Archives For February 2009

NBA: NOV 07 Thunder at Jazz

Records: Lakers 41-9 (1st in the West) Thunder 13-38 (14th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 114.5 (1st in league) Thunder 103.4 (27th in league)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.5 (7th in league) Thunder 109.4 (21st in league)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Thunder Russell Westbrook, Kyle Weaver, Kevin Durant, Nick Collison, Jeff Green

Saving Adam Morrison: While the trade of Clipper killer Vladimir Radmanovic (did you see the game last night?) for Adam Morrison and Shannon Brown was primarily a salary cap move, it also has some possibilities for the Lakers. I haven’t seen much of Morrison this year, so I asked Anthony Macri (coach at IMG in Florida and writer for Basketball Prospectus) for his thoughts on Morrison.

1.) Morrison can make shots. He did not magically forget how to do so in between college and the NBA. I think so much of an individual’s success in the NBA depends very heavily on fit that it is pretty impossible to write a player off after one stop and a few bad years.

2.) The Triangle could be a great fit for Morrison. We will have to see if he “gets it”–if he understands how to operate in that offense. If he does, he could make an impact quickly just by making shots. Because the Triangle is at its best when the ball is shared via the pass and not pounded into the ground, Morrison will not be asked to dribble, but rather to pass, cut, and flash. He can operate out of the high post and from the key spot (the wing).

3.) I’m not sure he has to do much of anything, anyway. This is not the move to put the Lakers over the hump, it is insurance and roster-related (read salary move). It may turn out to be a pleasant surprise for Los Angeles, but if not, there is no real loss for the Lakers.

If there is one guy Adam Morrison should be excited about playing for, it is Phil Jackson. Not this year, because this year he’s going to wear a suit a lot and try to chat up the Laker Girls. But he is the kind of guy Jackson and his system can really help find a niche. Through it all, everyone still thinks Morrison could be a good NBA shooter. What he needs is confidence, the confidence that comes with success in the game. Jackson (and this is what Radmanovic never grasped) asks role players to fit in very tightly-defined roles for the team — but within that role is where you can succeed. The Lakers don’t want Sasha Vujacic as a playmaking PG — that’s not what he does well. But as an energy defender and guy who can spot up the three, he is good. So stick to those things your good at. That is how the Lakers got decent production out of Smush Parker and Kwame Brown — tightly defined roles. Jackson will eventually ask Morrison to do just what he is good at, but that may be something useful.

Quick thoughts: Thoughts on a few things today:

• This got brought up in the comments by Mark Sigal and I mentioned it as key at that other gig — Maybe the most impressive part of the road trip was the start of the Fourth Quarter against Cleveland. The Lakers had battled back in the third quarter and were up five to start the fourth. Phil Jackson did what he does every game and played four bench players with Pau Gasol. The Cavaliers, in a little bit of a panic, played LeBron James, Mo Williams and their best lineup. It didn’t matter, the Lakers pulled away — stretching the lead to 10 and holding it there until halfway through the quarter when the starters returned. The Lakers bench was better than the Cavaliers starters, because they had a plan and stuck with their system even under pressure. Last season’s Lakers did not always do that.

• Derek Fisher has a new Web site up that is worth checking out.

• About Jamie being eliminated from Top Chef, it took me a few days to get over it, but she screwed up and had it coming. Forced out of her comfort zone, she floundered. What can be frustrating about that show is to watch someone like Leah coast through. She is not going to win, better chefs than her have been eliminated, but because she plays it safe she never gets in too much trouble. She doesn’t win, she just tries not to lose. Jamie had a chance to win it, now it’s just Stephan. Really, if he doesn’t win it that will be a miscarriage of justice.

• My latest idea for improving FB&G: Bacon!

The Thunder Coming In: Oklahoma City has actually been playing pretty well of late, having gone 5-5 in their last 10 games. What’s more, if you watch them, this is no fluke. This is a team that is young, but in a couple of years (with some smart drafts) could be very good.

Leading the way is Kevin Durant, who has been playing All Star level basketball. Let’s let the Daily Thunder take it from there

In December, Durant mounted an impressive stat line: 25.1 points and 7.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 6.5 free throw attempts per game while shooting 47.2 percent from the field and 41.9 percent from behind the arc. Then in January, he showed it was no fluke, notching 27.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 8.7 free throw attempts per game while shooting 49.4 percent from the floor and 39.6 percent from deep.

The Thunder also have been getting solid play the last 10 games from Jeff Green, who is shooting 56.4% eFG% and 47% from three in that span. Also, Russell Westbrook is showing why some of us fell in love with his game at UCLA. How about some David Thorpe on Westbrook:

As I’ve written before, one of the things I love about Westbrook is his willingness to get things done in the paint, usually crashing for offensive rebounds and finishing in transition. But now he’s more comfortable getting inside in other ways.

He’s been using his explosive crossover or hesitation dribble move to get in the paint, where he lowers his hips and drives right through defenders. And sometimes he uses his length and strength to back guys down in the post. In other words, he’s become a nightmare matchup — he’s too quick for shooting guards to stay in front of when he’s matched up with them, and he’s too powerful for point guards to stop.

He’s averaged 18.8 ppg in his last five games, with 5.4 boards and 4.4 assists. He’s No. 5 in PER for all rookies, and No. 1 for guards and for rookies playing 30-plus minutes a game. Imagine what he’ll be like when he improves his outside shooting.

