1. Will the Lakers' unfamiliarity with Indiana hurt their preparation? Coach Phil Jackson acknowledged after Saturday's practice at the team's facility that he's not that familiar with Indiana. Given the Lakers' six-point loss to Utah, the team will be, as Jackson noted, motivated. So I don't forsee the Lakers (13-3) dropping Sunday night's contest at Staples Center against the Pacers (7-7). But this isn't one of those games the Lakers can automatically chalk up as a W, and the lack of familiarity could mean some adjustments will need to be made.
Jackson stressed that the Lakers need to take this team seriously. He's heard remarks that Indiana will be a playoff-bound team. He still remembers Troy Murphy's game-winning tip-in during the 2008-09 season. And he caught on film the Pacers managing to score 58 third-quarter points recently against Denver; Indiana hit 20 consecutive shots.
"We have that understanding," Jackson said,
"that this is a team that keeps playing."
2. The Lakers need to control momentum-changing plays.
Players in the Nuggets' locker room following Indiana's miraculous third-quarter run, according to the Denver Post's Benjamin Hochman, mostly seemed resigned and amused by the achievement. The Lakers were much the same after Phoenix nailed a franchise-record 22 three-pointers, with the team boasting in confidence the Suns couldn't duplicate that in a playoff series and very little could be done defensively to stop it. Should Indiana go on a scoring streak of any kind, the Lakers shouldn't keep to such an attitude.
Instead, they should be recall whatJackson said during the West Finals matchup last season against Phoenix: that the team needs to recognize momentum-changing plays. A look at the Lakers' three losses shows their failure to do that -- including Phoenix's three-point shooting, adjusting to Denver's small lineup and the energy from Utah's bench as well the scoreless drought in the last 2:32 of the game.
"You always underestimate it in maybe the course of a game," Jackson said.
"But you see it again in retrospect and watching tape what basically happened to a ball club."
3. The Lakers' high-efficiency offense and Indiana's improved defense could mean a battle of wills.
The Pacers have won three of their last five games because of solid defense. They rank eighth in points allowed (96.57) and second in field-goal percentage allowed (42.6). The Lakers' league-leading 110.56 points per game can be credited to Kobe Bryant's quick recovery from his surgically repaired right knee, the consistency of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, the unusual regular-season efficiency of Derek Fisher and the Killer B's instant chemistry off the bench.
Though the Lakers have shown a remarkable ability to push the pace while remaining disciplined, as detailed by ESPN Los Angeles' Brian Kamenetzky, those qualities alone won't always win the game. Playing the Jazz, which leads the league in field-goal percentage allowed (42.6%), the Lakers discovered that simply relying on their high-octane style wouldn't always cut it. There are going to be nights when Bryant's shot isn't so sharp and when the Lakers can't rely heavily on three-point shooting. But here's what the Lakers are aware of and sometimes ignore: Their strength lies in their inside game first. Anything else should be within the context of exploiting double teams inside and making opponents spread the floor instead of settling for uncontested outside shots.
4. Ron Artest versus Danny Granger
For various reasons that include back problems, Matt Barnes' resurgence and the failure to establish a definitive rhythm, Artest hasn't had that signature defensive performance yet this season. Although Artest has said time and again that team defense on pick and rolls and helping the defense are more important than any individual matchup, Artest is going up against Granger, and it could prove important in a number of ways.
One, Granger averages around 22 points per game, so neutralizing that threat can relieve the defensive burden. Should Artest match up with Granger fairly well, it leaves the Lakers' defense less worried about having to double team him and allows them to focus their energies elsewhere. And for Artest, it could prove a confidence booster for someone who kept Granger at bay last season under his season average. Artest has shown time and again that when he has a specific matchup to focus on, he's more motivated to take care of the task at hand.