Archives For February 2008

Records: Lakers 37-17 (3 seed); Clippers 19-33 (12 seed)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 113.6 (2nd); Clippers 103.4 (26th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 106.7 (7th); Clippers 107.7 (13th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Vladimir Radminovic, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Clippers: Brevin Knight, Cuttino Mobley, Corry Maggette, “some call me” Tim Thomas, Chris Kaman

Lakers Notes: Just a few quick notes looking over the Lakers stats from the last 10 games.

Kobe is taking 18.9 shots, per game, down from his 20.5 average for the season. And he is being very efficient with those shots, shooting 55.5% (eFG%) and getting to the line 8.5 times per game.

Then there is Pau Gasol shooting 65.1% and Lamar Odom shooting 64.5% (eFG%), including shooting 50% from three point range (taking 1.2 shots per game, which should be about the max for him).

The Lakers also have guys doing a great job of spreading the floor. In the last 10 games, Derek Fisher is shooting 37.5% from three, Sasha is at 50% (taking 3.6 per game), Radmanovic is at 43.8% (3.2 per game), and there is Kobe at 36.4%.

The Lakers pace has been a little slower, down to 93.1 possessions per game (about three fewer possessions per game than their season pace).

No doubt, the offense is clicking at a high level, but the defense still needs some work. The Lakers are giving up 108.7 points per 100 possessions, about 2 points higher than their season average.

The Clippers Coming In: This season, a lot of the questions about the Clippers are bigger picture ones for the future. To get some answers, I turned to ClipperSteve from ClipsNation:

1. First things first — what’s the latest and expected return dates for Brand and Livingston? Will we see them this season? Should we, or should the Clippers look for more ping-pong balls?

The Clippers have been very tight-lipped, and very conservative about setting any dates for Brand and Livingston. Basically, although both Brand and Livingston have both uttered the word ‘March’ on many occasions, the organization has never given any date. They are both in the same place right now – they returned to practice within a couple of days of each other, but only in non-contact drills. The best guess is that one or both will be cleared for contacted within 10 days, and we might see them on the court a couple weeks after that.

So, yes, I think we’ll see them this season, if only briefly. Brand almost certainly; Livingston is more in doubt. That has nothing to do with where he is in his recovery (which by all indications is going great) and everything to do with the type of injury. The book is pretty well written on the ruptured Achilles and there’s no reason to doubt that Brand will (has?) recover completely. But Livingston hit the ligament trifecta, and Willis McGahee is the only other athlete I know of to do that. The good news is McGahee made a full recovery and made the Pro Bowl this year. But there’s just not nearly as much data on this injury, and everyone will be super conservative on it, with good reason. Livingston is scheduled to meet with his surgeon the first week in March and we’ll know more then.

Finally, there are those pesky ping-pong balls to consider. The team has plenty of incentive to keep them off the court, above and beyond lottery odds. For instance, why showcase either one of them when they could both be free agents at the end of the season? The best case for the Clippers is that they know these injuries are completely healed, but the rest of the NBA remains in the dark. They’ll play, but not much.

2. Assuming Brand does not opt out (unlikely after this injury, I would think), how is the growth of Chris Kaman this season going to pair with Brand in the future?

That’s a great question. I’ve heard some people say that there won’t be room for Brand and new Kaman to operate – that the post will be too crowded for both of them to be effective, etc. The poster boys for this problem would be Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph, I guess. But I say Brand and Kaman are going to be great together.

Let’s start with defense. The Clippers, even without their best low post defender (Brand) and their best perimeter defender (Livingston) have remained an OK defensive team this season. They have a chance to be a great defensive team at full strength. Kaman is currently 3rd in the league in blocked shots (easily the most surprising improvement in his break out season), while Brand has been a top 10 shot blocker for many years. And neither of them are playing free safety on the weak side the way Camby does. Brand always took the toughest low post assignment, and still blocked shots, and of course Kaman is forced to take the tough assignments this season. They are both very good on the ball defenders in addition to blocking shots. There will be no unchallenged shots against the Clippers next season.

Likewise rebounding is a no brainer improvement. Especially offensive rebounding, where the Clippers have been among the league leaders in the Elton Brand era, and are 29th this season (despite missing plenty of shots).

