Archives For April 2009

That Was A Playoff Game?

Kurt —  April 20, 2009

Jazz-Lakers
In a lot of ways, the Lakers first game of the playoffs looked a lot like too many of their regular season games. They came out focused on the defensive end of the floor and caused all sorts of problems for the Jazz, plus shared the ball and hit open shots in the half court. Then they got up big and lost that focus. They held on for a comfortable win but not a dominating one.

Still, not a lot of concern in these parts about that first game. I feel my prediction here is safe. I don’t think the Jazz made great adjustments in the second half so much as the Lakers got sloppy. Things could be different if Okur returns — the Jazz were light on the pick and roll in the absence of their best pick-then-pop guy. They tried to be physical with this Lakers team, but these Lakers push back.

I want to break down what made me the happiest — the Lakers defense when Andrew Bynum went to the bench in the first quarter. This is where I feared a letdown, and instead the defense stayed strong. Here is a breakdown of the last four minutes of the first half, when the Jazz had the ball.

4:14 (Lakers up 6): Jazz run an inbound play from the sideline, where Deron Williams stepped back when Shannon Brown got stuck behind Carlos Boozer. Brown recovered fairly well but Williams isn’t missing an open shot from the top of the key.

3:51 (Lakers up 4): Williams tries a little iso shake and bake at the top of the key but ShanWOW stays in front of him well, so Williams passes to AK-47 popping out on the wing (off a couple screens). He has the shot, so Boozer and Millsap jump into the paint thinking board. But AK hesitates as the Lakers close out well, so he puts it on the floor then passes to Boozer in the middle of the key. Boozer now needs to collect the ball, take a dribble and… three seconds on Millsap. This highlights two things the Lakers did well in the first half — close out on shooters and use their length to bother the Jazz. The long arms had Jazz players thinking not reacting.

3: 20 (Lakers up 6): The Jazz run the stagger screen for D-Will that Kwame a. laid out in our previews, but the Lakers play it like they had seen it a million times, they anticipate and switch on picks, the result is there are no good shots, so Williams goes back out top for a reset of the offense. Williams is in isolation straight away and when he decides to drive he blows past Shannon Brown into the lane, but Lamar Odom slides over to protect the paint and that causes Williams to hesitate, and he loses control of the ball. Fast break basket for the Lakers going the other way.

I want to say this — Farmar (and Fisher) took a lot of heat here last year for their defense on Williams in the playoffs. But he can blow right by our new hero Shannon Brown too. The difference Sunday was the Lakers helped behind their guards a lot better. At least in the first half.

2:52 (Lakers up 8): Williams out on the wing just blows past ShamWOW again, but again LO is there with the help defense and going for the block causes the missed layup. Millsap grabs the board and goes up, but the length of Lamar Odom causes miss. Then “lather, rinse repeat” — Millsap grabs the board and goes up, but the length of Lamar Odom causes miss. Again the offensive board and the ball goes back out to D-Will for the reset. On the reset everyone loses Millsap who scores a layup on a cut back to the basket and a beautiful pass from Williams.

2:05 (Lakers up 8): Sasha is chasing Korver around picks off the ball and Boozer decides to help his teammate with a rather obvious elbow to the neck. While that is effective, it also is illegal.

1:31 (Lakers up 8): The ball goes to Millsap on the block against the bigger Gasol, and he does a nice job with the fake then the under and up, and while he misses he draws the non-shooting foul. On the inbounds reset the Jazz go to a mismatch, Matt Harpring is too strong for Odom on the low block, and he backs him down then hits the six a fade away. See, he can do more than foul.

:51 (Lakers up 9): D-Will is up high surveying the situation and then decides to drive again but this time takes just a few steps before passing out to CJ Miles for the three. Great closeout by Sasha means a terrible miss. If there was one key difference in the first half, it was shooter close outs — the Jazz left Ariza and Brown to take wide open, feet set looks. The Lakers allowed nobody to do that.

:28 (Lakers up 9): D-will looks like he is going to move but he instead passes to Harpring coming off a baseline down screen and he gets the ball at the elbow, turns and passes to CJ Miles who is cutting out of the corner to the basket. Miles goes around the first help in Gasol but Odom recovers to help and blocks the shot. The Lakers again anticipated the offense from the Jazz and were almost playing a zone on this one.

That is a big problem the Jazz face in this series — only Williams and sometimes CJ Miles can create their own shots. There are limited fallbacks when the offensive sets don’t work. That makes it easier for the Lakers to defend.

Lakers/Jazz Game 1 Chat

Kurt —  April 19, 2009

Pau Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers
And so it begins….

Everyone it seems thinks the Lakers should cruise in this series. They should win, but the Jazz are too good and too proud a team to just roll over, the Lakers are going to have to earn it. Don’t play focused, don’t communicate on the defensive end, turn the ball over and this game and series could get ugly.

