Archives For April 2007

Here comes the Suns

Kurt —  April 16, 2007

And I say it’s all right.

Things look a little brighter after a win where Kwame Brown was back anchoring the middle and ended up +17, and Jordan Farmar got the start and was a team best +18. Kobe scored 50 but shot an incredibly efficient 78% (eFG%). The second-unit showed the potential of being that game-changing energy unit of the bench that teams could not match. Most importantly, the ball movement was back in the offense. It looked fun again.

Now take a deep breath. That win was against a team that is going to have a lot of ping pong balls in a few weeks, and was without its best player and other key parts. And the Sonics still shot 54.7% (eFG%) for the game and 50% from three. However, after the last few games I’d take any win. And not having to sweat out the game against Sacramento (which knocked off the Clippers yesterday) is a big relief.

The short- and long-term questions about this team and its makeup remain, but that can all wait. For today, the Lakers looked good last night and the playoffs are on the horizon.

After the last month, Laker fans deserve one day to relax in the sun. Tomorrow, we can start worrying about the Suns (or maybe the Mavs).

Phil’s Freefall

Kurt —  April 15, 2007

The Lakers have been freefall for a few weeks and it has exposed a few things. It exposed just how much damage the injuries have done to this team. It’s exposed players to roles that don’t suit them.

And it has exposed some weaknesses in Phil Jackson’s game.

Kevin Pelton asked me to do a Q&A for the Sonics official Web site about the Lakers, and one of the questions was about Phil and his frustrations with this team. Basically, he asked “why the freefall?” My answer:

This team was constructed with almost no margin for error. When everyone was healthy the Lakers looked good, like a second-tier team – not as good as the Mavericks/Suns/Spurs but a team none of those three wanted to face in the playoffs. The injuries have forced guys to have to take on roles that are beyond their capabilities. The center position is the perfect example: Andrew Bynum is a 19-year-old who didn’t play a lot in high school, he should be coming off the bench for 10-15 minutes a game and learning at a comfortable pace; instead he’s asked to stop Yao Ming and Amare Stoudimire to give his team a chance. Bynum’s confidence has been shaken, so now the classic “energy guy off the bench” in Ronny Turiaf, who is really a power forward, has taken over as starting center.

Bottom line, Phil Jackson hasn’t had the right pieces to move around the chessboard this year, but there certainly are some questions about some of the in-game decisions and rotations he has decided to go with. The makeup of this team – especially after the injuries – does not play to his strengths as a coach (molding a team, getting guys to play certain roles).

Phil has been about molding, getting teams to play at their peaks. This Laker team has become about development of players, and that has shown not to be Phil’s biggest strength.

But there also has been Phil’s hesitancy to make some roster moves — that has started to change with Ronny’s start last game and his willingness to sit Smush in fourth quarters.

Then there is the team not taking advantage of its strengths. Nate Jones of Jones on the NBA got into this in the comments recently.

He’s got a guy named Lamar Odom that is a match up nightmare for almost every team in the league. Take last night, for example. The Clippers had EB trying to defend Odom on the perimeter. Everytime Odom took EB off the dribble it ended up being a lay up. Odom is just as unstoppable against smaller players in the post, but PJ never calls his number. Odom should be almost as featured as Kobe Bryant is in the offense, yet most of the time (like the second half of last nights game) he is relegated to a spot up shooter. Odom only had his number called like 4 times the entire night last night. And what about running some pick roll plays with Kobe and Lamar? A Kobe and Lamar pick and roll tandem would be difficult to touch, yet they never run that play. If Kobe is involved in pick and roll it’s usually with Turiaf, Bynum, or (when healthy) Kwame Brown. Throw L.O. in there and see what he can do. I’m tired of seeing games where Smush Parker gets more shot attempts than Odom.

You know what else I miss, the pick-and-pop with Kobe and Cook.

