NBA PM: Lakers All-But Clinch Pacific
The Los Angeles Lakers may have locked in the Pacific Division title on Wednesday night with their 113-108 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Lakers are now 35-20, winners of four. The Clippers drop to 32-22 after reeling off six straight.
More importantly, the Lakers locked in the 2-1 season-series tiebreaker, meaning LAL would have to lose three more games in total than the Clippers over the remaining schedule to drop to four.
The Lakers have just 11 games remaining including six on the road and two sets of back-to-backs. The Clippers have 12 with eight on the road with three sets of back-to-backs.
To date, LAL has won 63.6% of their games this season which would suggest they finish roughly 7-4. If that holds, LAC would have to win 11 of 12 to overtake the Lakers in the standings.
“There’s still a lot of time left,” said Chris Paul after the defeat. “We definitely could have used it for the tiebreaker but there’s a lot of season left. If this was the last game, do or die, we would have been heartbroken.”
There may not be enough time for the Clippers to catch the Lakers.
LAL is currently six losses behind the San Antonio Spurs, who they oddly haven’t seen yet this year with three weeks to go. They’ll visit San Antonio twice and host them at STAPLES Center in the coming weeks.
There’s almost no chance the Lakers climb to the two-seed, even if they sweep the season series. At 38-14, the Spurs would have to finish 8-6 with the LAL winning out. While anything is possible, it’s just not realistic.
Expect the Lakers to finish third in the West.
Sources say there are two teams the Lakers would like to see in the opposite bracket – the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies.
The Thunder are now tied with the Spurs in the loss column at 14, although they’ve got two more wins (40). San Antonio holds the tiebreaker so they are the team that controls its own destiny. If OK City drops to two, the Lakers could see them in the second round, assuming both advance.
The Clippers are currently slotted to host the Grizzlies (30-23) in the first round, a team they’ve beaten twice this season. LAC will visit Memphis on Monday but the Clippers have already locked in the tiebreaker.
If LAC wins in Memphis, the Grizzlies would have a very difficult time climbing to four. Memphis will play eight of their final 13 at home but have a surprising five back-to-backs over the final stretch. If they slip to six, they could draw the Lakers in the first round.
Additionally, the Dallas Mavericks are currently slotted sixth and have seven of 11 on the road with four back-to-backs. Other teams still in the mix include the Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz. The Portland Trail Blazers have the slightest of hopes but appear to be on the outside looking in.
Looking ahead, the Clippers are more likely than not to finish at either four or five which means an all-Los Angeles playoff series would probably have to wait until the Western Conference Finals.
Griffin Mozgov’s Pau
Blake Griffin has developed his signature dunk, taking a drop pass and climbing literally on top of his defender . . . originally done against former New York Knicks center Timofey Mozgov.
He followed that up with a dunk over center Kendrick Perkins of the Oklahoma City Thunder, many claiming that to be the greater achievement than the play over Mozgov, which at the time put Griffin on the “map” and was the moment the Clippers went from a lousy 1-13 team to a near-.500 team the rest of the way.
On Wednesday night he took on Pau Gasol, who literally buckled to the floor with the force of Griffin’s forearm in his neck/shoulder/face.
Naturally Gasol wanted an offensive foul call on the play and many would argue he’d have a case.
“You don’t really see what happens. It was hit and run. I don’t know, the ball went in, I was on my [rear],” said Gasol. “I stood up and told the referee I had [an unpleasant] forearm on my face and my throat. I think that’s something that needs to be looked at.”
Kobe Bryant disagreed.
“It was a legitimate dunk,” said Kobe. “An offensive foul? “I don’t think so.”
“It’s not my call but I think it should be,” said Gasol. “I’ve seen the other two. I didn’t think that those two were offensive fouls. I don’t know about this one.”
Lakers Coach Mike Brown couldn’t say either way without looking at the tape.
“I have to go back and watch it. The only question I had, he kind of stood over him a little bit,” said Brown. “I thought if you do something like that, if you stand over somebody for a little bit, maybe you might be called for a technical.”
Again, Kobe took a different approach to Griffin’s brief moment of posturing.
“I would have done the same thing,” said Bryant.
At least Gasol stepped in to try and make a play on the dunk. Many have been caught ducking out of the way (Kevin Durant, Channing Frye, etc.).
Gasol may not do it again.
“It was probably a foolish play by me,” said Pau. “I shouldn’t have challenged him that way when he’s coming to the rim with that kind of speed and strength but I didn’t want to give him an easy one.”
Recently New Orleans Hornets center Jason Smith gave Griffin such a hard body check on a run-out that Smith was suspended for two games.
