Archives For December 2004

On Tap: The Seattle Supersonics

 —  December 14, 2004

In a change of pace for our game preview, rather than me trying to explain the amazing start for Seattle I found someone who follows the team daily:

Howdy, Lakers fans. I’m Paul from Supersonicsoul.com. With Kobe and the Gang set to face the shockingly super Sonics Tuesday night, Kurt was wondering if I could lend some insight into the mind-boggling start Seattle has gotten off to.

Well, I can’t.

In all honesty, I’m as perplexed as you. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the Sonics would be over .500 at this point in the season, let alone have the second best record in the NBA. In fact, the whole reason we started Supersonicsoul was to have a place for long-suffering Sonics fans to commiserate over the lousiness of our once great team. Now, the Sonics are one of the hottest teams around, and we’re stuck with a box full of unworn “Sund Sucks” t-shirts.

So, what’s the dealio? How did the Sonics, who were picked by nearly every publication in America to be the worst team in the NBA, suddenly become one it’s best?

There are a lot of obvious factors, of course: the super-natural shooting of Ray Allen, the immergence of Rashard Lewis (finally!), the surprisingly non-sucky play of Luke “Frodo” Ridnour.

The MVP of the team so far, though, has to be Danny Fortson. Yes, the journeyman forward we got in exchange for Calvin Booth last summer has added a desperately needed toughness to the wallflower Sonics. Every great team needs an enforcer, and the Sonics haven’t had one since Frank Brickowski. While Fortson’s Rodman-esque antics can grow tiresome at times, there’s no way the Sonics would be in first place without him.

The question is, of course, will the Sonics still be in first place at the end of the season? Maybe not, but for now, this long-suffering Sonics fan is going to enjoy the ride while it lasts.

This was part of an exchange program for bloggers, my post one the Lakers so far is up for Sonics fans.

The Future’s So Bright….

 —  December 13, 2004

Maybe it’s just me, but I am more optimistic as a Laker fan after the two wins this weekend than I have been all season. Two wins, on back-to-back nights, in contrasting style games, against over .500 teams makes me believe this Laker squad may be beginning to really find itself.

There were so many things in Sunday’s win against the Magic to be optimistic about. The Lakers fought back from an early deficit. They did a good job of slowing down the a Magic team that likes to run — the Magic had only 90 possessions in the game, well below their season average of 96 (and each quarter the Magic had fewer possessions than the one before). The Lakers also played good defense and got key stops in the fourth quarter — the Magic shot 48.8% for the game, but they shot just 33.3% in the fourth quarter. (As a side note, the Lakers also played good defense against the Clippers, holding them to 38.8% shooting for the night.) Plus, there was the much-needed production off the bench — not just Jumaine Jones (the antidote to an off Caron Butler that night) but also Tierre Brown’s 10 points and eight assists, and some quality minutes from Luke Walton, doing the things that don’t show up in the box score.

I’ve still got some frustrations. For example, and I know this was talked about plenty on the broadcast (and I try in this blog to bring a fresh perspective) but I can’t just let this go: How does Jumaine Jones not get more time and more shots in the second half? This guy has one of the best quarters in Laker history — he’s got the hot hand — so he doesn’t enter the game until 3:40 left in the third, and doesn’t get a clean look at a shot until 2:00 left in the fourth quarter? Rudy T. has got to get him in sooner, then they need to run plays to get him the shot. Yes, Orlando started paying attention to him more, but they did that some in the second quarter and the Lakers moved him more to the power forward position and ran him plays to get him looks from near the top of the key. In the second half there was none of that.

(By the way, did you know that if you look at 82games.com’s Roland Ratings — a basic +/- system that is good at telling you how valuable a player is to a team — Jones is second on the Lakers behind Kobe. His spark off the bench has been key this season. He has made the Payton trade worth it. Well, that and not having to deal with Payton’s attitude.)

But while there are problems, things seem to be fitting together better and better for this Laker team. Lamar Odom continues to work hard and — in spurts — seems to be getting a better feel on offense. Chris Mihm is playing so well inside Vlade is having a hard time getting minutes. This team has depth, it just needs to show up consistently.

Things are not perfect, but with each game these Lakers seem to be evolving into a good team. And that has me feeling positive. Lets see how they do in a big test this week — at Seattle and at Sacramento.

———————

A couple of other quick thoughts:

* I mentioned Roland Rating before, well the L.A. Times used it this week in a note on the Lakers. Good to see 82games.com getting the notice it so richly deserves.

* I have to think on thing that would keep David Stern up at night was a smart, savvy owner who started tracking NBA referee performance. Mark Cuban is doing that.

* If you want to talk about the Lakers version of “Desperate Housewives” you can do so in the comment thread. I would have to care to have something to say. I’m done with the soap opera.

