JEFF EISENBERG of Press Enterprise wrote:
The player most frustrated by the Lakers' defensive lapses during last year's NBA finals wasn't even in uniform for any of the games.
Andrew Bynum, sidelined for last season's final six months with a severe knee injury, cringed at every reach-in foul, easy put-back or uncontested lay-in the Lakers surrendered against the Celtics. What pained the young 7-footer most was his intimidating presence in the paint may have been all the Lakers needed to shore up their defensive woes.
"Yeah, that's what everyone is saying," Bynum said. "I wasn't able to be out there to alter shots and that's something you've got to have. Hopefully that's something I can bring to the team this year."
Add Bynum's shot blocking and rebounding and Trevor Ariza's length and quickness to a team already motivated by the memory of last June's breakdowns against the Celtics, and the Lakers believe you have the formula for vastly improved defense this season. The presence of Bynum allows perimeter players to defend more aggressively without fear of creating an open lane to the rim, while Ariza possesses all the necessary tools to emerge as a prototypical defensive stopper.
Although the Lakers limited opponents to 44.5 percent shooting last year and showed flashes of defensive brilliance in the playoffs against the weary-legged Spurs, players are adamant they will get better. The first litmus test for the revamped defense comes tonight in Anaheim when the Lakers open the exhibition season against fellow Western Conference contender Utah at the Honda Center.
"We were a good defensive team last year, but Boston was better," Kobe Bryant said. "We've got a couple guys back healthy that would have helped us a lot. Obviously Bynum in the middle plugs up a lot, and having Trevor Ariza as a swing man gives us a lot of help."
Defense has been a theme of previous Lakers training camps under Phil Jackson, but selling players on the concept wasn't nearly as difficult this time. The lasting memory the Lakers took into the offseason was of the Celtics stifling their potent offense with swarming, physical man-to-man defense at one end of the court and scoring at will off dribble penetration on the other.
There were Paul Pierce's repeated forays to the hoop in Games 1 and 2. Or Ray Allen's driving layup against Sasha Vujacic that clinched Game 4. Or the flurry of tomahawk dunks and wide-open threes that helped the Celtics put away the decisive Game 6 by the opening minutes of the third quarter. Boston shot 21 more free throws than the Lakers in the series, out-rebounded them by five per game and scored at least 97 points in five of the six games.
"Never until those finals did I realize how much defense matters in the game of basketball," Lakers forward Vladimir Radmanovic said. "I tried to focus more on my defense than anything else this offseason. That's the part of the game I lack the most."
As much as the renewed commitment will help the Lakers, any defensive improvement will largely be a result of their personnel.
If Jackson wants to outslug opponents, he can play Bynum alongside fellow 7-footer Pau Gasol down low, with versatile 6-foot-10 Lamar Odom and Bryant at wing. Or if he prefers to sacrifice size for quickness and athleticism, Jackson can slide Odom to power forward and insert Ariza at small forward. Ariza, a long-armed, ball-hawking 6-foot-8 forward, averaged 1.1 steals per game off the bench last season before breaking a bone in his right foot on Jan. 20.
With 14 returners back from last season who are each already familiar with Jackson's triangle offense, the Lakers have been able to spend more time emphasizing defensive principles the first week of training camp than previous years. Already players say the extra work has resulted in improved focus and higher energy.
"Whenever you have new guys you have to spend so much of training camp going through the triangle, because if one guy on the court doesn't know what he's doing, it messes up the entire offense," Luke Walton said. "With everyone pretty much everyone coming back, we can focus more on defense. The sooner we start working on it, you start using those philosophies in preseason games and in practice. That's when you really develop those skills."