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LAL in OKC for New-Look Thunder

The title of this post could have included a qualifier of “sort of.”

After all, Kendrick Perkins, the primary piece in Oklahoma City’s trade deadline deal with the Boston Celtics, is expected to miss 2-3 weeks with a sprained MCL. He suffered the injury in Boston’s Tuesday win over Golden State before being shipped to the Thunder. So while it’s a different OKC team from the one the Lakers beat in Los Angeles on Jan. 17, it’s not yet a complete team.

Gone are Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic to Boston, while Nate Robinson came over along with Perkins, who tore his ACL in Game 6 of the NBA Finals last season against the Lakers, and had played only 12 games since returning from surgery to average 7.3 points with 8.1 rebounds.

Oklahoma City got drubbed 111-88 in Orlando on Friday, an unfortunate matchup against an angry Dwight Howard who’d called out his teammates after the previous game, since Krstic was in Boston and also-acquired Nazr Mohammad (Charlotte) had yet to clear his physical. As such, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison started at the four and five positions, with rookie Cole Aldrich the only big off the bench, and watched Howard rack up 40 points on 16-of-20 shooting.

On Sunday against the Lakers, Thunder Coach Scott Brooks may not want to use two power forwards in Ibaka and Collison against two 7-foot centers in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, which could mean a starting slot for Mohammad in his first game in OKC. In related news, Mohammad happened to have dropped 16 points in 24 minutes against the Lakers in L.A.’s Feb. 14 loss at Charlotte.

James Harden, charged with picking up some of the scoring slack left by Green, played 36 minutes off the bench in Orlando to score 16 points, while Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook continue to pull a ton of scoring weight from the perimeter.

The tip off is at 11:30 Pacific, and will be aired nationally on ABC as well as locally on 710 ESPN radio.

Lakers in Portland for Aldridge, not Roy

They’re not quite the Charlotte Bobcats, but the Portland Trail Blazers have nonetheless been a major thorn in L.A.’s side over the past few seasons, at least when playing at the Rose Garden.

In fact, the Lakers had lost nine consecutive games dating back to Feb. 23, 2005, before a Kobe-Bryant-less squad won in Portland on Feb. 6 of last season. Even with that win, the Lakers are just 3-15 in their last 18 trips to Oregon.

Phil Jackson’s “they wanted it more than we did” phrase comes to mind from those games at least in the past few seasons, the Blazers and their boisterous fans approaching the two Laker games each season like Game 7 of a playoff series, but L.A. treating the games like … well, just another regular season game.

That could explain why the Lakers failed to win in Portland in two of the past three seasons (1-5 overall) while going to the Finals in each campaign. Another major factor was the play of Brandon Roy, Portland’s best player over that period of time.

But this season, Roy has played in only 23 games while battling troublesome knees, averaging career lows of 16.6 points 3.3 assists and 2.9 rebounds, numbers he exceeded even as a rookie in 2006-07. Even though the Oregonian reported Wednesday morning that Roy is likely to return against the Lakers, the current reincarnation of the Blazers may belong not to Roy, but LaMarcus Aldridge.

Since Roy was shut down on Dec. 15, Aldridge has turned into a basketball monster. He’s gotten a bit better every month, going from 15.7 points in October to 18.9 in November, then 20.4 in December and 24.9 in January. Now in February, Aldridge has gone off entirely, averaging 29.1 points with 8.3 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 1.6 steals, all season highs for a month except on the glass (he grabbed 10.4 per game in January). He’s scored at least 34 points in five of nine February games, seven of which were Blazer wins, and hit the 40-point mark twice.

The University of Texas product had to pick things up due not only to Roy’s absence, but also that of center Marcus Camby, battling his own knee injury since January 15, who will be out of the line up against the Lakers. Replacing Camby is the much smaller Dante Cunningham, plus Joel Pryzbilla off the bench. Guards Andre Miller and Wesley Matthews have been solid throughout the season, while Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez see the rest of the minutes on the wings.

It’ll be interesting to see how Roy’s able to play on his knees, but regardless, the Lakers know they’ll have to deal with Aldridge.

