Archives For April 2006

Thoughts on the Lakers and Suns

Kurt —  April 21, 2006

(This was going to be a longer, several part preview with some new research, but circumstances change. So here are my notes and thoughts put together over the last few weeks, and we’ll all be watching Sunday).

Traditionally, I’d like to separate out the offense and defensive ends of the floor when looking at a match up, but it doesn’t really work that way with the Suns if you want to slow their offense, you have to start with how you work your offense.

What the Suns do statistically makes a lot of sense: they have the most efficient offense in the NBA, so they want to get a lot of possessions for it because they don’t think your team can keep up. The Suns averaged 109.4 points per 100 possessions this season, by far the best in the NBA, 4 points higher than the number 9 Lakers (105.4). They also averaged the most possessions, 98.1 per game, 4.5 more than the middle of the pack Lakers.

The first key for the Lakers will be limiting the number of possessions the Suns get. They didn’t do that in their three losses to the Suns this year, they got caught up for long stretches at the Suns tempo, they must take their time.

Part of that is getting the ball inside meaning a big role for Kwame Brown. He will be mostly matched up with Diaw, someone Kwame can muscle and get inside on, forcing help and other players from the Suns to collapse, which is what you want because it means they have farther to go on the break, slowing the whole thing down. In the last Laker loss to the Suns, Kwame was bothered by the speed of the Suns and their help defense inside, he can’t be if the Lakers are going to have a chance. He needs to power in for points or recognize the coverage and make a pass out. When that happens, guys need to drain the outside looks.

Two other thoughts about the Laker need to establish an inside game to slow the Suns. First, if Kwame isn’t up to the task expect to see Chris Mihm, who has more offensive weapons. Second, the Lakers should also try to get Odom posted up on Shawn Marion, who traditionally covers him. Odom shot 53.6% (eFG%) against the Suns this season. Marion is shorter by three inches, but is quick. If the Lakers can get him (or other Suns starters) in foul trouble all the better, their bench is not great, especially at the four and five.

Of course, the other big weapon the Lakers have is Kobe, covered by Bell, who can’t really keep up with him. Kobe averaged 42.5 points per game against the Suns this season and shot 50%. He will, of course, need to do that and more in this series. Kobe needs to be Kobe.

One thing about the Suns, like the Lakers of the 1980s, they will still try to run after a Laker make. Like teams used against those Magic-led Lakers, let’s see if the Lakers assign someone to stop the outlet pass to Nash. There are other Suns who can handle the ball and lead the break, but they are not as dangerous as Nash. One thing the Lakers can’t do is give up a fast break basket then race back down court and quickly try to even the score, taking a long jumper with 17 left on the clock. Run the offense.

Make or miss, the Lakers need to get back on defense and force the Suns to run their half-court offense. Not that it’s bad.

The Suns, even in the half court, get a lot of lay-ups off penetration from Nash and either his shot or a pass to someone whose defender rotated. The other side of that sword is they are also the best three-point shooting team in the NBA, hitting 39.9% on the season.

What the Lakers need to do is make them shoot from the mid-range. When the Suns run the high pick-and-roll that is the staple of the offense, the Lakers can’t let Nash step back and take the three (he hit 42.7% this season) but if he drives make him pull up and shoot from 15 he’ll still hit a lot but it will be less than free throws and not as damaging as threes. Same with the other Suns, don’t give them the lay-up, dare them to take the 12 footer.

What does bother Nash is long guards, and Smush (and Sasha) have some of that. They will need to have their best series of games as Lakers for LA to get the win.

Two other Lakers to watch out for in this series:1) Devean George, he is long and athletic and can defend, so expect him to get big minutes, plus he can hit the three; 2) Luke Walton, whose D is better than Cook’s and he can help make the offense patient and smart.

The Suns are the favorites in this series and they earned that right. However, if the Lakers play smart and to their potential, they can win this. They have been hot of late, and if they follow Phil Jackson’s game plan this should be a fun series.

Good for two

Kurt —  April 21, 2006

Thanks for the warm wishes everyone, our newest baby daughter was born at 11:32 Thursday morning and was healthy. Mom and baby are doing well, as am I, or as well as can be expected without much sleep. But I should get used to that. Again.

