Lakers' health may be key to title
If L.A. can avoid injuries and oddities that have doomed others, it has a chance
LOS ANGELES -- The NBA playoff code has always been survive and advance.
However, the first week of the 2012 postseason has already created an addendum to that code: avoid.
Avoid series momentum-changing pitfalls such as the Memphis Grizzlies' blown 27-point lead to the Los Angeles Clippers. Avoid hotheaded mistakes such as Boston's Rajon Rondo's bumping into a referee or New York's Amare Stoudemire's punching a glass fire extinguisher case. And avoid, above all else, the injury bug that already has claimed the season of Chicago's Derrick Rose and threatened the availability of Atlanta's Josh Smith moving forward.
The Los Angeles Lakers have been able to do all of that so far, not to mention avoid an upset through their first two games against sixth-seeded Denver, and went up 2-0 in the series with a 104-100 win over the Nuggets on Tuesday night at Staples Center.
You'd have to say the Lakers' championship chances have already improved, and the team hasn't even advanced past the first round.
Kobe Bryant is healthier than he has been in years -- and he's showing it. Bryant has two 30-plus-point games through the first two games of the playoffs after having only three in the 10 postseason games the Lakers played a year ago.
Not only did he have 38 points in Game 2, but he had two plays in particular -- a chase-down block on Al Harrington and later a steal that he took coast to coast before finishing the play with a wrap-around assist to Andrew Bynum -- that made you think you were watching Kobe from title Nos. 1-3, not the 33-year-old chasing ring No. 6.
And while we're talking about health, let's not forget Bynum. He's as dominant as he has ever been, and his body seems to be as in tune as it has been since before he suffered his first major knee injury in the 2007-08 season. He followed up an NBA playoff-record 10 blocks in Game 1 (along with 10 points and 13 rebounds, giving him a triple-double) with his own playoff high of 27 points in Game 2 (along with nine rebounds and two blocks).
As impressive as Bryant and Bynum have been individually, the thing that has really stood out about the Lakers has been their communal concentration as a team.
"The energy and the commitment is there," Bryant said. "The focus is there. The willingness and the confidence is there."
It was there even before the playoffs began. Instead of panicking about having to go with the unproven Devin Ebanks in Metta World Peace's place while World Peace serves a seven-game suspension, the Lakers hardly addressed the swap in the starting lineup.
"It was just kind of a decision [coach] Mike Brown made, and now I'm starting," said Ebanks, who has averaged eight points and 6.5 rebounds in his first postseason series.
The team was thrown for a loop Monday when backup big man Jordan Hill was charged with felony assault, but again, the team moved forward as best it could by focusing on the series rather than the serious allegation.
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"You just think about what you want most," said Hill, who followed up his 10 points and 10 rebounds in Game 1 with six and 10 in Game 2.
In the cases of World Peace and Hill, the Lakers avoided dwelling on things out of their control.
While there's plenty to be excited about, all a 2-0 lead in a series that has featured two relatively easy wins does is give the Lakers something else to avoid: looking ahead.
"It's really all about matchups and it's about really the team that you're playing in front of you, so it's really about focusing on what they're doing and how do we counter that and how do we stop that," Bryant said. "It doesn't carry from series to series. If we're fortunate to move on to the next series, it's going to be an entirely different matchup with entirely new schemes."
Bryant's message is clear: Always take things one step at a time.
"I think you have to make sure you do things the right way," Pau Gasol said. "You're disciplined, and you try to improve, defensively especially, as games go along."
The Lakers led by as many as 19 on Tuesday and saw the Nuggets cut that to just four, but they never let Denver take the lead and avoided the confidence boost that would have meant for their opponents.
The Lakers survived opening serve at home. They have avoided any major letdowns. Now the name of the game is lather, rinse, repeat, advance.