I also miss winning. The good news is that the magic number remains two, and the Clippers still play the Suns, the Warriors still play the Mavericks. What we really need is just one game, one win — and this is a great chance. The Sonics are without Ray Lewis. They played last night (and lost in Portland). This is a very winnable game.

And man, I miss winning.

Preview & Chat: The Phoenix Suns

Kurt —  April 13, 2007

Sorry to start this thing halfway through the second quarter, it’s been one hectic day on my end. Longer post tomorrow talking about Phil some. Plus other goodies over the weekend. For now, I’m off to watch the second half of this game at a pub with Gatinho (if you’re in the South Bay email me fast). We’re going to celebrate a Laker win with beers, or drown our sorrows in beer. Either way, it will be good for Newcastle’s bottom line.

Playoff time. While this is not technically a playoff game, it should be in intensity. For the Clippers this is basically a must win. For the Lakers, win and you guarantee a playoff spot and start to build a little momentum for the post season.

VladRad is back. Snowboarding legend Vladimir Radmanovic is expected to suit up for the Lakers tonight, and considering how short they are on big bodies that can defend in the paint (Radman is a decent post defender) I’d expect him to get a little run.

So is Cassell. The Clippers struggled when Sam Cassell went out, at least until Jason Hart started picking up some of that slack. Now Cassell is back and with Hart combine to be the point guard tag team for the Clips as they try to reach the playoffs.

Can the Lakers defend the paint? This answer to this simple question is basically going to determine the game.

Last meeting the Clippers pounded the ball inside early, and the combination of Bynum, Odom and Turiaf could not stop them. Kaman finished with 17 points (shooting 3 of 4 in the first quarter), 14 boards, four blocks and was +6. The late 7-0 run the Clippers used to put the game away basically started when he re-entered in the fourth quarter. Brand’s stat line wasn’t great but he passed well out of the post and that set up others. Their inside play cleared the way for Cutino Mobley and Corey Maggette to slash to the hoop later and play key roles late. (By the way, my arms look just like Maggette’s.)

Bynum needs to step up defensively tonight and not let Kaman dominate the paint. Odom (with help) can do a pretty good job on Brand, but if he passes to a wide-open Kaman (or Mobley or Hart or Maggette or….) then the Clips will have a pretty easy time on offense.

Other things to watch for: Smush sat late in favor of Farmar in the last meeting, if Smush comes out in one of his funks I think Phil will be quick with the hook.

What do you think the under/over on Britney Spears references will be on TNT tonight? How much of the first quarter do we miss because of TNT staying with the first game?

This should, should, be a rocking Staples Center tonight. It will be if the Lakers can give the fans something to get behind.

Ugh.

Kurt —  April 10, 2007

Right now, if I were a fan of the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns or San Antonio Spurs, I’d be praying we could face the Lakers in the first round.

The other three teams at the bottom of the West — the Clippers, Golden State and the Nuggets — are starting to put things together, playing some of their best ball of the season. They have talent and pose a threat — not a huge threat to the three powerhouses, but a threat nonetheless.

The Lakers need to guard someone before they can be considered a threat. Laker fans can and have tended to blame individuals here, and while blame may not be equally divided the Lakers failings on defense are a team effort.

On the season, the Lakers have a rather sad defensive rating of 106 (points per 100 opponent possessions), which is 24th in the league. But in the last 10 games they are at 110.8. And slipping.

Phil got desperate enough to go to the zone defense last night — and he abhors the zone defense. Ironically it worked, the Nuggets shot under 50% for the second half and the Lakers had a late chance to win. But you can’t play a seven-game series in a zone, over the course of a series it will be about adjustments and smart rotations. And I’ve seen little evidence of those things lately, at least on any consistent basis.

That’s why the idle speculation of the Lakers losing some games to get a favorable playoff matchup makes no sense — if this team had an on/off switch it could throw then maybe this theory holds water. Does anyone think this team can just “flip the switch” on again?

And sadly, that’s what I’m left rooting for. That and a lot more zone defense.