Lakers 8-1 in 2nd Game of Back-to-Backs

Usually, earning a victory on the tail end of a back-to-back is among the harder things to do in the NBA, particularly for one of the league’s older teams like the Lakers.

Yet this season, L.A. has gone 8-1 in such contests.

Thursday night produced a 92-86 victory over the Celtics to improve the Lakers’ record to 7-3 on the front end of back-to-backs heading into Friday night’s latter half at Madison Square Garden against New York.

One reason for L.A.’s success in back-to-backs this season has been the play of Kobe Bryant, which runs contrary to a prevailing notion that he’s better when having a day or two to rest. Bryant is averaging 27.7 points on 53 percent shooting (and 40 percent from three) with 5.6 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 1.67 steals. Each one of those statistics surpass his season averages of 25.4 points on 45.9 percent shooting (31.5 percent threes), 5.0 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 1.25 steals.

Lamar Odom’s and Andrew Bynum’s numbers are also up slightly in such contests, though Pau Gasol’s are down, though the Spaniard in particular often plays better against better teams. This makes sense as the Lakers have beaten, in order: Sacramento; Detroit; the Clippers; Indiana; New Orleans; Phoenix; Golden State; and Oklahoma City on the second night. The only loss came at Houston on Dec. 1, a night after losing at Memphis.

The Lakers only have six sets of back-to-backs left after the Boston-New York combo a season after playing in 20. In fact, the only other time the Lakers have played 15 or fewer sets of back-to-back games came in the team’s first NBA season, 1948-49, when they also played 15. Chicago, Milwaukee and Atlanta are atop the NBA with 23 back-to-backs each in 2010-11, while Oklahoma City (17) and Phoenix (16) have the next fewest after the Lakers.

We’ll see in a few hours whether or not the Lakers can bring their B2B record up to 9-1 on night No. 2, or if tired legs from Boston catch up to the twice defending champs.

Lakers Look to Length in New Orleans

On Dec. 28 in New Orleans, the Lakers used their length to great effect in Andrew Bynum’s first start of the season, using a 33-18 margin in the second half to cruise to a 103-88 victory.

Bynum was too much to handle on the block for Hornets center Emeka Okafor, who conceded 18 points on 8-of-12 field goals to one of L.A.’s two 7-footers, while Lamar Odom came off the bench for 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting. Bynum and Odom added 17 more points apiece in another Lakers win a week later, with Pau Gasol adding 21 as New Orleans again struggled with L.A.’s length.

On Saturday evening in the Big Easy, the size disadvantage will be even worse for the Hornets, as Okafor will miss his third straight game with a strained left oblique, not to mention former Laker Trevor Ariza being out with a sprained right ankle. Compounding the loss of 40 percent of their starting line up, point guard Chris Paul — still arguably the league’s best, though we should include Deron Williams and now Derrick Rose in the conversation — rolled his ankle in N.O.’s last game, a 104-93 loss to the Thunder.

The injuries leave a front line combo of Jason Smith and David West to go against Bynum and Gasol. Smith, who’s listed at 7-feet but is really more of a perimeter based big who can knock down face-up jumpers, which also happens to be the strength of West’s game. So while the Hornets will be a small team, they still don’t get out and run much, as shown by their failure to score 100 points in three of their last four games, three of which were losses (at Sacramento, at Phoenix, at Oklahoma City).

New Orleans has been particularly good at home of late, however, winning six straight in New Orleans including an impressive 96-72 victory over the league-leading San Antonio Spurs. And they do it in part with defense, holding teams to an average of 92 points per game, the second fewest in the NBA. The Lakers expect to see some zone to try and slow down their bigs, while the Hornets will surely try and spread LAL out at the defensive end with the shooting range of their bigs, including backup David Andersen and his three-point shooting range.

Tipoff is at 5 p.m. Pacific.

Lakers – Warriors Podcast Preview

To take a closer look at the Golden State Warriors heading into Wednesday evening’s contest in Oakland, we called up Warriors radio voice Tim Roye to talk about Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis, why the Warriors — currently 5.5 games back of the eight spot — think they could sneak into the playoffs and how playing against the Lakers will be all about tempo.

