Dangerous date with Cleveland
Don't let the Cavs' record fool you, the Lakers can't seem to beat bad teams
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Ted Williams, the once homeless man with the golden voice that made him a viral video sensation and a rags-to-riches story, was at the Los Angeles Lakers practice Monday.
Williams had been offered a job by the Cleveland Cavaliers last week and was filming a segment for "Entertainment Tonight" at the Lakers' practice facilities in advance of the Cavs' game against the Lakers on Tuesday.
Los Angeles, which has regained some of the momentum it lost when its season started to stall several weeks ago, has won six out of its past seven games and four straight.
A date with Cleveland and its 8-29 record should be an opportunity for the Lakers to stretch that streak, though the defending champs have made a habit this season of giving sub-.500 teams a Ted Williams-like chance to change their luck.
Three times this season the Lakers have welcomed a team with a losing record into Staples Center and allowed them to leave with a win. It started with a 98-95 loss to the Indiana Pacers, who had an 8-9 record at the time. Next was a 98-79 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, who were 10-16 coming into the game. Finally, L.A. lost 104-85 to the Memphis Grizzlies, whose record was 14-19.
"This is an opportunity to play well and have some things happen good for us on our home court," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said after practice.
Cleveland has lost 10 games in a row and is just 1-20 over its past 21 games. The Cavaliers are a shell of the team that won an NBA-best 127 games over the past two seasons, including a two-game sweep of the Lakers last season. Gone is franchise leader LeBron James, now a member of the Miami Heat. In his place, pacing the team in scoring, is 34-year-old Antawn Jamison, who was picked up at last season's trade deadline to be an additional piece.
Anderson Varejao, perhaps their best overall player considering what he brings to both sides of the floor, recently tore a tendon in his ankle and is expected to be out for the rest of the season.
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Other than Mo Williams, who earned one All-Star bid thanks to playing with James, the rest of their roster rotation is mostly unproven (Daniel Gibson, J.J. Hickson) or unknown (Anthony Parker, Ramon Sessions) or both (Christian Eyenga, Alonzo Gee).
Jackson said the Lakers should approach their opponents, even a spiraling team like the Cavaliers, with more respect.
"We haven't been focusing on personnel," Jackson said. "We've been going out and doing the same things we always try to do and some of these younger teams are athletic. We have to appreciate their talent and register that."
The Lakers hit a lull recently, going just 8-8 over a 16-game stretch from late November to late December. After playing 313 games during the past three regular and postseasons combined, it was bound to catch up with them sometime to the point that a Tuesday night game against a team like the Cavs could end up resulting in a flat effort.
To combat that, L.A. is implementing a new defense that is reliant upon Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol to stay inside and protect the basket at all costs rather than rotate to the top of the key in screen-roll situations, among other adjustments.
The defense was adopted once Bynum started to round into form several weeks ago. Kobe Bryant said it was inspired by assistant coach Chuck Person's vision and is a more structured approach to defense than the team had used before.
"It's funny, we never really had a system," Bryant said. "We always read-and-reacted to each other. I think putting in a system will help us down the road and help us play better, so we're just learning."
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The Cavs might not grab the Lakers' attention, but the defense has.
"We just focus on our system and working on getting better at that," Bryant said. "That's the challenge within the challenge. That's what we're looking forward to."
No Practice for Kobe
After vowing to start practicing with his team following the Lakers' Christmas Day loss to the Heat and keeping his word for two weeks, Bryant returned to the sideline on Monday to protect his surgically repaired right knee.
"It's not an issue," Jackson said. "He has to work with what sustains the effort that he can put on the court and he's tried to balance that off with strength training and some activity and not to do too much activity on the court that are wearing, tearing kind of activity. ... I think it's time for him to get back and do his strength training."
Bryant, who acknowledged last week that the limited amount of cartilage in his knee has created an "almost bone-on-bone" situation, said he would not be providing further updates on the joint.
"I'm not going to answer questions about my knee every damn day," Bryant said. "I said what I had to say, my knee feels fine. The key is to make it stay that way."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.