On Tap: The Orlando Magic

 —  December 12, 2004

Here’s something I didn’t think I’d write this season: The Eastern Conference leading Orlando Magic are in town. Literally from worst (21-61 last season) to first. (On a side note — the Eastern Conference may have the NBA champs but my feelings about it from the past couple of seasons have not changed: It remains a sorry excuse for a conference. There is no depth there. If the season ended right now, the Knicks would be the three seed with a 9-10 record, something they would earn by winning their division.)

The Lakers and Magic met once before this season, back on Nov. 12, but that is a game Laker fans might like to forget. Well, not the first quarter — LA came out running, shot 64% from the floor and led 37-21 at the end of the first quarter and by 18 points early in the second.

Then things got ugly, as ugly as they have all season. Steve Francis showed that a penetrating point guard can eat the Lakers alive, and he had 32 points and 9 assists when the night was over. Everyone seemed happy to see Grant Hill back, so the Lakers let him help himself to 27 points and 12 rebounds (but he may not play tonight due to sore shins).

Then there were these nuggets: Orlando’s bench outscored the Lakers’ 54-13 (mostly from Hedo Turkoglu, 23, and Pat Garrity, 21); Orlando dominated on the boards, 50-32; and fast break points went to Orlando 27-15.

You can expect to see a lot of fast break points in this game — Orlando takes 47% of its shots come in the first 10 seconds of the 24 second clock (the Lakers are at 37%).

This is also a game — like last night against the Clippers – where Kobe and Chucky Atkins can shine (Kobe did shine against the Clippers with 37, and Atkins had a key three to seal the win). Orlando is weakest defensively against the point (17.6 oPER) and the two (16.7 oPER). That was reflected in the last game between these two — Kobe had 41 points (shooting a respectable 45.2% from the field) with 16 points in the fourth. Chucky Atkins had 21 points, including three of nine from three point range.

There are two key factors for the Lakers tonight. One, play good defense, particularly at the point against Francis. They need to play defense like they did last night — holding the Clippers to 37.1% shooting from the field, and just 3 or 13 from three-point land — and not like they did last time they played the Magic, giving up 122 points. Second, they need to get better bench play — this is the second game of a back to back and they are facing a team that would like to run them out of the building. They got poor bench play against the Clippers, just 13 points (Jumaine Jones did add nine defensive rebounds in his 25 minutes). If the Lakers get tired because the starters have to play too many minutes, the fourth quarter tonight could look a lot like the last game these two played.

By the way, in the four other back-to-backs the Lakers have played this season, they are 1-3 in the second game.

On Tap: The Los Angeles Clippers

 —  December 11, 2004

At least this time around the media isn’t building this game up as some sort of “Battle for L.A.” But don’t think the game’s not important — the Clippers are one of the teams the Lakers could be fighting at the end of the season for a playoff spot. Be the game in December or April, it’s a two-game division swing.

Which is why the Lakers get a break because it is a hobbled Clipper team come into Staples. The Clips are without promising rookie Shaun Livingston (dislocated right kneecap, which sounds really painful), Elton Brand (suspended one game for smacking Emeka Okafor) and Chris Kaman (out with an emergency appendectomy on Wednesday — but he says he wants to play tonight, which if he does would move him up the toughness level ladder up there with NHL players). Listed as questionable but expected to go are Kerry Kittles, Marco Jaric and Zeljko Rebraca. That’ string of bad luck shows that this Clipper squad knows how to keep up team tradition.

All those missing and injured players also make this one of the few games this season where the Lakers should be superior team inside. Brand had 14 points and 11 rebounds when these two teams played Nov. 17. That said, the Clippers still have the athletic and energetic duo of Bobby Simmons and Chris Wilcox inside (they scored 23 and 14 points, respectively, against the Lakers last go around). Simmons leads the Clippers in Roland Rating, +18.6 (a sign he has been the teams most valuable player this season). Brand is second (+11.2).

If you remember, the last game between the two was one where the Lakers spread the ball around, having 24 assists (they average 21.8 in their wins) and six players scoring in double digits (plus the team shot 51.3% from the floor). The game was tied with one minute to go in the third quarter, when the Lakers started a 20-7 run that put the game out of reach.

That run was spurred by Chucky Atkins, and he could have a big game tonight — by far the position the Clippers defend the worst in the point (18.3 oPER). Also looking at their player efficiency ratings, it is clear the Clippers strength is inside — at the three, four and five — but with Brand out and the Lakers having Vlade back (at least as a sub) some of that strength should be negated.

That first game between these teams also featured one of my favorite Laker moments of the season: Near the end of the first half (I think), Kobe dribbled the ball up court and slowed down near the Laker bench, as if he was talking to Rudy T., who was standing right there. Marco Juric took the bait and relaxed his defense while the conversation took place, and the second he did Kobe turned it on and sprinted right past him, down the lane for the layup and the foul.