To listen, click play below:

Lakers Draw Hornets on Back-to-Back

A night after falling to San Antonio in Texas, the Lakers find themselves 545 miles east for a Wednesday evening contest against the New Orleans Hornets.

Just like the Lakers, New Orleans opened the season 8-0 before falling to Dallas by three, and then won three more to reach 11-1 and rank first in the NBA while beating quality opponents like San Antonio, Denver, Miami and the Mavericks in a back-to-back rematch. But since then, the Hornets have struggled, going 7-12 to bring their record to 18-13, down to sixth in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, the Lakers certainly haven’t been playing good basketball, losing three straight games by double figures to fall to 21-10, tied with Utah for third in the West.

As much as it’s difficult to look past what’s plaguing the Lakers right now, whether it’s Kobe Bryant’s field goal percentage in the last five games (39 percent), Pau Gasol not playing like Pau Gasol (15.8 points per game in last five), Andrew Bynum not being fully ready yet (despite looking better against the Spurs) or a lack of consistent defensive energy, Phil Jackson is taking the long view. He, of course, has been down this road with a twice-defending champion three times in the past.

“The idea is to come into the playoffs in the best shape you can as a team,” said Jackson. “You want to have home court advantage in the first round, get your game going. We’re still 50 games away from there. There’s a long ways to go.

“The contagion is to be calm under duress, and that’s what we want them to have. Anger is OK. Frustration is going to happen when you don’t shoot the ball well.”

Against New Orleans, shooting it well should prove important, because an athletic, stingy Hornets D has allowed 100 points only seven times this season. Plagued by a lack of typical ball movement, the Lakers have failed to score more than 82 points in their last three losses.

Bryant’s 8-for-27 shooting struggle against San Antonio typified that lack of ball movement, and had both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol suggesting after the game that the Lakers need to return to their general game plan of getting the basketball inside. At the same time, the Lakers acknowledged that Bryant’s aggressive nature on offense can be both positive and necessary, if not for an entire game.

“I liked his energy to come out and set a tone,” said Jackson. “I thought in the 4th quarter he had a chance to get himself going again, even though in 3rd quarter nothing seemed to go right for him. He came out with a purpose and established something. He took the first seven shots, six shots; made the first (three), and then it was time to slow it down a bit and get everybody involved.”

Bryant was at least happy to see the team’s defense improve, and it did particularly in the first half until all the missed shots in the second stanza led to easy run outs upon which San Antonio capitalized.

“The effort was there,” said No. 24. “It was much better. I couldn’t put the ball in the basket and it snowballed from there. It’s my responsibility to make them. I had some really good looks. I gotta put those down, period.”

Bryant’s always been able to shift his game around what the defense shows him when he wants to, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him engage Gasol, Bynum and Lamar Odom early against the Hornets, who will likely start former Laker — not to mention the guy who defended Bryant during pregame warm ups — Trevor Ariza on Bryant. The Hornets also start shooter Marco Belinelli on the wing, with David West and Emeka Okafor manning the front court positions and, of course, Chris Paul running the show.

Paul’s scoring and assist numbers are down from a season ago alongside his minutes, as he’s playing only 34.8 per game instead of the 38 he averaged in 2009-10, due in part to a sore knee. Nonetheless, the Lakers expect a steady diet of CP3 pick and roll action, and will have to show that they can defend it.

The contest tips at 5 p.m. Pacific, and you can watch on KCAL/9 HD or listen on 710 ESPN radio.

San Antonio’s Early Sets

The San Antonio Spurs have been a defensively structured team for the majority of their run with Coach Gregg Popovich and center Tim Duncan, using a formula that’s produced more success than any team not named the Lakers since 1999, to the tune of four NBA championships.

But this season, the Spurs have been a whole different beast on offense, actually scoring the fourth most points in the NBA (106.2), while leading the NBA in three-point shooting (40.8 percent) and ranking third in assists (24.1) and fourth in overall field goal percentage (47.3 percent). And while Phil Jackson said after Monday’s practice in L.A. that Tim Duncan remains a central piece to what they’re doing on offense despite his more limited playing time (29 minutes per game) and scoring (13.6 points), the Lakers recognize that San Antonio’s early offensive flow game led by Tony Parker and often finished by Manu Ginobili and Richard Jefferson is piling up some serious points.

