returned to action for the Lakers.
This is a big game for L.A. The Kings, while not at full strength because of an injury (strained abdominals) to their great backcourt reserve, Bobby Jackson, they will have both Miller and Webber ready for this one. Lakers coach Phil Jackson has to find a way to win this game without Bryant's input if he can't make it back from Colorado.
Without Kobe's versatile game, the Lakers must direct their attack through Shaq and their second inside threat, Malone. Both are capable of posting high scoring numbers in the paint and are good passers from the post. If the Kings double-team either one, high-percentage opportunities will come to cutters to the hoop or open perimeter shooters. This does not require a major adjustment in the team offense since the triangle set is based on the premise of getting the ball inside and creating defensive breakdowns.
The bigger problem for Jackson may come at the defensive end of the floor. The Kings play a high-post game rather than a low-post game on offense. Coach Rick Adelman frequently brings both of his big men, Vlade Divac and Webber (or Miller when he's in the game) above the free-throw line on either side of the lane, and then works his shooters, Peja Stojakovic and Mike Bibby, off them for jump shots. If screener defenders show to help on the jump shooters, the bigs roll to the hoop for dunks. If the defenders sag off the screeners, jump shooters have a field day and all three of Sacramento's bigs can knock down jumpers when they flare to open spots. This high-post setup is especially effective when Shaq's man is the screener.
To contain this element of the Kings' offense, the Lakers' big men must show on the high screens. Then weak-side defenders must get position to give Shaq and Malone help when their matchups roll to the hoop. This has been a flaw in the Lakers' team defense all season. It must be remedied for this game. Bryant would be missed here as well because he's tenacious at getting over screens and is capable of keeping tough pressure on either Bibby or Stojakovic.
The Kings are an excellent offensive team. They lead the league in assists (26.6 per game), are tied with Minnesota for best field-goal percentage shooting (.465) and rank second to Dallas in points scored (103.8). If I were Phil Jackson, I'd put my best defenders on the floor to start the game. That would mean Derek Fisher and Gary Payton in the backcourt. Fisher is a bull-dog type defender who will harass Bibby's every pass and dribble and fight over those high picks. That would leave Payton to cover Doug Christie, a lesser offensive threat, and allow him to roam the interior to deflect passes and create uncertainty in the Kings' offense.
I'd keep Rick Fox as a starter at small forward even though he's struggled offensively this season, and back him up with Devean George. Fox is another intense defender who has had some excellent games against Stojakovic in the past; George is quick and physical and has hops. Both step in and take charges.
Malone's physical style is a good match against Webber, and Shaq can play Divac in their usual game of bump, grind and flop.
I'd keep a tight rotation of reserves. In addition to George, I'd want Kareem Rush in the backcourt for his spot-up shooting, Slava Medvedenko (against Miller) and Luke Walton (for his passing skills) up front. But the focus must be on defense. The Lakers will win if they keep the Kings under 90 points.
And who knows? Maybe Kobe will arrive with his Superman cape for some late-minute heroics like he's done in the past.
Dr. Jack Ramsay, an NBA analyst for ESPN, coached the Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, he is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send a question for Dr. Jack for possible use on ESPNEWS.