Are The Lakers In Real Trouble?

HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

LAKERS HOPE TO GET ON TRACK
TONIGHT IN DENVER

NBA media circles are buzzing about the recent struggles of the Los Angeles Lakers.

They were supposed to be a sure thing in the Western Conference. It was Snow Kobe and the Seven Dwarfs when talking about the 8-team brackets as recently as the All-Star Break. Sure, other teams might have a chance if Kobe got hurt or something. But, barring dramatic news like that, the Lakers would be defending their title against Cleveland or Orlando in the championship series in June.

The 'everything else is a formality' stuff may have just been tossed out the window!

First, let's be clear that the Lakers are still very good, and haven't 'collapsed' or anything that dramatic. They're 6-4 over the last 10 games. It's not strange at all to see teams who have clinched home court advantage in their half of the brackets take their foot off the gas in the final stages of the season. The Indianapolis Colts tanked late regular season games and still made the Super Bowl. The Yankees slowed down a bit before re-igniting in the postseason last year as they won the MLB crown.

Part of what makes this little 'slump' seem so dramatic is that other Western teams are closing hard. Here are the standings over the last 10 games for all eight Western playoff teams through Tuesday Night's action.

LAST 10 IN THE WEST
Phoenix 9-1
Portland 8-2
Utah 7-3
San Antonio 7-3
Oklahoma City 6-4
LA Lakers 6-4
Dallas 5-5
Denver 5-5

We're giving Oklahoma City the tie-breaker since they beat the Lakers handily within that stretch. That puts the Lakers in 6th place out of eight teams. And, we have to admit that some of the teams in front of them are true dangers:

*Phoenix hasn't ever won the West with their up-tempo approach...but they've gotten close. The way they're playing now is reminiscent of their best runs. And, you're talking about a veteran in Steve Nash who knows he may not have many opportunities left. The Suns are going to be a tough out.

*Utah has been on fire for weeks. They're close to being healthy, and they're playing with a swagger. They have to be disappointed they couldn't beat the Lakers in LA the other night. That was a strike against them. We should note though that they've been playing at a great clip for WEEKS. They didn't just get hot the last 10 games.

*San Antonio is getting healthy finally, which means you have to throw most of their regular season out. Tony Parker is coming back. Manu Ginobili is playing like a man possessed when his back lets him. Their recent results suggest a true championship contender rather than an over-the-hill has been.

*Oklahoma City is downright SCARY! They play much better defense than people realize, and they're very difficult to defend. Kevin Durant is amazing...and others are stepping up when Durant is double teamed. A lack of experience is a negative obviously. That's about the only negative!

What's most scary for Lakers fans is that those teams just listed would seem to have physical advantages of LA the way the team is playing now. The Spurs just spanked them without Parker this past Sunday. Phoenix, Utah, and Oklahoma City can run over and through people if you let them. Can the aging Lakers stand up to the onslaught? If they can do it for one series, can they do it for two or three at tempo vs. athletes?

There are experts we respect who think the Lakers could fall out in the very first round. We won't go that far yet. We understand how champions save something for when it matters most. Maybe the rest of the West is making their statements a few weeks too early. We are fully aware though that this Lakers group is much more vulnerable than the teams that won the West the last two seasons. They don't seem to be as good (or consistent) themselves, and their competition has lifted their game.

TNT DYNAMITE!

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Among the Lakers question marks:

*Can Kobe carry the load on his suddenly aging legs vs. a string of tough competition? He started young, so his 'NBA age' is older than his actual age. He's starting to show that in the second half of this season. No, he hasn't fallen off the map the way Kevin Garnett has. But, he's lost a half a step at a time when that half a step was often the difference-maker in close games.

*Is Ron Artest still the poison everyone expects him to be? It's funny about Artest. He's probably not as divisive a figure internally as the media makes him out to be. But, he's much more divisive in the flow of an offense than they realize. He has a tendency to force up very bad three-point attempts because he remembers the day when he used to make them. This just killed Houston in the playoffs last year. It's starting to become an issue in big games now. Artest wants to contribute, but gets in the way instead. Well, that's the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is that he REALLY IS THAT DIVISIVE in the clubhouse, and the Lakers are sunk already. Remember the reports of 'faked chemistry' surrounding the documentary Spike Lee did about Kobe? That was before Artest arrived. This may not be a team that gets along all that well any more.

*Will Pau Gasol be able to man up for a string of tough opponents. He has a reputation for playing soft in big games. Some of that went away during the championship run. Some of it didn't. He's about to be tested on a round by round basis. He can't be a shrinking violet.

*Can the Lakers win with such mediocre point guard play? Derek Fisher is old. The backups have been a disappointment. And, this position is a strength for several potential foes. Point guard is a GLARING weakness right now on the Lakers.

If the team is pacing themselves...those questions could easily fade into the background. We don't think they will. For the Lakers to survive, they're going to have to hit those issues head on against very motivated opposition. We won't play the Undertaker's music for them just yet. We have to report that the team does look to be in real trouble...and that handicappers have to be evaluating games with that in mind.

How do evaluate tonight's Lakers/Nuggets game on TNT? Both teams are off the recent pace of the Western challengers. Denver lost its mojo when coach George Karl had to miss time with health battles. In the past Karl had been the kind of coach who has quick success then wears out his welcome. Clearly he's still needed here given the inconsistent play we've seen in his absence. We thought too much time with Karl might have led to a downfall for the team. Turns out it was the other way around.

Based on what we're seeing in the boxscores, and what we've been seeing in recent games, there's a battle for leadership on the floor that is a long way from being resolved. Chauncey Billups thinks of himself as a coach on the floor, and the true leader of what's going on. Carmelo Anthony thinks of himself as a superstar scorer, and expects the ball in crunch time. That's badly hurt late game flow because neither guy wants to give up control to the other.

Denver is on our go-against list for now regarding the playoffs. The Lakers are too until they kick things up a notch. Tonight's result will help us add perspective to those assessments. Maybe tonight's winner deserves more respect. Maybe tonight's loser is already toast.

Will we have a pick? We can't post that information here in the NOTEBOOK. Paying clients will get our best shots from the NBA card (which also features Cleveland/Chicago on TNT), and Major League Baseball. Note that there's a busy DAY slate in the bases on Thursday, so take care of business early!

The number to call to sign up for service is 1-800-323-4453. You can also get game day releases or sign up for packages here at the website with your credit card. If you want to get your feet wet before making a longterm commitment, that's a great way to do it.

Games of interest in the next few days:

TODAY: That TNT doubleheader in the NBA and the busy day in MLB.

FRIDAY: A huge 13-game card in the NBA featuring Phoenix/Oklahoma City, Dallas/Portland, Toronto/Atlanta, and the Lakers dealing with a back-to-back spot at Minnesota...plus a full slate of new baseball series matchups highlighted by: NY Yankees/Tampa Bay, Minnesota/CWS, Atlanta/San Francisco, and St. Louis/Milwaukee.

SATURDAY: A busy 8-game ticket in pro hoops that includes San Antonio/Denver and Boston/Milwaukee...plus more great baseball.

SUNDAY: Orlando/Cleveland is a probable preview of the Eastern Conference championship series...and that's followed by Portland/LA Lakers in an ABC doubleheader. You can see why we wanted to discuss the Lakers today! They play three games in the next four days.

It's a great time to be a sports fan with all this and the Masters going on. Turn your hobby into a money-making career with the help of JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK!

This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by VegasSportsMasters.com and JimHurley.com. For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.

22
Aug

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