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BILL PLASCHKE

Home-court advantage is by no means reserved for Lakers

The shaky play of the Lakers' bench is cause for concern as the team heads into the home stretch of the regular season.

March 04, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

In preparation for the playoffs, some NBA teams are slathering their bench with a fresh coat of paint.

Joe Smith to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Drew Gooden to the San Antonio Spurs. Stephon Marbury to the Boston Celtics.

In preparation for the playoffs, the Lakers have occasionally been slathering their bench with a fresh coat of ain't.

Jordan Farmar to the basket. Miss. Sasha Vujacic to the air. Miss. Trevor Ariza to the floor. Foul.

"We like what we have," Coach Phil Jackson said Tuesday night.

Well, yeah, the concern here is with what the Lakers don't have.

With 21 games left, they are not assured of possessing the two final pieces necessary to construct an NBA championship.

They are not assured of consistency from their bench.

And without a steady bench, they are not assured of home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

"We like our chemistry," Jackson said.

Yeah, but what about their geography?

Start with the bench, which Jackson acknowledges plays better at home because it feeds off the crowd's friendly energy and the officials' friendly whistles.

The reserves found themselves in the 99-89 win over Memphis, with 32 points and 17 rebounds. But they won't be seeing Memphis in May, or playing all home games in June.

In the Lakers' consecutive road losses over the weekend against Denver and Phoenix, the bench should have been, well, benched.

The reserves shot three for 19 against Denver. They went seven for 20 against Phoenix.

They committed 13 turnovers with only 11 assists, and anyone wanting to rip Kobe Bryant for jacking it up too much in those games, well, would you want to pass to any of those guys?

Farmar needs to play with more focus. Vujacic needs to find his inner rock star again. Ariza seems tired. DJ Mbenga is who he is.

I feel equal parts horror and shame in writing the following words, but somebody has to ask it:

Maybe they never should have traded Vladimir Radmanovic?

I feel just as funny asking this one:

Could Andrew Bynum's potential return be even more vital because it allows Lamar Odom to move back to the bench?

Jackson said the anointed Bench Mob needs to play more organized. They need to use not only their feet and their fury, but their brains and basketball sense.

This happened against Memphis, with seven assists and just four turnovers, but it needs to happen more often.

"People have adjusted to who they are," Jackson said.

Jackson didn't seem to care who they were until there were two minutes left in the first quarter against Memphis. The three inserted reserves promptly contributed to a Grizzlies possession that featured three offensive rebounds and two free throws.

The Lakers led by a dozen when the bench was first used. By halftime, they led by only five. The group finally came together late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, as the Lakers rolled out to a 21-point lead before faltering late.

The Lakers, of course, need to look beyond the bench, beyond this Tuesday in March, all the way to a Thursday in June.

June 18, to be exact.

Game 7 of the NBA Finals, to be precise.

If they are playing a home game that night, write it down, they will win the NBA championship.

If they are not, put down the pen and hold your breath.

"A lot of us have been around the league long enough to know what home-court advantage means," said Derek Fisher.

Do you think the Lakers could have beaten the Celtics last season if they'd had that advantage? Lots of NBA folks wonder.

"Home-court advantage is more important in the NBA than in any other sport," Phoenix Coach Alvin Gentry was saying last week. "If the Lakers had it in last year's Finals, who knows?"

If the season ended today, the NBA-best Lakers would have that advantage.

But two other teams are close enough for them to feel a LeBron James elbow, hear a Kevin Garnett curse, and realize that they must fight to keep it.

Beginning next week in Portland, 12 of the Lakers' final 20 games are on the road, with nine of those games against postseason contenders.

Cleveland doesn't have it nearly as hard, with only nine road games remaining after two consecutive road comeback victories against Atlanta and Miami on Sunday and Monday.

Boston, meanwhile, has but 10 road games left.

"We're not basing our success on it," said Jackson. "But we're certainly anxious to stay in the chase for it."

It is a chase that will ultimately be won not with the stars who sprint out front, but the lesser lights who bring up the rear.

It is a chase that will be won not with a 20-point quarter from Bryant, but with a solitary pass from Farmar, or a jumper from Vujacic, or a stop by Ariza.

One of the Lakers' most important postseason players during their three-peat came off the bench.

Remember Robert Horry?

Right about now, these Lakers could use a big-shot Mob.

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bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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Follow Plaschke at Twitter at twitter.com/latbillplaschke.

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