The Lakers are up 2-0 on the Nuggets, and to celebrate we hit the studio for a podcast, and a lively one at that.
We started by asking whether the Lakers have changed expectations surrounding their postseason with the quality of their play, particularly Game 1. Maybe they should have slow-played this one a little?
From there, we moved on to a topic inspired by comments left on this post about the pressure on Mike Brown to perform in his first postseason as head coach of the Lakers. As Kobe Bryant told me, for players to truly, fully buy into Brown as a coach will be difficult until they've gone through a playoffs with him. Meaning Brown is coaching not just for this spring, but to lay a foundation for the rest of his tenure in Los Angeles.
In it, I note some of the obstacles in Brown's way, including a roster that "isn't as well equipped to win a title as last year's" group.
Fair to say, there was a great deal of disagreement about that one. Certainly during much of the season, as the Lakers struggled with depth problems and members of the supporting cast struggled, it was true. But what about this team, right now? The one taking the floor for Games 1 and 2 against Denver? Most readers thought I got it wrong. Upon further review, I think they have a compelling argument. Andy and I kick it around the topic -- he agreed with you folks -- noting first the difference in mentality. This year's group is far more engaged, suffering from none of the burnout plaguing the 2010-2011 team. Pau Gasol is present, accounted for, and playing at a very high level.
Then there's the roster. Yes, Lamar Odom is gone, but his production has been absorbed to a large degree by Andrew Bynum and Gasol. Ramon Sessions is an upgrade over Derek Fisher. Metta World Peace (once he returns) is playing better now than he was last season. And, of course, Kobe Bryant isn't just healthier, but much healthier. Put it all together, and the Lakers are better this spring than last, or at the very least have the potential to be better. Certainly the first two games of against Denver support that idea.
How that factors into their title hopes -- they were a long way from a championship in '11 -- is a different debate, but it obviously it can't hurt. And, of course, a better team means even more pressure on Brown.
But it's a good reminder of how narratives in sports need constant re-examination.
Finally, with L.A.'s Big Three all playing well, we noted the sacrifices made by Gasol for the greater good. Bryant talked about it following Game 2. "Championship teams have always been built on players who can sacrifice for the betterment of the group. He's obviously sacrificed his touches, but his aggressiveness is not going down. If you look his assist numbers and his rebounding numbers, he's such a big factor for our team," he said.
Gasol has spent the season doing his best to fill a new, often ill-defined role. At the start of the year, the Lakers rarely called plays for him as they tried to establish Kobe's rhythm in the offense and break out Bynum in the post. Despite a higher points per play average in the post relative to Bynum (.968 vs. .897), Gasol has half the number of shots on the block (thanks, Synergy!). Meanwhile, the only locations on the floor where his hoists have increased are from 16 feet and beyond. The Lakers have used him more as a facilitator at the elbow, and even as a ball handler in pick and roll situations, taking advantage of his brilliance as a passer and steadfast dedication to a team-first ethic.
"Whatever's needed of me, I try to do it. Obviously I don't get as many looks as I used to, especially down in the post because Drew is taking up a lot of that and being effective. So I try to take advantage of my opportunities, and also use my skills and my talent to get guys involved and facilitate. That's what I've been trying to do," Gasol said after Game 2.
Watching and listening to Gasol, it's clear he's still not totally enamored with the system or his role in it, but that matters much less than his willingness to play it, and particularly as of late, do it brilliantly. Bynum dominated with a triple double in Game 1, then came back with 27/9 in Game 2. Kobe was huge down the stretch in Game 1, shot the lights out early on Tuesday, then made two huge hustle plays late helping the Lakers preserve Game 2.
Gasol, meanwhile, has quietly filled gaps and greased wheels. In his last three games, he posted a trip-dub against the Thunder, and in the postseason has delivered similarly diverse, stat stuffing performances. Lakers fans have long noted how well Gasol fits as a running mate for Bryant, thanks both to his skill set and temperment. The same holds true with an increasingly assertive Bynum. These are two very ambitious, headstrong players. If someone doesn't give, the threesome can't function and the Lakers can't seriously contend.