Keys To The Game: It sounds like a broken record, but here goes — they key to this game is in the paint, and the Lakers should pound the ball there. Nobody on the Thunder can stop Gasol or Odom on the block, the Lakers need to establish that and other things will open up. Also, to counter their size issues, the Thunder are willing to front the post — the Lakers have struggled with this when they don’t rotate the ball quickly. If there is fronting the ball has to be reversed to the weak side, and things will open up.

It’s an interesting case because while the Thunder are smaller along the front line (6-9 is the tallest the starters go) they are a good team on the boards, at both ends. They scrap. Giving up offensive boards is one of he flaws for the Lakers (they are tied for 17th in the league). The Lakers need to be focused, particularly on the defensive glass, not to give up the easy second chance points.

Easy baskets are the way the Thunder can hang in this, which brings us to transition defense. The Thunder do not play at a fast pace but Westbrook and Watson are good in transition, and Durant can close in the open court. The Lakers simply have to get back and take this away.

If the Lakers can take away transition, what they will find is a young team that wants to “out athlete” you in the half court, sort of 90s isolation basketball not a lot of consistent team play. Force them to execute in the half court, play good help defense and you can stymie this team.

However, the Lakers, particularly the bench, should be able to get points in transition and run on the Thunder.

Personally, I want to see the Lakers crush this team because I’m not over the Seattle thing yet.

Where you can watch: Back home, it’s a 7:30 start out West on Fox Sports and online at your favorite locations.

Savoring Wins

Kurt —  February 9, 2009

Cavalers vs. Lakers
There is nothing that I can say that all of you didn’t say better. So, here are a few highlights from the comments yesterday:

Drrayeye

NBA Mythology in Disarray

I believe that fans and pundits alike always subscribe to a mythical NBA scenario. In this most recent mythology, leading up to the most recent Laker road trip, the Lakers were to lose at least 2 games away–splitting home and home victories with Cleveland and Boston–and then try to develop or prove their toughness for an ultimate East/West showdown in the playoffs.

Boston would ultimately become the East coast champions, Labron would become the NBA MVP as a consolation prize, and the NBA championship would hinge on who got home court advantage (probably the Leprechauns).

When Bynum went down in game #1, the Lakers lost their chance to prove toughness through seasonal play-and their chance at home court advantage. Their only chance would be through an unlikely “Gasol style” Hail Mary trade. Many Laker fans who bought into this mythology actually gave up on the Lakers until next year.

The Laker victories on the road, under extreme circumstances, successively at Boston and Cleveland have shaken the mythologists to the core. How could the Lakers be soft when Lamar pats KG on the butt and makes two free throws and the Lakers squeak out a victory? How can Lebron be MVP when he has a stinker of a game at home while a sick Kobe makes an impossible “lights out” rainmker in his face? If the season is over without Andrew, how come the Lakers just went 6-0 on a road trip without him? Could reality be a bit more complex than the mythologists thought?

Reality tells us that the Thunder could come into Staples on Tuesday and beat the Lakers by 30. Reality tells us that that a resurgent Jazz, Suns, Trailblazers, ??? could take out the #1 Lakers in the first round of the Western playoffs.

Reality tells us that Duncan, Wade, Howard, or some other star may yet emerge as the top MVP candidate–as he leads his team to and through the playoffs.

Reality tells us that teams like Miami, Atlanta, or even Larry’s Bobcats might somehow not only make it into the playoffs, but knock out the Leps and the Crabs in the process.

The mythologists are scratching their heads, trying to decide whether or not to invent a new mythology.

I subscribe to reality. I watch the games, speculate on trades, and appreciate Laker wins on a daily basis–never knowing for sure what will happen next.

You know what? The mythologists don’t either.

kwame a.

How about Phil freaking Jackson. There’s always some sob story that gets a heavy push for coach of the year because he took a non-playoff team and made them a 6 seed, but what Phil has done, especially with guys like LO, Sasha, Luke, Jordan, is the essence of coaching. Finding roles for players and making them learn to carry out their responsibilities is the hardest thing for a coach to do, and Phil has been the best at that. When it is all said and done, his second tour with the Lakers will define Phil Jackson’s legacy. He is dispelling any myth (can’t win without talent already there, can’t coach young players) and is having fun.

kwame a.

Why the need to feed K.Ding the stuff about Vlad wearing Vans to practice? No need to throw dirt on Vlad, I just don’t think there’s much to gain from that, and he did a lot of stuff for local charities, just let the guy leave.

Darius

I’m really loving the way the team is playing right now. They’re playing with a mental edge that keeps them in every game (epitomized by the 11-0 run after the Cavs had taken that 12 point lead), they’re executing the offense, and turning up the defensive pressure in crucial parts of the game where stops are most important. I can’t say that this is the best we’ve played all year (we are 41-9 so there have been other parts of the season where we’ve looked extremely strong), but I can say that as we get deeper into the season it’s very promising that we’re still playing very well and that we seem to be finding our stride against the better teams in the league. It’s also very encouraging that while Andrew is out injured, that other players (like LO) have stepped up their game(s) and proven to be the capable players that we all thought they were.


Zephid

What does Lamar Odom mean to the Lakers? To me, this game was the answer to that question. No, it wasn’t the gaudy stats, with his 28 points on 13-19 shooting, with 17 rebounds and a block. It was all the little things that he can do that make him special.

Yes, Lamar does not have nearly the statistical consistency of Gasol, the killer instinct of Kobe, the professionalism of Fish, the size of Bynum, or the energy of Ariza. But, there is one thing that Lamar does that no one else on this team can do: Be a vocal glue guy during the game.

What does this mean? We’ve all heard of vocal leaders, and vocal supporters, but a vocal glue guy? The difference is, while vocal leaders are meant to push the team in a certain direction, and vocal supporters are meant to pump up teammates, a vocal glue guy is someone who holds the team together in a game, giving us a sense of unity and solidarity.

