LA Lakers' Killer Instinct Critical to Keeping Playoff Hope Alive

Bryant KnoxFeatured ColumnistFebruary 13, 2013

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 26:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during a break in the action against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on December 26, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Lakers 126-114. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

To say that the Los Angeles Lakers have disappointed throughout 2012-13 would be the understatement of the season.

When a team is built to contend for a title, you never expect to debate whether or not they’ll make the playoffs. And yet, losing streaks, coaching changes and incessant injuries have plagued this franchise to the point of wondering whether or not the postseason is even attainable.

We can point every which direction when it comes to placing blame—many of us already have—but when it comes down to it, this team has underperformed in light of the moves they made and the goals they set during the offseason.

The talent of this starting unit shouldn’t be losing at such an alarming rate, and a run at the playoffs is going to come down to heart, determination and the drive of the star-studded lineup.

Simply put, this team needs to get mean, and it needs to happen now before it's too late.

If everybody on the Lakers roster had the ferociousness of Kobe Bryant, the Staples Center would be a scary place for teams to visit. Heck, if everyone on the roster had the intensity of Steve Blake, they might be a bit more intimidating.

But the fact is, nobody is afraid of this Lakers team. To begin the season, they wore targets on their backs as the league’s newest super team. Now those targets exist only because they’ve been exposed, and their flaws are out there for the world to see.

Sometimes in basketball you have to be the bad guy. If you're being pushed around, you have to push back.

It's safe to say that the Lakers have been on the receiving end of the push this season. Yet, if they can add tenacity and toughness to their everyday approach, it’s going to make a world of difference, especially on defense.

Defensively, the Lakers have been underwhelming at best throughout the year. They’re giving up more than 100 points per game on average, they force the second-fewest turnovers of anyone in the league and they’re not intimidating anybody either deep in the paint or out on the perimeter.

We all know that Mike D’Antoni’s system lacks lockdown defense, but the players need to take pride in their play and make up for any gaps in the defensive scheme.

If an up-tempo system is what the Lakers are trying to run, opposing teams are going to fire back. The effort level in transition has been hard to watch at times, and with the instinct to win should come the instinct to get back defensively.

On offense, Bryant needs to remain smart about the way he plays. Confidence is something that the 34-year-old has never lacked, but his teammates, on the other hand, have fallen victim to the pressures of losing in L.A.

It’s no secret that Dwight Howard hasn’t looked like himself since joining the Lakers. He’s always been a fun-loving personality throughout his career, but the incessant reminders about his health and damaged athleticism make for a far less entertaining player to watch.

Howard doesn’t need to get mean in the way that Bryant does, but he needs to assert his dominance down low. His 16.2 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game are beyond respectable, but this team doesn’t need respectable—it needs a killer instinct.

When Bryant sets up Howard on offense—and everyone else, for that matter—he creates energy. He needs to know when to let loose and take over a game, but he also needs to recognize the impact he has on his teammates from both a production and an emotional standpoint.

If there’s one thing we know at this point in the process, it’s that we overhyped the Lakers coming into the season. I was guilty of it, many of you were guilty of it and countless media members across the country assumed that greatness no longer needed time to officially take form.

But you have to remember one thing.

This team was overhyped for a reason.

Despite having a bench that is a train wreck more often than not—although to their credit, they’ve shown improvement—the talent level on this squad is completely ridiculous. Age and health are two significant concerns, but when healthy, this starting five should be able to compete with any other group in the league.

In just a two-and-a-half week stretch, the Lakers won eight of 11 games to improve to 25-28. It's a record that is nothing to boast about. Still, their recent play is a step in the right direction, as the bottom seeds out West have been up for grabs since the start of the season.

Basketball is part physical, part mental. The Lakers haven’t shown what they can do in either category just yet, but if they wrap their heads around the notion that the eighth spot is within their grasps, they can rally the rest of the way with one common goal in mind.

Make the playoffs.