The home losses by Boston, San Antonio and Portland yesterday have to have made an impression on the Lakers. More than that, however, should be the feeling the team has had all year that it needs to take the next step from where last season ended.

I’m not going to break down the game again, I think we’ve done plenty of that here in the last few days.

But I will add this reminder to fans: HAVE FUN. This is a game, one we may be passionate about but this should be an experience we enjoy, one that is about the journey, not an end result. Do things like read the Andrew Kamenetzky’s prop bets on the Lakers — the under/over on the number of headbands Sasha dons during the playoffs is 17 — and have a laugh.

Hopefully there will be a lot more laughs during the game.

NBA: FEB 26 Suns at Lakers
The name of the game in the NBA is to create and exploit mismatches. That’s one thing the triangle offense does well, put guys in good positions and force the defense to adjust, then have counters for those moves. When the Lakers have the offense flowing — getting the ball to the mismatch and counterpunching the reaction — you see a high number of assists.

The Lakers have mismatches all over the place to exploit in this series. If they are smart, they should score plenty.

That starts inside in the paint. Mehmet Okur cannot keep Andrew Bynum off the low block or alter his shot in close, and Pau Gasol has a huge size advantage inside. We saw this some in the last regular season meeting between these two. When isolated, Boozer (especially a hobbled Boozer) was virtually helpless on Gasol. There are members of the Jazz — AK-47 — that love to come from the weak-side and block shots — Gasol and Bynum need to be aware and be ready to give up the ball.

The other big problem for the Jazz is at the two — Ronnie Brewer cannot slow Kobe Bryant. In the first two games this season against the Jazz, he averaged 38 points a game. Again, the Jazz can do things to bring help, but that leaves other players open if the Lakers share the ball.

Darius laid these two points out in his assessment:

We punish them inside with Gasol and Bynum and let Kobe create off the dribble. This will generate plenty of offense for everyone as we’ll get inside looks and open jumpers against collapsing helpers for our shooters. Kobe must attack, but I think he will do that more against the Jazz because they actually don’t have players that stay with him well when he drives (in stark contrast to a team like Boston or Houston or a defender like Posey). We saw Kobe drive (in the last game against Utah) and he’s done it against Utah for as long as I can remember…Brewer, Miles, AK, none of these guys impede his dribble enough to stop him from getting into the lane and they don’t have a shot blocker (besides AK who will either be guarding him or rotating off of a shooter or a slashing big) to bother him. In that last game Doug Collins said Boozer had SIX blocks all season! Kobe knows this and will attack accordingly. Basically, I think all we have to do is run our sets and we’ll get easy looks. Plus, like last night, we can always go to the P&R where Utah loves to overhelp on Kobe coming off the screen so that two passes later we have a wide open jumper in the corner and Kobe has a hockey assist.

The other things the Lakers can do — particularly the bench — is get easy baskets in transition. The Jazz are a disciplined team that will try to get back, but if Lamar Odom gets the rebound he should be able to push the ball up and the Lakers can get some transition baskets. The Lakers should — should — hold or extend the lead when the bench is on the floor.

Bottom line, the Lakers do not need to do much of anything different than they normally do, just run the offense, and they should be able to score enough to win.

Deron Williams of the Utah Jazz
The Lakers will go as far as their defense will take them.

That remains the mantra of this site, and for that reason we will start our preview of this first round series with what is going on when the Lakers are on defense. What the Jazz do is no secret around the league, Jerry Sloan has been running basically the same offense since the Bronze Age. The key is execution — in basketball if you execute and have guys who can shoot you are very difficult to stop. And few teams execute as well as the Jazz night in and night out.

That execution starts with one basic thing they do better as a team then anyone else in the league — set picks. Sloan is old-school and the Jazz set hard, old-school picks. Rule one on defense when dealing with picks is communication — let the man being screened know its there, and talk through it. The Lakers can get lazy about this; if they do in this series you will see a series of layups.

The most obvious place we will see this is on the high pick and roll. As the Lakers have struggled defending it at times, expect the Jazz to run it a lot until the Lakers stop it. Expect them to run it straight away, doing so makes the defensive assignments in the Lakers system less clear. Also, if you have a PG as good as Deron Williams, you should run it a lot, freeing him up to make decisions — score or set up teammates.

Darius walks us through how the Jazz like to use that play and how to defend it.