During ABC telecasts, they always have a “WIRED” section, where they attach a mic to a player and randomly play snippets of audio from various times during the game. When the Lakers are on ABC, Lamar is always the guy to wear the mic. During today’s game, there were three snippets in particular that I found indispensable:

1.) During pre-game, right before the game starts, the team makes a circle with Lamar standing in the middle, where Lamar orates a pseudo-sermon (one that particularly stands out is, “I know we all love road kill, but now it’s time for us to get some home cookin’,” referring to the Lakers being an excellent road team and now coming home to defend their home court). Most of the time, I can’t make out what Lamar says (maybe I’m too much of a hick), but is there any other Laker who would do that? My answer is no.

2.) During the game, Lamar was constantly talking to his guards. “I got you, baby. I got you, baby,” he said, in reference to being behind a guard ready to slide over and help in case of penetration. Given Bynum, Gasol, and Powell’s reserved demeanors, I can’t imagine any of them doing this quite as well as Lamar. This type of communication, while somewhat mundane, makes our defense work, and Lamar is probably the best at it.

3.) On several putbacks or dunks, Lamar roars at the end of them. There were at least three dunks today when after Lamar finished, he let out a primal scream as he turned to run back up the floor. I doubt we’ll ever see Kobe show that much emotion, and Gasol only screams when he thinks he got fouled. This energy, this passion, makes Lamar singular on this team.

Most nights (excluding tonight) many of us are busy criticizing Lamar for his shortcomings, whether it be mental concentration, will-power, or drive to succeed. Most Lamar supporters counter with his versatility, his ability to defend 4 out of 5 positions, ball-handling, rebounding, cutting, and now improved jump shot. However, I think that Lamar’s true value lies in his holding this team together. He may not get the All-Star attention like Gasol or Bynum, and he may not be the face of the team like Kobe, but I contend that he may be more important than all of them, for we can win as a group of talented individuals without Lamar, but with Lamar, we become a team.

Olympics Day 16 - Basketball
Lakers: 40-9 (1st in West), Cleveland 39-9 (1st in East)
Offensive Rating: Lakers: 114.5 (1st in league), Cleveland: 113.2 (3rd in league)
Defensive Rating: Lakers: 105.7 (7th in league), Cleveland: 101.6 (2nd in league)
Projected Lineups: Lakers Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Cavaliers Mo Williams, Wally Szczerbiak, Lebron, Ben Wallace, Zydrunas Ilgauskas

Episode VI: Return of the Odom: Bill Bridges thinks we have have seen the start of a different Lamar Odom:

In the 1984 finals, his team was bullied, his power forward literally clotheslined. The Lakers were Intimidated and then finally beaten by the Boston Celtics, a team the Lakers had never beaten since their move out west.

Fast forward a year. Pat Riley heard a year of talk about how his team was soft, good enough for show time but not tough enough to win. It was then. prior to the rematch that he told his team what his father had told him. “Just remember what I always taught you. Somewhere, someplace, sometime, you’re going to have to plant your feet, make a stand and kick some ass. And when that time comes, you do it.”

It was the spirit of Lee Riley that Lamar Odom channeled on February 5th 2008. “Sometimes you’ve just got to make a stand. Tonight, we made a stand.”

If history repeats itself it must do so on 24 year cycles. The finesse team from Los Angeles goes into Boston and kicked sand into the bully’s face. As it was in 1985, so it shall be in 2009.

“Cathartic? I don’t know what cathartic means. I didn’t go to college” Kobe Bryant may not know what cathartic means but Lamar Odom embodied it.

We might have witnessed the transformation of LO. For so long he has tantalized us with a unique combination of size, speed, and skills. Always disappointing instead with inconsistency and lack of focus and fortitude. Can a moment be so cathartic for an individual? Can transformation happen in an instant?

Stephen Jay Gould amended Darwin by showing that evolution happens in an instant (geologically speaking). Punctuated Equilibrium rather than a gradual crawl. Evolution is Revolution.

What are the traits keeping LO back from greatness. Not skills. Not size. Not athleticism. But focus, determination, concentration, will. Maybe he finally got it. Finally realized he has to let go to move forward. Phil started the process by having LO come off the bench for the first time in his life. Humility shatters the illusions of the ego that prevent growth. By letting go, maybe LO now can play in the moment. Present, focused, determined.

“Basketball is a humiliating sport, it can humble you right in the middle of the game,” Odom said. “But tonight I just left all that behind.”

Character is shaped not by success but reaction to failure. Evolution only occurs change in environmental stress favours a new variant of the species. Without stress no growth. Andrew Bynum’s injury, especially due to the deja vu nature, created cruel and violent stress. But also an opportunity for growth and evolution. How this team, on this trip, reprising the character of 1985 has responded to this stress been gratifying to us all. How LO, in this game matched the passion of KG, looked the bullies in the eye and, in the end, won the game, might be the true blessing arising from the misfortune in Memphis.

We sensed the change even during the game. Any other game, you would despair at seeing LO at the line with one free throw to tie and two the win. But for the first time since he became a Laker, somehow I knew he would sink both. And he did.

The last week in Lakers Land: From kwame a.:

Sat, Jan. 31: Humming along on the roadie, Drew goes down and is left screaming in pain. Can’t help but think the worst, even while drinking at a wedding reception, can’t stop thinking about Drew being out for the year.

Sun, Feb. 1: Super Bowl Sunday is a subdued affair, waiting for the word on Drew, only to hear the damn doctor couldn’t look at the MRI. Even while enjoying some delicious fat tire ale, and watching a great football game, I’m nervous as hell bad news is looming.

