Archives For April 2007

Lakers/Suns Game 1 Chat

Kurt —  April 22, 2007

If you want some additional last minute series preview, let me point you to three quality things.

First is Nate Jone’s thoughts at the NBA Fanhouse. Second is The Basketball Jones podcast (which features me, so I think it’s brilliant). Third is the alway erudite and insightful Bethlehem Shoals writing the Deadspin preview.

And one more quick thought: The Phoenix player that scares me the most in this series is Barbosa.

All right, enough with the previews, let’s tip it off. I’ll be here commenting through the game.

Last year, during the first four games of the Lakers/Suns playoff series, Kobe was the distributor, Kwame was finishing at the hoop, Odom was toying with Marion and the Lakers took a 3-1 series lead.

The blueprint for the Lakers hasn’t changed on offense, however with Amare Stoudemire patrolling the paint, and Kurt Thomas and not Tim Thomas, it’s going to be a lot harder.

This is one series where the offense really does impact the defense, there are things the Lakers can do on offense to slow the vaunted Suns fast break. One is making shots (although the Suns run well after a make).

The Suns have a mantra of taking a shot in the first seven seconds of the shot clock, the Lakers need to reverse that and try to take a shot late in the clock. They need to be deliberate; they need to slow the pace. The other way to do that is for Kwame Brown, Lamar Odom and the rest of crash the boards — if Marion and Stoudemire have to worry about rebounds they will be slower to get up the court.

The next big thing for the Lakers to do is something friend of the site Nate Jones talked about at Fanhouse — exploit the matchups. For the Lakers, that will be Lamar Odom covered by Shawn Marion. In last season’s matchup the Lakers used this one to their advantage, Odom was too much for Marion in the post. That hasn’t changed, and the four was the weakest spot defensively for the Suns this year, with opposing fours shooting 51.4% this season.

Posting up the Suns was something the Lakers did well last year, but that was before Stoudemire. Still, they need to try this, particularly posting up Nash when Smush Parker and Sasha Vujacic are in the game.

What the Lakers cannot do for seven games is count on Kobe to carry too much of the load — he can steal one game but not a series. Raja Bell plays Kobe one-and-one as well as just about anyone, he can’t shut him down but he can make him less efficient.

Because of that the Lakers need to see Kobe the distributor, then the other Lakers have to step up, they have to be efficient. It can be Luke Walton one night, Lamar Odom another, Maurice Evans another. But others have to step up, Kobe’s 50 has not beaten the Suns consistently in the past and it won’t again.

We’re starting with the Laker defense because that is the key to their chances in this series — they will score enough, they have all season, but can they slow the high-powered Suns and not let them run off and hide.

The problem with slowing the Suns is that there are no good options, just less bad ones. And to push them into those lesser choices takes a lot of discipline, something the Lakers have shown precious little of this season on defense. To be fair, nobody seems disciplined against the Suns — there’s a reason they shoot a league-best 55.2% (eFG%) and have the league’s best offensive rating of 111.4 (points per 100 possessions).

The Suns like to score two ways — on dunks (or lay-ups) and on threes. If you look at the Suns team Hot Zone shooting chart you see they’re not bad from anywhere, but they are amazing with the corner threes and at the hoop. They don’t shoot worse than 34% from anywhere beyond the arc as a team. The basic key for the Lakers is to turn the Suns into midrange shooters. And if they can force someone other than Nash to create their own shot, all the better.

Everything the Suns do is set up by Steve Nash, whose passing skills in the open court and penetration and dish plays in the half court tear even the best of teams up.

Which leads to rule one for the Lakers — slow the fast break. Part of doing that is obvious, everyone on the court has to get back on defense fast. But the other thing is for Kwame, Odom and the other Laker bigs to crash the offensive boards — bodies forced to box out in the paint are a lot slower to get down court on the break.

But even if you slow the break (as much as is possible), the Suns are a very good half court team. And they love the play that is the nemesis of the Lakers, the pick-and-roll.

They run it with Nash and a host of bigs setting the pick, and it wreaks havoc because Nash is so fast he gets around the pick and into the heart of the defense incredibly quickly. Frankly, most of the time Nash doesn’t even need the pick. But once he’s inside the defense is when things start to unravel for the opposition — someone rotates over to Nash, maybe two guys, and then Nash and his uncanny ability to find the open man gets the ball to someone for a quick dunk inside (because a big rotated over) or out to the three point line.

Kevin from Clipperblog cleverly described what happens when Nash gets in the paint and dishes —it forces other teams to play “whac-a-mole” mole on the perimeter. Once you start scrambling on defense the Suns are in control.

To have success against the Suns in the half court means two things:

Chase guys off the three-point line. As a team the Suns shoot an amazing 40% from three. Every guy on the team can pretty much hit the shot — and on fast breaks they set up out there. Laker defenders need to stay with their men (or rotate quickly) and force Raja Bell and Marion and the rest to put the ball on the floor and come inside the arc to hit shots. They will hit those shots, but they will only count for two.