I’ll admit that there’s potentially less synergy on offense, but one obvious plus is that someone is going to have a mismatch. As defenses adjusted to the Generic Clippers (no Brand) this season, Kaman has seen more and more double teams, and he’s had very few options for the pass out. Brand changes that immediately. But the great low post duos (there haven’t been a lot, but McHale and Parrish come to mind) develop a rhythm and a knack that makes them that much stronger. Can Brand and Kaman develop that feel for each others’ games, that interior passing that leads to easy baskets as the help defender hedges from one to the other? I hope so, but we’ll have to wait and see.

3. Corey Maggette is one of the few players on the Clippers in his prime and playing great this season, showcasing for a new contract with a career year. Should the Clippers resign him, and at what cost? Or, do you move another direction?

It’s pretty clear that Corey will opt out of the final year of his current contract. He’s playing the best ball of his career right now (he’s 12th in the league in scoring at 21.8 per game, but is actually scoring over 24 per game in 2008), and he turned down an extension from the Clippers last summer. So he’s obviously planning to get paid this summer. What isn’t clear to me is, who is going to pay him? There aren’t that many teams with cap space, and of those I really don’t see Memphis or Seattle or Charlotte making a huge offer to Corey Maggette given the personnel they have already. So although he stands to be the second best free agent on the market (after Antawn Jamison, and depending of course on what happens with all those other option guys like Arenas and Marion and yes, Brand), I don’t see where the big offer is going to come from.

The situation is further complicated by the internecine battles on the red and blue side of Staples Center. Mike Dunleavy has spent the better part of 3 seasons trashing the guy, and has tried to trade him on at least three occasions. But owner Donald T. Sterling loves Maggette, has vetoed at least one and probably two of those trades, and has said he wants to re-sign Corey. Which leaves me without a clue as to what will actually happen.

I’m hoping they don’t bid against themselves for his services. They have Al Thornton ready to step into the small forward position right now, and although you could do worse than having Thornton come off the bench for a couple years, $50M+ would be a lot to pay when you’ve got a much cheaper alternative. Don’t be surprised if he ends up leaving the Clippers via a sign-and-trade, that gets him the pay day he’s looking for on a team that needs his unique talents.

4. The Clips offense has held them back this year. When they are winning and competing well, what are they doing right on offense?

Oh you noticed that, huh? Yeah, it’s a problem. Mike Dunleavy is a very good defensive coach and extremely prepared for each game. But the Clippers offense, which relies heavily on isolations, is unimaginative in the extreme. So frankly, the offense ends up being almost completely dependent on the existence of exploitable matchups, and the degree to which an individual player is ‘on.’ So if Mobley or Cassell is being defended by a smallish guard, then they’ll go into the post six plays in a row. And if the shots are falling, then the Clippers have a chance. (If Cassell plays Saturday, watch for him to go to work if he’s defended by Farmar.) Recent Clipper wins against Toronto and New Jersey and Atlanta were all about Al Thornton winning his matchup in the fourth quarter.

That’s not to say that the team doesn’t run the occasional set, and at times they look pretty good doing it. But it’s all pretty ‘Arthur Murray’ by the numbers. If they run the set and it works, great. If the defense denies the first option, then they go to an iso and stand around. The team’s spacing is rarely good, and they don’t have enough shooters to take advantage when they force double teams. Spacing seems like such a basic concept, you would think every NBA player would be in the right place all the time. But the simple fact is that very few teams actually do it well (the Lakers, Suns and Spurs come to mind), so it must be harder than it looks. The Clippers’ spacing sucks.

All teams are better when they run, but all coaches want to be in control. Still one key for the Clippers is definitely early offense. If they can push the ball (just a little), then good things happen. Maybe they get the ball to Kaman in deeper low post position because the defender hasn’t had a chance to push him off the block. Or maybe they just get into their set that much earlier, giving them more time to re-set if they need to. But instead what tends to happen is that they make an entry pass with about 14 seconds into the possession, and by the time they pass out of the double team, there’s not enough time for anything other than a desperation heave with 2 on the shot clock. The Clippers probably lead the league in those.

Keys To The Game: The Lakers had better not sleep on tonight’s game — the Clippers destroyed Utah last night. (Yes, the final score was just a 4 point differential, but that’s because of a late 11-0 Utah run, the Clippers dominated from the middle of the second quarter on.) The Clips are 5-5 in their last 10 and playing decent ball.

Part of that is how well Corry Maggette is playing — he is shooting 59.1% (eFG%) in his last 10 games, including 53.8% from three. As Kevin at ClipperBlog points out today, when Maggette is hitting the outside shot he’s very tough to stop because he is such a good penetrator and so strong doing so (sort of how it is hard to stop LeBron’s drives because of his strength). It’s hard, but try not to foul this guy in the paint.