Mon, Feb. 2: Kobe comes out firing early at MSG and you knew he was in that mode. After a virtuoso performance, he ends up with 61, which tempers the earlier news that Drew is out for 8-12 weeks.

Tue, Feb. 3: A day to re-think just how amazing Kobe really is, the fact he has done it for a decade straight, all with the same cold-blooded determination. We are all lucky to be able to have seen his career.

Wed, Feb. 4: The team buckles down in the 4th after some rag-tag play, and led by Pau and Kobe beat the Raptors, 4-0 on the trip, but Gasol goes 45 minutes, how in the hell do we win in Boston tomorrow without AB?!?

Thurs, Feb. 5: Against all odds, and sometimes 3 zebras, the Lakers prevail in OT, showing the requisite “machismo” the mainstream media has lusted for all year. Fans and players know its only a regular season game, but the win felt like it could have important psychological ramifications for the team going forward.

Fri, Feb. 6: Talking heads and typing bloggers argue and debate the BOS/LA classic, arguing over whether the refs were at fault for the C’s loss, what the win meant for the Lakers and what the loss meant for the C’s. Such reaction to a regular season game is rare, even forcing Kurt to reaffirm FBG’s commitment to civil dialogue.

Sat, Feb. 7: While thinking this would be a slow day, I get a text message that we made a trade. I immediately doubt it, but then, there it, confirmed on FBG, Vlad for Morrison and Shanny.

For many teams this type of week would be the most memorable in franchise history. For the Lakers, it’s just another week. With a chance to break the Cavs perfect home record, I can’t wait to see what this next week brings.

Cleveland Coming In: Everyone talks about LeBron and what Mo Williams has brought to the table, but the reason Cleveland is one of the top teams in the NBA is defense.

They are second overall in defensive efficiency (lowest PPG because they play at a slow pace). They do it by limiting shooting percentages with solid perimeter defense and some long arms and big bodies in the paint that can block and alter shots.

Part of that is Ilgauskas, he is quietly the key to this team. They need his scoring as a big, his presence and length inside. With him in the lineup they score fore more points a game. With him they are 28-4, without him 11-5.

Last Time They Met: The Lakers handed the Cavs their worst start of the season back in January. We can take nothing much from that game, the Cavs were without Big Z. and Delonte West. As stated above, with Z in the lineup they are a different team.

Keys to the Game: One of the things that has been a problem for the Lakers this season is teams with a center who can step out and hit the jumper, pulling the help defender away from the basket. That is a basic tenent of the Cavs offense — Big Z lives in the corner as a spot-up guy on the three. The Lakers are going to have to defend the P&R without a simple backstop, they need to be smart about it.

On the other end, we seem to always talk about getting Gasol involved, and the Lakers need to because he is hot — in the last four games he is shooting 69.4%, scoring 27 per and adding 13 boards.

In the last meeting Kobe did a good job denying LeBron and making him work for his points. I expect to see that again, the goal is to force the other Cavs to beat you, the problem is that they can in this meeting far better than they did in the last meeting

Kobe Bryant has to play with his team, he cannot get sucked into a one-on-one deal with LeBron. It’s one thing to do that against the Knicks (and shooting 60% while doing it) but in this game it is not a winning strategy.

Where to watch: 12:30 on ABC, after a pretty interesting Spurc/Celtics game.

Lakers Trade Vladimir Radmanovic

Kurt —  February 7, 2009

Indiana Hoosiers v Gonzaga Bulldogs
In a move that is a salary dump, the Lakers have moved Vladimir Radmanovic to Charlotte. Here is the official announcement:

The Los Angeles Lakers have acquired forward Adam Morrison and guard Shannon Brown from the Charlotte Bobcats in exchange for Vladimir Radmanovic, it was announced today.

Morrison, currently in his 3rd NBA season out of Gonzaga, was selected third overall by the Bobcats in the 2006 NBA Draft after earning unanimous First Team All-America honors and garnering multiple National Player of the Year awards his senior year. Named to the All-Rookie Second Team following the 2006-07 season, Morrison appeared in 78 games as rookie including 23 starts, averaging 11.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 2.1 assists in 29.8 minutes while earning T-Mobile Rookie of the Month honors for November 2006.

Missing the entire 2007-08 season after suffering a torn ACL in his left knee in an October 20 preseason game against the Lakers, Morrison has played in 44 games this season including five starts, averaging 4.5 points and 1.6 rebounds in 15.2 minutes with a high-game of 16 points November 11 vs. Denver.

Morrison is due the remainder of $4,159,200 this year and then $5,257,228 for next season. After that, the Lakers would have to pick up his option, something that is unlikely with Bynum’s new deal, plus potential deals for Ariza and Odom to be signed this offseason. Little used guard Brown has a one year deal for less than $800,000.

Radmanovic was due $6.5 million this year and next, and with the player option his deal went one year longer. Because the Lakers are in the luxury tax, this will save the team about $13 million.
This will not impact the Lakers on the floor, except during garbage time. Radmanovic could not crack the Lakers rotation, and he is an infinitely better player than Morrison. So far this season Morrison has a true shooting percentage of 45.2% (Radman is 60.4%), is shooting 33.7% from three (44.1%) and has a PER of 6 (11.8). Plus, at least by reputation, he is a considerably worse defender than Radmanovic.

As for Brown, well, if he couldn’t get off the bench behind Felton….