It’s a quandary for defenders given Blake’s speed and brute force.
“I don’t know if I would do it again or you just have to foul him extra hard and allow the referee to call a flagrant foul or something because you have to really hit him hard to stop that play,” said Gasol.
Bynum with a Powerful Return
After missing a game with a sprained ankle, the Lakers All-Star center was a major force against the Clippers Thursday with 36 points on 13-20 shooting (10-12 from the line).
The Clippers struggled to get stops and yet were in the game until the end.
“[DeAndre Jordan] played outstanding defense on him but at the end of the day, good offense beats good defense any day,” said Paul.
Recently Bynum was fined by the team for defiant behavior. Andrew blew off a post-practice meeting set with General Manager Mitch Kupchak and Vice President of Basketball Operations Jim Buss.
Some of Andrew’s off-court incidents involve parking across not one but two handicapped spaces, speeding tickets and the like. While they’re not pleasant moments in his career, it’s not like he’s brandishing handguns or committing felonies.
Coming into the league at 17-years old, now at 24 he still clearly needs to mature in certain areas.
Ultimately he’ll be judged by what he does on the floor.
It wasn’t too long ago that Bryant was the petulant young star who wanted to play his game regardless of coaching, teammates or situation.
Bynum may be walking a similar path but Kobe is choosing to remain silent and not walk the same path Shaquille O’Neal took in trying to wrangle the younger upstart.
It may not always be pretty but it’s about the scoreboard and the Lakers are currently fifth in the league. The four ahead (Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Thunder and Spurs) all have continuity on their side while the Lakers have gone through tremendous changes from a year ago.
Bynum is having the best year of his career and the Lakers are fully dependent on him to carry a major load in the postseason.
Kobe Aching Again?
Given his 31 points against the Clippers and an increased number of clutch jumpers in recent games, Bryant has been dealing with some discomfort in his shins.
After the game Tuesday he left STAPLES Center with his left foot in a walking boot.
Kobe declined to elaborate claiming it was a “fashion statement.”
Sessions Playing Bigger Role
Coach Brown has been working and reworking his rotation all season. With the acquisition of point guard Ramon Sessions, the Lakers have found a player who has yet to play a game without a positive +/- on the floor.
That’s 12 games as a Laker, the Lakers winning eight . . .
Naturally Brown has looked to give Sessions bigger minutes, trying to keep either Sessions or Bryant on the court at all times.
When playing with the starters, including both bigs Bynum and Gasol, Sessions has to play at a slower pace. In a mixed lineup with one big and various reserves, he can increase the tempo.
“He’s getting a better feel for that,” said Brown. “He’s really starting to get a nice feel for using his speed; utilizing the pick and roll game.”
Brown is also trusting Sessions to run the team’s offense on his own.
“He makes the play calls quite a bit,” said Mike. “He mixes them up very well – getting the ball to Kobe, sometimes waving Kobe off and getting the ball to Pau – sometimes waving Pau off and getting the ball to Andrew. He’s doing a nice job with that.”
Sessions said he feeling more comfortable with more games under his belt with the Lakers.
“It’s coming along it’s one of those things you know it all depends on how the flow of the game goes. Some nights I’m going to push it and be aggressive on the offensive end and some nights I’m going to have to slow it down to utilize our size,” said Ramon. “I’m just trying to force it, force it, force it. It just all depends on how the game goes.”
The Lakers have improved offensively since the trade deadline but have dipped on the other side of the ball. While Derek Fisher struggled to stay in front of his man, he played into the team’s defensive concept quite well. Sessions is still trying to pick it up.
“I think the defense is a lot harder just because the different reads, different calls, in Cleveland one thing was one thing and here is a totally different other,” said Ramon. “So I’ve got to get it in my mind that I’m not in Cleveland anymore. We may not chase over the screen here – we’re going under the screen, so it’s just a mindset thing and just learning the calls.”
Bryant is pleased with the addition of Sessions, although he initially bristled at the Fisher trade to Houston. Kobe is now playing off the ball (not all the time, but significantly more than in the past).
“It’s getting to a point where it’s tough for teams to really match up with us. We’re passing the ball so well,” said Bryant. “Our interior passing is very well, our spacing is much better, our three-point shooting is getting a little bit better. It’s tough for defenses to really decide what they want to do.”
Kobe is confident in what Ramon can bring and that he’s ready to bring it to the postseason, despite not having any NBA experience in the playoffs.
“It’s tough for teams to really game-plan now because they have to deal with Sessions. They have to guard him because he’s a legitimate scorer,” said Bryant. “He doesn’t seem to really finch at anything. He seems pretty well composed. I don’t think he’s afraid of the big stage at all.”