When Jerry West talks about the Lakers, people tend to listen. Thus, his recent comments about the two-time defending champs being too told to D up certainly prompted the media for responses today in El Segundo. As expected, nobody in their right (purple and gold) mind would refer to The Logo as a "crazy ol' coot who's a couple of tacos short of a combo platter." Thus, any disagreement was presented in the most respectful of tones.
But there was indeed disagreement.
"You probably won't get me to respond in anyway negatively towards Jerry West. I probably wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him," smiled Derek Fisher of the icon who drafted him and Kobe Bryant back in '96. "I won't respond specifically to him, but anybody else that has anything to say about the way we've been playing defensively is just unfounded and not true. Statistically the numbers are there. In the last 10 or 11 games, we've seen the difference."
Pau Gasol concurred with Fisher's assessment of the recently improved, and addressed the notion of being too long in the tooth. "I don't think we're old enough not to be able to play defensively efficiently," insisted Gasol. "We're gonna get it done and we're getting it done at times. We're not a group old enough not to be able to stop guys and collectively support each other."
For his part, Kobe sees successful defense as dependent more on teamwork and playing to strengths than youth:
"For us, it's about playing as a unit defensively. It's not necessarily, you know, individually, your athleticism or everything like that. It's really guys being on the same page.
"It's great coaching as well. It's going over it every day. And guys being committed to it. We have that here and I think as a consequence, we're a great defensive team."
For what it's worth, I totally agree with those downplaying West's comments. Not that more speed or youthful legs would be a detriment. But more often than not, I think the Lakers' defensive lapses are the result of a lack of focus or execution on either side of the ball, rather than relatively advanced years causing the inability to keep up.
For example, transition defense, typically the area cited most often when people curse a lack of speed. Obviously, these situations can create problems, as we've seen time and time again. But there's also been ample proof (I refer to the evidence as "the last 2-3 seasons") of how often time spent frantically backpedaling is the result of manufacturing the problem. As our man Dave Miller preached, shot selection can make or break transition defense. Careless turnovers kill. Sometimes, the Lakers get burnt by relaxing too much as the ball is taken out of the opposite basket. These are negative catalysts controlled by the Lakers.
Obviously, it's impossible to last 48 minutes without mistakes. And giving credit where credit is due, opponents often force turnovers or a third choice shot. Plus, there are times when the Lakers simply make mistakes while covering in transition, which leads to open looks for opponents. Still, every single transition situation doesn't automatically equal two points, and we've seen plenty of possessions where the Lakers cover beautifully while on their heels. Were age really such an impossible obstacle, would Fisher really be the Laker we see most often disrupting a fast break orchestrated by dudes still in grammar school when he entered the league?
But placed in transition too often, no team will thrive. The Lakers are no exception, and get hurt more than others.
At the end of the day, elite teams have weaknesses. Speed and athleticism (or the lack thereof) is where the lakers can be vulnerable, and where opponents plan their attack against them. But this also goes hand-in-hand with the size advantage scouts and opposing coaches constantly cite as what makes the Lake Show so difficult to stop. There is no squad with three big men as multi-talented and dangerous as Andrew Bynum, Gasol and Lamar Odom. This advantage, plus legitimate depth (health assumed), a treasure chest of experience, coaching and that Kobe character keep the Lakers an enviable team around the league.
Does it mean they're bullet proof? Nope, but none of the contenders wear Kevlar, either, which nervous Laker fans and media often forget. The eventual winner will be crowned as the result of good health, a little luck and dedicated utilization of their collective strengths. The first two factors are obviously a crap shoot, but the third factor is where the Lakers can control as much destiny as humanly possible. Recent history has shown they're pretty good at doing just that, so for the time being, I'll still extend the benefit of the doubt.
The Lakers have a fine chance to showcase that talent Tuesday against the Utah Jazz, who enter Staples Center on a four-game losing streak steeped in accusations of indifferent play. They're also a team owned by the Lakers in L.A. Still, a date with the Lakers has a funny way of mustering a struggling team's A-Game. The Dallas Mavericks proved this last week while snapping a six-game skid at the Lakers' expense, a lesson Gasol insists hit home:
"We understand that they're trying to snap out of that. They're gonna be hungry. They're gonna be ready to play, compete. What better chance to do it than against the Lakers on their home court? Obviously, Dallas was on their home court. We have to be ready. We have to understand that it's a game that we gotta win and start this home stretch on a winning note."
In retrospect, were the Lakers thinking enough about how dangerous a team Dallas was while desperate for a win?
"Probably not," admitted Gasol. "That's what Phil mentioned also. The offense was coming so easy, we stopped paying attention to the defensive details. And as the game started slipping away from us, they got confident, and then there was no way to win it after that. We paid the price."
Speaking of remaining mentally sharp, if you ask the players, that's the key to beating the Jazz. There's enough familiarity between these teams where, as Kobe said, "I'm sure we could flip flop jerseys and execute just as well." With that knowledge on hand, talent and individual performances/matchups obviously come into play, but the equalizer comes in outwitting and out-executing the opponent. That "chess match" aspect of the game is especially appealing to Kobe:
"It becomes more of a mental game, because you have to execute. You have to go through many options, not just the first one. I enjoy that part of it."