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Column: Kobe Bryant doesn't doubt the Zen Master

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Column: Kobe Bryant doesn't doubt the Zen Master

Nobody knows what might have happened had the Los Angeles Lakers been a bit more patient and allowed Kobe Bryant and his teammates some time to adjust to Mike Brown's new Princeton offense, no matter how ill-suited it seemed for their talents.

Not that it really matters, as long as Phil Jackson is ready and willing to bring his courtside throne out of retirement.

Kobe Bryant made that clear when asked whether the Lakers could switch gears and win quickly if Jackson returned with the triangle offense that made him arguably the greatest coach in NBA history.

``Are you doubting the Zen Master?'' Bryant said.

No, and no one else should, either. Eleven NBA titles outstrips any misgivings about bringing the 67-year-old Jackson back, no matter how ignominious his ending with the Lakers was last time he was on the bench with them.

It still bothers Bryant that Jackson retired after the Lakers suffered an embarrassing meltdown in being swept out of the playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks two seasons ago.

``He's too great of a coach to go out that way,'' Bryant said. ``That's kind of my personal sentiment.''

Around Staples Center, Bryant's personal sentiment goes a long way. Despite his protestations to the contrary, he clearly wasn't happy with Brown or his offense, as evidenced by the angry stare he gave the coach as the Lakers lost to the Utah Jazz last week.

Time is running out for Bryant to get the sixth ring that will forever cement his place next to Michael Jordan when talk turns to the best players ever. He knows his best chance to get that ring and maybe even more is with the coach who was with him for the first five.

Jerry Buss believes that, too, which is why he and team management wasted no time in dumping Brown, despite having to eat about $10 million in severance pay. It's a small price to pay when the Lakers are flush with new TV money and in desperate need of a contending team if Time Warner Cable is to be successful in getting DirecTV and others to pay up and carry the new channel built around the franchise.

Indeed, Brown was given the hook so quickly it's fair to speculate that perhaps there was some corporate pressure coming from the company that paid some $3 billion for a 20-year deal to broadcast the Lakers. The firing came hours before the Lakers were going to play the hapless Golden State Warriors, giving them an easy win to get the post-Brown era off to a good start.

That both the Lakers and their star player want that era to be led by Jackson became clear immediately after Brown was fired. Laker fans didn't take much longer to get on the bandwagon, bringing signs supporting Jackson to Friday night's blowout of the Warriors, and chanting ``We Want Phil'' in the second half.

``I can understand why,'' interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff said. ``The guy's got the rings.''

Jackson appears to want to be back with the Lakers just as much. Multiple reports on Saturday were that he was contacting coaches to be his assistants, and that only contract details stood in the way of his rehiring.

As for Brown, well, that's what happens sometimes when you work on the big stage. Brown's biggest problem may have been that Bryant never warmed up to him, but his strange decision to implement an offense suited more for a team of journeymen than superstars undoubtedly helped speed up his demise.

A Princeton offense in a Showtime town? Not with Jack Nicholson and the rest of Hollywood's elite sitting courtside, you don't. Not when there are huge television deals, huge contracts, and huge luxury tax payments on the horizon.

This was a team built to win now, a team with aging stars in Bryant and Steve Nash that couldn't afford to wait to gel. Yes, Dwight Howard is still playing at about 50 percent of his ability as he works himself back into shape after back surgery, but the sum of this team was still far less than its parts.

Bryant went on Facebook to claim he had a good relationship with Brown and to wish him his best. But his biggest statement may have come on the court against the Warriors, where he dominated as if to declare the Brown era was over and a new one was beginning.

The Lakers can only hope this coaching change turns out as well as another early season firing did for the team 31 years ago. Paul Westhead was the coach then, but Magic Johnson was unhappy with his offensive system and asked to be traded early in the season, and Westhead was fired with the Lakers just 7-4 on the year.

His replacement was an assistant named Pat Riley, who took the team to the NBA title that year and ended up coaching three more championships in LA.

A content Kobe playing for the coach he admires most isn't going to make that happen by himself. He can still take over individual games, but for the season-long grind he'll need Nash to return from injury, Howard to keep improving, and Pau Gasol to play as hard as Bryant likes him to.

The Lakers will also need to figure out a way to play defense, something they refused to do much of under Brown, who built his reputation as a defensive coach.

It won't be an easy task, even if they get Jackson. There are no guarantees, especially when the road to any title goes through LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

But if Bryant doesn't doubt the Zen Master, Laker fans shouldn't either.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org orhttp://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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2017-18 Wizards roster review: Jodie Meeks

2017-18 Wizards roster review: Jodie Meeks

To wrap up the 2017-18 season, we are looking at each player on the Wizards' roster. Today, we evaluate Jodie Meeks' season...

Player: Jodie Meeks

Position: Shooting guard

Age: 30

2017-18 salary: $3.3 million

2017-18 stats: 77 G, 14.5 mpg, 6.3 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 0.9 apg, 0.4 spg, 0.1 bpg, 39.9 FG%, 34.3 3P%, 86.3 FT%, 49.1 eFG%, 111 ORtg, 112 DRtg

Best game: 11/29 at Sixers - 21 points, 4 rebounds, assist, steal, 5-for-11 FG, 3-for-6 3PT, 8-for-9 FT

Season review: The Wizards took a flier on Jodie Meeks last summer in what seemed at the time to be a low-risk contract with a potentially high reward, if he could stay healthy and play to his career norms. They were in obvious need of help at backup shooting guard and three-point shooting for their bench.

Meeks fell short of those expectations for a variety of reasons. Though he stayed healthy for the first time in years, he could not make shots at the clip the Wizards were hoping for. His field goal percentage was not far off from what he posted in recent years, but his three-point percentage was nowhere near the 38.8 percent he shot in his previous four seasons.

