Renewed Focus for Lakers
There is a debate that rages every season during this time of year: can teams "turn it on and off" during the long and tedious regular season, only to turn it on for good for the playoffs? Matt Barnes, in his first year as a Los Angeles Laker never believed a team could do so, but that was before he wore the purple and gold.
"You’ve always heard that you can’t turn it on and off? This team can do that," Barnes told HOOPSWORLD. "To be up and down early on in the season, playing well then going back down, but now I can definitely tell it’s turned back on. Everyone’s focus is different, everybody’s mentality is different and we’re ready to hit our stride now. You hear a lot in this game that you can’t turn it on and off, but this team can."
Without question, the length of the NBA regular season takes a toll on both the body and the mind, yet each year the "turning it on" question comes up. While some believe that shows an immaturity or lack of character, the players who actually go through it understand that it’s more about finding the proper focus at the right time.
"We’re doing things with more of a sense of urgency now," Pau Gasol told HOOPSWORLD. "We have more of an awareness of where we’re at in the season and that’s about twenty games left, so it’s going to be downhill from now on. Every game is important. It’s hard to feel that way when you’re only twenty or thirty games into the season when you still have a long ways to go. We’ve been through long seasons and very successful seasons prior to this one, so we understand that. We understand that’s part of the challenge, but what matters is these last twenty games we have left and then, obviously, the playoffs."
No matter which side of the argument you find yourself on, it is difficult to argue with someone who played in the past three NBA Finals, winning two. Even with the amped up focus, the new players understand another one of the most important factors as to why this team could dominate for as long as it has: their coach, Phil Jackson.
"This is probably one of the most relaxed coaches I’ve played for, no matter what situation is going on out there on the floor," Joe Smith tell HOOPSWORLD. "He rarely raises his voice and as a player on the outside looking in, that’s something you don’t expect when you actually get here, see his attitude, how he is in the locker room and around the players."
The core believes in the offense and has no reason not to, so the time is now to focus on those areas that need cleaning before the playoffs. Of course, as is nearly always the case, the two most important areas are defense and rebounding the ball.
"Those two parts of the game are key in order to be successful down the road and we know how to do it," said Gasol. "We just have to be consistent about it and really be focused because it’s all about concentration and effort. Execution offensively always helps. We’re careful with the ball and we know what we’re doing out there."
"Defense is our key," said Kobe Bryant. "Coming out of break, we’ve been doing a great job. We understand that if we’re going to have an opportunity to three-peat, defense is going to be what gets us there."
Another newbie to the team, Steve Blake, also sees the shift in focus now after the All-Star break. Although the first portion of the season has brought some criticism that Blake isn’t living up to his role as a replacement for Jordan Farmar, he shows the confidence needed to improve with his new team as the focus becomes clear.
"We’re so good in so many areas that I think we have to just continue to stay focused and hungry, which won’t be a problem," Blake told HOOPSWORLD. "We have to continue to play together, trust each other and I think everything will be fine. There’s not a lot of areas where we need a lot of work, so it’s just slowly continuing to get better at everything. We’re focusing on ourselves and we all know our goal is to be our best once the playoffs start. Whether people believe we can win it or not doesn’t win championships because it’s how you execute on the floor. We’re really starting to execute on both ends."
Of course, the Lakers are never out of the spotlight, but this year is different for them. With the Miami HEAT coverage early on in the season, which obviously continues today, along with the recent move of Carmelo Anthony to New York, other teams are sharing the spotlight more regularly. Other teams stealing a bit of the spotlight, as well as the self-inflicted wounds caused by losses to bad teams for the Lakers, many critics believe the Lakers can’t get back to their championship form.
"Speaking on the prior teams in LA, they’re old news, it seems," said Barnes. "Winning two in a row? It’s not going to happen a third time. Everybody hears that and we’re focused on doing what we’re capable of. If we play our game, we’ll be in the championship and win the championship. We use it as motivation, but there’s a lot of things we’re using as motivation."
While the debate continues about whether or not a team should "turn it on" or just play to the best of their capabilities throughout the entirety of the regular season, the Lakers keep winning. After all, they are the still the two-time reigning champions, have plans to three-peat and don’t care about the critics.
"That’s why we were able to win back-to-back championships because we have a great team and pieces complement each other very well," said a confident Bryant. "That’s the trick. That’s the key. Management has done a great job."
Only time will tell if this current Laker squad truly has the game of a champion.