In the first game of back-to-backs this season, the Lakers are 3-1. The Lakers need to win both games of the back-to-back this weekend, with a tough road trip at Seattle (Tuesday) and Sacramento (Thursday) next week. If the Lakers split the two games this weekend, it’s not hard to imagine them heading into next weekend having lost four out of their last five.

It’s Friday, I’m in Love

 —  December 10, 2004

No reason for the headline, other than a chance to quote The Cure. What follows is an assortment of thoughts on a Friday morning:

* I know it’s early, but for the record: At 10-8, the Lakers are ninth in the Western Conference right now, one game back of the Clippers and Nuggets.

* Among the numerous problems the Lakers have in the half-court offense, have you noticed that at the first sign of trouble, the rest of the Lakers freeze and give the ball to Kobe. “Here you go, take the ball, six seconds to go on the 24, good luck!”

I think that’s one of the reasons Kobe’s shooting percentage has fallen so far this season and currently sits at 39.7%. (Using eFG% — to better account for the three point attempts — it improves to 44.2%.)

* A question being asked (by the insightful Joel Meyers, for one) is if Kobe should shoot more when he penetrates off the dribble. Right now, after he beats his man and if the defense collapses on him, he kicks the ball out for a 20-24 foot jumper from someone. Would Kobe — and the Lakers — be better served not driving all the way to the basket and instead pulling up for an 8- to 10-foot jumper?

* What the Kobe and the Lakers should not do — and they do it a lot, especially in crunch time — is not penetrate and settle the long jumper with a man in their face.

* Kobe has had double-digit assists the past two games, but he also has 8 turnovers per game in the contests.

* Did you notice that Vlade didn’t play against Phoenix? Admittedly Stoudemire and the rest of the Suns are far more athletic than Vlade, so we’re not talking a lot of minutes here, but wouldn’t he have been useful for a few minutes as a sub?

* I have to say I really enjoy watching Phoenix play — they rarely run a set offense (I’d guess less than 40% of the time), instead letting Steve Nash push the ball and create. They are as close to playground as you can get in the NBA. It reminds me of the fun play you saw in the 1980s (when the Lakers ran, but other teams, such as Golden State, outran even them).

* That said, I agree with Icaros in the comments from yesterday — I don’t think Phoenix’s style will work in the post-season. They may be a top-four seed, but they will be ripe for a first-round upset.

* The Lakers had success against Phoenix inside — Chris Mihm was 8 of 12 for 18 points and Lamar Odom was 9 of 14 for 19 points. As they did in the first game between these two — and my observations say they do a lot this season — when the going got tight the Lakers went away from this strategy.

* So far this season, Kobe drawing a foul on 17.3% of his shot attempts.

* Kobe is fourth in the league in minutes played.

* Who is leading the Lakers terms of shooting percentage? Chris Mihm at 53.7%. Being close to the basket helps.

* While Tony Bobbit was signed after the Rush trade, he was sent to the IR. Sasha Vujacic is off of it and may get a few minutes at the point. I’m curious to see a little more of him in a game situation.

* For what it’s worth, the Lakers are 8-9-1 against the Vegas line this season (according to Covers.com) and 8-9 to the under.

—————-

According to Hoops World, while the Lakers took Tony Bobbit back they also took a look at at a three-point specialist point guard and former Celtic Greg Minor. Minor may stay on the watch list if there is a need to bring in another point (due to injury, trade, whatever).

Why do I care? If it happens, Minor would be the only player in the NBA from Cal State Northridge, my alma mater. For those that don’t know him, Minor made the questionable move of leaving after his junior season in 1999 to enter the draft. Shockingly, he wasn’t drafted. Since then he spent several years as a project on the Celtics bench then has gone to the minor leagues. No, I don’t think he’s better than Bobbit — but he’s a Matador so I’ve got his back.

A couple of posts down, the comments section on Karl Malone’s non-return to the Lakers included, in part, a discussion about the frustration some of us have with the ongoing soap opera surrounding the Lakers.

Personally, I’m done with the Kobe/Shaq feud, the Buss/Shaq feud, the Kobe/Malone feud and the rest of the Hatfields and McCoys. I’m sick of “As the Basketball Turns.”

But, apparently, some fans and the mainstream media are not.

ABC vice president Mark Mandel said the network is considering a Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant segment for halftime of the New England-Miami (Monday Night Football) game Dec. 20 to promote its Christmas Day telecast of the Miami Heat-Los Angeles Lakers game.

At one point I used to be excited about this game, now I’m seriously starting to dread the run up. It’s going to get more hype than Santa that week.

Where’s the Clutch?