Two other Clips playing very well right now — rookie Al Thorton (27 points in 29 minutes last night, going 10 of 18 from the floor and getting to the line 9 times) and Chris Kaman. Kaman is running the court well and setting up deep position early in the clock, the Lakers need to get back with him and not let him get the ball too deep.

Looking at notes from the previous meetings of these teams, the Clippers have focused their defense on Kobe, doubling him quick and often (especially on the pick-and-roll). The way the other Lakers are playing right now we should be able to make them pay if that strategy doesn’t change. Other guys should be getting good looks, they just need to knock them down.

Where you can watch: The game is at 7:30 (Pacific) on KCAL 9 in Los Angeles if you want the Lakers broadcasters, KTLA 5 for the Clippers quality broadcast team and League Pass nationally.

Fast Break Thoughts

Kurt —  February 22, 2008

Some thoughts on how the trade deadline shook out, and other stuff.

• Commenter Drrayeye says he is a “doubting Thomas,” but I think the Kurt Thomas to the Spurs was a deal works for both sides, the Spurs in the short term and Seattle in the long term. Jonesonthenba has a great take on this trade, and in the comments made a great point:

The crazy thing about Kurt Thomas is that Presti got a first round pick for taking in, and then got a first round pick for sending him out. To say that worked out for him would be an understatement.

• The usual brilliant stuff from friend-of-the-site KD over at the Yahoo blog the other day about why the Mavs will be better with Kidd:

I beg of you, dear reader: keep this post in mind when cable TV swoons over an improved Mavericks team over the season’s last two months. The answers to their resurgence won’t come in the singular form of Jason Kidd, and they won’t be articulated with nausea-inducing bluster like “that championship focus,” or some twaddle about “leadership.”

No, the Mavs will be better because they were already a championship-level team to begin with, one that was playing below expectation and limiting the minutes of its best players. That stops, now.

• And I like what Cleveland did yesterday to boost their offense. I’ll let Mike from Knickerblogger explain:

But looking at who they gave up, it’s addition by subtraction. Consider the league average for TS% is typically around 54% (53.7% at this moment), and look at who’s heading out of Cleveland: Drew Gooden (48.7%), Larry Hughes (46.7%), Donyell Marshall (42.7%), Shannon Brown (43.3%), and Cedric Simmons (21.0%). Only Ira Newble (52.2%) has a TS% anywhere near the median….Enter Wally Szczerbiak (TS% 57.3%) and Joe Smith (TS% 51.5%), both of who should provide an offensive boost to Cleveland. Szczerbiak has never had a problem scoring efficiently, and at 30 years of age is still near the top of his game. Suddenly the Cavs look to have the makings of a strong offense: LeBron, Szczerbiak, Gibson, Ilgauskas, Varejao, Smith, Damon Jones, all have TS% above 50%. And although Ben Wallace is shooting poorly (TS% 39.1%) he’ll help the defense as well. With Ilgauskas, Wallace, Varejao, and James the Cavs have enough defense to make up for the guards.

Now, add a little motion to that offense and maybe you’ll have something. Particularly in the East.

• I’m not sure what they are doing in Chicago anymore. Sure, you get rid of Wallace so you can finally play the kids, but at what cost? Larry Hughes? Drew Gooden playing the worst ball of his pro career? I wrote this last time I filled in at TrueHoop, just a few days after Skiles was dumped, but here’s my question for Chicago’s brass: What kind of team are you trying to build? Boylan isn’t the long-term coach, so they need to decide what kind of team they want, bring in a coach to execute it and build toward it. Right now I don’t see that master plan, just a lot of flailing around.

• Lot’s of Kobe for MVP talk. I have a hard time getting into that debate only because the definition of MVP is nebulous and varies from voter to voter. Best player in the league? Best player on a good team? Best player on the best team? Honestly, I think Kobe deserves an MVP, but as much for his “body of work” more than just this year. I think you can make a good case for CP3 or LeBron. KG will get some votes, too. I’d like to see KG get one someday for the same “body of work” reasons. But this may be Kobe’s year.

Of course, with a couple months between now and the end of the season a lot of things can change.

• Ever wonder what guys shoot on the midrange jumper? Well, someone over at APBRmetrics used the NBA HotZones thing and crunched the numbers.