UPDATE: The official comments from Mitch:

“As the season wore on, it looked like Phil (Jackson) had settled into starting Luke (Walton) and bringing Trevor (Ariza) off the bench, and we are very pleased with both players. Vladi (Radmanovic) started the season (at small forward) and I thought he played well, but here it is early February and it looked like he wasn’t going to play much. You can tell by just watching and talking to Vladi that he did want to play, and he didn’t come here just to sit on the bench and collect a paycheck. So, part of the decision was to accommodate a player that wanted to play.

From our point of view we feel we pick up two players that are still young developing players (is valuable). As you know, Adam (Morrison) was their No. 3 pick in the NBA Draft and had an ACL injury against us last year. That injury takes more than a year (to recover from), so we think he would benefit from a situation that has less pressure, and our staff here in terms of our people downstairs medically and just a stable environment where he could progress and get back to where he was in college. Shannon Brown is a developing player as well – you may recall that he played really well against us in L.A. last week. So we picked up two players that have upside. If there was a third reason, we picked up some flexibility down the road with a shortened commitment versus Vladi’s (financial) commitment.”

# When asked if the Lakers were done on the trade front before the February 19 deadline, Kupchak responded in turn: “I wouldn’t say that I’m making a lot of calls. We have the best record in the league right now, we just had a great road trip and hopefully we can end it really strong tomorrow. The news on Andrew (Bynum) was not good, but it looks like he’ll have a better chance to return this year than he did last year, so I’m not sure we want to address anything more than continuing to win as many games as possible and hope to get Andrew back.
# More pointedly: “I don’t think there’s a deal out there that can make this a better team than the one we have or the one we potentially have.”

We’ve spent a lot of time today talking about psychology, the Celtics, confidence, etc. Before that mood passes, here is a second round of scattered thoughts on point. Warning: there might be nothing less worth reading than someone playing pop psychologist in the world of sports.

At the end of the Christmas Lakers-Celtics game, a close friend called and, after appropriate gushing, prophesied an extended rough patch for the Celtics. I rejected the notion out of hand – they had just won 19 games in a row, were the reigning champions, had handily defeated LA in the finals the year before – what was one regular season loss to them? Nevertheless, my visionary friend firmly pressed on: “you don’t understand the psychological impact of that loss and the mental fragility of Boston.” The Celtics lost six of their next eight games, most totally unexplainable: a self destructing Golden State, Portland with no Roy, New York, Charlotte, at home to an injured Houston, and a total thumping from the Cavs. Prophecy fulfilled. This made me think more about the hand of psychology in sports.

Every team has a unique identity, earned through months and years of successes and failures; victories and losses; scandals and fights; heroism and selflessness. This identity reflects the team’s psychology more than its physical characteristics. A team is “soft” or “steely” or “united” or “disinterested,” but they are always something.

The current Celtics team has perhaps the most identifiable identity in recent memory. The typical watch word is “intensity,” but I believe this confuses an effect with its cause. Yes, the Celtics are perhaps the most intense team in recent memory, but this trait springs from a more fundamental characteristic – one that I think captures their psychological identity: insecurity. Now, at first blush that sounds like a petty jab, but when properly understood I think it also serves to compliment our rival. Insecurity, like most primal traits, manifests itself in several ways. On the positive end, it fuels hunger, intensity, work ethic, common purpose, a chip on the shoulder – all to prove naysayers wrong. On the flip side, it fuels self doubt, wild swings in confidence, and a constant need to show others up. Boston is all of these things. They pile on the trash talk; they are hungry, devoted, on a mission; they are white hot with confidence one minute, and full of strange doubt the next; they run off huge win streaks, but then are capable of immediately falling apart; they are, in a word, the team embodiment of insecurity.

For such a successful team, whence this strange insecurity? I believe it springs from the players’ and team’s roots with failure. First Garnett, the spiritual leader of the team and the prototype for insecure athletes. From off the court beginnings to his decade of failed championship questing in Minnesota, KG lived in the shadow of failure for a long time – always labeled as that star who couldn’t get out of the first round, and always afraid of the big shot. We all know people like him – the alpha male who has to be in charge, picks on the little guy, works like a demon, seems haunted by lingering self doubt, and is wildly successful.

For much of the rest of the team, I think the 2007 season sets the stage – the year before the championship. This was probably rock bottom for the Celtics as a franchise. After years of struggling to get over the hump in the east and going through various phases of rebuilding, the team saw salvation in Oden and Durant and (like a few others) shamefully tanked. We all remember the infamous Ryan Gomes quote after being withheld from key parts of a close game:

“I probably (would have played), but since we were in the hunt for a high draft pick, of course things are different,” Gomes said. “I understand that. Hopefully things get better. Now that we clinched at least having the second-most balls in the lottery, the last three games we’ll see what happens. We’ll see if we can go out and finish some games.”

Or this article, titled “Tankology,” from Boston.com, where the author breaks down the evidence, including the team’s shutting down “injured” stars, playing odd lineup combinations during critical parts of games, limiting the best players minutes, etc. The author concludes:

Look, I don’t think the players were trying to lose any of these games intentionally. I do, however, think they weren’t properly motivated to give their best efforts as a team. I also think that Doc intentionally did not make his best effort coaching the team in late, close situations, under the guise of “I wanted to see what the guys would do” or “I thought we had a favorable matchup and didn’t want a timeout to ruin it” even though he had to know the players on the floor would not pull off what he supposedly wanted to see them do.”

At the same time, Jeff at Celtics blog was unleashing a steady stream of tongue in cheek articles monitoring the dive in the standings: “Tanks for the Memories,” “Tank Job Complete,” and “Welcome to Tank Week.” Jeff sums up his feelings when commenting on another’s tanking analysis: “the general feeling that he had (and that I share) is that it is great that we got the 2nd worst record, but we can’t help but feel a little icky about how it all happened.” Simmons chimed in with “From Celtic Pride to Celtic Shame,” and pushed for retooling the lottery system to punish would be tankers.