As was mentioned in the comments, I still did The Basketball Jones podcast previewing the Western Conference playoffs. I’ve downloaded it and will be listening in soon, should be interesting stuff. I think I had some good points, but as tends to be the case came up with my best thoughts and phrasings about an hour later. I’ll blame it on being up 20 straight hours at the time of the interview. Check it out.

I’ll put up a preview post later today, hopefully.

It’s Showtime…

Gatinho —  April 20, 2006

…for Kurt and family. Kurt’s newest addition is on the way. The little Laker fan is coming a little early, but I bet no one is complaining about that. Kurt will try to find time in the next few days to share his playoff preview and…

“…will see if I can get my wife out of the hospital before game time Sunday. With my first we were in the hospital for games 4 and 5 of the 2004 Finals against Detroit. So, obviously, this hospital has bad Laker karma.”

Taking Charge of Your Own Destiny: I’m sure we all had a little trepidation last night with recent memories of a team that played to the level of its competition. Nice to see them handle their business at home and keep their sometimes fragile confidence high. Kobe was an astounding +34 with Lamar +30. Kwame was a near perfect 7-8. The other fear was finishing with everyone healthy, and with the exception of a bump on Luuuke’s head, that was accomplished as well.

What does the all-time greatest scorer think about KB8’s season?: “I don’t think people appreciate it,” said Abdul-Jabbar, a Laker special assistant coach. “People take him for granted. It’s not something you’re going to see very often in your lifetime.”

LAKERS VS. PHOENIX
Game 1 Sunday at Phoenix, 12:30 p.m. (Channel 7)
Game 2 Wednesday at Phoenix, 7:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3 April 28 at Lakers, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 4 April 30 at Lakers, 12:30 p.m. (Channel 7)

As Vancouver John mentioned in his comment, Phil has said that Kobe will guard Nash, but it would be in the 4th if the team is close enough.

-Gatinho

Rest? Who needs it? Thanks to Seattle playing their 82nd game like the first 81 – meaning with historically bad defense – the Lakers need a win in the last game of the season. So, expect to see Kobe and Lamar and the other starters play until this is wrapped up. It’s simple, win and get a good-but-slowed-of-late Phoenix squad in the first round, lose and get the Spurs, who are 7-3 in their last 10 and playing some of their best ball in a while. Besides, if we can help make sure of a first-round series where Ron Artest and Bruce Bowen meet, we can all win some money betting the under.

About that winning thing: The Hornets are a classic case of a lesser team that creates match up problems for the Lakers. In the three games these two have played (with the Lakers winning two) the Hornets are averaging 102.3 points as a team, with six players averaging double digit scoring.

Those match up problems (similar to ones Phoenix presents but not as dangerous) start with David West, the four who can step away from the basket some (64% of his shots this season are considered jump shots). In the three games against the Lakers, he has averaged 19.7 points shooting 52% (eFG%). Then there’s soon-to-be rookie of the year Chris Paul, who has averaged 19.3 points on 53.8% shooting against the Lakers, plus dishing out 9.7 assists per game.

Other guys of note: Desmond Mason is shooting 63% against the Lakers, Rasual Butler is shooting 56.3% and Speedy is scoring 13 a game but could go for more.

The Hornets are not that good on offense – for the season they are 25th in the league in efficiency. Bottom line, if the Lakers want to play the Suns they’ve got to play some D…

But they can’t stop the Lakers:
Some Lakers have had big nights against New Orleans, giving the Lakers wins this season.

In the two Laker wins against the Hornets Kobe has averaged 35 points and Lamar 20.5, and both were +16. But the Lakers have gotten good play out of Smush, who has been +25, and out of the center position (Kwame in one game, Mihm in the other), which is +26. Just like always, when the support players around the big two play well, the Lakers get the win.

Other notes, Kwame is shooting 76.9% against the Hornets this season, and Cook is at 73.8% (both eFG%). That said, when the Lakers went on a fourth-quarter run to win the last game between these two, Cook was benched for Luke Walton.

Mihm is back: This is a good spot for him; he has shot 57.1% against the Hornets this season. Also, it’s key to get him back before the Suns series because to win that the Lakers are going to need to get points in the paint, lots of them, and Mihm is a more polished inside scorer than Kwame.