And they miss a lot more from the midrange than they do on dunks, so there can’t be an unimpeded path from the arc to the hoop. You have to force them to shoot from the midrange. Take Shawn Marion for example, right around the basket he shoots 67%, get him to step back to the 5 to 15 foot range and that falls to 45.7%, get him between 15 feet and the three point line and it’s 26%. The Suns weakness is their midrange game.

The other thing the Lakers have to do is to make Nash the shooter. Which is a little scary because Nash can shoot — he shot 61.3% (eFG%) on the season and 59.5% on jump shots.

But the Suns are best when Amare and Marion and Bell and everyone else is scoring and Nash is setting them up for those easy baskets and open looks. Nash wants to pass. So when he inevitably does get into the lane the Lakers can’t just collapse on him — a lot of times, particularly early the shot clock, he will actually hold on to his dribble, pass up the five footer and come back out (he holds on to his dribble better than any player in the league). That’s good for the Lakers. When he does that it slows the game down some.

Nash is going to run the pick-and-roll a lot — a lot. The Lakers have to have their bigs play this right, hedging out right at the pick to not allow Nash to just drive the lane with a head of steam. They have to either force him back the other direction or at least make a very wide turn toward the basket. Then it’s all about recovery, the guard on Nash has to get back on him fast and the Laker big — particularly the hobbled Kwame Brown — must not let his man run free.

How well the Lakers defend the pick and roll will be a key to this series.

I also think it’s why Sasha Vujacic could play a key role for the Lakers — he has been the Laker who has done the best job on Nash in the last couple years. His length allows him to recover on Nash and disrupt some of his shots, and all that allows other Lakers to stay home on their men more. Farmar also will have his chances to prove himself.

The bottom line — one key reason the Suns are so successful on offense is that what you need to do to defend them is counter intuitive. Players in the flow of the game want to push the tempo, do that and you play into the Suns hands. Then, when Nash or Barbosa drive into the lane, the instinct is for two or three defenders to collapse and try to stop the ball, do that and you pay with a crisp pass and a three. You have to slow the tempo, you have to stay home on your man.

Easier said than done, but it’s the task before the Lakers.

Comfort With The Familiar

Kurt —  April 19, 2007

Before the season started I had picked the Suns to end up NBA champions (beating the Cavs). That’s not the choice I’d make today, but it is still a long shot that the Lakers are the team to end the Suns playoff run.

Still they have a chance in part because this is the squad the Lakers may be most familiar with — after last year’s playoff series and through the games this season, the Suns are a team the Lakers know how to play against. The Laker players know what roles they have to play. This is better Suns team than the one the Lakers led 3-1 and took to seven games last year — primarily because of a guy named Amare. But the basic game plan remains the same from that series. Familiarity with an opponent is helpful come a seven game series.

I’ll post a first breakdown in the coming days, and we’ll get into all the details before Sunday (feel free to start in the comments here). But we all know them, and the Lakers do too — on offense and particularly on defense. We’ve discussed it a lot in the last year.

The question is execution.

Phoenix or Dallas. Win tonight and it’s the Suns this weekend, lose (and Golden State wins in Portland) and it’s Dallas.

I don’t think the Lakers can look at it that way — after the ugliness of the last month they need to win because they need to build momentum and confidence. The Lakers do not gain some incredible match up advantage facing one of the top two teams over the other, for the Lakers to bother either they are going to have to play much better. And that is what starts tonight.

Who plays? After the first half against Seattle, and with the Suns and Nash on the horizon, is there really any question that Farmar starts over Smush? And I might limit Kwame’s minutes a little, but he has got to start as well. The Lakers are not in the Dallas position of resting their stars, this unit needs to play together.

What the Lakers face tonight. According to Tom Ziller (he of Sactown Royalty and Fanhouse), you will not see any Brad Miller tonight (not sure Kings fans saw much of him all season). You will see Bibby, Kevin Martin and Ron Artest to start the game. But in the fourth quarter expect to see the King kids — Quincy Douby, Francisco Garcia, John Salmons.

But before you relax, remember that those are some talented kids who play very hard in their limited minutes. Just ask the Clippers.

Kareem Turns 60…. and a bunch of other fun numbers with the Captain (thanks to gatinho for the link).

Don’t look West. Some out there seem to think Jerry West is going to ride in on his white stallion and make some brilliant move to turn the Lakers into instant contenders. Um, remember that he never had that chummy a relationship with the Buss family and then lost a power struggle with Phil Jackson. Really, he wants to come back?

By the way, I think he’s done a good job in Memphis, despite this season’s record. He’s overhauled that roster into a young and athletic team, and after this year’s draft they will be younger and more athletic. This is a team poised to start getting better and be very good in three or four years. He has laid a very good foundation.