Several key members of the current Celtics were born on that team: Rondo, Perkins, Powe, Tony Allen. Their first taste of the league was on a team that seemed to break the one cardinal rule in sports: no matter what else you do, when on the court you play to win. They lost 18 games in a row, mostly because they were bad, but also because Doc and Ainge wanted Durant and Oden at any cost. They were the laughing stock of the league and Exhibit A for what was wrong with the league’s draft system. Deep insecurity was born.

When the lottery came and Boston’s plan failed (karma?), all seemed lost for a while. Pierce wanted out unless something dramatic happened. Ainge made a move for Garnett, but he initially refused to join the struggling franchise. He relented only when Allen was added and Kobe made it clear he wanted out of LA. With Garnett and Allen in the fold, a few critical veterans came for cheap (Posey, Allen, Brown, Cassell), filling out the holes.

This is when and how the current Celtics team was born – on the heels of embarrassment and failure. The players and team were full of hunger and intensity, but also faced lingering self doubt. Rondo and Perkins and Powe were easy converts to Garnett’s mantra of work and intensity, but they also shared his ghosts, even if they stemmed from different roots. We see both sides of that insecurity now, with the team exhibiting unparalleled work ethic, intensity, and confidence, but also strange periods of implosion. The bullyish side of the coin leads even rookie point guards like DJ Augustin (who should keep their mouths shut) to say things like: “(The Celtics) come in and intimidate you and try to punk you. But if you don’t back down from them, they kind of fold.” As Wojnarowski noted in his column last month, the Celtics’ antics have stirred up an unusual amount of disrespect from the rest of the league.

Now, let’s tie this back to the Lakers. What is the psychological identity of this Laker team? Does it have one?

This team is clearly distinguishable from the Shaq-Kobe-Phil teams. Those teams, despite the presence of all sacrificing role players like Fish, Fox, and Horry, seemed to carry the primal trait of self love. Shaq and Kobe both wanted to win, but they wanted to win in a way such that they could be The Man. They juggled an intense desire for team success with grand personal ambitions – mvp awards, legacies, media favor, etc. On the positive side, this resulted in steely self confidence down the stretch of key games (that rubbed off on others) and unthinkable on court accomplishments. On the negative side, it resulted in constant bickering, public posturing, division, and ultimately a team blown up well before its time. This is not who the Lakers are now.

Are we, perhaps, more like the Spurs psychologically? Driven by Duncan and Pop, those teams have always been characterized fundamentally by calmness and humility – which translates to being steady, united, moderate, unflappable, and enduring; but also creates complacency (remember that they always start slow and are counted out, only to pull it together at the end). There are some similarities, but the Lakers are still very different.

The truth is I don’t know if this Laker team has found its identity yet. Two things give me hope that the identity is grounded on something that is positive and will endure. First, in contrast with the Celtics, this team was not thrown together patchwork on the heels of disaster. By and large, Mitch added one piece at a time through the draft and modest trades. Gasol is the exception, but for the most part the team has grown step by step together. The core and system have been in place for years. Second, Kobe, Fisher, and Jackson present a united front of leadership and they emanate focus, professionalism, and intense competitiveness. But there’s also a casualness to the team that doesn’t fit with that – Odom, Radmanovic, Walton, Bynum. While Kobe has a killer instinct, I don’t know if the team does. While Fisher is a relentless competitor, the team as a whole isn’t all the way there.

Surely, they are developing, and in the right direction, but until we/they figure out who they are deep down, I sense we’ll always be left a bit unsure of what to expect on any given night. With the Shaq-Kobe teams, we were often frustrated by the drama, but knew that come playoff time the competitiveness and confidence would carry through. I think wins like we saw last night, or on Christmas, or against Cleveland reveal that this team is slowly adopting Kobe and Fisher’s character and developing a mental edge that harmonizes with its physical talents. This will result in an identity based on simple confidence. To me, this development is the last step before we overcome all. When Pau, Drew, Odom, Farmar, Ariza, etc. believe in themselves and their ability to win like Kobe and Fish do then we’ll see the titles roll in.

After last night, I believe we are well on our way.

–Reed

(PS, make sure to read Dex’s brilliant comment).

Basking in the Sweet Afterglow

Kurt —  February 6, 2009

Boston Celtics v Los Angeles LakersI’ve said before that I don’t think there is much if any carry over from regular season games to the playoffs.

Man, I hope I’m wrong.

Last night provided not only another thrilling game, not only more proof that these two teams are pretty evenly matched, but also even more hope that these Lakers are evolving into a champion. A Lakers team with a ton of excuses to lose rejected them all and found a way to win. Reed laid out a very good argument as to why I am wrong an this game and that kind of win will matter.

While basking in the sweet afterglow of victory, I will kindly disagree with Kurt’s statement regarding the meaning of the game and join with Lazenby.

Psychology does matter in sports. A great deal. The mystery is that, because we are disconnected from the players, we can’t accurately identify when an influential swing in psyche has occurred or why. But the swings do occur and they do affect the outcome of games on the court.

Why did the Lakers get blown away in game 6 of the finals? Were they suddenly less talented than the team that blitzed the West or that hung tight with Boston the first 3 games? No – it was pure psychology. Boston broke their spirit in the game 4 comeback and that was that.

Why did LA destroy Toronto last January on the day they announced the Gasol trade – with no Drew and almost too few players to suit up? Psychology.

