Friday, February 6, 2009

Breaking Down the Contenders part 1, LA Lakers

Last year, when young Lakers big man Andrew Bynum went down with an injury, most NBA observers thought LA's championship hunt was over. Fortunately for Kobe and Co., their season was saved by GM Chris Wallac... er, Mitch Kupchak when he traded spare gym equipment and a couple of meal stubs to Memphis for Spanish stud Pau Gasol. The season still ended in heartbreak, though, as the Lakers were manhandled in a six-game series with the Boston Celtics amidst questions on the Lakers toughness.

It's deja vu for the Lake Show when Bynum was declared injured yet again. Initial reactions were similar to last year's, with the team's championship aspirations seemingly derailed. The Lakers, though, immediately made it clear that this was nothing like last year.

Kobe Bryant issued a clear statement with his record-breaking Madison Square Garden performance (61 pts on 19-31 shooting). There is no lack of firepower on this roster. The Black Mamba alone has enough ammunition for a whole army. The game worried head coach Phil Jackson for a bit, as the team seemed to revert back to its pre-'Kobe Nash' habits. But Kobe wasn't making a statement to his team; this was a clear warning to all their rivals, to the entire league. Everyone should stop talking about Bynum, because this team was about Bryant. The statement was loud and clear.

Any fears of Kobe being the selfish Kobe were quickly diffused with last night's Celtics game. In this game, played in Boston's home court, the Celtics were out to test LA's toughness yet again. Kobe led an all-around team performance, scoring 26 points to Gasol's 24 (and 14 rebounds). Lamar Odom chipped in 20 points as they nipped the defending champs by 1 point in overtime. Though the game could obviously gone either way, it was how the Lakers picked up the win that was so impressive. The Celtics pushed them, the same way they did in last year's Finals. The Lakers pushed back. Boston talked their trash, like they always did. LA talked right back. Boston challenged the toughness of the Lakers, who were fielding practically the exact same lineup they had when the Celtics roughhoused their way to the championship, and boy, were they up to the challenge.

There's no need for a drastic trade deadline deal, or a veteran free agent signing, or any action whatsoever. This LA team, right now, is good enough to win it all. With or without Bynum. They know it. And with these statement games behind them, the rest of the league should take notice as well. These aren't last year's Los Angeles Lakers -- and I'll say this. I've never been more scared of them than I am right now.

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