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Lakers Widen Lead in West

Kenyon Martin - Dirk NowitzkiThough the Lakers (31-9) have yet to play their best basketball, the defending champions have widened their lead in the Western Conference to five games over second place Dallas and Denver (both 26-14).

Various injuries to Pau Gasol (hamstring), Kobe Bryant (back, finger, etc.), Ron Artest (finger, head, foot) and Luke Walton (back) have limited L.A.’s chances to play at top form, at times affecting the W/L column. Other times – as is customary and necessary in the grueling 82-game schedule – the Lakers simply haven’t played well irrespective of injuries, particularly in January losses to Portland, the Clippers and San Antonio.

Yet the purple and gold won their other six games in January (and final game of December), including an impressive road win in Dallas last Wednesday and a 40-point thumping of the Clips at home on Friday. Meanwhile, none of the other teams currently occupying playoff slots in the West have fared better than 6-4 in their last 10, so L.A.’s 7-3 has afforded a degree of midseason* breathing room:
*Don’t look now, but the regular season is nearly halfway over.

Rank, Team: Record, Win %, Games Back
1) L.A. Lakers: 31-9, .775, 0.0
2) Dallas: 26-14, .650, 5.0
3) Denver: 26-14, .650, 5.0
4) San Antonio: 24-15, .615, 6.5
5) Portland: 25-16, .610, 6.5
6) Phoenix: 24-17, .585, 7.5
7) Utah: 23-18, .561, 8.5
T8) Houston: 22-18, .550, 9.0
T8) Oklahoma City: 22-18, .550, 9.0

Shannon Brown- DirkDallas had been within three games of the Lakers before losing twice this month to L.A. and finishing 5-5 in their last 10; Denver beat Utah on Sunday evening to tie Dallas and win for the sixth time in 10 games; San Antonio and Portland both are 6-4 in their last 10 to keep pace; the Suns and Jazz, like Dallas, have gone 5-5, with Phoenix losing three straight; while Houston (4-6) has dropped steadily in the standings while the Thunder have risen (6-4).

What exactly does a 5-game lead signify?

In some ways, a 5-game lead is like a 10-game lead since wins and losses affect teams by a half game. Each win improves a team by .5 a game, and each loss knocks off a .5 game. So if the Lakers win their next game, they’d improve to a 5.5-game lead over Denver and Dallas, then either go up to 6.0 or down to 5.0 depending on the results of the Nuggets and Mavericks.

That the Lakers have a decent cushion comes at a good time, since the team is about to embark on its longest road trip of the season, an 8-game swing through the East Coast that includes stops in Cleveland, Boston, Toronto and New York.

In the Eastern Conference, there’s more parity at the top, with the 31-11 Cavs holding just a 2.0-game lead over Boston (27-11), 3.5-game lead over Atlanta (26-13) and 4.0-game margin over Orlando (26-14), whom the Lakers face on Monday night.

We’ll be there to cover the action on Lakers.com.

NBA Podcast: Kevin Pelton on the Lakers

Kevin PeltonAmong the websites devoted to covering the NBA from a statistical perspective, BasketballProspectus.com does some of the most detailed, interesting and well-researched work.

In order to examine how some of the more advanced statistics apply to the 2009-10 Lakers through 34 games, we dialed up the site’s lead NBA analyst, Kevin Pelton.

Pelton broke down the plus/minus metric and how it applies to Ron Artest in particular, Kobe Bryant’s increased scoring this season, L.A.’s improved overall defense and more.

To listen, just click “play” below.

Pregame Q&A with Omri Casspi

59193246Kings rookie Omri Casspi, the first ever Israeli player to earn playing time in the NBA, drew pregame praise from Phil Jackson entering L.A.’s second matchup with Sacramento in six days.

Moments later, we spent a few minutes with Casspi – who’s averaging 12.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.2 assists – in the Kings’ locker room prior to Friday evening’s tip at STAPLES Center.

MT: How has the NBA compared to what you thought it might be coming in?
Casspi: It’s like I thought it was going to be. The best players in the world competing every night, guys playing hard … the same as I thought.

MT: You played at the highest level of European basketball in intense atmospheres for your Israeli team, Maccabi Tel Aviv .. Is the biggest difference the individual skill levels of the players in the NBA?
Casspi: The players on my team are better, and the players on the other team are better. Just to compete against those guys night in and night out – Kobe, ‘Melo, LeBron – is a big challenge for me. I’m getting used to it.

