Sense of Urgency = Defense

For weeks now, the Los Angeles Lakers have talked about finding a "sense of urgency" about their play.  Kobe Bryant has talked about it.  Phil Jackson has talked about it.  So have Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher.  Well, finally, we've seen it.  The Lakers defense against the San Antonio Spurs in last night's victory is all the sense of urgency you will see, and it's all you need to see.  The Lakers entered last night's game in the midst of the most unimpressive 6 game win streak in NBA history (mild exaggeration), and they left the game with a 7 game win streak that is clearly the mark of a champion gearing up for the playoffs. 
 
Only two of those 7 games should be looked at for comparitive purposes, because only two of them were played against playoff opponents.  And in those two victories (against the Suns and last night), the Lakers have held two of the better offensive teams in the league to well below their season averages, and they've done so in the opponent's building.  In Phoenix, the Lakers held the Suns to 1.02 Points per possession, when they average 1.15 on the season.  For the Spurs, it was .98 PPP for the game, vs. 1.10 for the season.   Small sample size be damned, those are impressive defensive performances
All season long, the Lakers have hovered near the very top of the league's defensive rankings, but after a ridiculous start to the season defensively, the Lakers have been tailing off ever since.  Take a look at the monthly splits for Defensive Rating:
 
 

Month

DR (overall)

DR (month)

November/October

96.5

96.5

December

100.6

105.0

January

102

104.4

February

101.8

100.9

March

102.7

107.6

 
As you can see, the defense started amazingly, but has fallen off in the months since.  Only in February did the Lakers display a noticeable improvement over their average, and there are two outliers during that month.  Less games were played in February, due to the All-Star break, and that was also the month where Kobe missed 5 games.  In his absence, the team resolve brought about some of the best defensive performances of the season in going 4-1 over those 5 games.  And in March?  The defense hasn't just gotten worse, it's gotten outright bad.  That 107.6 rating would be good for 18th in the league over the course of the season.
 
All of which explains why I put so much stock in the Lakers ability to throw up a defensive performance like the one we saw last night.  The 2nd half was one of the best defensive displays the Lakers have put on all season (the best is, and will always be, the 4 point 4th quarter the Lakers hung on the Utah Jazz), and it (and the Suns game) happened amidst some of the worst defense the Lakers have played all year.  It seems clear to me that the Lakers defensive issues are almost entirely of the effort variety (the almost would be all if not for PG deficiency).  When the effort is there, this is one of the best defensive teams in the league, and could well be THE best.  If all of this sense of urgency talk is to be believed, if last night was indeed an indication that the Lakers are mentally prepared to flip the switch, then effort won't be a problem.  If effort isn't a problem, scoring points will be a problem for the other team.
 
Some other game notes -
 
Not everything was golden about last night's game.  Here's some of the bad that might have slipped through the cracks of our happy celebration.
 
Derek Fisher was typically poor on the night, both offensively and defensively.  He shot 1-5 from the field, and was routinely abused by George Hill in the 1st half.  The most concerning part is that Fisher was abused in every conceivable way.  He was beaten with quickness, he was beaten because he was unable to get around screens, and at one point he was beaten with strength.  Jeff Van Gundy (who was on fire with relevant commentary for the first time in a long time) commented after one Hill layup that he couldn't remember anybody bullying Derek Fisher before.  It kills me to have to continually to beat the "Derek Fisher isn't good anymore" drum to vehemently, but when your last bastion of strength (which, in this case, is literally Fisher's strength) starts to fail, it's time to give up.  Fisher did play the entire 3rd quarter (in which the Lakers were strong defensively), but he didn't play any of the fourth quarter until the very end (in which the Lakers were spectacular defensively).  I have no idea if any of that means anything, but I figured I'd mention it so that Fisher doesn't feel too slandared when he reads this.
 
Pau Gasol was stellar defensively, holding Tim Duncan to 6 points on 2-11 shooting, but on offense reverted right back into the form that has gotten him so much grief from Lakers fans.  5 turnovers to go along with 3-9 shooting as he finally matched up against a front line that isn't terrible defensively, and it showed.
 
Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga ... wow, I'd almost forgotten how bad they are on offense.  Combined, they were 0-5 on the night, and every single one of those shots was a bad choice given proper consideration of the defense and shot clock.  Mbenga took only one of those 5 shots so Josh Powell deserves most of your enmity (although it should be noted that Powell at least has a prayer of making outside shots).  Either way, it's not that big of a surprise to see 40s next to Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom in the minutes section of the box score (Kobe too).  Pau was forced to play almost all of the 2nd half.
 
On a more positive note, could there possibly have been a more perfect response to Bill Plaschke's idiotic Ron Artest article than last night's game, in which Artest was an absolutely dynamic defensive force.  You have to hand to him, he really knows how to be publically wrong.  I mean, when a writer for a national NBA blog takes the time out of his recap of all NBA action to tongue-lash your lack of knowledge about a team that you "cover" for a local newspaper (as Kelly Dwyer did in today's Btb), I think it's safe to say you've reached new depths of ignorance.  KD's audience could care less what Bill Plaschke says, KD knows it, and yet he still felt the need to have a say on the matter, because he felt compelled to point out Plaschke's complet lack of knowledge.  I have no idea if Artest was actually motivated by it, if he read it, or even if he knows how to read, but his performance had anything to do with what was written in the Times, we might all owe Plaschke a big thank you.
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