Lakers may juggle lineup in finale
SACRAMENTO -- With the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs already locked up heading into Thursday's regular-season finale against the Sacramento Kings, the Los Angeles Lakers' coaching staff is planning to sit the team's stars and use the game as a talent evaluator for its young players.
With one caveat: Kobe Bryant could be the lone starter lacing them up with the substitutes.
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While the win-loss column might not be a motivator for the team at this point with the postseason looming, Bryant still has something to play for. Bryant comes into Thursday averaging 27.86 points per game, second in the league to Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, who leads the NBA with a 28.03 points per game average and would win his third straight scoring title if he can stave off Bryant.
"We'll probably rest guys, but it won't just be me saying, 'Hey, I'm going to sit you down,' " Lakers coach Mike Brown said after practice on Wednesday. "I give guys some ownership in this."
Bryant will make his final decision to play or not Thursday at shootaround and already has said that capturing the third scoring title of his career in this, his 16th season, was "not very important." But Bryant also seemed to indicate that he did not plan on sitting out any more games after returning to the lineup last week after a seven-game, 14-day long absence because of a left shin injury.
"I'm not on vacation," Bryant told reporters in San Antonio after his first game back in the lineup. "I was hurt. If I'm healthy, I play."
Durant scored 32 points in his regular-season finale on Wednesday against the Denver Nuggets meaning Bryant will need 38 points or more against the Kings to beat out Durant for the scoring crown.
Brown wasn't championing Bryant winning the scoring race on his watch, saying Wednesday, "it's not necessarily important to me," but another L.A. skipper fully endorses the idea.
Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who found himself in a similar situation to Bryant back in 1984 when he entered the last day of the MLB regular season still vying for the batting title with his New York Yankees teammate Dave Winfield as his main competition. Mattingly won the title by going 4 for 5 from the plate in the last game of the year.
"If you ask (Derek) Jeter, down at the end of the year and we had a four- or five-game lead, he wants to play because he wants to stay sharp," Mattingly told ESPNLosAngeles.com's Ramona Shelburne. "Is that wrong? Some people will say he should've taken the rest."
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Mattingly added that Bryant has "got to do what (he) feels is right" and should not worry about any outside criticism if he decides to go for 40 points in an otherwise meaningless game to win the scoring title.
"I like Kobe," Mattingly said. "He's a killer to me, under pressure. He's one of those guys that wants the ball. He's hit so many big shots."
Bryant, Pau Gasol and Matt Barnes all sat out practice on Wednesday, with Barnes staying back in Los Angeles to rehab his moderately sprained right ankle rather than traveling with the team to Sacramento.
Gasol repeatedly has said he would welcome rest if the schedule allows it, so he is likley to sit out. Andrew Bynum told reporters after practice Wednesday that he would not have a problem sitting out if Brown decides to get him extra rest with the playoffs right around the corner. The Lakers will also be without Metta World Peace as he'll serve the first game of his seven-game suspension for his hit on Oklahoma City's James Harden.
Barnes' injury and World Peace's suspension left the Lakers with a glaring hole at small forward, so the team recalled Christian Eyenga from their D-League affiliate, the Los Angeles D-Fenders, on Wednesday. Eyenga was acquired from the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of the Ramon Sessions deal at the trade deadline.
Eyenga is quite the unknown, having never had an introductory press conference in L.A., and has yet to play in a game for the Lakers. He has only attended a couple home games to be part of the team on the bench, once coming just to pose for a portrait while wearing his Lakers No. 88 jersey for media guide purposes.
Eyenga averaged 12.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.3 blocks and 33.0 minutes in six games with the D-Fenders and will miss Game 2 of the D-League Finals on Thursday to play with the Lakers. The D-Fenders hold a 1-0 lead over the Austin Toros in the best-of-three championship series.
"I know he's athletic," Brown said of Eyenga. "It will be interesting to see what we have (Thursday)."
The Lakers also are considering resting Sessions, who has been playing with a sore left shoulder and jammed right index finger for the past several weeks. If Sessions sits, rookie Darius Morris likely will take his place.
"They know they need to be ready," Brown said when asked about his young players.