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I think the team’s defensive woes have impacted the offense. My guess is this is why were are seeing people breaking out of the triangle offense more and more — with few defensive stops, there is a desperate feeling the Lakers need to score on every trip down the court.

Kobe is particularly suited to be sucked into this trap. In part because he believes he can carry the team to wins, and in part because he has carried this team to wins. When things get tight he wants the ball, and right now things are always tight.

The Lakers need to get back to running the offense more consistently, moving without the ball every time down. They do it, but not consistently. Still, they are scoring plenty of points and execution of the triangle is not the answers to the problems with this team, it is defense.

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Interesting words from the Laker coach that knows Bynum best, Kareem, in today’s LA Times.

I think Andrew wants everything to work and unless it works, he’s not going to try, so he’s become very tentative….

“I don’t sense frustration, but Andrew’s pretty stoic. .He’s not giving me all of it. He wants people to see him as a man and he wants to go out there and do a good job.

“He has the physical ability to do it. Learning how to apply those gifts in a competitive environment is a very difficult thing. It just doesn’t happen. I was glad this year that he got a chance to play a lot. That’s really served him well. I guess that’s part of the problem [too]. It’s made him maybe more reticent. It can’t always work out the way you want it. He’s seeing the other side of that now.”

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There has been a little speculation in Lakerland and elsewhere about the Lakers falling out of the playoff race. It’s not impossible, but it’s not likely.

The Lakers magic number is two, meaning a combination of Laker wins and Warrior losses (for Clippers it is three). I’d like to say that with the Clippers, Suns, Sonics and Kings on the schedule for the Lakers should win three, but that seems unlikely. Two seems reasonable, one a possibility. By the way, go 1-3 the rest of the way and the Lakers finish 41-41.

The Lakers have the tiebreaker with Golden State, having swept the season series. But for fun, let’s say the Lakers go 1-3 in their last four — then the Warriors would have to go undefeated the rest of the way. They play Dallas, so that seems unlikely. They also would have to beat Minnesota, Sacramento and Portland. Doable, but a heck of a mountain to climb.

The Lakers play the Clippers Thursday and can pretty much guarantee a playoff spot with a win — they would then have the tiebreaker against the Clips, and the Laker magic number would be one. Which would mean the Lakers would have to lose their last three while the Clippers won their last four, including one against the Suns and two back-to-backs.

So yes, it could happen, but basically the Lakers would have to lose out while Golden State went 3-1 and the Clippers 5-1. Not likely, but you know it’s going to be all over talk radio.

Things I once thought impossible. The Lakers really miss Kwame. I say that not to pile on Bynum, but the young man has hit a stagnation point in his development. I think he’ll over come it, but he hurts us now. His mistakes are often those of inexperience, those of not recognizing the play or making the smart decision. Remember he has been force-fed this season, it was a year Bynum was expected to play 10-15 a game learn at a comfortable pace. Instead, he had to learn in a starting role and the lessons are more painful. For an example, we pick up the action with 7:12 left in the game against the Suns, Kobe has just backed down and knocked down Raja Bell in the post and cut the Suns lead to four, 85-81.

Nash pushes the ball up after the make and Barbosa dives at the hoop, but both Smush and Bynum (in the paint) get back so Nash pulls the ball back out the left wing beyond the three-point line. Marion comes out and sets a soft pick, which Smush easily goes over but Odom, trying to prevent another open three like the Lakers have been giving up, hedges out hard. Nobody goes with Marion on the roll. Now here is the subtle beauty of Nash exposing Bynum’s inexperience — when he pushed the ball up hard Bynum ran back to defend the basket, then as Nash settled into the play Bynum had to avoid the defensive three seconds so he goes to his man (Thomas) who is hanging out at the three point line beyond the top of the key. Now, when Nash goes around his pick then quickly swings the ball to the open Marion, Bynum both doesn’t recognize what happened for a second (so he keeps walking out to the top of the key and not out to his right) and is going the wrong direction when he finally does. Bynum can’t recover to stop the Marion dunk without fouling. Two free throws later, 87-81.