In fact, the Lakers video scouting and coaching staff put together a detailed description of this offensive element, which you can read in full over at the Lakers Courtside Connection, and which we’ll summarize below:

The Spurs have been buttering a lot of bread with an offensive sequence they call “WEAK,” which begins with Parker delivering the ball to the wing and making a cut over to the opposite wing, where the ball swings back his way. Duncan will use a screen to get over to that side, and if Parker doesn’t want to call Duncan’s number, he can look for the screener to pop off Tim’s man. If none of those early options are on, Parker will run another screen and roll called “WEAK ROLL” with Duncan that — in contrast with most screen rolls — takes place below the free throw line extended and changes defensive coverages.

Now, if San Antonio still hasn’t gotten a shot it likes out of that action, they can run something called “WEAK DOUBLE,” which starts similar to “WEAK” but has Parker come back to the strong side of the screens and attack the defense himself.

In addition to the myriad other sets the Spurs run, this is what L.A.’s coaches have gone through with the Lakers players, and upon what Kobe Bryant and Co. will try and focus at the 5:30 p.m. (Pacific) tip. Particularly after getting blown out twice at home, the Lakers have a bit of extra motivation to try and hand San Antonio just their third home loss of the season. How the Lakers play against San Antonio’s early offensive sets and how they respond mentally will go a long way towards seeing whether L.A. avoids a rare third straight loss.

Lakers – Heat Preview Podcast’s NBA contributor Kevin Arnovitz has seen every minute of Miami Heat basketball this season, which will of course happen when you’re the Editor of the Heat Index.

Arnovitz joined us for a podcast to detail the Christmas Day contest between the Lakers and Heat, discussing both the matchup itself and offering his take on both how the Heat have played through this point of the season and what he expects going forward.

To listen to our conversation, just click below:

Lakers & Heat X-Mas Factoids & Numbers

The Lakers – Heat game on Christmas Day at STAPLES Center may end up having nothing to do with matchups, statistics, scouting reports or anything so tangible and depend more on what type of effort the Lakers bring to the contest:

A: Fiery and inspired like against Boston for the 2009 X-Mas game, which resulted in a 92-83 win that snapped Boston’s franchise-record 19-game winning streak.
B: Less fiery and less inspired like against a hungry Cleveland for the 2010 X-Mas game, equaling a 102-87 loss.

But that doesn’t mean the numbers and facts aren’t fun to look at, so here are more than you need:

Lakers Christmas Factoids:
- The Lakers have played on Christmas Day 36 times, beginning back in 1947 when they beat the Ft. Wayne Pistons. Now in season No. 63, the Lakers have gone 20-16 (11-7 at home), tied with the New York Knicks for the most victories.
- Saturday’s contest will be the 12th straight X-Mas game for the Lakers, going back to 1999, though the Lakers have managed only four wins with seven losses.
- This marks the fourth Christmas game against the Heat, who have beaten the Lakers on each occasion: 104-102 (OT) in 2004, 97-92 in 2005 and 101-85 in 2006.
- Kobe Bryant will be playing in his record-tying 13th X-Mas game, along with Boston’s Shaquille O’Neal, to match the mark of Dolph Schayes and Earl Monroe. Bryant ranks second all-time on the Christmas points list behind Oscar Robertson (377) with 304 points.
- Phil Jackson played in 10 Christmas Day games as a player, and will be coaching his 18th (7-0 with Chicago, 4-6 with the Lakers).
- The Christmas day games will air in 215 countries in 43 languages, with 25 international players competing out of 18 countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Congo, France, Great Britain, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Puerto Rico, Russia, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland, and Turkey.

