Preview and Chat: The Atlanta Hawks

Kurt —  February 6, 2008

Records: Lakers 31-16 (5 seed); Hawks 20-24 (7 seed)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 112.7 (5th); Hawks 105.0 (20th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 106.3 (8th); Hawks 106.4 (9th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Vladamir Radmanovic, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Hawks: Anthony Johnson, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, Al Horford

UPDATE: The Kamenetzky brothers (Andrew and Brian) had me on their Purple, Gold and Blue podcast today to talk all things Lakers and Western Conference. We discuss Pau’s first night, just how tough the Lakers will be all around once everyone gets healthy, and if Shaq can get healthy. And if he does, can he really provide the defense the Suns need anymore? You can listen to it either at the LA Times Lakers Blog site or on NowLive. Check it out, they are smart and witty, and I only stumble over my own words like 12 times.

Lakers Notes: Just a few plays that I love from the second half of last night:

Early in the second half, Pau is a strong-side forward in the triangle and comes out to set the high pick for Fisher on the wing, then because his defender (Josh Boone) stays back Pau slides out to 18 feet on the pick-and-pop, and Fish gets him the ball. But as Gasol gets it and Boone comes out toward him he uses a surprisingly quick first step to blow by Boone, gets under the basket and makes a reverse lay-up, plus gets the and one.

11 minutes left in the fourth, Gasol sets the high pick this time for Kobe, both Nets players try to trap Kobe and Gasol rolls to the hoop. Kobe splits the double and hits Gasol with the pass as Carter rotates to him fast, but Gasol sees the whole floor and whips a pass cross-court to a wide-open Sasha for a three. Which he misses, but that happens. Keep making that quick pass to the open man and the Lakers will score a lot of points. (I want to see a lot of this play where Gasol sets the pick for Kobe in crunch time, seriously who do you defend here? The Lakers had some great looks with this play.)

8:53 Fourth Quarter: Farmar has the ball out on the left wing and throws it to Luke Walton cutting up to the free throw line from the weak side. Gasol has sealed off Sean Williams on the block and is now open, Luke quickly spins by his man and takes a step into the lane and looks to pass to Gasol, except Williams will not leave Pau and basically concedes the lay-up to Luke rather than leave his man. This used to happen all the time with Bynum, leave him and there was a lob and dunk, but we haven’t seen that for a few weeks.

5:10 Fourth Quarter. After the Lakers work it around the perimeter Fisher feeds it to Pau on the right block, Boone behind him. Then Fisher cuts through baseline beneath Pau and that draws Kidd to the area who chooses to double Pau (who has 20 at this point), so Gasol makes a nifty little no-look over the head pass to Fisher for the lay-up.

Other things that were great to see: A better defensive effort, holding the Nets to 96.8 offensive rating and shooting 45.8% (eFG%); Radmanovic really finding his spots in the offense in the last couple games, and putting the ball on the floor when defenders run at him; the Lakers using their height advantage — Pau posted up, Odom did, Kobe did with Kidd on him; Kobe passing that much when his shot is off (and the Lakers winning when his shot is off); great spacing in the offense;

Now, for the obligatory disclaimer — it’s just one game. And the Nets aren’t a good team right now. Still, if you were not smiling after that game, you aren’t a Lakers fan. (But you wouldn’t be smiling if you were a Spurs fan, or a Mavs fan, or a Suns fan, or a….)

Shaq in the Valley of the Sun: If this ends up happening (as it appears it will pending physicals), so much for that whole “we don’t want to pay the luxury tax” thing the Suns owners were professing.

Shaq, even what’s left of him, certainly brings an inside presence that they have not had in Phoenix during recent years. He can still score some and grab some rebounds, and he can pass well out of the post (and now has a much better cast to pass to).

But, I think this is a bad move on two levels. One, he still slows the game down clogging the paint in a way their guys cutting and penetrating are not used to. He hasn’t run the floor in years. And, I don’t think he opens up the half-court offense that much because he no longer commands the double team. (The Lakers, with Bynum or even Gasol and Mbenga will not have to.) It is still going to be Nash’s team, and Shaq will get a few pretty lobs, but I don’t see this as a brilliant move. And on defense, well, Shaq for Marion doesn’t seem like a much of a win. In the comments someone put it well — Shaq is now a better version of Kwame Brown. He can defend man-on-man on the low block, but step away from the hoop or ask him to rotate and, well, Shaq back in 2000 could do those things, but today not so much.

Second, and more importantly, it cuts away at the core of what the Suns were. They hadn’t won a title, sure, but from the owner on down it was clear what the Suns were trying to do. The coach was at the core of that philosophy. Now Steve Kerr is changing that, clearly trying to match up with other teams in the West (the Spurs and Lakers). He may eventually change the philosophy, but once you start to move away from the style of team you’ve built on the court there will be an ugly transition period.

The best line I read has come from the always-insightful Bethlehem Shoals at Free Darko:

“If the Suns were going to win a title, it should’ve been on their own terms. They should’ve thrown themselves back in it again, knowing that they’d brought something to this game, something that could beat back others. It would’ve taken a little luck, or a particularly torrid run, but that’s what their whole style was predicated on. Now, we’re back in the realm of positivism. Rotting positivism. As far as the eye can see.”

The Hawks Coming In: For the second night in the row, the Lakers play a team with a ton of potential that don’t live up to it on a regular basis. However, the Hawks have a better excuse — they are young and improving.

Josh Smith is the leader of the “insanely talented but will he bring it?” group. Two nights ago against the 76ers he turned heads: 19 points, nine assists, nine blocks, six rebounds and four steals. But there are plenty of very athletic and long guys on this roster — All Star Joe Johnson, Al Horford, Josh Childress and so on. That makes them dangerous.

But what has keyed the success the Hawks are having is defense. (By the way, 20-24 and the seven seed really is success for Hawks fans, after all they have been through.) The Hawks defense this season has been almost identical to that of the Lakers overall. What they do well is create turnovers with that length and quickness, but you can get them on the offensive boards.

Keys To The Game: First and foremost, it depends on what Hawks team shows up on offense — they have a lot of skill but haven’t really figured out how to use it. This is very much NBA isolation, one-on-one basketball. The times I’ve watched I thought they could use more structure in their offense, but as these guys mature in the NBA they may like a more flexible, isolation offense better. But as fans, we can at least count on a few spectacular plays from the Hawks.

The Lakers should be able to attack on the offensive glass and get put backs, only five teams give up more offensive boards than Atlanta. And, this could be a big night for Lamar Odom (assuming that is who Josh Smith guards). Smith loves to come from the weak side and block — if Odom can stay in space and the Lakers penetrators keep their eyes open Odom should get some open looks.

Because of the Lakers height, they may be able to create mismatches on the high pick-and-roll, the Hawks switch everything. Also, the Lakers need to protect the ball, the Hawks pressure a lot and try to use their athleticism to disrupt.

Where you can watch: Game time is 4 pm (Pacific) but again the Los Angeles KCAL broadcast doesn’t start until 5:30. Remember if you are watching the game live to put “spoiler alert” on your comments, protecting those of us in LA who have to wait.