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Lakers get favorable ruling from the bench

Improved play of reserves Walton, Vujacic, Farmar and Turiaf has been key to team's success.

March 13, 2008|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

It has been a painful process for each of them. For Luke Walton, yanked from the starting lineup. For Sasha Vujacic, yanked from the court at the first mistake. For Jordan Farmar, yanked from the team to play in the Development League. For Ronny Turiaf, yanked from his dream life for a harrowing trip to an operating room.

Perhaps that is why this Lakers quartet has melded into such a tight, effective group off the bench, blending its talent and confidence to become, on its best nights, perhaps the league's top second unit. Perhaps it is the sharing of hardships and disappointments that has united the players.

Or maybe it is simply their versatility. Farmar supplies the ball-handling, Vujacic the perimeter shooting, Turiaf the rebounding and inside play and Walton a little bit of everything.

While their roles sometimes tend to blur on the court, and the group, calling itself the Bench Mob, is not always on the court together, the four are enough of a presence to cause opposing teams to realize it's not necessarily a reason for celebration when Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher or even Kobe Bryant leaves the court to take a breather.

"They play together pretty well within the team concept, even a little bit better as a team than the first unit," coaching consultant Tex Winter said. "They rely on each other a little more. I think that's what makes them effective."

So does the change of pace.

"We try to run a little more, pick it up defensively a little higher," Turiaf said. "We can bring some youth, a second-breath atmosphere out on the court. We try to give them a different look than the first team. The first team runs a little more of a half-court offense.

"We try to get the other team tired, try to get some easy fastbreak points. It's two different looks. That's why I think we have had success."

Or as Vujacic puts it, "We try to speed up the triangle offense because we are young [Walton is the oldest at 28] and can run forever."

It doesn't faze the Bench Mob, said Walton, if the other team has not countered their entrance by putting in its own reserves.

"If their starters are still in, we try to put pressure on them, make them work hard on defense so that, when our starters get back in, their starters are more fatigued and worn out by the end of the game," he said.

Walton, in his fifth season with the Lakers, started 73 of 262 regular-season games before this season and 31 of 57 this season, but Coach Phil Jackson likes the energy Walton lends to the Bench Mob.

"Obviously, everybody in the league wants to start," Walton said, "but you develop an identity with guys you are coming in with. We challenge ourselves. You can sit around and pout about not starting or you can accept what the coach wants from you and make the best of it."

Vujacic did his share of pouting before this season, but it wasn't because he wasn't starting. It was because he sometimes wasn't allowed to finish even the brief spurts when he was on the floor. Maybe it had something to do with his tendency to sometimes shoot recklessly as soon as he touched the ball as if he was in a three-point shooting contest.

"It was hard," Vujacic said. "When I came in, I didn't know how long I was going to play. So I did what no one should do. I tried to go for the home run, for the big plays to keep me on the floor. Whenever you try to push yourself into the game, good things will not happen. When you let the game come to you, it's great to play.

"I would go to my room in previous seasons and try to analyze what was happening, but when you are frustrated, it's hard to analyze because you see everything in a negative way. Phil talked to me on a few occasions and made me realize he's not pulling me out after my first mistake because he hates me, but because he wants me to become a better basketball player. At the end, I got it."

That he has. A 35.3% shooter from the field in his previous three seasons with the Lakers, including 34.3% from three-point range, Vujacic is shooting 46.5% from the field this season, including 43.0% from behind the arc. His teammates now call him the Machine.

The most important number to Turiaf is the number of games played. It has been nearly three years since he had open-heart surgery and two years since he joined the Lakers. He's now in his second full season.

"It definitely feels good to finally be counted on, knowing that people recognize me as a basketball player, not just as a good teammate," he said. "When I look back a couple years ago, for two or three days, my future was cloudy, but now it's looking pretty good."

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