JOHN IRELAND BLOG  |  ESPN Los Angeles

Karl's cancer battle is sobering reality

March 3, 2010, 1:38 AM

By: John Ireland

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers made easy work of the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday night, extending their winning streak to three with a 122-99 victory at Staples Center. L.A. will play six of the next seven games on the road, starting with Thursday night in Miami. But something happened before the game that surprised many of us who cover the team.

Anybody who attended the Lakers' win over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday could tell those two teams hate each other. Pau Gasol said as much after the game, when he talked about how much the Nuggets, well, talk.

"They talk too much," Gasol said after the game. "Way too much. I don't listen to things that don't make sense. I'm a player that likes to play and that's how I talk, by me playing. Other players can't do that."

Later, the normally mild-mannered Gasol took it a step further.

"I love that we don't like the team in particular," Gasol said. "I wish we didn't like any teams, for that matter."

Before Tuesday night's game, nobody was complaining about the Nuggets. Actually, it was the opposite.

Phil Jackson showed up for his pregame news conference wearing a rare piece of jewelry (other than the "mood necklace" he sometimes wears, this was a first). He sported a pin that read, simply, "Hoops for St. Jude's." His assistants were wearing the pin, too, and so were all the Indiana coaches.

When I asked him why he was wearing it, it became obvious all of that talk about how much the Lakers can't stand the Nuggets was irrelevant.

"This is concerning George Karl's treatment for cancer," Jackson said. "And that's a cause we support."

"So this goes beyond basketball?" I asked.

"Without a doubt," Jackson responded. "We've been rivals for a long time. He actually took over in Albany, New York, after I left the Albany Patroons [a CBA team]. We've coached in different spots, he's done things similar to the things I've done. I've gone from my home in Flathead [Montana] to watch his team in Great Falls when he coached in the finals of the CBA. He wore a powder blue tux with a white ruffled shirt -- something we all thought was crazy. And of course Coby [George's son and a former Lakers player under Jackson] was born there in Great Falls that spring. So there are a lot of connections that go way back between the Karls and myself."

Karl informed his team on Feb. 16 that he had been diagnosed with a treatable form of neck and throat cancer. Karl had been cancer-free since prostate surgery in July 2005.

For those of us who had watched Karl and Jackson yell at each other in the playoffs for the past two seasons, this was surprising news. But it was also a reminder about how the NBA is connected in ways most people never think of. Lamar Odom and Ron Artest met in the fourth grade. Indiana's Earl Watson and his teammate Brandon Rush grew up in the same neighborhood in Kansas City. Every team seems to have stories like these.

But the Lakers and Nuggets really are developing a huge dislike for each other. The two teams will play one more regular-season game, in Denver on April 8, and likely will meet again in the playoffs. Before then, George Karl will undergo more than 30 chemotherapy and radiation treatments for the cancer. He has been told his throat will become so raw he won't be able to coach and will need to be fed through his stomach.

The Lakers will be trying to eliminate the Nuggets, while Karl will be fighting to eliminate something much worse.

Hopefully, the fact his biggest rivals will be in his corner will help Karl with the fight.

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Lakers show two sides in comeback win

February 28, 2010, 6:57 PM

By: John Ireland

Talk about a tale of two halves.

In the first half on Sunday at Staples Center, the Nuggets did almost everything right against the Lakers. The Nuggets were clearly the more aggressive team, getting to the free throw line 23 times -- compared to just four times for the Lakers. Denver forced 14 turnovers, while committing only eight. It held Kobe Bryant to four points, and Andrew Bynum to just two. Denver had an eight-point lead at the end of the first quarter, and led by nine (52-43) at the half.

At the start of the second half, it was almost as if the two teams changed uniforms.

The Lakers stifled the Nuggets with a suffocating defense, led by Ron Artest. After allowing the Nuggets 29 first-quarter points and 23 more in the second, Denver was held to just 18 points in the third. The Lakers were breathing down the Nuggets' neck for the entire third quarter, then caught and passed Denver less than three minutes into the fourth. It was the Lakers' first lead since a 6-5 advantage in the opening minutes, and L.A. never looked back, winning 95-89.

And the Lakers did all of it during a time when Bryant couldn't make a thing -- he was 1-of-10 when the Lakers took the lead. Bryant finished the game with 14 points, making just 3 of 17 shots.