And looking ahead. Kwame is not expected to suit up tonight, but he will come playoff time. Which leads to this question: Is Turiaf your first center off the bench in the playoffs, with Bynum’s minutes cut back? It may depend on matchups, Turiaf played well against the Suns but would the Lakers want Bynum’s length against the bigger Spurs? Something to think about, because you know Phil is.

More painful than Bynum that in the Suns loss.
All the open threes for the Suns. I quoted another blog before the game saying you want to make the Suns two-point shooters, well against the Lakers they shot 45.2% on twos and 45.5% on threes. Way too many quality looks.

Here’s a recap of a coupe of the good looks the Suns got with the game still in doubt.

5:28 left, Lakers down six. The Suns have run the offense but nothing developed so far, down to eight seconds on the shot clock. Nash has got the ball out well above the three-point line. He blows by Smush without needing a pick set and gets into the lane, and literally all five Lakers collapse on him. The Suns, as they do so well, have spread the court and Nash has his choice of guys to pass to, he chooses Marion in the corner (Odom’s man, but he’s in the paint). Smush makes a lame runout but Marion has time to really set his feet and get a good look. He just misses.

5:08 left, it’s the next trip down for the Suns and a fast break after Mo Evans misses a fade away in the lane. Nash gets the board but he’s not even taken two steps before he gets the ball to speedy Barbosa out at the half court line. Barbosa weaves into the lane but both Kobe and Evans are back and pick him up. Meanwhile Raja Bell runs to a spot on the wing just beyond the three-point line. The Lakers trailing the play (Smush, Odom and Bynum) make a beeline for the paint and ignore the guy setting up. Barbosa gets caught in the air but because nobody has even gone into the vague vicinity of Bell there is an outlet for the out-of-control Barbosa. Of course, Bell buries the three. Lakers down nine.

I bring up the threes because… The Nuggets shot 50% from three-point range last week, and they can do that and more if the Lakers defend the line like they did against the Suns. The Nuggets can’t have another monster night from three if the Lakers are to win.

Defending the Nuggets. The Lakers have not done this well the last couple of meetings between these two, but to be fair it’s not that easy. One of the Nuggets favorite plays is to have Nene set the high screen for Iverson, then rather than just roll to the basket he rolls to the left block to set another screen for Melo on the same side of the court. Now two of the best scorers in the league have been screened on the same side of the court, and unless you are very good at defensive rotations there are openings to exploit.

We’ll see if the Lakers can play 48 minutes of team defense tonight.

Smush time?
In the last meeting with Denver, the Lakers held the lead late but the Nuggets went on a late run — a run that started when Smush re-entered the game. It was a bad defensive game for Smush and after that is when he started getting benched in the fourth because of his defense and attitude. So, tonight do we see more Farmar?

Bottom line: Huge game tonight, both in terms of playoff seedings but more importantly confidence going into the playoffs. The Lakers need some of that, and tonight is a good place to start building some.

Preview & Chat: The Phoenix Suns

Kurt —  April 8, 2007

I’m excited to watch some television today. The Sopranos and Entourage are back tonight — I may or may not feel good after watching the Lakers today, but I know I will have fun watching those two shows. And, that means dinner tonight at our house before the Sorpano’s — baked ziti.

How to beat the Suns. It’s going to take a big effort at both end of the court. And, unlike the last three games, it will take 48 minutes of effort.

Let’s start on the offensive end, where we’ve seen the Lakers have success. The style of the Suns is to get you into a perimeter, up-tempo game. When the Lakers have had success they have done the opposite — be deliberate on offense and pound the ball inside. Kwame being back would be helpful, but whether he is or isn’t Bynum needs to show up for this game (unlike in Seattle). Posting up Odom, Kobe, Smush, basically anyone is a good idea.