MVP

Kurt —  April 17, 2006

I’m not normally not someone who spends a lot of time on the debate-at-the-bar nature of the MVP voting discussion, because it’s usually about splitting hairs between two guys who both had great seasons. However this year, with several potentials bunched closely together, who someone votes for ends up really being about how the voter views the award. Is it just the best player? Does the player have to come from one of the best teams in the league? There are plenty of questions.

Here are my top 5, which is really more of a jumping off point for the debate.

5. Steve Nash:
He is certainly one of the top 12 players in the league, a point guard who can shoot the three and drive the lane, plus is the perfect fit for the unscripted, fast pace style the Suns play. Frankly, he’s fun to watch.

But I was in the “how can you give it to Nash?” camp last year for two reasons: 1) I would like the MVP to play better defense; 2) Giving it to Nash was a way for a lot of sportswriters who long for the “good old days” to voice their displeasure with the “hip-hop” style of basketball and player the NBA. The dress code issue and debate tapped into the same thing — I’ve written about the NBA image issue before so I won’t get into it too much. His backers said Nash “played the right way” because he set up teammates, something Nash does well, but so did John Stockton, who never got a sniff of the MVP. The Nash candidacy is more a backlash against clearing out to go 1-on-1, playground dunks, cornrows and tats, all that more urban, playground style that some see as destroying the game. I guess those “purists” don’t like defense, but whatever, they love the short white guy.

Of course, there are some, like J.A. Adande in the LA Times today, who suggests Nash should get it because of how poorly the team does without him, as in the loss to the Lakers on Sunday. I think choosing an MVP by finding out which star player has the worst backup is an odd way to go about it. Plus, how do the Lakers look without Kobe? The Cavs without LeBron? It’s just not a good way to make an argument.

My two reasons for not voting for him last season still apply. Frankly, I’m not sure I’d put him in my top 5 (Brand would replace him) but he shouldn’t be ignored.

Now on to the most deserving four, in my book.

4. Dwyane Wade: We Laker fans should have a soft spot for this pick. For years we watched as there were stretches of the season where Kobe had to carry the load while Shaq was injured or indifferent, and each year those stretches have grown (save last season, when he showed up in shape but still faded by the end). Wade carried the aging Shaq (and Walker and the rest of the Heat) as far as he could this season. The guy has a true shooting percentage of 58% and 20% of his possessions end up in an assist? That’s crazy good. A late fade and injury hurt him, but he is still a solid choice.

3. LeBron James: LeBron, at the age of 21, is third in the league in usage rate — meaning only Kobe and Allan Iverson handle more of their team’s offense than LeBron. His true shooting percentage is 56.8%, plus he’s grabbing 9.8% of the available rebounds on the floor. For fun, let’s compare LeBron’s season at 21 to Kobe’s at the same age — which was Kobe’s fourth year, the 2000 championship Lakers: Kobe’s PER, 21.7, LeBron’s 28.2; Kobe’s FG% 46.7%, LeBron 48%; Assist ratio, Kobe 17.3%, LeBron 17.6%; percentage of rebounds grabbed, Kobe 8.8%, LeBron 9.8%.

And he’s getting better, look how well he’s started to play at the end of games. He’ll have multiple MVP’s down the road.

2. Dirk Nowitzki: Dirk is having a career year (somehow, he and the Mavs got better without Steve Nash around) with his best offensive numbers ever. He has a true shooting percentage of 58.9%, a career-best rebound rate of 14.2%, a career-best PER of 28.16, all while having to take on a higher percentage of the offense than he ever has before. But what has impressed me most is that Nowitzki’s defense has gotten better — he’s not Bruce Bowen but he’s also no longer a pylon to dribble around on the way to the hoop. He’s a solid defender, because that’s what his team needed. That is the kind of improvement you see from MVPs.

1. Kobe Bryant: The bottom line is, right now he is the best player in the game. It’s not that on any night he’s likely to score 50 points (or 62 or 81), it’s that he’s doing it efficiently and playing good defense at the same time. He’s taking on a crazy percentage of the offense — and, counter to what some want to think, the blame for this falls more on the other Lakers who don’t step up — while shooting 55.8% true shooting percentage. He has a career high PER (27.96).

For those that say the problem is Kobe doesn’t make his teammates better, you need to check your facts. I can’t say it better than Kevin Pelton — when Kobe is on the floor every other Lakers’ offensive numbers improve. And while Kobe’s efficiency has gone up since that piece was penned, the rest of the team’s has improved along with him (look at Kwame Brown and Lamar Odom at the end of the year).