There was no question what this was. The Lakers were punched in the mouth -- hard -- and responded by locking down defensively like they haven't done all year. They won a game that anybody in attendance would have told you was lost before halftime.

But remember, the Nuggets had already defeated the Lakers twice, and almost did it again. Even in defeat, the Nuggets showed that they won't go quietly if the two teams meet in the playoffs, for a couple of reasons.

The first one is a more physical game favors Denver. The Lakers are an athletic team that relies heavily on skill players. The Nuggets are a team built on muscle inside, and sharpshooters outside. Denver likes a game with a lot of bumping, and a lot of whistles. If the Nuggets are getting to the free throw line, they're controlling the pace. On Sunday, Denver attempted 23 free throws in the first half, while the Lakers attempted only four (the Lakers evened this out during the comeback, and Denver finished with 33 free throws, while L.A. had 21).

If things turn into a wrestling match, the Lakers tend to try to fight muscle with muscle, and that leads to a sloppy game. It also makes the officials start to let stuff go, since they can't stop the game every 30 seconds. In one sequence at the four-minute mark of the third quarter, Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom were all fouled on the same possession, and the refs let it all go.

The physicality is one reason the Lakers have struggled, and another reason has to do with the way L.A. defends the 3-pointer.

One of the principals of the triangle system that the Lakers run is to make the other team take tough shots. They don't like to give up any layups, and will protect the paint at all costs. That means they'll allow you to bomb from outside, and take their chances that you can't beat them by shooting a disproportionate number of 3-pointers. Because of that, teams tend to launch more 3s against L.A. than any other team. Entering Sunday's game, the Lakers had allowed more 3-point attempts (81) than any other team. Lakers coaches have told me that this is "fool's gold" for the opponent, because most teams shoot around 35 percent from 3, and much better -- around 45 percent -- from 2-point range.

This has worked out well for L.A. The Lakers are the top defensive team against the 3-pointer in the NBA, allowing opponents to make only 31 percent of shots behind the arc. But that style won't work against the Nuggets.

Denver is third in the league in 3-point shooting, behind only Phoenix and Cleveland. The Nuggets love to shoot 3s, and will do it all game long if you let them. In the win at Staples Center earlier this month, the Nuggets made 15-of-22 from behind the arc. You have to guard the perimeter against the Nuggets, and it's against everything the Lakers believe.

It also tends to turn the game into a 3-point shooting contest, which is rarely good for L.A. When the game is played inside, the Lakers have a huge advantage with the size of Bynum, Odom and Gasol. If the game is played outside, the impact of all of those big guys is minimized.

I'll tell you this: If these two teams meet in the playoffs, it will be must-see TV. Sunday felt like a game played in late May or June.

And chances are it will be.

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With Denver looming, Lakers predictably sleepwalk

February 27, 2010, 12:31 AM

By: John Ireland

On paper, the Lakers' matchup with Philadelphia on Friday night looked like a classic "trap" game.

The 76ers are one of the NBA's worst teams this season, and came into the game with a 22-35 record (10-17 on the road). The Lakers came in at 43-15 (26-5 at home), the second-best record in the league behind only Cleveland. In addition, Philadelphia was coming into the last game of a four-game trip while the Lakers were anticipating a nationally televised showdown with Denver at Staples Center on Sunday.

It would have been so easy to look past Philadelphia, and ahead to Denver, Phil Jackson addressed it with his team before the game. He knew no matter how many times the coaches told the players to concentrate on the Sixers, most players would be looking ahead.

"It's only natural to do that," Jackson said.

He asked the Lakers to meditate at the team's morning shootaround. Jackson has long been a proponent of the Zen philosophy, which encourages staying in the present. I knew he believed in it but wasn't sure the players would buy into it.

Before the game, I asked Jackson, "Does meditation really work?"

He seemed puzzled I would even ask.

"Yeah," he said, "it makes you focus on this game, the one in front of us."

That might be true in theory but after one quarter Philadelphia led 25-24, and early in the second quarter the Sixers led 33-28.

At halftime, the Lakers trailed 51-50. Samuel Dalembert, the Sixers center who came in averaging seven points a game, had 14 at the half (he finished with 24).

"The Lakers just sleepwalking tonight," Lakers radio announcer Spero Dedes said, "at least defensively."