Your top 10: 1. Jose Calderon 56.1% (115-205); 2. Steve Nash 52.9% (83-157); 3. Derek Fisher 519% (97-187); 4. Jason Kapono 517% (74-143); 5. Malik Allen 513% (81-158); 6. Dirk Nowitzki 507% (136-268); 7. Dorell Wright 503% (76-151); 8. Kevin Garnett 500% (94-188); 9. Mo Williams 496% (112-226); 10. Channing Frye 491% (79-161).

Two interesting other numbers: 75. Richard Jefferson 39.4% (113-287); 76. Kobe Bryant 39.2% (133-339).

• Don’t look now, but my Matadors of Cal State Northridge are looking pretty good now. Great pressure defense (defensive rating of 93.3, 29th in the land), a team that shares the ball on offense and presses the pace (75.4 possessions per game, 10th fastest in the nation). Only one NCAA bid coming out of the Big West, so the Matadors have to win the tournament, but they are in a good position. Which means you’re going to be stuck reading more about them.

• If it’s sunny out, my Sunday plans include some Long Beach State baseball.

A Win Worth Celebrating

Kurt —  February 21, 2008

First things first — there have been issues with the site for the last 12 hours or so. Apparently this has something to do with an “upstream service DNS migration,” whatever that means. I followed the instructions from my host and apparently everything should be solved. If by this afternoon people are still having issues, let me know and I’ll… um, I don’t know what I’ll do but I’ll have a beer while I do it. And try to fix it.

Last night’s win over the Suns was about all you could ask from a regular season game — entertaining, playoff atmosphere, and at the end of the day I still think the Suns cannot beat us in a seven-game series (providing we are healthy). I think Carter Blanchard summed it up:

Such a good win. On the road, on the wrong end of a back-to-back, against one of the best teams in the L riding the emotional high of the Shaq trade. Anyone else feel like we took their best shot (huge game from Amare, great Nash/Hill games, solid Shaq game, hard to expect much more) and just weren’t fazed. We’ve had a ton of thrilling wins, but tonight’s might have been the most significant thus far.

Plus, the areas where the Suns really hurt the Lakers — on the boards and in the paint — get a lot better for the Lakers when Bynum gets back. Sure, the Suns will get better but we match up well with them.

And this team is fun. So fun that let’s relive the last 7 minutes or so. Not that all of it is filled with insight, but I had so much fun writing it that I’m just going to run it all anyway.

We join the game after Strawberry made a bid to knock off Daniel Day Lewis for Best Actor Kobe has just got called for charging into DJ Strawberry and the Suns have the ball.

7:41, 105-103: Early in the clock Stoudemire comes out five feet past the three-point line to run the ultra-high pick and roll with Barbosa, the Lakers defend it poorly with Farmar trying to go over the top and Pau laying back, so Barbosa gets up a fierce head of steam around the pick and toward the basket. Gasol tries to slide with him but Fisher trails Stoudemire, so Barbosa passes to the rolling Amare at the free throw line. It’s pretty obvious what is coming but Turiaf is slow to rotate, the result is the dunk and the harm. He hits the free throw.

Odom and Gasol enter the game.

7:26 105-106. The Lakers got out of the offense a lot in this game, which worked because Kobe was hot. This time they run the offense and the result is Sasha and Gasol playing the little two-man hand-off game on the weak (this time left) side. Gasol gets the ball out 18 feet and gives it to Sasha cutting past him, and Sasha decides to show he can do more than drain threes. He drives into the land of the trees and hits a little running layup falling away from the basket.

7:01 107-106. Just over the half court line Farmar comes out and pressures Barbosa with the ball. Barbosa tries to impress the women in Brazil with his soccer skills — he dribbles the ball off his foot, into the back court for a turnover. Suddenly, Steve Nash is up off the bench and at the scorer’s table.

The Lakers run the offense for 10 seconds on the out of bounds, but Kobe has that look tonight and Strawberry isn’t scaring him much. Kobe gets an isolation out top, drives to the right elbow, pulls up on a dime and nails the jumper.

6: 35, 109-106. Amare comes out to run the high pick and roll with Nash, Odom doesn’t show but stays back to protect the paint. Nash drives in and is below the free throw line by the time anyone bothers to pick him up. Not only does Odom help, but also Gasol rotates over to stop the shot. Gasol leaves Shaq to do that. Alley-oop and dunk. And the crowd goes wild.

6:25, 109-108. The Lakers patiently go through the motions of the offense – inside to Gasol, back out to Kobe – but Kobe’s going to shoot. Everybody knows it. He has the ball two feet behind the three-point line, Strawberry is back a step to defend the drive, Kobe shoots over him. Drains it. Mike D’Antoni says something under his breath about the pinky being a ruse.