Why did Dallas lose 3 games in a row to an inferior Heat team (besides the refs…)? The psychological burden of being up big in game 3 and blowing the win crushed them.

Why do Horry and Fisher consistently make clutch shots while more talented players (Christie, Malone, Peja, Nick Anderson, Bryon Russell) shrink? Psychology.

Why did the Celtics lose 7 games immediately after winning 19 in a row this year? Did they sustain an injury? No – it was the psychological swing of falling from the top of the world to being beaten by bitter rivals on the public stage.

Now, the hand of psychology can only be accurately identified in hindsight, not predicted. LA might come out of this win overconfident and complacent, or confident and focused, or the same as before; Boston might get fired up and go on another win streak, or sustain another temporary fall, or neither. But, whatever happens, I think the psychological fallout of this game will be a factor. The players, coaches, even fans were heavy with desire, focus, and emotion. The result may not technically matter come May or June, but it will practically matter a great deal then – indeed this win might be a source of critical resolve in some critical future playoff test, when the players dig deep and realize they have faced adversity before and conquered. Odom may calmly approach key free throws, rather than nervously smile; Pau may embrace a crunch time post up, rather than expectantly look for Kobe.

A win is a win, but sometimes it is more. Tonight seemed to be one of those nights. LA will come out of this stronger and Boston weaker. I expect a swing of psyche for both.

I hope he is right.

Preview & Chat: The Evil Empire

Kurt —  February 5, 2009
Pau Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers

Records: Lakers 39-9 (1st in the West) Celtics 41-9 (1st in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 114.6 (1st in league) Celtics 110.9 (5th in league)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.4 (7th in league) Celtics 100.2 (1st in league)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Celtics Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins

What does it really mean: I think a lot of debate on this site and others about this (and the Christmas) Lakers v. Celtics game comes down to this:

How much does it matter come June?

Certainly the win has importance in the tight home-court race (more on that in a minute). But what about psychologically? There are some Lakers fans who think the team needs these wins to gain confidence they can do it when it matters. Myself and others think that this game has virtually no impact on the Lakers (or anyone elses) psyche come the Finals.

I just don’t think the Lakers will put that much into a loss. They are playing their fifth game in seven days, second night of a back-to-back, without their star center. Win or lose, if these two teams meet in the Finals things will look different. (Maybe the Celts will have a player with a star tattooed on his head.) I think for professionals, this game may mean more than last night, but it does not mean as much as the first round of the playoffs.

We fans don’t like to see it that way, by the way, we tend to take the wins and losses harder. But we don’t have to wake up in the morning and start preparing for Cleveland.

Still, far smarter people than myself (say Roland Lazenby) seem to fall on the other side of the fence:

Yes, they beat the Celtics in Los Angeles on Christmas day. That has helped Jackson’s young players in dealing with their profound embarrassments of the 2008 championship series against Boston.
But those bad memories linger and will continue to do so.

Here’s the hard part: The Lakers will never put that series behind them unless they win the championship series this year. It would help if they claimed that title with a win over the Celtics. That’s all getting way ahead of the task at hand, of course.

Before they win another title, the Lakers have to emerge from a challenging field in the Western Conference.

Still, that doesn’t set aside the psychology of all this.

Home court will matter, and a new Celtics blog called Celtics Hub takes a detailed look at the remaining schedules of the Lakers, Celtics and Cavaliers. They see a tight race between the Celtics and Cavs, which is interesting only because the Lakers play fewer good teams. Check out the data and reach your own conclusions.

Keys To The Game: The Kobe & Pau show the last couple of nights has been impressive — the Lakers two biggest players steppeed up when the team needed tnem most. But it will take more than that tonight.

Remember back to the Lakers being up 24 points in a Finals game last year? Remember Christmas? The Lakers did that by ball and player movement. The Celtics try to keep the triangle on one side of the floor, not allow the ball reversals and quick cuts that make the offense hum. When the Lakers have fought through that they have exposed KG for his wanderlust on defense. Last June they just didn’t do it consistently, but tonight they get another chance.

On defense, the Lakers did a great job on Christmas with Kobe on Rondo, sagging off and helping while turning the PG into a jumpshooter. That is key — when he gets in the lane he is a threat to pass and score, but from 18 feet out you let him shoot all he wants. The Lakers need to play the screen and roll well with Pierce (they like to run a double-screen, one on each side of him from each big, so he can choose how to attack, that could be a problem).

The guys on the Lakers bench are really going to have to bring it.

Where you can watch: 5 p.m. on TNT. The good news about that is for a change the Lakers are part of the first game of the double header, so we’ll get to see the entire first quarter.

Preview & Chat: The Toronto Raptors

Kurt —  February 4, 2009

Records: Lakers 38-9 (1st in the West) Raptors 19-30 (14th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 114.4 (1st in league) Raptors 107.0 (16th in league)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.2 (6th in league) Raptors 109.7 (25th in league)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Raptors Jose Calderon, Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon, Andrea Bargnani, Chris Bosh

Bynum Injury Redux: For more info, check out the good brothers over at the Los Angeles Times who talked to ESPN’s in-house doctor about the knee injury.

I think The Dude Abides did the best job I read of explaining how this season is very different from last season:

The difference between Andrew’s injury last season and his injury this year is that this year there is certainty regarding the specific nature of the injury. Last year, he subluxated his patella (momentary dislocation of the kneecap but then it popped back in). I’ve had the same type of injury two or three times, and each time I was back at full strength after one month. However, Andrew’s subluxation was so violent that he also suffered a severe bone bruise, an injury that can take a long time to heal. I once bruised a bone in my foot, and I wasn’t back on the court until two months later.