But, shortly thereafter, the Lakers woke up. Behind Pau Gasol (23 points, 11 rebounds) and Andrew Bynum (20 points, 13 rebounds), they caught and passed the Sixers in the third quarter. After scoring only six first-half points, Kobe Bryant came alive, adding 13 second-half points to finish with 19. The Lakers won the game 99-90, sweeping the season series and setting the stage for Sunday's showdown with the Nuggets.

I've talked to several people in Denver who have confirmed something many of us who cover the Lakers have suspected for a long time: The Nuggets are the only team in the NBA not scared of the Lakers, in any way. Denver has won both meetings so far this season, one in each city. The Nuggets feel as if they can win any time they play L.A., and think they should have won last year's playoff series. Not only do they welcome another matchup with the Lakers in this year's playoffs, they seem to be rooting for it.

At the heart of it is Denver's belief that the Lakers are soft defensively. Guys such as Kenyon Martin and Nene feel that if they get physical with the L.A. big men, the Lakers won't push back. In the first meeting this season in Denver, the Nuggets won by 26 and outscored the Lakers 42-28 in the paint. In the second meeting at Staples Center, the Nuggets shot 57 percent from the field, and Chauncey Billups had a career-high 39 points. But what the Nuggets feel the best about is that they scored 105 points in the first game, and 126 in the second one. This is against a Lakers team allowing only 96 points per game on average.

All of it makes Sunday's game fascinating. One team is the champ, while the other team doesn't respect that, and actually believes the champ is an emperor with no clothes. If the Lakers lose Sunday, Denver will have more confidence than any team in the NBA in hopes of keeping L.A. from repeating in June.

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Lakers-Mavs playoff series would be a fun one

February 25, 2010, 1:09 AM

By: John Ireland

DALLAS -- After carrying the load for the Lakers on Tuesday night in Memphis, Tenn., Kobe Bryant took a different road Wednesday. Against the Grizzlies, Bryant led the team in scoring, minutes and assists in the first quarter. At the end of one in Dallas, Kobe had no points and had missed all five of his attempted shots.

And the Lakers almost got away with it.

Andrew Bynum loves to play against the Mavericks, and coming into Tuesday's game, he had made 16 of 19 shots in the Lakers' two wins over Dallas. He picked up where he left off, making his first four shots. Ron Artest made five of his first six, and so did Lamar Odom. The end result was a 50-49 halftime lead for the Lakers at a time when Bryant had scored only six points.

The only problem was the Lakers forgot to rebound. Dallas controlled the boards from start to finish, and it cost the Lakers the game. On the season, the Lakers rank second in the NBA in rebounding (Dallas ranks 23rd), but on this night, the Mavs won the battle of the boards 41 to 36. Dallas wasn't only more aggressive when it came to grabbing the loose balls; the Mavs also forced the action inside. Dallas was 23-for-26 from the free throw line, and the Lakers made 15 of 16.

At least one Laker felt those numbers could be attributed to the officials.

"It's hard to win," Bynum said afterward, "when it's five against eight."

Dallas, led by 31 points from Dirk Nowitzki and 30 from Jason Terry, won the game 101-96. Odom had 21 points, and Bryant finished with 20.

Dallas' win meant the teams split their four-game season series. That's significant because the Mavs stand in fourth place in the Western Conference and could be a potential second-round playoff opponent for the Lakers.

Dallas and Los Angeles haven't met in the postseason since 1988. That was a classic series, with the Lakers winning Game 7 at the Forum behind Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Since then, both teams have moved into new facilities, and the Mavericks have changed owners from the colorful Donald Carter to the even more colorful Mark Cuban.

It would be a great series if it happened, and Dallas would have even more firepower than it had Wednesday. Caron Butler, a former Lakers forward, missed the game after he had a negative reaction to some medicine he had taken early in the day. Butler arrived in a trade from Washington last week and should be a tremendous addition to the Mavericks. Since the trade, Dallas has gone 4-1 with Butler in its lineup.

Butler also idolizes Kobe. In a blog written this week by Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas, Butler talked about the season he spent as a teammate of Bryant's in 2004-05.

"That was the best thing that ever could have happened for me personally for my career," Butler said. "To play alongside a guy like that, see his preparation and what it takes to get to that level, that's why I was able to be so good in Washington. I took everything I learned from him, being under his wing, and took that to Washington, and it made me very successful."

If the Lakers and Mavericks meet in the playoffs, you can bet Butler and Bryant will spend a lot of time guarding each other, and the battle would be fascinating to watch. Watching Pau Gasol and Odom take on Nowitzki wouldn't be a bad matchup, either.