6:02, 112-108. Again (and always) it’s Amare and Nash in the high pick-and-roll, but this time the Lakers defend it better. Farmar does a much better job fighting over the top of the pick and staying with Nash. Sasha flashes from the weak side to slow Nash, Odom does a much better job taking away Nash’s passing lanes. The result is what you want – Nash shooting, and it’s a little three-foot runner and it’s contested. He misses it.

Odom grabs to miss and outlets to Kobe, who jogs it up the court. But Gasol had some rest, he felt good, so he ran the court and no Sun went with him. Bryant throws it from half court to Gasol who drives in for the dunk and gets fouled by the trailing Amare for the and one.

Then Sasha jumps higher than he has in years to hug Gasol. He must have shown off an 8-inch vertical on that one.

And we go to commercial and an ESPN SportsCenter promo. Hey, Duke lost. That usually makes me smile, but when it’s to the University of Miami I don’t know how to feel.

115-108, 5:43. They don’t run set plays much, but the Suns almost run a motion offense here, with some nice action, the result being Stoudemire trying to drive on Gasol from the free throw line, he gets off a contested layup that Odom blocks. Right into the hands of Shaq. He can still dunk with authority.

115-110, 5:20: Fisher and Kobe pass the ball out top, then Kobe makes a pretty quick pass to Odom flashing through the lane. Amare isn’t lost though, he trails Odom from the weak side and rejects the layup. Odom grabs the ball but travels.

Nash does his Nash thing, holding the dribble and probing the defense, but the Lakers do a good job and there are no real options. So a quick pass to Grant Hill and he feeds the ball to Shaq on the low block with Gasol on him. Shaq spins back into the lane and hits a nice little 8 footer. Nice shot. I’d make him do it a bunch more times before I’d send the double, however.

115-112, 4:45. Kobe and Fisher try a little high pick and roll but nothing develops, then the Lakers run through some more offense but nothing is good there either as they work the ball around. So with the clock running down it is the old bailout of Kobe with a 20-foot jumper, he misses.

Nash pushes the ball, well maybe at half speed for him but pretty quickly. Shaq decides to do the Shaq of 2000 thing — run down the court and get a deep position before the defense gets set. Nash sees it and gets him the ball quickly just three feet from the hoop. Shaq takes a pretty little right-handed jump hook, but Kobe comes and blocks it from the weak side. Goaltending. Pretty close in my book, but close enough to argue either way.

115-114, 4:14. Kobe has the ball out high and drives around Bell but never really loses him. Shaq comes over from the weak-side and in getting his arms up to block Kobe’s shot he gives a vicious elbow to the back of Bell’s head. That really looked like it hurt. I’m sure Bell will be fine, but I’m glad it wasn’t me.

Oh, and Kobe hit the shot.

117-114, 3:55. Guess what, Suns tried the high pick and roll with Amare and Nash. Fisher is in the game now and he goes under the pick, so Nash steps back for the three, and misses, but Shaq gets the rebound over Gasol and is fouled going back up.

This is why I said yesterday that Shaq will help the usually weak Suns rebounding. Yes, Marion had more boards per game, but Shaq takes up a lot more space under the basket. You have to body him. He opens up space for others. And, Marion never would have gotten a rebound like that over Pau.

Of course, Marion likely would have hit both free throws. Shaq hit one.

117-115, 3:40. The Lakers run the offense, staring with the two man game out high with Kobe and Fish while Sasha is going from one side to the other around Odom’s down screen on the block. The result is Sasha gets a very good look from 18. He just misses it.

This time Shaq, trailing the play after Nash pushed the ball, sets a drag screen, then rolls to the basket. The Lakers mostly roll to Nash, so he goes for the alley-oop to Shaq. But Kobe has seen this “lob to Shaq for a big dunk late in a game” thing before somewhere. (Can’t think of where off the top of my head, maybe we should ask Henry Abbott.) Kobe reads it and comes from the weak side and knocks the pass away. The end result of a little scramble is a Shaq/Gasol jump ball.

I’m with Hubie on this one, it looked to me like Gasol knocked the ball out of bounds, but they call it out off Shaq on the jump ball.

The Lakers first play is isolation Kobe, and he gets into the lane but a rotating Grant Hill knocks the ball out of bounds. After a time out the Lakers came up with a very creative play — Kobe isolation. He hits the midrange over Hill.