Meeks bottomed out midseason, shooting 28.9 percent from three in December and 28 percent in January. Those numbers ticked up beginning in February, but Meeks never fully gained the trust of his coaching staff. He rarely got hot enough to alter games and his best stat-lines often came in blowouts. 

There was a domino effect from Meeks' struggles, as starting shooting guard Bradley Beal had no one to spell him. As a result, Beal logged the fourth-most minutes of any NBA player this season.

For Meeks personally, it was a bittersweet year because staying healthy was no small feat. He had a run of bad luck and finally broke out of it this season. On the other hand, he never made the impact he felt he was capable of and that wasn't easy for a guy joining a new team and a new locker room.

Meeks' 2017-18 season was ultimately defined by more than his shooting woes. First, he expressed interest in a trade in February and did not get his wish. Then, he was suspended for allegedy using performance-enhancing drugs after the regular season ended. He was out for the playoffs and will miss the first 19 games of the 2018-19 season without pay as he waits out a 25-game ban.

Meeks may or may not serve that suspension as a member of the Wizards. He has a player option for next season worth $3.5 million. He has yet to inform the team of his decision, but the expectation is that he will pick it up. Given how poorly his season went and ended, it would likely be the smart move financially for him to opt in and hope for better results next season.

Potential to improve: Shooting percentage, perimeter defense, passing

More player season reviews:

John Wall, PG

Bradley Beal, SG

Otto Porter, SF

Markieff Morris, PF

Marcin Gortat, C

Kelly Oubre, Jr., SF

Tomas Satoransky, PG

Ian Mahinmi, C

Ty Lawson, PG

Tim Frazier, PG

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Want the Stanley Cup? Five ways the Caps can beat the Golden Knights

Want the Stanley Cup? Five ways the Caps can beat the Golden Knights

The Caps stand just four wins away from winning their first Stanley Cup. To get those four wins, however, they will have to beat the Vegas Golden Knights.

Here are the keys to the series that will give the Caps the win.

Figure out how to beat Marc-Andre Fleury

No player has been as important to his team this postseason as Fleury is to the Golden Knights. He is reason No. 1, 2 and 3 why they have made their improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final in the team’s inaugural season.

Fleury’s personal numbers are staggering. Through 15 games, he has a .947 save percentage and has recorded four shutouts.

Vegas has been a middle of the pack team in terms of offense this postseason scoring 2.87 goals per game. They have lost only three playoff games thus far, but, as dominant as they have been, they certainly are not blowing away the competition. Of their 12 wins, ten of them have come with a margin of victory of two goals or less.

This shows you just how important Fleury is to their success. They are not scoring opponents into submission, rather they are relying on Fleury to keep opponents at bay.

Fleury is the absolute key to the Golden Knights’ success. It’s easier said than done, but if the Caps find a way to beat him consistently, Vegas becomes exponentially more beatable.

Win the neutral zone battle

Much of this series will be determined between the blue lines. The Golden Knights are an incredibly fast team.

Just to get to this point, the Caps had to beat two other speedy teams in the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. They did it primarily by slowing down the offense in the neutral zone with a 1-3-1 trap. With so many bodies defending in the neutral zone, opponents have struggled to break the puck cleanly into the Caps’ defensive zone. The Caps are cutting off passing and skating lanes, creating turnovers and generating odd-man breaks in the other direction by catching opponents’ defensemen playing too aggressively on the rush.

As fast as the Penguins and Lightning were, however, the Golden Knights are even faster. Will the trap be as effective against Vegas?

Limit obstruction penalties

When playing against a team with speed, penalties often become a major issue. When trying to defend against fast players, if you get caught flat-footed or out of position, this tends to lead to obstruction penalties like tripping and hooking. When a player realizes he’s been beat, he does everything he can to prevent that from costing his team, leading to those type of penalties.

Vegas’ power play has not been lights out by any means with a success rate of only 17.6-percent this postseason, but you cannot continually give the opposition chances to score by frequently having a player sent to the penalty box.

Positioning is going to make all the difference in the world in this series to make sure a player is not forced into taking an obstruction penalty just to slow down the Golden Knights.

Get off to good starts

Vegas is 10-1 in the postseason when scoring first. Their secret to success is a mix between goaltending and speed.

Fleury has been phenomenal in net and the Golden Knights are a quick breakout team. It is very hard to get much sustained offensive pressure against them because once they get the puck, they are going down the ice at a million miles an hour.

Having to play from behind against a team like Vegas is not a recipe for success. Just getting the puck and keeping up with them is exhausting. Having to then find a way to then beat Fleury when he has a lead to protect is all the more daunting.

Strong starts will be vital to ensuring the Caps are not frequently having to play from behind.

Depth scoring

Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant likes to roll his four lines. It makes sense since there drop-off between his top line and fourth line is not as dramatic as it is on most NHL teams.

Consider how this team was constructed. The expansion draft did not give Vegas access to superstar players, but they also did not have to take any fringe NHL/healthy scratch players to fill the fourth line either. They filled their roster with the best players available to them which gives them four lines of much more comparative strength than most NHL teams.

While this means the Caps have a stronger top six, it also allows Vegas to roll four lines and take advantage of other teams’ bottom six.

You can never take a shift off against Vegas. There is no weak line to exploit. The Golden Knights come at you with four lines and relentless pressure and forecheck for 60 minutes.

Washington will probably get more production from its top six than Vegas will, or at the very least it will be a push. The question is what kind of production will each team get from the bottom six? If the Caps have the edge in depth production as well, they will be in good shape.

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