For now, the regular-season series is over and stands tied at 2. And you can bet the Lakers will spend an extended amount of time working on rebounding before they play Friday against Philadelphia at the Staples Center.

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Once again, Kobe has all the answers

February 24, 2010, 1:09 AM

By: John Ireland

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Several questions surrounded Kobe Bryant's return to the Lakers on Tuesday night.

Would Bryant ease back into the lineup after missing the previous five games? Would he pick up where he left off in Memphis three weeks ago, when he torched the Grizzlies for 44 points? Would he play normal minutes? How would the ankle hold up? How would Bryant and the rest of the Lakers adjust to his return?

Bryant answered all those questions with one shot when he buried a 3-pointer with 4.3 seconds left to lift the Lakers to a 99-98 win over the Grizzlies.

"He's lucky," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said with a smirk. "Very, very lucky. Shots go in."

Said Bryant: "I just wanted to get a good look."

Jackson had a plan before the game.

"We were upside down last time we played here," Jackson said of the Feb. 1 loss. "Kobe had 44 points against [O.J.] Mayo, and it wasn't enough. He may start slow tonight, and we might attack from the inside out."

Jackson's plan didn't exactly play out.

After the first quarter, Bryant led the Lakers in minutes (12), points (nine), and assists (three). He also had five rebounds. But what really stood out is that he keyed an L.A. defense that held Memphis to only 16 first-quarter points. The Lakers led the Grizzlies in points off of turnovers, 14-0. Kobe had one of the Lakers' five steals, and had a spring in his step that answered at least one of those multiple questions: His ankle was just fine.

But the fast start didn't hold up.

After L.A. led 53-48 at halftime, the Grizzlies caught and passed the Lakers with a 15-3 run early in the third quarter. Pau Gasol, playing in the city that gave him his NBA start -- and against his younger brother Marc  missed several easy shots. Gasol, a 52 percent shooter coming into the game, started by making only six of his first 15 shots -- he finished eight for 18 with 22 points. Jackson pointed out beforehand Gasol might struggle coming back to Memphis.

"I think it has affected him," Jackson said. "Maybe it's playing against his brother. He just hasn't played as well here. He isn't his normal self against Memphis."

But more than any one player, it was the Lakers' team defense that broke down. After the 16-point first quarter, the Grizzlies scored 32 in the second quarter, and 33 in the third to take an 81-76 lead after three. That left the game up for grabs in the fourth quarter, which is where Kobe earns his money.

Bryant re-entered with 7:59 left and the Lakers trailing 87-82. He made his first shot at the 5:14 mark, to cut the Memphis lead to 91-89. At the 2:20 mark, his made his second one to make it 95-92. With 56 seconds to go, he buried a three-pointer to tie the score at 96-96. And with 4.3 seconds to play, he hit the three-pointer to win it.

"I spend time and time again [in the offseason] shooting thousands of shots," Bryant said. "Then [at the end of the game] I just need to make one."

Said Jackson: "The option is for the shooter, and he took the shot which is great."

Bryant's fourth-quarter totals: 11 points on four-for-six shooting, including two from two on 3-point attempts.

And that's why the Lakers missed him. He gives the team a chance to win any close game, no matter what the circumstances.

For the game, Bryant finished with 32 points, on 13-for-19 shooting, in 40 minutes.

Any more questions?

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Are the Lakers still the team to beat?

February 19, 2010, 12:56 AM

By: John Ireland

Thursday turned out to be a long, strange day for the Lakers. First they watched several of their top competitors make trade deadline deals, while they stood pat. Then, playing without Kobe Bryant, they watched the Celtics put an end to L.A.'s four-game winning streak.

The fact that Boston won the game was no surprise. As I've written before, when the Celtics are healthy, I'm convinced they're the third-best team in the NBA. They're better than every team except the Lakers and Cleveland. Take Kobe away from L.A., and the Celtics should win at Staples Center. The Lakers made a great comeback and kept it close, but Boston won it 87-86.

But I heard from a lot of Lakers fans today who were upset that L.A. didn't make a trade. It wasn't for lack of trying. We had Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak on the "Mason & Ireland" show Thursday afternoon, and he told us he talked to every other GM in the league leading up to the deadline. Kupchak said he thought the Lakers were close on a couple of different deals, but that he was committed to keeping the core players of last year's championship team together. Meanwhile, Portland, Dallas, Houston, Cleveland and Boston all made key deals.

