Archives For March 2009

Thoughts From Two Losses

Kurt —  March 2, 2009
San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles Lakers, Game 5

Right about now, every game the Lakers play is a statement game. Not for the Lakers, but for whomever suits up against them. The Lakers are the measuring stick, the favorites out West, and teams that could possibly see them in the playoffs want to make a statement.

Denver wanted to make a statement and did it with a scheduled loss. I can see why Poppovich, when faced with the LA-to-Denver back-to-back, sat Duncan, Parker and Manu. He makes a statement to the league and gets his guys some rest. The Suns needed Sunday’s game for their ego — and credit their role guys who stepped up and had their best games.

The Lakers bench has lost its way a little, and I think we can see some of why (and what can go right) in a stretch that includes part of the third and the start of the fourth quarter from yesterday’s game.

4:25 3rd. 78-75 Suns: Derek Fisher is dribbling on the wing waiting for Kobe to get free but credit Matt Barnes for good denial defense that makes Fisher’s wishes moot. This is one point — the Suns role guys wanted this win bad, the Lakers role guys were lethargic, to use Kobe’s words. And it was both mental and physical laziness.

Back to the game: With six on the shot clock Fisher doesn’t even wait for the Josh Powell screen to set and goes away from it and into the lane, Grant Hill leaves Walton to get in Fisher’s path. Walton is now all alone in the corner while every other player from both teams is in the paint or within a step of it. Fisher though has his head down and shoots, and Hill rejects it then catches it.

Fisher drove past Barbosa to get into he lane and when Barbosa got burned rather than recover he just leaked out for a potential fast break. Since every Laker is in the paint or a step off the baseline, Hill’s lead pass is to a wide-open and alone Barbosa. The only question is if the Brazilian can dunk. Apparently not, but a lay-up still counts as two.

4:06 3rd, 80-75. Kobe and Gasol are the only Lakers playing well, so why not just go to those two in the pick and roll? This is what stars do; when everyone else is taking the night off they just try to take more on. The problem is, sometimes that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So P&R it is, Kobe makes a nice play using the screen then spinning off back behind it and attacking the rim. He drives the lane but both Shaq and Hill are there as help defenders and the result is a short shot and Kobe complaining to the ref.

The Suns are forced to run the half court set — this is what you want. After a few passes Barnes attacks off a Shaq pick, and Gasol shows out to stop the drive (it may have been a switch, but the communication was bad on defense). Meanwhile Shaq rolled into the lane, gets the feed from Barnes and goes up for the dunk. Powell did not rotate in time so he makes up for it by fouling. It’s a compounded mental mistake, missing a rotation then arm fouling the one guy you pretty much to tackle to make sure he doesn’t get the and-1. So Shaq gets the and-1.

3:24 3rd, 83-75. Kobe comes off the Gasol screen but this time gives it to Ariza, who is wide open for the catch-and-shoot. Instead, when Hill starts to come at him, Ariza does a fake jab step that gives him a little more room but not much, then he goes up. While he has worked on the shot and is much better at it, there are moments it is clear Ariza is still not comfortable as a jump shooter and that can lead to indecisiveness. Ariza should only shoot a three if he is insanely wide open. Otherwise, attack the rim. He is not Kobe, he doesn’t get to do jab-step pull-ups. He misses too many. He misses this one.

Kobe, picks up the rebound and uses his momentum to get to the basket, Shaq has to slide over and help and that leaves Gasol open, he gets a jump pass from Kobe and dunks. Again, those were the two Lakers that came to play.

3:12, 83-77: Shaq is out to set the wing screen for Barbosa, but he slips it and Gasol somehow loses track of a 7 foot, 300 pound man. Hard to do. Shaq gets the pass from Barbosa and quickly makes a great bounce pass to Louis Amundson (from here on out known as pony tail boy), who does his Kwame Brown imitation and drops the pass and creates a turnover.

The Lakers want to push the ball and Gasol races down court to get deep position. Credit Kobe for noticing and rewarding Gasol with the swift pass right on the money that allows Gasol to score easily.

2:53, 83-79: After a little play where the ball goes out of bounds off Powell, the Suns inbound to Hill about 15 feet out on the left baseline with Kobe right on him and Powell there for help. Trevor Ariza ball watches and turns his back on the best UCLA football player in the NBA (Barnes), who slides into a better spot, gets a pass from Hill and drains a three over the late-closing Ariza. The Lakers did this all night, just falling asleep on defensive assignments and losing track of their man.

Still, this is one of those things about the NBA, if Matt Barnes beats you draining threes, you live with that. He is shooting 33% this year, up from his career 32% number, so this is not his forte. You let him take it. Then again, when a guy is hot for the night, it’s time to adjust a little and not turn your back on him.