MT: Several of the Lakers players, and Phil Jackson, were impressed with how you competed against them last week. Having seen a few other Kings games, that seems to be how you approach every contest.
Casspi: That’s just the way I play. I play hard and compete no matter who it’s against. It’s a big challenge to play the Lakers; for them it might just be another game to play the Kings, but wherever they go, people try to show up and play their best because it’s the Lakers and they are champions. I know because I’ve been in that position in my country. I believe we can win against any team, any where.

MT: Can you describe the NBA’s impact in your country?
Casspi: There are a lot more NBA games shown live in Israel, and more games in general. Obviously there’s a lot more attention now that I’m here. I hope (the Kings are the favorite team) there now.

MT: They better be. Who are the other favorite teams and players in Israel?
Casspi: They better be (laughs). In the 1990′s, it was the Bulls with Michael Jordan. Later it was the Lakers. There are a lot of Lakers fans and just fans in general because Israelis love basketball.

MT: There are seven foreign players combined between your and the Lakers’ roster. Pretty cool, right?
Casspi: It’s a great thing to see and be apart of. Hopefully this continues to open doors for more to come, including in Israel. There’s great basketball being played all over the world.

MT: Finally, what were your impressions of Kobe Bryant after playing against him last week?
Casspi: Even better than what I thought he was. He’s tough, man. He’s coming to play. He’s playing hard, and he’s relentless. He doesn’t stop. He keeps playing and playing and playing – he’s unbelievable to watch. He hasn’t missed a game in two years, right? He just doesn’t quit … I’m looking forward to competing against him once again, though.

Bryant Wins 2nd Straight Western P.O.W. Honors

Kobe BryantFor the second straight week, third time this season and 25th time in his career – an NBA record – Kobe Bryant was named the Western Conference Player of the Week for games played Monday, Dec. 21, through Sunday, Dec. 27.

Bryant averaged 37.7 points per game to lead the NBA, and added 8.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.7 steals (first in the West), leading the Lakers to a 2-1 week. Bryant continued his terrific play despite a motley crew of injuries, including an avulsion fracture of his right index finger and most recently a right elbow strain that occurred at the close of the third quarter of L.A.’s Saturday victory in Sacramento, which featured his two three-pointers in double overtime.

Here’s a recap of Bryant’s week:

Dec. 22 vs. Oklahoma City: Poured in 40 points and added eight rebounds, six assists and two steals in a 111-108 win over the Thunder.
Dec. 25 vs. Cleveland: Recorded 35 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and two steals in a 102-87 loss to the Cavaliers.
Dec. 26 @ Sacramento: Posted 38 points, seven rebounds, four assists and four steals in a 112-103 win over the Kings.

LeBron James earned the nod for his work in the Eastern Conference, and other nominees included Atlanta’s Al Horford, Cleveland’s Mo Williams, Dallas’ Erick Dampier, Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Kaman, Memphis’ Zach Randolph, Miami’s Dwyane Wade, Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Portland’s Brandon Roy.

ESPN’s Ric Bucher: X-Mas Podcast

Ric BucherWhen ESPN’s Ric Bucher joined us last season leading into L.A.’s Christmas Day showdown with Boston, the team was in quite a different state.

We were still hearing phrases like “lack of toughness,” or as Bucher said it, “mental tenacity,” before the Lakers went on to prove their mettle with tough regular season road victories and of course, their journey to the NBA title.

This season, with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers (22-8) coming to town, Bucher told us the one area in which he thought L.A. (23-4) may be susceptible, put Kobe Bryant’s greatness into perspective, looked at the dominance of Pau Gasol and L.A.’s front line and more.

We finished with a quick preview of the Lakers – Cavs game, set to tip off at 2 p.m. tomorrow after ABC.

Smith Close (But No Cigar) to Kobe’s 3-record

JR Smith - Kobe BryantDuring a Wednesday evening home victory over Atlanta, Denver’s J.R. Smith sank 10 three-pointers in 17 attempts, the most by any player this season.

This begs the question … who’s made the most threes in one game, ever?

Reggie Miller? Nope.

Ray Allen? No.

Dennis Scott? Close, but no.

The answer is L.A.’s own Kobe Bryant, who made 12 three-pointers in 18 attempts on Jan. 7, 2003 against Seattle.

Joining Bryant at the top is Donyell Marshall, whose 12 bombs came on March 13, 2005. Scott converted 11 on April 18, 1996, while Smith also managed to get 11 triples to go on April 13 of last season.

Bryant Named West’s P.O.W. … Again

blog_94569071No. 24.