But did any of those teams improve enough to challenge the Lakers?

Portland, the team currently in eighth place in the Western Conference, clearly improved. The Trail Blazers tend to give the Lakers fits, especially in Oregon, and now they have a center. Marcus Camby is second in the NBA in rebounding this season, and the Blazers didn't have to give up any of their core rotation to get him. But I just don't think the Blazers could win a series with the Lakers, even with Camby. They might stretch it to six or seven games, but that's as far as it would go.

Dallas now has as much offensive firepower as L.A. By picking up Caron Butler, the Mavericks can put him on the court with Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion. That's a team that can score with anybody. But the Mavs were a middle-of-the-pack defensive team before the trade (ranked 15th), and they didn't get any better on defense after the move. I think if the Lakers ended up in a series with the Mavericks, Dallas wouldn't be able to handle the size or height of L.A.

Houston improved by picking up high-scoring Kevin Martin, and the Rockets will score a lot more now. But Carl Landry, one of the players the Rockets sent to Sacramento in the deal, was a key part of their team. Landry was especially good against the Lakers, both as a scorer and a rebounder. I'm not sure the Rockets improved overall. Without Yao Ming, Houston might not even make the postseason.

The only way the Lakers would see either Boston or Cleveland is the NBA Finals. And I would argue that if either team makes it that far, both are now better equipped to beat L.A.

Boston is a long shot to get there, but I might be the last guy to jump off of the Celtics' bandwagon. If they can get everybody through their various injuries, this team is absolutely loaded. Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett are All-Stars, and at any given time they can put Paul Pierce, Rasheed Wallace and Ray Allen on the floor with them. Now they've traded for Nate Robinson, who is exactly the kind of change-of-pace spark plug the team didn't have. On top of that, the Celtics play solid team defense. Coming into Thursday's game, they ranked first in the NBA in points allowed with 93, and then they held the Lakers to 86. I don't care how many people tell me Boston is old and done. I'm not sleeping on the Celtics.

Cleveland made the biggest deal on deadline day. The Cavs were able to get Antawn Jamison from Washington, without giving up any of their core players. In a weird twist, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the player they traded, will probably re-sign in Cleveland after the Wizards release him. The end result is that the Cavs were able to add Jamison without subtracting anybody important. But it's always risky to mess with team chemistry in the middle of the season. On Thursday night, the first game after the trade, the Cavs had their 13-game winning streak snapped by Denver (although Jamison didn't play). I would argue that when they've had a few practices, the Cavs will be better. And that means Cleveland should now be the favorite to win it all, with the Lakers a close second.

Still, I like the Lakers' chances. Although they've lost both games to the Cavs this year, I just can't imagine any team beating L.A. four times in a two-week stretch.

But my guess is I'm going to get a chance to find out.

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Money won't keep Lakers from making a trade

February 17, 2010, 1:26 AM

By: John Ireland

The NBA trade deadline is set for noon Thursday, and until that time, no team will rest easy.

On the surface, it would appear the last thing the Lakers need is a trade. After beating Golden State on Tuesday night, they've won four games in a row, all without Kobe Bryant, and find themselves comfortably in front in the Western Conference standings. They also trail Cleveland by a game and a half for the best overall record, and the Cavs are rumored to be blowing up their roster before the trade deadline.

Most media outlets are reporting the Lakers don't want to raise payroll, and because of that, they won't make a deal. Trust me, they might not make a deal -- but the reason won't be money.

I read this on an ESPN.com rumor central page in regard to Bulls' guard Kirk Hinrich on Tuesday:

The Lakers are looking to shed salary, not take on another two years and $17 million.

Wrong.

One thing I've learned about Jerry Buss is he will always spend if he thinks the costs will bring him a title.

Always.

The Pau Gasol trade not only increased his payroll, but all but locked him into signing Gasol to an additional long-term contract. Phil Jackson is the highest-paid coach in sports. He pays more money for his training staff than any other owner, because he knows he can't afford to have his older players get hurt. He has the league's highest payroll (over $91 million), but he also brings in more money than any other NBA franchise.

Every time I have a conversation with someone from the Lakers and I suggest money could kill a potential trade, I'm told it isn't an issue. Much like the Yankees in baseball, the Lakers philosophy has always been no matter what it costs, the team only asks one question when considering a player move: Will this get us closer to a championship? If the answer is yes, chances are the Buss family will pay whatever it costs.