2:25, 86-79. Kobe/Gasol, this time Kobe goes away from the pick and takes Barnes and Shaq with him, and near the baseline he makes the rare jump skip-pass to Jordan Farmar, who has a wide open three, but he instantly makes the extra pass to Ariza in the corner. A guy shooting 35.7% from three passed up the wide-open three to get it to a guy shooting 32.6% for the season. Farmar needs to take that. Ponytail boy makes a nice closeout on Ariza, who puts the ball on the floor then off his foot out of bounds.

For fun, let’s skip ahead to the start of the fourth, where the Lakers make another little run. Pretend you saw a Flomax and Taco Bell commercial here.

12:00 4th, 91-81 Suns: Just to make everything I’ve said in this breakdown look bad, the Lakers work the ball around to Ariza at the three point line, who does the jab step then pulls back and goes for the corner three, and makes it. I think Kwame a. said it well in the comments:

Trevor, he needs to re-establish his minimalistic approach to offense. Lately he has been using his dribble for no apparent purpose and has been far to willing to fire up the 3 ball. I think he must make a concerted effort to attacking the rim, or moving the ball and cutting. This maximizes his abilities.

Then Darius added this:

I think what we’re seeing with the performance of Trevor has a lot to do with Bynum being out. It’s not so much that those two played so well together, but it’s the player groupings that Trevor now finds himself with. Trevor used to play almost all his minutes with Kobe, Odom, and usually Gasol. Now he’s playing less and less with those players and playing more and more with Sasha and Powell. Kobe and Gasol (and Odom somewhat) create shots for players. Sasha and Powell do not. Ariza is at his best when he’s cutting from the weakside and finishing at the rim. Now, more and more frequently no one is drawing the defense away from Trevor (or our other players) that enables them to play in more space or get the types of looks that they excel at. Getting Bynum back will help not only because of his production, but because it will reestablish our player rotations and put our old player groupings together.

11:30, 91-84. While Goran Dragic and ponytail boy run a rather sad two-man game on the perimeter, Robin Lopez sets up camp in the paint. Bad news for him, the ref was counting, so the three-second call and the turnover.

Sasha and Gasol play the two-man game and Sasha uses the screen to put up a three, that falls. Sasha took a lot of heat from Lakers fans in that game, but he was one of only three Lakers that was a + for the night (+2) and was 2-4 from three. And he hasn’t forgotten how to shoot, but he right now is not getting himself in position to take the shots he is good at. He hit this three off the dribble, but I would love to see his shooting stats when he is off the dribble versus spot up. I have a suspicion one is a lot higher than the other.

91-87, 11:06: Jordan Farmar does a good job stopping a screenless Dragic from driving, but Sasha cheated off Jared Dudley in the corner to be part of the not needed help. So Sasha left a guy shooting 40% from three since joining the Suns to help on Dragic? Another mental defensive error for the Lakers. Sasha did recover fairly well but it wasn’t enough.

94-87: 10:55: Farmar to Ariza early in the shot clock and Ariza just goes up with it from three, draining it over Barnes. Ariza is feeling it, but again is this the shot we want Ariza taking? Quick jump shots early in the clock against the Suns is a long-term disaster.

94-90: 10:44: The Suns try to run on a make, but Sasha and the helper Gasol did a good job in transition on Dudley, who misses and Ariza gets the board.

Ariza brings it up and gives it to Farmar, who is blowing by Dragic and into the heart of the lane, and the help comes from everywhere. Farmar sees it and gets it to Powell for a clean 18-foot jumper. That was good play all round from LA and makes it an 11-3 run.

94-92, 10:25: Dragic and Lopez with a little two-man game at the elbow — the fact those two guys are playing together is a sign of the kind of year the Suns have had — but the ball is kicked out to Barnes who misses the three. On the rebound, Dudley pushed off and got called for it, so Shaq comes in.

Gasol gets the ball on the right side, about 8 feet out, with Shaq on him, so he faces up and looks for an opening, but hesitates driving the lane. Instead he passes to Ariza, who hesitates until his defender gets there, so Ariza puts the ball on he floor and drives but pony tail boy stays with him and gets the block. More indecisiveness from Ariza, who seems to struggle at times with when to shoot and when to drive.

Ball out of bounds to the Lakers, and Pau thinks there is too much time on the shot clock so he lets a Sun player knock the ball out of his hand with just one second on the clock. That leads to an ugly running leaner from Sasha, who can’t be blamed for that miss because he had to shoot.

Ball into Shaq on the low block, and Ariza comes to help but from the baseline side. Darius talked about this in the comment — you do not want to double Shaq so that his move is to spin into the paint, where he prefers to shoot. You want to force him baseline (the 2000 version of Shaq could make you pay either way, the 2009 version is less a baseline threat and not as quick).