119-115, 2:49. For the first time I can remember in the game, the Suns run the double high post look, with Shaq on one side and Amare on the other. Nobody is clear what to do, and the Lakers are playing tight, dogged defense. The result is Barbosa trying to create his own shot, taking a contested 17-footer and missing.

Kobe isolation. Kobe pull-up jumper. Kobe misses.

The Suns first attempt is the high pick and roll early in the clock, Nash drives and the Lakers take away the bounce pass to the cutting Amare. The result is confusion for the Suns, eventually with the ball going out of bounds off Sasha’s foot. On the inbounds play, Fisher fouls Nash from behind, the Lakers are in the penalty and he hits both.

119-117, 1:49. Kobe is asking for the ball and isolation, but Fisher is going to run the offense, damnit. Fisher drives off the high screen from Pau (Gasol can’t get open because Nash is waterskiing behind him off his jersey) and tries a floater over Shaq that misses but Hill knocks it out of bounds.

On the inbounds play Gasol gets the ball out along the left baseline and just drives the lane on Shaq, who goes flying backwards but gets called for blocking. That bit of acting by Shaq was worse than Kazaam — no way Gasol can knock Shaq over like that. The Lakers get the ball out on the side again.

Odom inbounds the ball from the side to Gasol on the block, then cuts straight past him to the rim. Amare is slow to react. Gasol gets the ball back to Odom, who hits a tough little falling layup.

121-117, 1:27. Shaq and Nash in the high pick and roll, the Lakers cover the passing lane and it’s another Nash floater in the lane and another miss. Good defense by the Lakers. The rebound bounces out to Fisher who passes out to a streaking Kobe, and suddenly it’s a three on one with only Hill back. Kobe gives it back to Gasol for the dunk. Love the way Gasol ran the court late in the game.

123-117, 1:15. This time it’s Amare’s turn to be out high with Nash. Odom tries to play the passing lanes but Nash makes a nifty bounce pass at the top of the key to Amare who drives hard to the basket. But Gasol read this the entire way and was waiting at the basket when Amare was still at the free throw line. Amare tries a running floater/layup over Gasol but misses, and Odom gets the board.

The Lakers take their time setting up the offense and eventually get the ball to Gasol 16-feet out isolated with Shaq. That’s rarified air for Shaq. Gasol tries to put the ball on the floor (something he does pretty well) but losses control. The ball bounces free and Shaq dives after it, chop blocking Gasol in the process. That’s 15 yards and two free throws for Gasol, who hits them both.

With just 45 seconds left, the Lakers give a lot of concession baskets to the Suns, the Suns in turn foul the Lakers (although they let 20 second run off at one point, which was an odd choice). Bottom line, the game was over.

Preview and Chat: The Phoenix Suns

Kurt —  February 20, 2008

Records: Lakers 36-17 (3 seed); Suns 37-16 (2 seed)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 113.1 (2nd); Suns 115.2 (1st)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 106.4 (8th); Suns 107.9 (15th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Vladimir Radminovic, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Suns: Steve Nash, Raja Bell, Grant Hill, Amare Stoudemire, Shaquille O’Neal

Lamar Odom talks: Over at Lamar Odom’s personal website, there is a new 12-minute interview with the man just before the All Star break where he talks about a wide range of topics. While at no point does he mock Coby Karl, the video is still worth watching. Among the highlights:

• Says that the last road trip was very good for him, and people are now noticing the little things he does more, in part because the team is winning.

• “With the addition of Pau, I can have a great game getting 12 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists, helping control the tempo on the perimeter.”

• He talked about his slower start to the season, saying it part that was due to an inability to train like he wanted in the summer and through training camp. He feels like he is coming around now, starting to peak.

• “We could change basketball here in America if we counted the hockey assist.”

• He compared the eventual pairing of Bynum and Gasol to an effective twin-towers duo — Tim Duncan and David Robinson. He said that with the two of them protecting the rim the Lakers could be a force on defense.

• He talks about his music label.

• “If we all get healthy at the same time, we can definitely go to the big dance, we can compete for a ring.”

Lakers Notes: Coby Karl has a career high in scoring last night to go with a surprising big-air dunk — you know good things are happening when that is the case.

The Lakers used a pressure defense to force 19 first half Hawk turnovers, and that was your ball game. Not a lot of breakdown warranted, the turnovers led to a very efficient Laker offense. The Hawks, in their first game with a new PG, looked lost and were quickly demoralized, which in turn led to a half-assed effort on defense from them as the first half wore on.