Field Goal Percentage:
Lakers: .464 (10th, led by Lamar Odom’s .584, 2nd in the NBA)
Heat: .474 (5th, led by Chris Bosh’s .504)

Field Goal Defense:
Lakers: .434 (4th)
Heat: .425 (1st)

Three-point Percentage:
Lakers: .382 (7th, led by Steve Blake’s .460, 9th)
Heat: .392 (3rd, led by Carlos Arroyo’s .512, 2nd)

Three-point Defense:
Lakers: .332 (5th)
Heat: .307 (1st)

Lakers: 44.8 (2nd led by Pau Gasol’s 11.1, 6th)
Heat: 42.6 (5th, led by Bosh’s 7.9)

Opponent Rebounds:
Lakers: 42.0 (18th)
Heat: 40.13 (7th)

Lakers: 23.0 (7th, led by Kobe Bryant’s 4.6)
Heat: 20.17 (22nd, led by LeBron James’s 7.2, 12th)

Lakers: 106.4 (5th, led by Bryant’s 25.9, 3rd)
Heat: 100.8 (12th, led by James’s 24.3, 7th)

Opponent Points:
Lakers: 97.9 (16th)
Heat: 91.5 (1st)

Point Differential:
Lakers: +7.59
Heat: +9.36

Lakers: 8.25 (7th, led by Ron Artest’s 1.61, 15th)
Heat: 6.80 (22nd, led by Dwyane Wade’s 1.52, 19th)

Lakers: 5.07 (14th, led by Pau Gasol’s 2.11, 8th)
Heat: 5.53 (8th, led by Joel Anthony’s 1.35)

Lakers: 13.75 (8th)
Heat: 13.33 (3rd)

Opponent Turnovers:
Lakers: 14.32 (17th)
Heat: 13.83 (22nd)

Lakers Draw Farmar, Nets on Sunday

For the first time this season, the Lakers will compete against a former teammate from the 2009-10 championship roster, as New Jersey’s Jordan Farmar takes the court for a 10 a.m. Pacific tip off on Sunday in Newark.

Farmar, also the backup point guard on the 2008-09 title team in Los Angeles, may actually have a chance to start against Derek Fisher … this because regular Nets starting PG Devin Harris is listed as a game-time decision* due to a hard fall on his shoulder in a Thursday loss to Dallas.
*UPDATE: Harris will start.

Phil Jackson, who coached Farmar throughout his three seasons in Los Angeles, said that he and his staff “keep an eye on him” and track how Farmar’s doing. Jackson said that the team’s decision not to re-sign Farmar was a financial one more so than a basketball one.

“Jordan’s a talented athlete and he should have a good NBA career… Jordan helped us win,” Jackson said, specifically recalling a few key moments such as Game 3 of the Western Semi’s against Houston in 2009 when Farmar played very well in a starting role due to Derek Fisher’s suspension.

Farmar has started two games for the Nets this season, and has been an effective offensive option off the bench in 21 other games, averaging 10.4 points per game plus 4.6 assists and 1.09 steals in 26.1 minutes, all career highs. He’s shooting 35.6 percent from three, but only 38.4 percent overall from the field, offsetting his much-improved free throw percentage of 85.4 percent.

Farmar said he’s happy in New Jersey both on and off the court, boosted away from the arena by his baby girl (five-month old Phoenix Farmar) and at the arena by an increased role with the team.

“I’m getting a chance to play basketball in a little different light, do some more things on the floor, have the ball in my hand, run the team,” he said. “It’s been a growing process, a good experience for me.”

Nets Coach Avery Johnson has often deployed a two-point-guard line up of both Harris and Farmar down the stretch of games, though New Jersey has struggled while winning only six times with 17 losses. While Farmar is optimistic about New Jersey’s future and is taking the long view with a young team that has room to grow, he naturally misses his old teammates.

“Those guys are family in (the Lakers locker room),” he said. “We’ve been through wars together. I wish them nothing but the best except when we’re going against each other. I miss those guys, but at the same time, I love the new guys we have here and what we’re working towards. Our record doesn’t show how far we’ve come this season.”

Farmar’s best friend on the Lakers, Luke Walton, met Farmar for dinner in New York City on Saturday night, while he said he keeps in touch with several other players as well.

Lakers fans will have a chance to see the L.A. native Farmar back at STAPLES Center on Jan. 14*, while fellow former teammates D.J. Mbenga (New Orleans) and Josh Powell (Atlanta) come to Los Angeles on Jan. 7 and Feb. 22, respectively.
*The Lakers will present Farmar (and then Powell and Mbenga) with his 2010 championship ring prior to that contest in a pregame ceremony.