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Thursday, May 6, 2010
Thursday practice report: On visiting Utah, L.A.'s improvement, and Artest's snub

By Brian Kamenetzky

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"We definitely got some work done today," Derek Fisher said with a smile Thursday afternoon in El Segundo following a lengthy practice and film session for the Lakers. "Any complacency, or guys thinking that they were going to come into practice today and just kind of go through the motions, Phil [Jackson] and our coaches were sure to shake that out of us pretty quickly."

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We'll have to take his word for it, since the media horde was let in the gym following the conclusion of the squad's film study. Therefore, we didn't witness the end of practice, but given their upcoming trip to Salt Lake City for Games 3 and 4 it's hard to imagine how any of the Lakers would have been complacent in the first place.

Asked why the Jazz are so good at home, Fish gave a professional and respectful answer. "Because they're good," he said. "It doesn't matter what kind of arena that you have, how loud the fans are, what bells and whistles they use. If the team's not good, it doesn't matter. Fact is, the Jazz have had good teams, so that's why they've been so good at home over the years."

Fair point, but the fans there make a difference. Those people are nasty, nasty, nasty. They say nasty things. Ford Center was loud and uninviting, but not like what you get in Utah. The OKC fans were excited to be there, and had a healthy respect for the Lakers. As evidenced by the minutes-long ovation they gave the Thunder after Game 6, they were there more to cheer for their guys than tear down the opposition. I respect that.

EnergySolutions Arena, on the other hand, is truly brutal on visiting teams. Mike Tyson-eat-your-children brutal. "A vastly hostile place," Jackson called it. Still, the Lakers have won there before, and believe (as I do) they can win again there this year.



One thing sure to help the Lakers Saturday night would be a continuation of the defensive intensity they've built up over the course of eight playoff games. "We're doing some really good things," Fisher said. "Our numbers defensively and some of the things we're getting done out there are really good. There are still some things we can improve on, of course. We want to keep cutting in on second chance points and opportunities, we want to cut our turnovers down and those things. But being on teams for years that were ridiculed so badly for not playing defense, we're playing some pretty solid defense."

Speaking of which, a little bit of defensive quasi-hardware was handed out Wednesday, and one omission caused some consternation among Lakers players this afternoon:

"He should have been mentioned," said Phil Jackson.

"He should be put on it every year. He's one guy who should stand for that. I don't know who plays better defense, especially at the forward position," Lamar Odom said.

Kobe used more colorful language to convey his disdain.

All of this, of course, in response to the news Ron Artest was left off the NBA's all-defensive team- not just the first team, but the second, too. Results were handed down Wednesday, but this was the first time we had a chance to talk with players about it. (Though in a shocking bit of brain-lock, in the brief time I was in front of Artest, I forgot to ask him his opinion. D'oh!) He was certainly close, garnering 11 points, leaving him just on the threshold but unable to walk through the door. Artest did finish sixth in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, but did finish behind LeBron James, Josh Smith, and Gerald Wallace, all forwards who beat him out for all-defensive honors as well.

Anderson Varejao, certainly a worthy candidate, was the fourth forward edging out Artest. For the record, DPOY is a media chosen thing. All-defensive squads are picked by coaches.

Jackson said he couldn't lambaste his brethren for Artest's omission. "My colleagues, I can't throw out a criticism towards them, because I think that sometimes they just take the safe route and vote for guys who are big name players on the defensive team, and overlook guys that are willing to work at their defense."

So basically, they were lazy and didn't really give thought to who actually deserves the honor. Nominations for worst example of non-criticism now include that quote. Odom had a different solution. "I wish the players picked. I would want to get the players to pick that, like the best 10 or 12 offensive players in those positions, they should pick who the best defenders are. Guys know. Players know," he said.

Defensive awards are always a little goofy. They tend to go hard on reputation -- honestly, good as he's capable of being, that's in part why Kobe has made five first-teams in a row -- and often require a player to score a certain amount of points on the other end to gain consideration. That Thabo Sefalosha made it despite an almost total lack of name value or offensive game seems more the exception than the rule. I was happy to see it, and Jackson made a point of noting his inclusion, pleased someone "not a star player [got] some recognition for the effort they put in on the defensive end."

LeBron, Smith, Varejao, and Wallace are all high quality-or-better defensive players, but having watched Artest for 80-something games this season, his impact defensively on the Lakers has been pretty massive. When they were healthy and clicking early in the year, Artest completely changed how the team played on that end. He cut off sections of the floor, and had some incredibly high profile shut-down, swallow-up moments against an opposing team's star. There were games he seemed to turn almost highhandedly, just by his defense. I didn't see them play nearly as much, but can the same be said of Varejao, James, Smith, and Wallace? They were all better than Ron Ron?

Certainly Artest made a huge difference in the playoffs, first against Kevin Durant and over two games against the Jazz. Just seems like there ought to be room for him somewhere on a list honoring the league's best defenders.

Other Notes:

-Jackson said Andrew Bynum participated in limited fashion Thursday. "He's all right," Jackson said of his starting center, who is playing with a torn meniscus in his right knee.  "I wanted him to go through conditioning at the end of practice today so he ran with the group. But just part of the practice, he didn't go the full length."

-Artest, at least, seemed relatively unconcerned by the impending return of Andrei Kirilenko for Game 3: "I'm sure he's a good player, I mean I've played against him over the last couple years. But I don't really know. It don't matter." And there you have it. Jackson was a little more giving in his praise. "He's an effective defender, maybe one of the most unique defenders in the league. He can do many things -- block from behind, he chases people down on breaks. He's very good. Kobe has had opportunities against him, he's done well. But he's going to have to measure it."

-Jackson didn't say specifically they'd try to test Kirilenko defensively -- not a silly idea despite AK47's reputation, given all the time he's missed -- but made it clear his guys will "take advantage of situations. We don't have to specifically say it's an attack point." My guess is they'll see what Kirilenko can do as soon as the game allows, particularly if Jerry Sloan decides to put Kirlienko on Kobe.

-Jackson said there are indeed Lakers fans in SLC, and they even show up to games. "You can still hear them cheering . . . gently," he smiled.

-Look for Kobe to again mix in with the second unit, as he did in the second quarter of Game 2 when he started on the floor instead of taking his customary post-Q1 break. In the fourth, Jackson went with Luke Walton instead of Kobe, and it was again nervous time for Lakers fans, as four reserves held down the floor. "I think we were all holding our breath there for a little bit," Jackson said. "We really emphasized the bench work today. What they have to do to defend. I think that's been our biggest problem right now [with the reserves], is defensively. Although the scoring is ultimately important, defense is what will hold them in the game."