And for their next trick, Lakers might just repeat as champions

Game by game, the Los Angeles Lakers are whittling away the concerns that faced the team before the playoffs started.  As the regular season came to an end, the Lakers seemed ripe for an upset.  Kobe Bryant looked mortal.  The effort was poor.  Pau Gasol seemed weak.  Andrew Bynum was hurt.  Derek Fisher looked dead.  And Ron Artest looked to be shooting blind-folded.

Take a look at that list.  How many of them are still the case?  Kobe has been carrying the Lakers during times of struggle, and during the 4th quarter, like it's 1999.  The Lakers have only truly whiffed on effort once in these playoffs, still once too many, but an improvement over this season, and years past.  Pau has been a straight beast in the playoffs, and for what little it's worth, has the highest playoff PER on the team.  Andrew Bynum is hurt, but that hasn't prevented him from being more of a difference maker than he's ever been in the postseason.  Derek Fisher is in the midst of individually going around and sticking all of our feet in our mouths.  And now, with all the normal cautions and disclaimers about one game sample sizes not withstanding, Ron Artest found his stroke.

Before the postseason, we talked about how the Lakers needed a run of hot shooting to repeat as champions.  Well, it's coming, and it's being championed by the most unlikely of sources.  Say what you want about his defense, say what you want about his shot selection, but Derek Fisher is absolutely killing it from long distance right now.   We who have criticized him all year must give him due credit now.  His performance has been as impressive as it has been unexpected.  But he's not alone.

Kobe has found his outside stroke too.  He's just below 40% for the postseason from 3.  His overall shooting % leaves something to be desired, but he's clearly getting stronger as the playoffs go on.  Early on against OKC, we saw the same array of jumpers that has doomed him in the past.  Now, he's posting, he's attacking the basket, and he's finding that perfect balance between distributor and cold blooded killer.  Whether some extra days off between games is doing him good, or he can see the promised land enough to overcome his ailments by sheer force of will, the Mamba is back, and he will not be the reason the Lakers fail.

But the piece de resistance still needs to be Ron Artest.  Declaring Artest's shooting woes to be finished after one decent game is foolish, but so is ignoring the fact that Artest is, historically at least, a very decent outside shooter.  He hasn't been successful shooting the ball since 2009, and not for lack of trying.  But the man still boasts a career 3 pt % far above his current performance.  One never knows how quickly a shooting touch and leave a man, nor how quickly it can come back.  If Artest can play like he did last night, the Lakers become a completely different ball club.

And for what it's worth, I don't think the defense was all that poor yesterday either.  Yes, both Utah and LA put up obscene points per possession numbers, and if the proof is in the pudding, the defense was sub-par.  But Utah is a very good offensive team, and I don't know what you can do stop somebody like Kyle Korver just going off.  Dude can get his shot up faster than I can pick my nose.  And he was shooting from all kinds of awkward positions, shooting without setting his feet, shooting after turning around from the basket.  It was as impressive a catch and shoot performance as you will see.   Yes, the Lakers lost him a couple times when they shouldn't have, but give the man some credit for an amazing performance.

The Lakers have been one of the best defensive teams in the league all year.  Now, they are picking the best time possible to emerge as an offense that can not be ignored.  If last night is any indication, they can't be countered by packing the lane and swarming Kobe Bryant.  Last night, Utah decided to make the Lakers beat them by draining outside shots.  Any pass to the post was immediately met with a double team.  Any time Kobe got within 15 feet, he had two defenders.  If the ball came back out to the perimeter, especially to Ron Artest, the Jazz didn't even bother closing out.  They were daring Ron Ron to beat them.  And so he did. 

Down the stretch, neither team could get a stop, but it wasn't because the defenses took a night off.  This was playoff basketball at its best, both teams executing their offense so well that the defense just couldn't keep up.  For the Lakers to pull out the win, on the road, just makes the outside shooting all the more impressive.  There have been games with higher stakes, or more dramatic endings.  But you'll be hard pressed to find a game as well played as that one.  Combined with game 6 of the 1st round, that's two games in a row on the road where the Lakers have won because of a strong outside stroke.

It's the final piece of the Lakers championship puzzle.  One by one, we set up dominoes that must fall in order for the Lakers to have a good chance of repeating.  One by one, those dominoes have been taken care of.  It took them more than 82 games, but the Lakers are finally emerging as a team that's difficult to stop on both sides of the ball, and their timing couldn't be any better.  This doesn't mean the Lakers will win it all again this year.  There are some good teams out there, and nothing will be easy the rest of the way.  But we can finally say the Lakers are doing everything in their power to get back on that podium, and everything they've got is a pretty impressive display of power.

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