JOHN IRELAND BLOG  |  ESPN Los Angeles

Lakers' dominance threatened

If the team's defensive struggles continue, winning won't come easy

January 2, 2010, 5:51 AM

By: John Ireland

All of the headlines today will be about how Kobe Bryant has done it again, pulling victory from the jaws of defeat. But there's another story that might get lost in all of that.

I would argue that the Lakers have developed a bad habit, and it's getting worse.

In their past five games -- against Cleveland, Sacramento, Phoenix, Golden State and then Sacramento again -- L.A. has fallen behind in every game. And when I say behind, I mean way behind. Take a look at the deficits the Lakers have suffered in each of those games:

Cleveland 21 points

@ Sacramento 9 points

@Phoenix 21 points

Golden State 15 points

Sacramento 20 points

Even though L.A. was able to recover and win the Golden State and both Sacramento games, this isn't how a championship team is built. I can't tell you how many coaches have told me that you can't just "flip a switch." If the Lakers continue down this road, the chances of a repeat title are nonexistent.

Before Friday night's game, I asked Phil Jackson if he had made any New Year's resolutions.

"No," he answered, "but I did put up last year's record at the start of the New Year, and wrote this year's record next to it."

He said he did this to remind the players that they had all talked about locking up the best regular-season record, and perhaps even challenging the all-time best record of 72-10. Jackson added that this year's team (at 25-6) was one game behind last year's pace, and that was OK, but he wanted to remind everybody what they were playing for.

Shortly thereafter on Friday night, the Kings shot 61 percent from the field in the first half, and had more assists (20), than the Lakers had baskets (17). Spero Dedes, the team's radio play-by-play voice on 710 ESPN, called the Lakers "disinterested." He was being kind.

Sacramento was missing its top two scorers -- Tyreke Evans and Kevin Martin. So instead of locking down the rest of the Kings, the Lakers allowed three different guys (Omri Casspi, Spencer Hawes and Beno Udrih) to score 13 points each in the first half. Although they came back to win, the Lakers can't feel good about failing to show up -- especially on defense -- for the past five games.

So what's the problem?

Like most things in sports, it isn't just one thing. I wrote in my last blog entry that the Lakers miss Ron Artest, and that's part of it. But there are other factors.

When the Lakers' season ended by losing Game 6 of the NBA Finals in 2008, they were embarrassed by the Celtics, 131-92. They used that as a motivator all of last season. Kurt Rambis, their lead assistant, was assigned to fix the defense and work specifically on that all of last season. The motivation worked, and so did Rambis, ending in a championship season. Now, Rambis is gone, so is the motivating factor, and it's starting to show.

I know the Lakers still have the best record in the NBA, but if they continue to play like they have been, it won't last. Take a look at the upcoming schedule:

•  Up next, it's Dallas and Houston. Both teams hammered the Lakers at Staples Center earlier this season.

•  Following a road game against the Clippers, the Lakers travel to Portland, where they haven't won in five years.

•  Following the Portland game, they play 10 of their next 13 on the road -- including stops in San Antonio, Dallas, Cleveland and Boston.

If you think falling behind by double digits in those cities is going to work out for the Lakers, you've had too much holiday eggnog.

Phil Jackson is kind of a detail guy. My guess is that the next time he writes something on the board for his team to look at, it won't be about last season. It'll be about this season's defense, or lack thereof.

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