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The Lakers problem isn’t Kobe, it’s Gasol. And defense.

Jan 31, 2011, 5:54 PM EDT

los angeles lakers

It’s easy and maybe even trendy to say it was Kobe’s fault.

It wasn’t.

True, Sunday the Lakers offense against Boston Celtics was a heavy dose of Kobe Bryant. And way too much Kobe in isolation. It’s an easy storyline to say Kobe shot too much, but it’s not wholly accurate.

The reality is there is a much more symbiotic relationship between Kobe taking over and his teammates not stepping up. Kobe doesn’t need a lot of provocation to step into a vacuum and fill it up with shots (shots he was largely hitting against the Celtics Sunday, going 16 of 29). His teammates are fully capable of laying back, and, well, you’ve seen the result. It’s a spiral — as Kobe tries to fill in more his teammates tend to stand around more and the result is stagnant isolation. That’s what happened Sunday, and Phil Jackson for one backed Kobe saying it was more about his teammates.

The hard truth, it was more about Pau Gasol.

He all too often gets referred to as Kobe’s sidekick, but that’s not accurate. They are, if not equals, equally important to the Lakers winning. And Sunday Kevin Garnett took Gasol out of his game. Gasol was 5-of-13 shooting overall but just 1-6 from the midrange. His normally deadly elbow jumper ended up 0-3. He looked uncomfortable.

Darius Soriano at the Laker blog Forum Blue & Gold said that the Lakers have been inconsistent this season because Gasol has been inconsistent.

This year, we’ve seen a less consistent Gasol. In December, Pau had nearly as many games where he scored 10 or less points (3) as he did 20 or more (4). In January, if you raise that standard to the number of games he’s scored 13 or less points (6) and compare it to games of 20 or more points (8) you see a similar trend. And while his rebounding numbers have not fluctuated as much, the point still stands: I’m having trouble recalling a time during Pau’s stint as Laker where there’s been as much wonder surrounding what he’ll produce on a given night.

Gasol’s most recent 5 game stretch is a perfect example of this. Against the Mavs, Nuggets, and Jazz here are Pau’s numbers (points/rebounds): 23/5, 19/13, 20/7. However, in the two most recent contests versus the Kings and Celtics, Gasol gave the Lakers 9/11 and 12/7.

In looking at Lakers’ losses, you see a similar trend. In those 15 games that the Lakers trailed at the final buzzer, Gasol has had 13 or less points in 7 of them. Against the top 4 teams (Dallas, Miami, San Antonio, Boston) he’s scored 23, 17, 9, and 12 points respectively.

The question needs to be asked if the Gasol is the problem or a bellweather for the problem. But his inconsistencies mirror the team.

Gasol isn’t the only thing that has been inconsistent for the Lakers, so has their defensive effort.

The Lakers have had stretches of good defense, particularly since the return of Andrew Bynum to the lineup. That coincided with a change in defensive philosophy about wing defenders working to keep guys on the perimeter in front of them rather than just funneling to big men. It worked for a stretch.

But there are all sorts of problems, ones that lead to inconsistent play. Derek Fisher no longer can keep a guy in front of him on the perimeter, and his backup Steve Blake has ben just as bad. The Lakers Sunday went with the defense they used in the finals last year — Kobe on Rondo begging him to shoot the jumper and Fisher chasing Ray Allen off screens — but it didn’t work. Ray Allen shot 8-of-12 and had 21 points as he found gaps. Rondo has become much better at using that space he is given by defenders this year. The Celtics improved, the Lakers found out the hard way.

Speaking of inconsistent, meet Ron Artest. The guy who won the Lakers Game 7 of the NBA finals was an anchor on them Sunday. Call it an off game — letting Pierce put up 32 while shooting 1-of-10 himself — but there have been more of those games this season than last.

Because the Lakers have the last two NBA championship rings, there is still the feeling that at some point they will flip the switch again. And if they do the Spurs won’t be able to do anything about it.

Maybe. Maybe not. It’s not time to panic for Lakers fans, but it is time for them to be concerned. If the inconsistencies of the regular season carry over to the playoffs the Lakers will have problems. They are not so much more talented than other teams that they can just coast into the finals again. Maybe they are bored and come the playoffs that will be different.

But will the instant recognition and execution honed over playing 82 games be there to draw on? Or will the playoff Lakers be inconsistent too?

If so, they will be gone long before Jackson gets his chance to make a last stand in the finals.

  1. loungefly74 - Feb 1, 2011 at 8:23 AM

    Phil needs to do his magic to get this team together. he has done it in the past so i believe he can do it again. there’s still lots of basketball to be played…

  2. tstreeter - Feb 1, 2011 at 10:28 AM

    The Lakers need to sit Gasol. Let Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom start. I know that the Lakers need the Spaniard, but he needs to know that he needs to step up. When you bench a player of that stature, he will get the point.
    Andrew Bynum is playing damn good. I think he needs to get up at least 12-15 shots per game. All in all the spaniard needs to step up.

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