It’s Kobe Bryant’s jersey number, and now, the number of times he’s been named the Western Conference Player of the Week in his career.

For the second time this season, the NBA awarded the honor to Bryant in the West, while 2009 Finals opponent Dwight Howard of Orlando took the accolade in the East for games played Monday, Dec. 14, through Sunday, Dec. 20.

Bryant, despite dealing with an avulsion fracture on the index finger of his shooting hand, led the NBA in scoring (34.5 ppg) and added 5.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.5 steals (second in the Western Conference) in leading the Lakers to a 4-0 week on their Eastern Conference road trip.

Bryant kicked off his week in style with a 42-point effort in L.A.’s 96-87 win in Chicago, reaching his season high in scoring and marking the fifth time he’s scored at least 40 points in 26 games. Against Milwaukee on Dec. 16, Bryant scored 39 points, added seven boards and four assists and most notably swished a game-winning 15-footer in overtime, propelling the Lakers to a came Bryant’s buzzer-beating 15-footer in overtime, as his

On Dec. 19, last season’s Finals MVP recorded a double-double with 29 points and 10 rebounds in a 103-84 win over New Jersey, adding five helpers to the cause. The next night, Bryant tied his season high with five steals Dec. 19 in a 93-81 win over the Pistons, adding 28 points, three boards and four assists.

Other nominees for the Eastern and Western Conference Players of the Week were Atlanta’s Joe Johnson, Cleveland’s LeBron James, Memphis’ Zach Randolph, Miami’s Dwyane Wade, Phoenix’s Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire and Portland’s Brandon Roy.

NBA Podcast: Yahoo.com’s Kelly Dwyer

blogheader_balldontlieOver on Yahoo.com’s popular “Ball Don’t Lie” blog, basketball scribe Kelly Dwyer has been dissecting the NBA for years, and boasts a particularly well-developed understanding of how the Lakers play the game.*
*Triangles are his favorite shape.

We dialed Dwyer from his Indiana home to try and find flaws in a long, loaded squad (not easy), to discuss the all-time merits of Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson (easy), to chat about what’s likely the best frontcourt since the 1986 Celtics (look it up) and to opine on why Pau Gasol might be the league’s best power forward (yup).

Bryant Named West’s Player of the Week

Kobe Bryant POW 500Kobe Bryant was named the Western Conference Players of the Week for games played Monday, Nov. 16, through Sunday, Nov. 22, by the NBA. It’s the 23rd time in Bryant’s career that he’s earned such an honor.

Bryant was terrific in leading the Lakers to a 3-0 week, averaging 29.8 points (second in the West), 6.7 rebounds and a team-high 6.7 assists. Furthermore, with his free throw at the 6:07 mark of the third quarter on Nov. 19, Bryant moved past Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (24,176) for second on the Lakers’ all-time franchise scoring list; Bryant trails only Jerry West (25,192). On Nov. 17, Bryant recorded his fourth 40-point game of season in a 106-93 win over Detroit, which doubled as the 100th 40-point game of his career.

Here is a game-by-game recap of Kobe’s week:

Nov. 17 vs. Detroit: Tallied 40 points, five rebounds and five assists in a 106-93 win over the Pistons.
Nov. 19 vs. Chicago: Posted 21 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in a 108-93 win over the Bulls.
Nov. 22 vs. Oklahoma City: Scored 26 points (including a few H.O.R.S.E. shots) and added six rebounds, seven assists and two steals in a 101-85 win over the Thunder.

LeBron James took home P.O.W. honors in the Eastern Conference. Other nominees for the Eastern and Western Conference Players of the Week were Charlotte’s Stephen Jackson, Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki, Denver’s Carmelo Anthony, Houston’s Luis Scola, Memphis’ Rudy Gay, New Orleans’ Marcus Thornton, New York’s Al Harrington, Orlando’s Vince Carter and Phoenix’s Amar’e Stoudemire.

‘Sheed Around the League – Nov. 20

Rasheed HazzardLast season, Lakers advance scout Rasheed Hazzard often joined us to discuss L.A.’s coming opponents, as he spent much of his year on the road evaluating NBA teams and players.

This season, Hazzard has a new title – “special assistant coach*” – that has him focusing some of his time on developing Lakers’ players, yet his league-wide knowledge hasn’t dipped a bit.
*Hazzard is also an assistant coach for L.A.’s D-League squad, the D-Fenders.

While taking a look at the current league standings, Hazzard helped give us an idea of L.A.’s biggest potential threats out West, discussed which teams are better or worse than their current records, and more.

Click below to listen to the podcast: