Archives For October 2008

After all the time Kobe has spent playing basketball in Vegas the last couple of summers with Team USA, will that give him a home court advantage tonight?

Whatever Kobe does, what I think we’re all looking for is growth, improvement, signs of thing gelling together. As this is the third game for the Lakers, I think we have an idea of the three things we’re hoping to see:

1) Improved defense, particularly transition defense. Also, just better recognition and rotation in half court defensive sets.

2) Lamar Odom, does he start to find his way in some role in the offense, particularly when Gasol and Bynum are on the floor. And, in this same vein, does Trevor Ariza continue to make a case to be a starter with his hustle. (That said, at some point he needs to hit those outside shots he’s been getting.)

3) How do Bynum and Gasol look together? There were signs of potential last game, but they became frustrated ones. I think a play broken down by bchamp in the comments summed up what happened well.

In the 1st quarter the Lakers got into the corner series of the triangle where Kobe had the ball in the right corner and Bynum stepped over from the block to set a high side screen. As Bynum rolled along the baseline his defender switched over to double Kobe, who then found Gasol flashing to the high post. With the rotated defender trying to pick which poison he wanted to defend Gasol passed to a wide open Bynum underneath the rim. Unfortunately, it was a bad pass and ended up in a turnover but the right idea nonetheless.

As for the Kings, Tom Ziller from Sactown Royalty (and everywhere else) said that the mantra this preseason for the Kings is ball movement (which is why coach Reggie Theus hinted about the triangle, although he has backed off that statement). The Kings offense had little movement the last couple years, and having Artest breaking out of called plays all the time wasn’t helping. Ziller said the ball movement has been spotty so far, we’ll see how it goes tonight.

And while preseason wins are meaningless, I’d still like to see one.

Know Your Enemy: The Boston Celtics

Kurt —  October 10, 2008

Last Year Record: 66-16
Last Year Playoffs: Won NBA Championship
Offensive Rating: 110.2 (ninth in league)
Defensive Rating: 98.9 (first in league)

The rivalry with the Celtics is back. All the way back. I grew up despising all things Celtics (you had to respect Bird/McHale/Parish, but you didn’t have to like them, and I’ve always just wanted to punch Danny Ainge). Maybe that faded a little starting in the late 90s, but it is back with a vengeance now. I want to see the Celtics crushed.

With that out of the way, let’s be honest — they were the best team in the NBA last year. They won 66 games in the regular season and brought an intensity to the finals — particularly on the defensive end — that the Lakers couldn’t match. The Celtics defense was impressive, both in the team’s regular season meetings and the finals. They were aggressive on the ball, overloaded the strong side at times and were lightning quick on rotations. The help was always there. Opposing teams were forced to take 70% of their shots as jump shots, and they hit just 39.6% (eFG%) of them.

They offense was not spectacular, but it was good. Pierce and KG’s games blended well, Ray Allen spread the floor and the turnovers the Celtics defense created led to some easy baskets every game.

The Celtics went into last season with questions about Rondo and Perkins, but both showed that they could be solid role players around the big three of KG, Pierce and Jesus Shuttleworth. This season nobody questions the starting five of the Celtics, in fact in the case of Rondo I expect him to be better, the question is off the bench.

They lost James Posey. Tony Allen will apparently get more time, but he is no Posey. Darius Miles is, um, let’s say in need of a redemption I don’t expect him to find. Rondo has developed into a solid PG (and could take a step forward if he can improve on a poor 42.2% eFG% on jump shots) but behind him is Eddie House, who can shoot but is not a great ball handler or distributor. I happen to like Leon Powe, but for the Celtics to get back to where they want to be he needs to step forward. Big Baby would also need to step forward.

Health is a concern for every team, but with their three core players being older and Perkins coming in off shoulder surgery, the lack of depth could be a real issue around Faneuil Hall. The Celtics need to be firing on all cylinders to repeat.

To beat the Celtics the Lakers (or any team) will need to create turnovers of their own — the Celtics turned the ball over on 16.6% of their possessions last year (only the Kings turned it over more) but they made that mistake less often in the Finals. You can get Rondo (and particularly House and Allen off the bench) to turn the ball over, and that can lead to easy baskets. Pressure and pace are not really Boston’s friends.

You also have to not foul — easier said than done with KG and PP on the floor. Only two other teams in the league got to the free throw line on as high a percentage of their possessions as the Celtics. The Celtics were very good at tough defending without fouling, other teams need to match that.

Enough of my thoughts. Time for some insider perspective from Jeff, creator of the brilliant Celtics Blog:

The loss of Posey has gotten a lot of attention, how serious is it? Can one of the your pickups fill that role?

Oh it is serious alright. I’m tired of hearing about it, but that doesn’t make it go away. The bottom line is that the Big 3 and team defense were what won us the title last year, but James Posey did help, a lot. He didn’t have lights-out stats, but somehow whenever we needed him, he was always stepping up with a huge 3 pointer or taking a charge or making a key stop. One player doesn’t fill those shoes. It takes the whole bench stepping up and doing a little more. We need Tony Allen to give us wing defense. We need Eddie House to give us more 3 point daggers. We need Leon Powe to take charges. We need the rookies to give some old legs some rest. The great thing about Posey was he could do all that himself. Now it just has to be a team effort.

Are their concerns that this team could lose its incredible intensity, particularly on the defensive end? Or will KG just not allow that?

Good question and one I’ve been pondering lately. My first reaction is to say “no.” I mean, have you ever looked at KG’s face when he’s on the floor? I can’t imagine looking at him in person and not running through a wall when he said “go.” However, the only thing that worries me is that every person is wired differently. Some guys are motivated with a stick and some with a carrot. This is where Doc really has to step up his motivational game (so to speak). Last year, “Ubuntu” was the rallying cry that everyone bought into. That was kind of a gimmick, but it worked because the Big 3 bought in hook, line, and sinker. I have a feeling that the team will buy in to the repeat talk because it sure seems like the Big 3 are in again. They have to be thinking about their legacy at this point. They’ve reached the top of the ladder compared to the current generation. Now they’d like to go down as one of the all time teams.

The Celts offense certainly wasn’t bad last year (ninth in the league in efficiency), but what can happen to improve that?

Just playing another year together will help everyone. Wait till Rajon Rondo starts doing what he can do on a more consistent basis. Ray had some lingering ankle issues last year. If fully healed, he could be even better. Tony Allen can’t shoot like Posey, but he’s a better slasher. There’s room for growth on offense, but it all starts from the defense.

What will it take for this team to repeat as champions?

A lot has to happen. Doc has to get them to buy into the legacy/history thing. Young players need to step up. Veterans need to stay healthy. They need to be good and lucky and then good again. It is really hard winning it once, and really, really hard winning it again. Actually, you might be a better person to ask since you watched your team do it more recently than mine. What did your team do to make it happen again?

I think Jeff hit on a couple big keys — health and some luck matter in repeating. But let’s be clear, when it matters (like on Christmas Day) the Celtics are going to be intense and focused. The other day on NBA TV they were showing a Celtics scrimmage, a routine part of preseason camp. And KG was swatting away his teammates hands while trying to get position in the post, intimidating anyone who would drive the lane and fighting for boards like it was the Finals again. In a meaningless scrimmage. KG is not going to let the Celtics lose their intensity.

And with that intensity, and keeping their health, the Celtics will not be an easy out for anyone.

Just a few things to look for as many of us bounce back and forth between the Dodgers and the Lakers tonight.

• Will we get to see Gasol and Bynum on the court at the same time? I hope so. We need to at some point.

• Lamar Odom. One preseason game is less than meaningless, but what we are looking for are patterns in the preseason. And the problem with Odom’s struggles the other night in a pseudo-point guard role is that there already is a pattern. Reed reminded us of that in the comments:

I am bewildered as to why the coaching staff is trying again with the failed “initiator” experiment. What positives does he bring to that role? How does that fit with his strengths? On offense, Odom has been at his best when using his speed to attack 4’s off the dribble, get out in transition, and cut to the basket when Kobe, Pau get too much attention. In this role, he averaged 16 points on 59% shooting after the all-star break last year. Before the break, when he was more perimeter oriented, he averaged 13 on 48% shooting. His length, speed, and efficiency were key reasons we blitzed through the west last year.

Odom brings very particular strengths and weaknesses to the table, meaning he can be either very, very effective, or completely forgotten. I just don’t see how using him in a PG/initiator role does anything other than lead to the latter.

Check out the discussion that follows in the comments — it shows there are no easy answers. You can find plenty of examples of just how good Odom can be, but all of those come at the four. That’s a crowded spot unless Odom wants to come off the bench. Some commenters here, and Kevin Ding at the OC Register, suggest the Odom-at-the-point experiment was doomed to fail, but Phil knows this and thinks it is the best way to get LO to accept a role off the bench. And his strengths in the post and pushing the pace could be well suited off the bench, even if Odom is not a classic light it up off the bench scorer. But getting him to embrace that lesser role in a contract year could be a challenge.

Tonight, we’ll see if a more focused Odom can show us more in the initiator role, or if it just fuels more discussion of what the next step is for him.

• Can Lowe keep the ball down and in that sandbox they call a ballpark in Philly?

• Defense, I want to see better defense. (You can apply this to the Lakers or Dodgers.)

• Lakers season previews are going up everywhere, including at SI.com.

• If you haven’t seen and read it yet, Sports Guy Bill Simmon’s piece on Elgin Baylor the player is a must. You can’t forget he helped change the game and was maybe the best three ever to lace it up.

Did We Learn Much?

Kurt —  October 8, 2008

That looked and felt like an exhibition game. Guys getting tried out at new positions (Ronnie Brewer at the four?), turnovers everywhere, sloppy defense. This whole game was played at a preseason pace with preseason energy and preseason lineups, so there is only so much you can take away from it. But here are my notes from during the game.

• Get well Phil. And seriously, you don’t need to go to Fresno Thursday. Nobody does. Stay home and rest.

• Bynum not starting, instead we get Fish, Ariza, Kobe, Odom and Gasol. Drew, you getting the message that the coaches are sending? They said it to the media then sat you at the start here. Hustle in practice matters.

• First offensive set the Lakers have Kobe post up on the left low block, and when the double comes he kicks to Pau 15 feet out on the opposite baseline. Open look and good. I liked everything about that (well, except for a risky entry pass from Ariza) and hope to see more of Kobe on the block and Pau drilling midrange jumpers.

• In the limited time he played (which is good, rest the man) Gasol showed a lot more polish and comfort with the face up game than he did last year. After several years of being forced to play back-to-the-basket he is playing like a man unshackled. And loving it.

• Bynum’s second offensive touch was a catch-and-shoot at the free throw line off a pass from Odom, and he nailed it. Just hitting that 15 footer occasionally will be a big boost for Bynum on offense.

• I loved that when Bynum entered the game they played the theme to “Welcome Back Kotter” in the arena.

• Bynum ran the floor well, getting down early on missed shots and got a couple of baskets because he got good position before his opposite number could stop him (including a dunk off a nifty pass from Fisher while sitting down). Also, as Bchamp said in the comments, he just looked confident on offense, including on a dribble drive dunk from the elbow where he got Okur mixed and drove past him. However, he was pretty average on defense.

• One thing the Lakers are doing on defense was overloading the strong side (where the ball was) and zoning off on the back side. They did that last year, hopefully they feel more comfortable doing it as the season wears on and the assignments and recognition become crisper.

• The Jazz shot just 37% in the first half, and I think that had a lot to do with the Lakers length, particularly inside. That is something we could see a lot of this year, the Lakers are a long team.

• Ariza got burned a couple times early trying to defend the athletic CJ Miles on the wing, and there was little rotation or help behind him in the paint. When Bynum came in, there was little change in that. Rotations and help were spotty all night. To be expected in the first game but the coaches had plenty to chew players on.

• Ariza looked good moving without the ball on offense and he just has a good basketball IQ and good anticipation on both ends of the floor. He’s one of those players that just seems to be constantly finding the open space.

• Hey young readers, do you ever go out for a night of drinking with friends then get home and drunk email, sending off missives to your ex you regret the next morning? Well, Gmail now has the answer.

• The pace of the game picked up when the subs got in from both teams. The starters from both sides did a pretty good job of transition defense, particularly in the first half.

• Welcome back Chris Mihm, your first assignment is to cover AK-47, who was getting the ball out on the perimeter with room to drive. That is a tough cover for Mihm in the best of times, and he is going to be in trouble with it unless they gave him a bionic leg during all those surgeries. Nope, apparently not.

• Josh Powell got that same assignment a few minutes later and showed some tenacity taking the big Russian out of his game some. Powell also showed a nice little 15 footer. He set a couple very solid picks on the perimeter. I think we are going to love what he brings, if the Lakers keep him in the 15-minute a night range.

• It felt like the season when with 9 minutes and change in the third quarter — Kobe got the ball out near the top of the key and went jab step, jab step, head fake then up with the three. Missed it, but it looked and felt like the regular season there for a second.

What we are going to see tonight is far from a full picture.

What we will see tonight are the first few brushstrokes of a painting that will take all season to complete. By about 20 games in we can get a pretty good idea of the form the painting will take, but even then we are just one injury away from everything going Jackson Pollock on us.

Still, there are things to look for. Starting with how Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum look together. In case you haven’t seen it, Kevin Ding in the OC Register has Phil Jackson calling the duo “clumsy” together and Tex Winter suggesting Bynum could come off the bench to start if things don’t change. Maybe the most discouraging statement is this one from Drew:

“This is the first year where it’s kind of a little bit boring just because we have to run through the same stuff we already know,” he said (of the practices).

The pairing of Bynum and Pau was something I think will work out well — I even told that to Brent Edwards at Fanhouse for his division preview — but it doesn’t have to work perfectly from day one. Bumps and slow spots are to be expected.

The NBA season is a long, long grind with plenty of time for things to mesh. For the Lakers to be at their best, Bynum and Pau have to be on the floor at the same time. But that doesn’t have to happen the first preseason game in Anaheim, or even in the season opener against Portland. But tonight (with very basic offenses on display as neither team really puts in a detailed game plan) is a good time to start working them out.

The other thing I’ll be watching tonight — how does the defense look. Rust and missed rotations are to be expected right now, but is the team generally getting its head around the new system yet will be something to keep an eye on.

Bottom line — I’m just happy there is a game. Preseason or not. Let’s get it on.

PS. Baylor out of the Clippers front office? He has had that job for 22 years, but because of the owner there I’m not sure we really know how good a GM he was or could have been. Good luck to Dunleavy. You’re going to need it.