- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- If you were buying what Kobe Bryant was selling following the Los Angeles Lakers’ 102-93 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday, falling to 0-2 on the season against the Thunder is not a reason for the Lakers to feel down about their playoff chances.
“Last year when we played Dallas, I think we beat them every time during the regular season,” Bryant said. “So, (playoff success is) all about how teams continue to improve throughout the course of the regular reason.”
Before you agree with Bryant and throw the significance of Thursday’s loss out the window, consider two things:
The Lakers were 2-1 against Dallas during the regular season last year, not undefeated as Bryant remembered so it wasn’t exactly unprecedented when they got swept 4-0 by the Mavs in the postseason.
Thursday’s date was March 29. The Lakers’ regular season finale is April 26 and they’ll likely open up the playoffs on April 29 because the league traditionally likes having L.A. play a Sunday game during the postseason’s opening weekend for ratings purposes. So, that leaves exactly one month for the Lakers to show the improvement Bryant says is so important. It’s about time they start that improvement as the Lakers have been stagnant at best since trading away Derek Fisher and acquiring Ramon Sessions in two separate deals at the trade deadline. They’re 4-4 since then.
Simply pointing out that the Lakers haven’t exactly looked like they’re on an uptick lately isn’t exactly constructive analysis. If they are the make the leap in improvement over the last 15 games in the regular season, here’s a checklist of problem areas that would be a good place to start.
GET SESSIONS FULLY INTEGRATED
Sessions burst onto the scene in L.A. as his point total increased in each of his first four games with the Lakers, culminating with 20 points and 11 assists against Portland in his first start. His last two games haven’t been as special, as he averaged just 7.0 points, 4.5 assists and 4.0 turnovers as L.A. went 1-1 against the Golden State Warriors and the Thunder.
“He’s in search mode a little bit,” Lakers coach Mike Brown said Thursday. “He’s with a different group now. Before, coming in with the second unit, he had a little bit of freedom or whatever to just go out and play the game and not worry about taking too many shots or not getting the guys enough touches in the right spot. It’s going to take a little bit of time for him to figure out how he can continue to help us.”
Sessions’ addition has already been a sight for sore eyes for the Lakers’ offense as his penetration and ball handling ability has resulted in easy layups at the rim. He may have bucked the learning curve with his instant success upon arrival, but now that Sessions has the additional challenge of fitting his personal offense in while still getting Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum touches, it’s important he gets comfortable with that balance as quickly as possible.
“I’m still getting there,” Sessions said. “It’s not one of those things that’s 100 percent yet, but that’s no excuse at all … It’s definitely a whole new thing for me with everybody – with Bynum, with Pau, with Kob’ – it’s definitely one of those things you have to get familiar with. It’s not going to happen overnight. Just keep grinding.”
CLAMP DOWN ON DEFENSE
The one constant the Lakers could rely on during their uneven start to the season under Brown was a consistent defensive effort. That seems to have fallen by the wayside recently. Thursday was the ninth time in the Lakers’ last 13 games that they allowed their opponent to score 100 points or more.
“We’re up and down right now defensively,” Bynum said. “That’s got to change. We were holding teams down before. Now they’re just getting what they want. We think we can outscore these guys and it’s not happening.”
GET THE HOME COOKING WORKING AGAIN
The Lakers started the season off 19-2 at Staples Center. Since then, they’ve dropped three out of their last four on their home court. In two of those losses, the Lakers held a double-digit lead in the first half and not only were unable to protect it, but ended up trailing by double digits in the same game, amounting to more than 20-point swings that they allowed to take place in their house.
BALANCE BRYANT’S SCORING WITH THE BIGS
Easier said than done, true, however the fact of the matter is the Lakers are 12-12 this season when Bryant takes 24 shots or more and 7-2 when he takes 18 shots or less. Conversely, the Lakers are 8-5 this season when Bynum takes 15 shots or more and 10-6 when Gasol takes 15 shots or more.
The game before the Thunder loss the Lakers eked out a three-point win in Golden State on a night when the Lakers once led by as many as 16 (OK, “protecting big leads” should really be added to the checklist). After the game Bryant was indignant about how the Lakers were being received in the press.
“Why is everybody acting like we are in 8th place?” Bryant said. “You guys were kissing the Clippers’ a-- at the start of the season and now here were are in the third seed and everybody is acting like we suck. I don’t understand.”
Beware of buying what Bryant is selling these days. He can spin it with the best of them, but there are some major improvements the Lakers have to make before they’ll be considered a product worth fully investing in come playoff time.
1dESPN Stats & Information
5dChad Ford and Kevin Pelton