Despite the mistake, Shaq decides to pass out to the wing and repost and call for the ball. But apparently Barbosa does not believe in the repost and tries to got to work on Farmer, credit Jordan for sticking with him. So now Barbosa does go back to Shaq about three feet from the hoop. Now, 2000 Shaq would have dunked this, instead he goes for the three foot shot and a Powell comes in and blocks it.

On the break, Farmar misreads a passing lane and turns it over. Suns ball and shockingly Shaq is not running, so he is close to the basket and can get the pass and go up fast. Powell has no choice but to foul.

This is the free throws where nobody boxes out the shooter so when Shaq misses he takes a couple steps into the lane, grabs his own miss and dunks it with authority. At that point you knew it was over, or at least I did. The Lakers had stopped doing the little things, like putting a body on the free throw shooter.

A lot of the second unit’s confidence will come back with Bynum, putting the big man or Odom back in the second unit rotation. The confidence will start to come back because they will feel there are better half court options.

But that is still a month away, at least, and it would help if these guys could welcome Bynum back an already more cohesive and comfortable unit.

Los Angeles Lakers vs Phoenix Suns in Los Angeles
Records: Lakers 48-11 (1st in West) Suns 33-25 (9th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 114 (1st in league) Suns 112 (4th in league)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.3 (6th in league) Suns 109.9 (21st in league)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Suns Steve Nash, Leandro Barbosa, Jason Richardson, Grant Hill, Shaq

Second Verse Not The Same As the First: I don’t think this Sunday contest is going to look like the Thursday night blowout win the Lakers had.

The main reason is, I expect Steve Nash will play (although he is officially a game time decision). Thursday, without Nash, nobody was making good entry passes to Shaq in the post, and that really limits his game (especially at this point in his career). That changed against the soft front line of Toronto, and I expect that with Nash back he knows he needs to get the Big Whatever-He-Is-This-Week involved early. The Gasol/Shaq matchup is an interesting one in that neither can handle the other on the defensive end if things are going well, so help defense will be important.

Second, the Suns running game Thursday night was helter skelter, with Nash it will have focus. Nash, with his great vision (years of soccer I think helped this) and one-handed quick passes was built to run this system. He gets to the person who hustles to the right spot, and the result when teammates are rewarded for hustle is that they do it.

The other thing that always amazed me about Nash was his ability to keep his dribble going. He never seems to give it up until it is the time for the right pass. He sort of reminds me in ways of Wayne Gretzky, who used to do things that would seem counter intuitive with and without the puck, until the play fully developed and suddenly you realized he was five seconds ahead of everyone else in his mind and was already in the right spot to make the play/pass.

Finally, and I think this has a lot to do with all the close road games the Lakers have had lately — teams don’t roll over at home. Get up by 15 or so early at Staples Center and teams suddenly begin to wonder if it’s just going to be one of those nights, their eyes glaze over and the sudden step back in effort makes the blowout a self-fulfilling prophesy. But not at a team’s home court. There, they don’t want to be embarrassed. They will fight back. Throw in the national television game and I can promise that the Suns will not roll over.

The year Kobe and Nash entered the league: The 1996 draft had a lot of quality, and a lot of it dropped down the board. Allen Iverson was #1 overall, Marcus Camby went second, with Shareef Abdur-Rahim third. But keep going down and you find Marbury fourth and Ray Allen fifth.

Kobe fell all the way to 13, drafted by Charlotte and instantly traded to the Lakers. Right after Kobe was Peja Stojakovic. He was followed by Steve Nash to Phoenix at 15. A guy the Lakers may have to deal with later, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, was taken 20th The Lakers used their first-round pick at 24 to pick up Derek Fisher.

Nash went on to be the lowest-drafted player ever to win the MVP.

Keys To The Game: Here’s the numbers: Since Gentry took over as the Suns coach their offensive efficiency from 108.9 to 120.8 points per 100 possessions (much better than the league-leading Lakers). The problem is their defense went from giving up 107.9 per 100 to 112.9. As was noted before the last game, the Suns have stopped playing much defense and just want to outscore you. That’s a tough thing to do against a Lakers team that can score with anyone, and that’s what happened Thursday.

We’ve talked in the past about giving Chris Paul the “Steve Nash Treatment” so I suppose we have to give it to Nash if he plays. The bottom line is that while Nash can shoot, you’d rather have him doing that then passing and getting his teammates involved. When everyone is involved and running, that is when the Suns can outscore you.

The Lakers had success running on the tepid Suns transition defense, they need to do that, but not get sucked into the pace — if nothing is there, pull out and run the offense.

When the Suns go small, punish them with Odom and Gasol and Powell. The Lakers are a bigger and my experience on the playground is that the bigger team often wins. Control the boards, crash the offensive glass. Also pressure Dragic and he will turn the ball over, we’ve seen that.

The Suns are overmatched against the Lakers. This is a game the Lakers should win, but it will not be a piece of cake like the Thursday effort.

Where you can watch: 12:30 start on ABC.