If the Lakers lose out on Hinrich, or anybody else they like, it will be because they couldn't find any takers for their current contracts. In the NBA, you can't just trade your lowest-paid player for the other team's highest-paid player. The contracts have to match up to 75 percent of the other team's salaries. So you can't trade Adam Morrison, who makes $5 million, for Hinrich, who makes $9 million -- the salaries don't match. In that scenario, the Lakers would have to include a second player -- someone who makes around $4 million -- to make the trade work (if you ever want to see if a trade works, use the Trade Machine on ESPN.com -- coolest invention ever). My guess is if the Bulls would take a second Lakers player, the deal might get done.

Here are some other questions the Lakers are asking:

-- If they make a move for a player such as Hinrich, could he learn the triangle fast enough to contribute to this season's team?

-- Would it be an upgrade over the Lakers' current guard rotation of Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown?

-- Would the move be worth disrupting the current team chemistry?

On top of that, I have another thought: If the Cavs make a move, would it be smarter to hold off, knowing Cleveland would have to go through an adjustment period, and that could open the door for the Lakers to pass them?

My guess is the Lakers stand pat. I've talked to several people over the last two days who give me the impression that L.A. is happy with what it has. Of course, that could all change between now and noon on Thursday.

It normally does.

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Don't understate Lakers' victory in Utah

February 11, 2010, 1:02 AM

By: John Ireland

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Lakers came up with their best effort of the season Wednesday night in Utah, upsetting the Jazz 96-81 despite being without either Kobe Bryant or Andrew Bynum.

It's almost impossible to overstate how hard it is to beat the Jazz in Salt Lake City, so to do it without two starters, including the best player on the team, is a stunning development. Pau Gasol, after scoring 21 points and grabbing 19 rebounds in Monday night's win, came up with 22 points and 19 boards against Utah. It was the Lakers' third win in a row, and one that could set the tone for the rest of the season.

I'll try to explain why.

Utah came into this game riding a nine-game winning streak, including 10 straight at home. So far this season the Jazz are 22-7 at home but only 10-13 on the road. Last season the Jazz, at 33-8, were tied for the third-best home record in the West. But at 15-26, Utah had the worst road record of any team that made the playoffs.

The team has been that way for years, ever since Jerry Sloan took over as coach 22 years ago. Sloan is the longest-tendered coach of one team, not only in the NBA, but in all of professional sports.

He figured out something years ago that I'm surprised more coaches haven't. Sloan was a hard-nosed defensive player in his playing days with the Bulls, and he teaches defense the same way now. But he realized something that, for whatever reason, other coaches don't want to accept.

Sloan knows NBA referees can't call a foul on every play. Think about that for a second. What if, on every trip down the court, the officials called a foul? The game would last four hours and every player would foul out. The home crowd would probably riot. Good NBA officials don't call every foul; they manage the flow of the game as best they can while trying not to give either team an advantage. There's a big difference.

So why do the Jazz win so many more games at home than they do on the road, more than any other team, almost every season? Because the Jazz play more physically in their own arena than any other team. Utah can't do that as a road team, because it won't get the calls and the crowd will turn against the team. But at home, it's a really smart way to play.

I've asked players and coaches about this for years, and surprisingly, they not only admit it -- they compliment Sloan and his players for being so good at it.

"They've become very good at mucking up the game when they're at home," Phil Jackson told me once. "It's something they've done for years, and as an opponent, you need to be ready for it."

John Stockton and Karl Malone, the two best players in Jazz history, were perfect to play under this system. They would grab, hold, set hard screens and almost play more as if they were playing football rather than basketball. The rest of the Jazz followed, and Sloan has been successfully executing that game plan ever since.

By the way, if you're wondering why the referees just don't put a stop to it, what can they do? If they were to call 20 straight fouls on the Jazz in the first 10 minutes, the game would be over. Instead, it's up to the other team to adjust to a more physical style of play, and when that happens, Utah has imposed its will on the game.

This style also isn't always the best way to win a title (although Pat Riley almost did it with the Knicks once). The Jazz have made the NBA Finals twice but lost each time to Chicago. The Lakers have knocked Utah out two years in a row, and I'm convinced the reason is that in the postseason all teams are allowed to play a more physical game. So Utah's advantage, in a sense, is nullified.