On defense, well the smart blog The Painted Area had a great breakdown of what you want to do against the Suns — and how San Antonio did it (via True Hoop).

San Antonio chased the Phoenix shooters off the (three point) line, and forced them into long-jumpers off the dribble. Again, here at the Paint Area we have put forth the concept that you want the Suns taking 2-pointers as much as possible. Give them looks in the 8 foot to 21 foot range as much as possible. Even if you have to sacrifice some easy looks in 2-point range, just get them off the 3pt. line. (The Spurs) did this to perfection. And when the Suns tried to get rolls to the basket off the pick/roll, the Spurs’ help on the backline was superb & nearly there every play to either impede Amare, Nash or Marion. The Spurs always seemed to have 2-3 guys waiting in the lane when any Sun tried to attack the rim. Bell & Barbosa were taking mid-range jumpers off the dribble, & Diaw was taking long jumpers–exactly what you want. The Spurs defensive rotations were perfect on basically every possession.

The real question. Can the Lakers do that for 48 minutes? They have played somee of their better games against the Suns. As I said before I think part of that is due to familiarity — they got to know the Suns play very well last year in the playoffs, they know what they have to do better than most teams, where to push guys on defense or where to attack on offense. Knowing what to do is one thing, the question today is exectution.

A few player notes:
Smush is getting the start tonight (Phil told thhe LA Times that). The real question is, who plays in crunch time?

Kwame will be a game time decsion. Whether he does or doesn’t play — and espescially if he doesn’t — Bynum needs to step up, particularly on the defensive end. He has been a non-factor the last couple games (worse than that against Kaman, who torched him).

Radmanovic is expected back Thursday, against the Clippers.

Smush is mad at Phil — do you think Phil even notices? Nate Jones has a good post up about Smush not really channeling his energy well, expressing the frustration a lot of us have with him. That frustration extends to Phil, the target of Smush’s scorn. Driving in to work I heard an interview with Phil Jackson where he said (and I paraphrase): “We are reaching the end, what could be the last games of Smush as a Laker if he does not step up.” The tone was clear.

(By the way, we knocked TJ Simers around for a crappy interview a few weeks back, so credit to him for a good one with Phil. They touched on his days coaching in the CBA and Peurto Rico, and what he learned along the journey before Chicago.)

No Ray Allen. Maybe the best pure shooter in the game today is sitting out with bone spurs.

That has meant the Rashard Lewis show — he is averaging 25 and 7 in the last 10 games. He’s shooting 53.6% (eFG%) in those games and 38% from beyond the arc. And remember the Lakers had trouble stopping him last meeting, Lewis scored 25, including 6 of 10 from downtown.

Other notes from the last game. Back in November the guard tandem of Like Ridnour (22 points on 9 of 13 shooting) and Earl Watson abused the Laker backcourt.

Plus, the Lakers didn’t take care of the ball, with 22 turnovers.

Kevin Pelton’s preview. One of the brightest hoops writers and statistical minds around runs the Sonics Web site (and does a lot of writing for it). His preview of tonight talks about how the Lakers may have looked better early on than they actually were:

As problematic as the injuries have been, a lot of the difference in the Lakers two very different stretches can be traced simply to whether or not the team has been at the friendly confines of STAPLES. A popular way to account for imbalanced NBA schedules is to take a team’s road wins minus their home losses to find their “+/-.” The graph at left (click to enlarge) shows the Lakers +/- plotted against their record vs. 500. The Lakers never better than +5 by this method, even when they were a lofty 13 games above .500. While they have struggled more than would be expected, the Lakers weren’t playing as well as their record made it appear early in the season.

Pelton also talks about Kobe for MVP, making the case he was probably more deserving last season.

Oh, and he mentions maybe the best reason to attend this game in Seattle if you can: DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest spins live postgame in the arena.

What to look for tonight: You tell me. I have no idea what these Lakers will do night to night. But they better slow Lewis or he could put up 50 himself.