Plus, a few times a game (at least), he makes you shake your head in disbelief. Maybe it’s splitting the double-team then a twisting drive to the hoop for a lay-up, or maybe it’s just a fade-away deuce as the clock runs out. And he makes it look effortless. He reminds you just how fun, athletic and graceful the sport can be.

Love him or hate him, he is the best in the game right now. And that, in my book, is how you determine the MVP.

Entry Pass

Gatinho —  April 16, 2006

Laker History: Just saw that NBA TV will be airing “Searching for Redemption, The Kermit Washington Story” Sunday at 6pm. If you haven’t read John Feinstein’s “The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever “, you should. Kermit is an extremely interesting and flawed character. He was the first guy to lift weights in the NBA and was Dennis Rodman before Dennis Rodman. Oh yeah, and he almost killed Rudy T in a game in the early ’70’s at the newly built “Fabulous Forum”. Quick story from the book: During shoot around, Rudy T was looking at the new scoreboard that hovered over center court and wondered how safe it was. After “The Punch” he seriously asked the trainer if the scoreboard had fallen on him.

The Pinch Post and the Blind Pig: Watched that Phil Jackson “In His Own Words” again. This is definitely worth checking out. Tex and Phil break down the offense, and Phil awkwardly tries his hand at talking into the camera. Highlight: Tex is explaining triangle post options and says, “Now the center can pass to the cutters, unless his name is Shaquille.” Ouch. It’s re-running on Tuesday @ 11am FSPT.

Can we put this guy on our playoff roster? He’s available on the cheap.

ESPN the paper magazine: I have magazine subscriptions because I can’t take the computer into the bathroom.Coming off an astonishing article where he moves to the Dark Side and chooses Kobe for MVP, Bill Simmons has a new piece(in the ish with the Bonds bobblehead on the cover) that explains why we Angelinos are such lame fans. (Hollywood, sunshine, etc.) Actually he makes some astute observations having only lived in LA for 42 months. On the across-the-hall rivalry, “And Clipper fans regard Laker fans with the same visceral contempt townies in a remote college outpost have for the preppier students.”

Leandro Barbosa: Also in that ESPN ish is a side bar about GM’s (Isiah) and Coaches (Skiles) who were point guards as players, putting two point guards on the floor at the same time. “Barbosa once struggled as Nash’s backup. Now he lights it up playing next to him, atacking the weak side off the reigning MVP’s penetration.” Last meeting on the 7th, Leandrinho scored 22 points and was a game high +14.

Happy Jackie Robinson Day.

-Gatinho

On Tap: The Phoenix Suns

Kurt —  April 15, 2006

I’m not going to say much about the win over Portland, the Lakers beat a team they should. Especially since Sunday’s game looks a lot like a first-round playoff preview. While things can certainly change, for now let’s pretend it will be for two reasons: 1) It’s a likely scenario; 2) I’ve done a lot of research on the Suns/Lakers match up, stuff I don’t want to redo for the Spurs. I’ve got a life, you know.

One thing we can agree on is that the best way to stop the Suns is to stymie Steve Nash. Easier said than done, but not impossible. So here are two things to look for today, things Phil Jackson may be trying out for the upcoming series.

First, who do you put on Nash, Smush or Sasha? Or, is there a third option? I went back over the game flows from the first three meetings between the Lakers and Suns, trying to isolate when Nash was on the court against just Smush and just Sasha, to see how they did (this is assuming they had the primary defensive responsibility on him). The bottom line – Smush had a lot more success (but he was playing mostly with the other starters). In the 10 times Smush and Nash were isolated, often at the start of games, Smush was a total of -3, which is fairly close to even. Sasha, in just four such times, was -10. Smush had positive and negative runs against Nash, Sasha was lucky to stay even. The book on Nash is that long defenders bother him, so look for Phil to try a few things, but Smush does have length and may have had more success than it seemed to me on a gut level.

Second, in the last game one of the things the Lakers did was switch on most picks – meaning if Marion came out and set a pick at the top of the key for Nash, Odom often left his man for Nash. The problem was, the Laker bigs were afraid of Nash’s quickness and dared him to shoot from the outside, so he did and hit some threes. Remember, on the season Nash is shooting 42.7% from beyond the arc (ninth best in the league). They can’t give him a good look from there.