Some of the other people in our traveling party think I'm making too much of this. They cite the fact that Utah's stars don't know how to win on the road, or that the altitude in Salt Lake City is a factor. But does that make any sense? They play 41 games in Utah and go 33-8. They play 41 games outside Utah and go 15-26 with the exact same guys.

No other team has that big a disparity, and I'm convinced it's because at home, they get away with more. If Kobe Bryant gets tackled in Staples Center, there's a good chance it's called a two-shot foul. He gets tackled in Utah, there's a good chance the Jazz are going the other way with the ball.

It also doesn't hurt the Jazz that their fans are right on top of the court, more so than in any other building in the league. And those fans are as loud any as crowd in sports. The referees are in charge of controlling the game, and I can't think of another building that would get out of control faster if the calls went against the Jazz. Sloan knows this, and encourages his team to take advantage of it.

I'm not suggesting a mass conspiracy theory here. What I am suggesting is that Sloan is smarter than most NBA coaches because he finds out where the line is with physical play, and then adjusts to it based on where the game is played. He does more with less than any coach in the league, and that's one of the reasons.

And the Lakers found a way to win anyway, without Bryant or Bynum.

The key to the victory was that L.A. jumped out in front early, continued to run and never let the Jazz "muck up" the game the way they like to do. When you consider everything that was working against them, this Lakers win is the most impressive of the season so far. Better than Dallas, and yes, better than Boston.

The home team had won nine of the past 10 games between the Lakers and Jazz going into Wednesday, and I'm convinced that even the most loyal L.A. fans had this figured as a loss. Instead, it's a win that could shape the remaining 28 regular-season games.

Talk about going into the break on a high. Wow.

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Resting stars sometimes makes sense

February 9, 2010, 3:30 AM

By: John Ireland

The Lakers had arguably the best team win of the year on Monday night, beating San Antonio without Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant. On paper, L.A. didn't appear to have much of a chance, and that's exactly how the game started. The Spurs jumped out to a 9-0 lead, and dropped 34 first-quarter points on the Lakers. But led by Pau Gasol, L.A. stormed back and coasted to a 101-89 win.

In past years, I would have questioned the Lakers sitting out their two stars. If you've listened to my show, you know that one of my pet peeves in basketball is when a team doesn't try to win every game.

But I'm going to reverse field on that, and I'll try to explain why.

Between them, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich have won eight of the last eleven NBA Championships. But they have different philosophies of how to get there.

Popovich believes that regular season games are not the most important thing in the world in regards to the big picture. If any of his players have an injury, he will often sit the player out completely, rather than risk one of his guys making the injury worse. Popovich has been known to sit guys even when they're not hurt. He's had an older, veteran team for a few years now, and sometimes he'll even sit older players on the second night of a back to back.

A couple of years ago, the Lakers led the Spurs by six at halftime of a regular season game. L.A. extended that lead to 16 in the third quarter during a period when Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker were all out of the game. Rather than put them back in, he simply let the reserves finish and gave his stars a break.

I asked Popovich about that after the game, and he was unapologetic, to say the least.

"Our guys weren't good," Popovich said, "they (the Lakers) were controlling the game, and it became obvious that wasn't going to change."

At the time, I was offended by his attitude. I always felt that the teams and coaches owed it to the fans to at least try to be competitive. If I pay top dollar to see Duncan and Parker, how can he sit them in a game that isn't decided yet? Isn't that, in a way, false advertising? I pay to see Parker, and I get Jacque Vaughn?

Back then, I put all of these questions to Phil Jackson.

"You play the game in front of you," Jackson said, "that's the one that matters. If you have a chance to win that game, you owe it to your team to try and win it. But things happen, and each coach needs to deal with whatever comes up."

As it turns out, in Monday night's game, it was the Lakers who rested two starters and the Spurs played everybody. And the Lakers won anyway. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, I have a new appreciation for the Popovich position.

There's a reason Popovich has won four titles, and I'm a sideline reporter. He knows what Phil Jackson laid out for the media after he moved to the top of the Lakers all-time wins list last week.

"I've learned over the years that this is a marathon, not a sprint," Jackson said. "The most important thing is that your team is playing well into April and May."

Jackson told the story of his 2001 championship team. The Lakers weren't the top seed that year - San Antonio was. But L.A. dialed in at the end of the regular season, and became white hot. The Lakers went 15-1 in the playoffs, including a sweep of the Spurs.