The best part for the Lakers — the starters got plenty of rest heading into a big, nationally-televised back-to-back.

The Suns Coming In: You’ve got to say this for the Suns under Steve Kerr — they were willing to take the big risk. Tonight is the first step in seeing if that will pay off.

With Shaq the Suns certainly gives them a bigger, more traditional inside presence. I have no doubt that Steve Nash can get him the ball in places he can succeed some on offense. I think the Suns will still score, the question (as always in the Valley of the Sun) is defense. One thing not to overlook — part of the Suns problems on defense is they are a weak rebounding team, the worst defensive rebounding team in the NBA this season (allowing opponents to grab 31% of their misses). Shaq will help change that.

One Sun who has been on a tear lately is Amare — is averaging 25 and 10, while shooting 59.2% inside the arc, in his last 10 games. Nash continues to be Nash. And let me admit that before the season I questioned the Suns getting Grant Hill, I didn’t think there was much left in the tank. I was wrong, he’s been a solid fit, not taking up too much of their offense (just 17% of shots when on the floor) and shooting a solid 53.2% eFG%.

Keys To The Game: If the Lakers do one thing on offense tonight when Shaq is in the game, it should be a ton of high pick-and-rolls. Both with Kobe and Fisher handling the ball. The reason is simple — in 2000, in (arguably) his prime, Shaq was unimpressive at defending the pick and roll. He’s worse now. If he comes out to defend it, there are no intimidating Suns guarding the rim (or, Amare can leave Odom/Radminovic and pay that price). If he stays in the paint, Pau pops out and drains the 18 footer. Also Fisher should handle the ball a lot in that situation because Nash is poor at defending the P&R as well — combined with Shaq the Lakers should be able to exploit that.

Shaq or no Shaq, it is Nash that stirs the drink in Phoenix and the game plan to stopping the Suns is the same as the last two meetings (which the Lakers won) — make Nash the shooter, don’t let him start feeding Amare or Hill or Shaq for easy dunks. And when he drives the lane everyone cannot collapse off their man to protect the paint, leaving three point shooters open. Lamar, I’m looking at you. Let Nash have a big scoring night, that’s not how the Suns win.

And, of course — transition defense. Go after offensive rebounds so the Suns all can’t take off early. Run back fast. Make them jump shooters and try to take away the easy buckets.

Where you can watch: The game is at 6 pm (Pacific) on KCAL 9 in Los Angeles and ESPN everywhere.

Preview and Chat: The Atlanta Hawks

Kurt —  February 19, 2008

Records: Lakers 35-17 (3 seed); Hawks 21-29 (9th seed, although just percentage points back of the Nets and 76ers, the 7 and 8 seeds)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 113.1 (2nd); Hawks 105 (21st)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 106.4 (8th); Hawks 107 (10th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Vladimir Radminovic, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Hawks: Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, Al Horford

Lakers Notes: Enough with the two days of navel gazing posts around here, let’s talk hoops.

One bit of bad news in today noted in the Los Angeles Times — Trevor Ariza is healing slowly and likely will not be available until the playoffs at the earliest. The good news (unless your Ric Bucher) is that Andrew Bynum seems to be on track and should be back in about three weeks.

One interesting topic the last couple days — if you played for another team, should you try to hurt Kobe’s finger? Doc Rivers says the old school teams he played on would have. Kobe said if this were the 1980s he’d be worried but not so much today. He may well be right about the regular season, but come game one of the seven-game playoff series….. if I were a coach I can’t say I wouldn’t suggest to my team to take a swipe. Kobe has to know this. It’s part of the game for him right now.

USC/UCLA: I flipped in and out of the All-Star game Sunday, but I watched the cross-town basketball game much more closely, because I found it far more compelling. Not better played — that was one ugly, sloppy game — but there was a lot on the line.

A few quick player thoughts. OJ Mayo — every time I watch him play I like him less as an NBA prospect. He’s got all the skills, but his game needs to mature a lot, and I’m not sure how much it can. Kevin Love — he’ll make a very good role-playing four in the NBA, but he’s got to be on a team with the right system. He’d be great off the bench for a team like the Lakers or Utah, with their structured offenses. He’d be wasted in a place like Golden State, even with his outlet passing skills. Russell Westbrook — I like him a lot. Athletic, smart, good on defense, long for a PG, gets the rim like mad. He’s not someone a lot of people talk about, but he is going to be a solid to very good NBA guy.

Kidd in Dallas: Keith Van Horn has done is Aaron McKie imitation and the trade to send Jason Kidd to the Mavericks is finally done.