So, the uncertainty regarding the bone bruise was one factor last year regarding whether or not to have surgery. When it got to mid-May (four months post-injury), and he couldn’t make that final step in rehab, they decided to have his NY doctor take a look. He recommended surgery, and one of the important actions he took in surgery was to smooth the edge of the kneecap, which apparently was rendered a little bit jagged from the subluxation.

In contrast, the partial tear of the MCL is a much more common injury with a straightforward and certain rehab process. No surgery necessary, just strengthening the muscles around Andrew’s knee and increasing the range of motion. I would not be surprised to see him in a game by April 1st.

Thoughts and links: Just a lot of stuff I’ve wanted to get to.

• Great ideas here about upgrading All Star weekend. Maybe my favorite — have the NDBL All-Stars play the NBA Rookie Team. Those “minor leaguers” would have a huge chip on their shoulder and make a real game of it.

• One day after a published interview where I say that LeBron is the MVP right now, I will also agree with the commenters yesterday that said Kobe has injected himself into that conversation now.

Tim Duncan or Shaq? Who is the best big man of his generation?

• Sad to see Jameer Nelson go down, maybe for the season. That guy had clearly put in the work to bring his game up the next level, and he was the second most important player to the Magic. Hope it’s a quick recovery.

• I can’t believe I’m saying this regarding a fictional character, but that Jack In The Box Super Bowl commercial was just disturbing and wrong.

This made me laugh harder than anything has in a while. (Note, lots of cussing, if that offends you.)

The Raptors Coming In: Before the season, there was a question about just how good the Raptors would be, but nobody expected them to be this bad. To help us out, I asked a couple questions of Ryan over at Hoops Addict.

1. Obviously, this year has been a disaster compared to expectations, what went awry?

I think what went wrong is the injury bug struck early and often for Toronto. Heading into the season anyone associated with the team would point to Chris Bosh, Jermaine O’Neal and Jose Calderon as being the three main components to this team. Needless to say, when anyone team loses one of their three main parts they go through a rough stretch. For Toronto this was compounded due to the fact the team was trying to work O’Neal into the mix with new teammates but with him missing nearly one third of the season this has been an impossible task to accomplish.

That’s the easy, surface answer.

If you dig a little deeper you realize that Bryan Colangelo has always rolled the dice but in the past his gambles have paid off. He took a big gamble on his European experiment and when Jorge Garbajosa and Anthony Parker worked out he was adored by the local media and Raptors fans across Canada. This year it kind of fizzled as he placed faith in Calderon being a starter but the Spaniard showed he can’t shoulder starters minutes, Parker’s showing signs of age and his two summer signings – Will Solomon and Roko Ukic – have failed to earn the minutes at backup point guard which have forced Jay Triano to play Parker as the teams backup point guard. He also rolled the dice on O’Neal being able to regain his form and that clearly hasn’t happened.

2. How could the ship be righted long term?

Colangelo needs to roll the dice once again and shake things up… by not making a trade.

Right now the team is only four games out of the playoffs, yet it’s the Eastern Conference we’re talking about so it’s deceiving. While we’re within striking distance of Milwaukee, we’ve lost two heartbreakers within the past month to that team which will more than likely cost us our chance of leapfrogging them in the standings. In fact, if you switch those two losses alone then we’re able to move ahead of Milwaukee and we’re currently sitting in the eighth spot.

What’s sure to drive Colangelo crazy is the knowledge that we had the toughest start to the season of any team in the NBA and our schedule in March and April has us only playing six games with teams that currently have winning records. That means if we win against teams with records under .500 than we could finish the season on a 16-6 run which would have us in the playoffs. Throw into the mix some wins against Houston (who we’ve already beaten), Dallas (who we’ve always played well against) and another playoff team and we could be looking at a better record than last season. None of these games are unwinnable as Toronto has already beaten Orlando this season. There has to be part of Colangelo that wants to deal Jermaine O’Neal to get some help at the wing and bolster our chances of making the playoffs while still improving on last years record.

While that is all fine and good, how does that help us long term? I think this franchise needs to look at what it needs to do to ensure we can re-sign Chris Bosh in the summer of 2010. Personally, I think winning does a long way but with O’Neal’s expiring deal worth nearly $24 that summer it looks to serve as the ticket to being able to afford Bosh while inking another All-Star caliber player to run alongside Bosh and Calderon.

After the team has dealt with trying to add O’Neal into the rotation and switching coaches midseason, is trying to add another player like Shawn Marion into the mix the answer? I don’t think so. If anything, now is the time to hold firm and let some of the pieces gel and get healthy.

Keys To The Game: Kobe drops 61 in the Garden, now he goes to face the Raptors. Has he ever done much against Toronto? Oh, there was this.

Still, I don’t expect 81 or even 61 out of Bryant tonight, but the Raptors have been weak at perimeter defense. They, shockingly, are one of the league leaders in fewest points in the paint allowed. That said, the Lakers can’t go in thinking jumpers, they have to attack the paint, with penetration and with passing, particularly early. But this is a game where Sasha/Fisher/Radman could be big as they get open looks. Oh, and that Kobe guy, too,

The Lakers cannot get caught looking ahead to tomorrow. They started this trip 3-0 and before it even started (back with Bynum healthy) Laker fans would have taken 4-2 as a solid trip. Win tonight and you can do no worse than that, and you get the chance tomake a statement in the next two games. But they need to win this game first. Focus on the task at hand.

Where you can watch: 4 p.m.,, KCAL 9 here in Los Angeles and League Pass and the usual spots nationally.