The bottom line is that I know how beat up Kobe Bryant is right now, and I know he would play if this was a playoff week. But I'm glad he isn't, and fully support the decision to sit him. I feel the same way about Andrew Bynum.

If I'm going to encourage Lakers to sit, I can't be outraged when the Spurs do it. Although I think that San Antonio does it more than any other team, it works for them. And as Phil Jackson says, what really matters is how the team is playing down the stretch.

So although I've rallied against it for years, I'm changing my tune. If a coach wants to sit a player, more power to him.

Just make sure he doesn't do it in late April or May.

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Lakers shouldn't think they can win without Kobe

February 7, 2010, 12:51 AM

By: John Ireland

PORTLAND, Ore. -- I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out the Lakers' inexplicable five-year losing streak in Portland, so it figures that L.A. would end the nine-game streak on the second night of a back-to-back and without injured Andrew Bynum, who went down in the first quarter because of a bruised hip.

But the fact that the Lakers did it without Kobe Bryant is the biggest surprise of all.

Bryant sat out the game because of a sprained left ankle, ending a streak of 235 consecutive games played. He made the decision not to play less than an hour before tipoff and has not indicated whether he'll try to play in the Lakers' next game Monday night against the Spurs at Staples Center.

So how were the Lakers able to win without Bryant? They spread the ball around. Ron Artest had his best game as a Laker with a team-high 21 points, and Shannon Brown came off the bench to score 19. Lamar Odom seemed to grab every rebound and finished with 22. Derek Fisher had a solid night with 14 points and 6 assists.

The Lakers also played as a team. Inside the Rose Garden, there is a giant electronic scoreboard that is called the "hustle board." It keeps track of blocked shots, rebounds and steals. On the night, the Lakers had more rebounds (47 to 30) than the Trail Blazers and more steals (8 to 5) to help win the hustle board 57-38.

Whether the Lakers can sustain a winning record without Bryant is something we've debated on my radio show for the past two years. Most people seem to think that the Lakers are so deep that the team would find a way to win even without Kobe. After the way L.A. dismantled Portland, I'm sure this is now the most popular theory in Southern California.

I've just never subscribed to it.

I've written before that without Kobe, I think the Lakers would struggle to make the playoffs. Most people disagree with me, but I think he's that important. And I'm absolutely convinced that even if the team did make the postseason, the Lakers would go nowhere without Bryant. He's such a great scorer that he makes his teammates better just by being on the court. The other team is so worried about what Kobe is doing that it opens things up for everybody else.

Pau Gasol, Odom and Bynum are solid players, but they aren't as good without Kobe. There's a reason Odom never made the playoffs when he played for the Clippers, and Gasol never won a postseason game before he arrived in L.A.

Only a handful guys in the NBA -- fewer than 10 -- can consistently take over a game. Kobe is on that list, and without him, there is virtually no chance to win the title. Look it up: Since 1980, only one team (the 2004 Detroit Pistons) has been able to win the championship without one of those guys.

In the '80s, every championship team had Magic Johnson, Larry Bird or Isiah Thomas. In the '90s, every team had Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon or Tim Duncan. Since 2000, every team has had Kobe, Shaq, Duncan, Dwyane Wade, Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett. That's why I shake my head every time a guy like that gets traded. The team trading the star doesn't realize it just traded its chance at a title.

Lakers owner Jerry Buss knew exactly what he was doing when he refused to trade Bryant. It's easier to get the pieces to go around the star than it is to get the star. And if you trade a star, you had better make sure you either still have one left (like Kobe when Shaq left) or are getting one in return.

But realistically, the question isn't whether the Lakers can win the title without Kobe but rather whether they can win in the short term if he sits for a while. The Lakers have two games before the All-Star break -- Monday at home against San Antonio and Wednesday at Utah. I think if Kobe sits out Monday, he'll seriously consider taking off not only Wednesday but Sunday's All-Star game as well. That would give him a 10-day break and allow his ankle (along with his two broken fingers, sore elbow and sore back) to rest for an extended period.

If that happens, the other Lakers will have a chance to provide L.A. fans with a look at what life would be like without Kobe. If they spread the ball around the way they did at Portland and get career games from the likes of Artest and Brown, maybe they can prove me wrong and hold down the fort against the likes of the Spurs and Jazz.

For the Lakers' sake, I just hope they don't have to do it for too long.

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