 —  December 9, 2004

Last night, in the fourth quarter at Staples Center, one team had another gear left, took control of the game late and came out with a close win. We Angelinos had become spoiled in recent years because that team had always been the Lakers — and with Kobe still around we expected much the same this year.

Of course, we used to expect good movies from Oliver Stone, then we get Alexander.

Phoenix closed out last night with a 19-3 run to win. Last time these two teams hooked up, the Suns closed out 7-0 to win by five. What’s concerning is this is not just the Suns — virtually every team has finished stronger than the Lakers this season. The Lakers have been tied or behind entering the fourth quarter in seven games this season and have lost all seven.

Read that last sentence again: The Lakers have been tied or behind entering the fourth quarter in seven games this season and have lost all seven. That’s been a hard pill to swallow after years of knowing that when the fourth quarter rolled around, it was your team that was going to step up and win.

This season’s Lakers late game strategy appears to be pretty simple — give the ball to Kobe. Frankly, it was pretty much the same system last season, but back then it worked.

Kobe’s eFG% (effective field goal percentage) in clutch time this season is 25%. (Clutch time is defined as 4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points.) On those shots, he is settling for a jump shot 85% of the time and his eFG% on those is 20.5%. It’s not just that he’s shooting poorly — he’s also not getting the calls. During the whole of the game, Kobe is drawing a foul on 17.3% of his shots, during clutch time that percentage falls to 7.1%.

For comparison, last season in clutch time Kobe’s eFG% was 44.5%, and he was drawing fouls on 17.3% of his shots.

So, what has changed? My guess: This year you know that option number one is Kobe, option number two is Kobe and option number three is Kobe. Option number four is probably a quick pass to Chucky Atkins, who then has to pass it right back to Kobe. Last season Kobe was certainly option number one — but you had to respect the other options. Shaq could still score on the low block, and through the entire Kobe-Shaq era there were always guys (Horry, Fox, Fisher) who, if you left them alone, would hit the open three to beat you. This season the Lakers may have people who can beat you with the three, but they don’t seem to trust them.

Add to that fact that Kobe is still playing 45 minutes a game on his plantar fasciitis foot (L.A. Times Laker beat reporter Mike Bresnahan said in a radio interview this morning that Kobe told him his about 60-70%) and by the end of games he is not as explosive.

Winning close games is a hallmark not only of good NBA teams, but ones that make the playoffs. If the Lakers are going to reach the post season, they are going to have to get better at the end of games and win some. Ones like last night.

On Tap: The Phoenix Suns

 —  December 8, 2004

No game so far has been a better microcosm of the entire Lakers season than the last time the Lakers played the Suns (Nov. 19).

To refresh: The Lakers raced out to an early lead double-digit lead with Lamar Odom (9 points, 8 rebounds in the first quarter) getting the ball down low, and that lead grew to 17 points early in the second quarter. Then the wheels came off, the Lakers went away from Odom, while Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire started passing the ball back and forth like the Laker defenders were standing still (insert your own joke here). By the half, the Lakers needed a three pointer from Chucky Atkins just to keep a 47-46 lead.

In the end, just looking at the statistics, things looked bad for the Lakers: Phoenix and Lakers both shot 45.7% from field, but Suns had 11 more shots; the Lakers had 13 turnovers, Phoenix 6; The Suns had 21 fast break points, the Lakers 10; the Suns had 54 points in the paint, the Lakers 22. What kept the Lakers in it was that while they took 25 three-pointers (normally too many) they hit 14 (56%).

Despite all the bad numbers, the Suns needed a 7-0 run in the last minute of play to get the win, 107-102. Remember also, this was the game where Rudy T. blamed the officiating afterwards for the loss.

Tonight, the outcome could be different thanks to some Laker advantages — they are at home (the Lakers are 7-2 at Staples) and get the Suns on the second night of a back-to-back (the Suns are 3-1 so far this season in the second game). The Lakers also come in well rested after four days off (although long layoffs can mean cold shooting early).

Leading the way last time for the Lakers were Kobe (29) and Butler (21), but where the Lakers need to feed the ball is Odom. The four is the one place the Suns don’t defend well (19.1 PER for opponents, the only position the Suns are allowing above the league average PER of 15). It worked last game, then when the Suns made an adjustment the Lakers abandoned getting the ball Odom, rather than take advantage of the new hole created.

It also would help if the Lakers play some defense tonight, especially inside — last game Stoudemire had 33 and Marion added 27. They got those numbers because Nash had 16 assists. Believe it or not, the Lakers defense has improved some — in the last five games teams are shooting just 39.6% against Los Angeles.

Since that last loss to the Suns, the Lakers have gone 5-2, but against generally inferior teams. Tonight should be a good test to see if this Laker team really is improving.