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Lakers can only wish they had last spring's problems

MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

A year ago, en route to the title, their biggest challenge was keeping themselves engaged mentally. This year, with injuries to Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum, and without Trevor Ariza's three-point marksmanship, their issues are more tangible and harder to overcome.

May 03, 2010|Mark Heisler

So serenity returned to Lakerdom with everyone healthy and/or over their pouts; an old punching bag in town; no one on deck scarier than the Spurs, the game's best team on walkers, or the Mini-Me Suns; after which the Lakers will presumably teach the Cavaliers' one-man gang a lesson or take another anti-climactic stroll past the Magic.

Cue the parade!

What the Lakers wouldn't give for any part of that to be true. . . .

In real life, it was only one week ago that things were looking grim for the Lakerdom Five, then tied, 2-2, with the Thunder.

Kobe Bryant was coming off a blowout in Oklahoma City, limited by a knee so sore, he acknowledged Monday, "For two games there, I played on one leg, basically."

Then, after the Lakers prevailed, came the 39-hour turnaround before Sunday's opener against the Jazz, with the Lakers wondering whether Bryant's knee would hold up . . . none more than Bryant.

Bryant went out for Sunday's game, heartened by the way the knee felt, and played like it, pronouncing himself "pleasantly surprised."

Of course, by then Andrew Bynum had been found to have a "small tear" of cartilage in his right knee, but had put off surgery.

"Everything had to be checked off between doctors," Coach Phil Jackson said Monday. "No further harm would be done accordingly."

That's not language typically associated with tears, which, by definition, could tear more.

"No, I can't certainly explain that to you," Jackson said when asked about it. "You have to go through our crack medical crew."

In any case, good luck, Andrew.

Sportswriters are like generals, always preparing to fight the last war. Generals work in a rapidly changing technological environment. We just are what we are.

However, by now it should be becoming clear this isn't last spring, when the Lakers' biggest challenge was waking up.

They wish all they had to do now was get serious. Now they have tangible problems, such as joints that could sideline Bryant and Bynum.

As Bryant said, asked whether he was concerned about Bynum's injury:

"Welcome to the club."

Last postseason, they averaged 102.4 points. This year they're at 96.7

One change accounts for the drop-off: Trevor Ariza's flight (to Houston, for no more than the Lakers offered, if you haven't heard the story), which obliged the Lakers to get Ron Artest.

Ariza shot 32% on three-point attempts in the regular season but broke out in the playoffs, shooting an incredible 48% on threes, making 10 in the six-game Western finals and 10 more in the five-game NBA Finals.

Of course, it's hardly Artest's fault that Ariza left, and he played well in the first round, as far as putting a dent in Kevin Durant's game.

Artest is a better career three-point shooter than Ariza. However, Artest, a streak shooter who runs very hot and very cold, is six for 35 on threes this postseason.

So, you can guess whose defender that is, sinking into the middle to try to jam up the Lakers' inside game.

On the other hand, last spring the Lakers defended when necessary.

Now they're defending as if their lives depend on it, which they do.

Bottom line, they don't have the comfort margin that being explosive brought, but mentally, they're way ahead of where they were at this point last spring.

As for the injuries, they can only hope. . . .

It was actually a relief for the Lakers to return to Greatness of Us issues in Game 1 against the Jazz, as in why can't we hold the double-digit leads we keep jumping out to?

Don't worry, Lakerdom, the Lakers are on it.

"I'm a little concerned that we aren't filling in the gaps," Jackson said.

"I think Pau [Gasol] mentioned it at halftime, we get in a 10-point lead and we get kind of content to stay in a 10-point lead instead of pushing it on to the next level."

Thus inspired, the Lakers, then leading by eight points, built the lead back up to 12, and then watched it all slip away . . . again . . . suggesting there's more work to be done.

OK, worry.

Actually, this spring if Lakers fans aren't worrying, they're not paying attention.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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