Of course, the flip side problem is you don’t want him blowing by the big for a lay-up, which the Lakers gave up a lot of in the last game as well.

One final note, see what tempo the Lakers run their offense at against the Suns – or if they do at all. All season long, the Lakers have pushed the ball after a miss, but more than any team I can remember they also pull up if the D gets back at all. Except against the Suns. The Lakers rarely worked their way through the offense and often either shot on the break or took a quick jumper in the half-court, a system Kobe can thrive in the rest of the Lakers can’t (Kobe shot 65.2% [eFG%], the rest of the Lakers 40.8%). There are moments to run, but the Lakers need to slow the pace and run their offense.

And they need to pound the ball inside – other teams have had good success with that against the Suns, but by my count the Lakers took just five shots inside of four feet in the first half of last game (some of the start was missed due to ESPN’s coverage sucking). In the last game Marion was matched up on Odom, and when the Lakers posted Kobe the Suns worked hard to deny the entry pass, so some of the other Lakers are going to have to get inside to loosen things up.

A win Sunday by the Lakers will not only clinch a playoff spot but also likely ensure this as the first-round match up. It will be interesting to see how Phil adjusts and tries different things to slow the Suns down, as much as that can be done.

On Tap: The Portland Trailblazers

Kurt —  April 14, 2006

First Round: Who do you want? I posed that question in a poll recently and 75% of you said Dallas, and I was with you because the Lakers match up best against Dallas (basically, the Mavs can’t slow Kobe). However, with Phoenix stumbling of late and not playing good defense, I’m having some second thoughts. (And yes, I know Phoenix crushed Dallas last night, Gatinho and I caught a little of it between beers, but that was the second game of a back-to-back for Dallas). I’d probably still lean Dallas, but Phoenix doesn’t look quite as daunting.

The “race” between the Lakers and Kings for the “privilege” of playing San Antonio/Dallas and or Phoenix in the first round stands like this: Currently the Lakers are one game up on the Kings with three to play (thanks to that Kings’ collapse against Phoenix a few nights back). If the two teams finish tied, the Kings have the tiebreaker. The Lakers have three games left — two very winnable ones (Portland tonight and New Orleans) and one against the Suns. If the Lakers go 2-1 than the Kings need to go 3-0. The game they are most likely to lose is Saturday at Denver, so watch that score with interest.

Win and your in: A Laker win tonight makes a playoff spot official. Don’t take that for granted though, the Lakers have already dropped two of three to the Blazers.

It has been the backcourt duo of Steve Blake and Juan Dixon that has given the Lakers fits, although Dixon did not suit up against the Clippers two nights ago and may not play today. Expect to see a little more Jarrett Jack. Last time the Lakers and Blazers played, Blake had 19 points — and the Lakers need to stay with him beyond the arc, he’s shooting 44.4% from three point range in the last 10 games.

Let’s say something nice about the Blazers: This is not as easy as it sounds — they have a $60 million payroll that bought them the worst record in the league; Darius Miles was suspended for tonight’s game after he took off his uniform and changed into street clothes at halftime against the Clippers two nights ago; their owner screwed himself in a stadium deal then went public to complain about it, and is now trying to sell the team; they haven’t been good for a few years and it may be a few more before they are.

But they do have the best group of bloggers out there. Henry at True Hoop is a Blazers fan. Lance Uppercut of Blazers Edge is one of the best writers in the NBA blogsphere. Rip City 24/7 does good work. So at least there are plenty of places for Blazer fan to commiserate.

Key to a Laker win:
Defense. Portland is dead last in the league in offense in just about any measure you choose — efficiency (98 points per 100 possessions, 7 points back of the Lakers), points scored, free throw shooting percentage. The good news is they are second to last in team true shooting percentage (51%), Charlotte is worse. In the last 10 games Zach Randolph is leading the team in scoring, 14.1 per game, but is shooting just 36.3%.

The Lakers should, should, be able to shut down the Blazers. They also should, should, be able to score plenty. Portland is second to last in the league in defensive efficency (109.5 points per 100 opponent possessions), ahead of only historically bad Seattle. Plus, Patterson is gone, but he didn’t really stop Kobe anyway.

Also Odom is a huge match up problem for the Blazers. But maybe we should ask commenter Kwame a., since he called Odom’s triple double the other night.