New defense could be salvation
As the Lakers try to find themselves again, a fresh approach should keep them focused
LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers were lagging this season, suffering from a severe case of championshipitis, a condition accompanied by symptoms including complacency and a lack of interest.
The back-to-back champs came into Tuesday's game against the Detroit Pistons having dropped four out of their past six games. The losses were by an average of 17.3 points against Milwaukee (missing its young leader Brandon Jennings) and Memphis (a team so cohesive that it "celebrated" its win against L.A. with two of its players getting in a fistfight on the team plane after the game), to name two.
The Pistons' sub-.500 record wasn't enough to catch the Lakers' attention, and L.A. already used the once-a-season motivation card of leaning on its 2004 Finals loss to Detroit to power past the Motor City team in November.
So the Lakers focused on a game within the game in their dominating 108-83 win.
They did it with their defense, but not just any old defense.
The Lakers continued to test-drive the new defensive schemes the coaching staff first put in place about a week and a half ago. And the tactical shift on D is giving L.A. something fresh to focus on in what was becoming an alarmingly stale regular season.
"We played with more intensity," Kobe Bryant said. "We played a motivated game defensively. We didn't make too many mistakes."
The Lakers forced the Pistons into 19 turnovers, leading to 25 points. They managed to protect the paint (outscoring Detroit 60-40 down low) while still staying attached to the Pistons' shooters (Detroit shot just 3-of-13, 23.1 percent, on 3-pointers).
On Monday, Bryant likened the defensive installation to a basketball player changing up his shot or a golfer tinkering with his swing. There will be growing pains, but once the improvement is learned and ready to be implemented, the initial bumpy road will clear out to a straightaway down the stretch.
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Andrew Bynum -- who played only 22 minutes because of foul trouble rather than fatigue -- collected one block, extending his streak to eight straight games with at least one. Bynum described the principles of the new defense as always placing two defenders between the ball and the basket, deterring opposing offenses to stay on the weak side.
When done correctly, the defense saves the Lakers from being put in situations in which the other team is compromising the Lakers' defenders through overloads and man advantages.
There were times when the defense was downright stifling. During an eight-minute stretch midway through the first quarter until two minutes into the second, the Lakers held the Pistons to only one made field goal as they turned a two-point deficit into a 10-point advantage. After allowing Detroit to crawl back into it before halftime, the Lakers came out and dominated the third quarter defensively, keeping the Pistons to just 17 points on 7-for-19 shooting in the period.
As much as the Lakers needed mental energy to get the defense down pat, there was also the additional need for pure physical exertion. Lamar Odom said the way 36-year-old team co-captain Derek Fisher performed against the 27-year-old Ben Gordon, holding the Pistons guard to just five points on 2-for-6 shooting, was the leading example of how the team was supposed to play.
"That's part of the responsibility that we all have to the team," Fisher said. "Regardless of what's going on with your individual game, you can defend, you can play hard, you can go after loose balls and do the little things that it takes to win."
Defense even provided an immediate opportunity for Phil Jackson and Ron Artest to bury the hatchet on their confrontation that went public before tipoff.
Artest finished with two steals and Jackson credited the forward for the Lakers' success against Detroit.
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"Ron created some things in the third quarter and helped us break this game open," Jackson said.
Bryant says he believes the continued focus on defense will be what gets the Lakers back in gear.
"It's all about execution at this point defensively because we're working on a new system, new structure that we believe will pay off in the end," Bryant said. "You want to see improvement in that from game to game and not making the same mistakes over and over."
The Lakers play Wednesday in Phoenix, a tough second night of a back-to-back on the road against a team that already beat them this season, so they're not out of the woods just yet.
"We have to really turn it around," Jackson said. "I mean, one game is not the end of this situation."
A continued commitment to the new defense will truly end the slump and get the defending champions back on course for the ultimate endgame in the Finals.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.