Good. I mean, as a Lakers fan I think this is good. First and foremost, I’m dubious about Kidd having enough left in the tank to be a huge boost in Dallas (compared to the now-gone Harris), although as Reed pointed out last time this allows the Mavs to play a Kidd/Jason Terry backcourt that will be quite good. But how will Kidd fit into the isolation-heavy offense of the Mavs, and can he be exposed on defense? We shall see.

But with this move the Mavs have said what the Suns did a few weeks back — we need to win right now. This year, maybe next year, then the window is closed. The Mavs traded a young PG and picks for Kidd, who after this playoff run and a summer with Team USA may not have enough left to be a force next year. Even with Kobe and Gasol playing key roles this summer, the Lakers are still younger and with a much bigger window. Even if the Suns and Mavs are healthy (and the Spurs for that matter too), the Lakers are contenders for the next four years. Man the playoffs look like fun (as long as we don’t get the Jazz in the first round).

The Hawks Coming In: Mike Bibby will play for the Hawks tonight, and if you’re curious what kind of difference that will make check out this story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution from Hawks practice yesterday:

The Hawks’ pick-and-roll sets got sharper instantly. The little inside passes in transition that rarely found the mark before were on the money now. Bibby waited all of 15 seconds to start leading, playfully chiding Josh Smith and Al Horford to “run with me, run with me” on a fast break during part of the full court scrimmage portion of practice.

I love the Bibby trade for the Hawks. That was a team with a fill-it-up shooter like Joe Johnson and likely the best under-25 front court in the NBA with Josh Smith and Al Horford. By far, the position that was killing them on offense was PG (where they were shooting just 45.9% and had a team PER of 12.1, which would be a weak PER for the guy coming off the bench; by comparison the Lakers have a PER of 17.1 at PG, thanks to Fisher and Farmar).

Say what you will about Bibby getting slower, you could chop off one of his legs and he’s still better than Tyron Lue. I asked Tom Ziller of Sactown Royalty about Bibby and how he’d fit in, and he noted that Bibby is pretty much a jump-shooting guard who doesn’t go to the rim, but Atlanta has guys that can get to the rim. He said Bibby’s sort of hit a wall, he is what he is and his game will not improve much, although his stats likely will get better playing in the East with a lot of skill around him. He thinks a pick-and-roll with Bibby and Horford would be hard to stop consistently.

But, Bibby is not very good on defense, and that could be a problem for advancing very far.

By the way, a few people thought the Bibby move might be the first of a couple trades for the Hawks, maybe moving Bibby to Cleveland. Why? This was a young talented team in Atlanta that needs a point guard to lead them — Bibby can be that guy for a few more years, with Law or someone else taking over for him down the line. The Hawks don’t need more picks, they need a vet or two.

Last Time these two met: Back on Feb. 6 was a real game of streaks, but the Lakers had an 8-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, when they completely fell apart. A 14-4 run later and the Hawks had the win. It was the second game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, fifth game in seven days, and it looked like it.

The taller Lakers were outworked inside and out rebounded by the Hawks — Atlanta grabbed 25% of its missed shots, which was one problem. In addition, the Lakers key offensive weapons were not efficient — Kobe was 4 of 16, Gasol 5 of 14. Joe Johnson led the Hawks with 28.

That was the last game the Hawks have won, dropping their next four.

Keys To The Game: Remember how amazing the Lakers looked those first couple games with Pau in the lineup? Expect that same energy from the Hawks tonight, which means the Lakers need to be ready to go from the opening tip.

But this is also the first game with a new PG running the show (Johnson used to do a lot of it, he has to adjust to a new role), so defensive pressure by the Lakers — and jumping some passing lanes — should lead to some turnovers and easy baskets. I’d expect a lot of wing screen-and-rolls from Atlanta as they try to use their athleticism — and Bibby is hitting 39% from three this season so the Lakers can’t just go under the screen. Also, look for back door or running down the middle lobs from Atlanta, they love that play.

Bibby does not solve another key problem for the Hawks — they are not a strong team on the boards. The long Lakers should be able to get offensive rebounds and putbacks. Then again, they should have last time too and the Lakers got outworked on the boards and in the paint. Rebounds are still “want to” things, you’ve got to want to get them.

Where you can watch: The game is at 7:30 (Pacific) on Fox Sports out here. According to the Lakers site it’s not even on league pass, although readers are now saying it is on League Pass. If you know a good place to steam the game post the link.