First off, this play is super dangerous just because it puts the ball in the hands of Deron and lets him create for the entire team. He has numerous options on the play and has found ways to make all of them work for successful offense from his team. So, here are some options that the Jazz run off this:

1). Williams loves to go away from the screen (usually to his left hand) and get into the lane to either score himself or set up a teammate. Normally, on the left hand sideline is their shooter (Korver, Miles) and Williams has a free path to the basket with only one helping big or the helper coming from the corner off the shooter. Williams obviously has the strength to finish inside and we don’t want to give up the uncontested corner 3, so we cannot let him go opposite the screen. This means proper communication between the guy guarding Deron and the man guarding the screener. Because we like to hedge/recover on the P&R, we need the defender on Deron to force him to the hedger to initiate our help situations in the manner we want to help. This should be fairly easy, but Williams changes directions so easily that we must stay on top of this. Tuesday night, he did this a couple of times and last year he did it repeatedly to Fisher and Farmar…We. Can’t. Let. This. Happen. Ever. He’s just too dangerous.

2). If we do force Williams to use the screen, we must hedge and recover and then rotate (when needed) effectively. When Okur sets the screen, he’ll mostly pop to the top of the key to shoot the three. This will be the hardest recovery for the big guarding him (as we’ve seen all season with ‘Sheed and Murphy and Hawes and Brad Miller and you get the point), so we have to do this well or create a rotation for another man to recover to Okur while the man originally guarding him recovers to the paint to guard a different player and defend the basket. If Boozer sets this screen he will also pop, but more to the FT line area where he can shoot his midrange J. This presents similar problems but is an easier rotation for both the recovery man and for another player who replaces in the help situation (as described in the Okur example). Boozer will also roll hard or slip the screen and we must be aware of these dives or Williams will have an easy passing lane between the man guarding him and the hedger. If we can contain the Pop/Roll man while still recovering to Williams we’ve done our job, only to have to do it all over again in 3 more seconds. Ha.

3). When Williams comes off the screen (assuming we do everything right in #2) he is still dangerous because he still has the ball in his hands and there are still other options at his disposal. In the right hand corner it’s usually AK47 or Brewer who love to cut behind their defender who is usually caught watching Deron as he comes off the screen. We have to be aware of this cut by these players because they get at least 2-3 layups a game running this action. We also must be aware of Okur (when it’s Boozer setting the initial screen) floating to the 3-point line where Williams will hit him with a pass after he collapses the D and gets into the lane. Usually the man guarding Okur is near the paint and will help on Deron’s drive, so at that point the man guarding the shooter in the opposite corner must be ready to rotate to Okur (while also being aware of his man – who *is* a shooter – in the corner) while another rotater goes to the man he left in the corner. Also, Williams can always split the screen and attack for himself like he did last night. Lots of options here, we must be ready. No one said it would be easy, right?

Williams is going to have to generate the bulk of the Jazz offense because they don’t have a good matchup anywhere else on the floor — Gasol’s length has long bothered Boozer, as has Bynum’s on Okur. I could go on but you get the idea.

Which brings us to matchups — the Lakers need to make Williams really work hard for his shots, which will be the key. And that means less of Fisher and more of Ariza or Kobe taking minutes on Deron. Off the bench, look for Shannon Brown. The bottom line is that Fisher is too slow and Farmar is not strong enough to really slow Williams. (Honestly, few are, he and Roy may be the strongest PGs in the NBA.) The Lakers need to vary the looks they give Deron, but look for the longer and stronger Ariza and Bryant to get the crunch time minutes on him.

The pick and roll is not all the Jazz run. Kwame a. breaks down some other sets.

Baseline Flex Screen: This is one of the initial actions of the Jazz offense. Okur (or Boozer), starting from the block will set a baseline flex screen for CJ Miles. If Miles is not open, he will clear through and set another baseline flex screen on the opposite side of the court for Brewer. To defend this the Lakers must 1) talk through the screens and 2) bump the cutter to allow the Laker getting screened timed to get through. Kobe cannot fall asleep on these cuts as he sometimes likes to look at the ball out top and this is where Brewer can get his points.

Downscreen for Okur: Another bread and butter play out of the Jazz offense. After D-Will makes his entry pass, he will set a hard down-screen for Okur near the block (who just set a flex screen for Miles). Sloan is a big proponent of hard screens and a big part of the Jazz offense is getting Okur free for 3’s. The Laker guards have to slow Okur down as he breaks to the top of the key and Phil Jackson has to harp about moving screens. Gasol and Odom will be given the task to shut down the perimeter exploits of the Turkish Delight.

Cross-Block Screen: If the ball is entered into the corner, the player on the strong-side block will set a cross screen for the player on the weakside block. Boozer and Milsap are very good at coming from the weak for the catch and score. If the Lakers overplay the player receiving the screen the Jazz wings (especially Kirelinko) are very good at finding the screener for a layup too. Boozer may not be 100%, but when he catches it from weak to strong with a defender on his back, he will score. Another way to limit the success of this play is to pressure the ball in the corner, making an entry pass less accessible.

Stagger-Screen for D-Will: One of the set plays the Jazz run (like the Lakers, the Jazz get most of their offense out of their basic set and are trained well to read and react to what the defense gives), is a double stagger screen for a 3. D-Will triggers the play by passing to a wing and cutting off a UCLA high-post screen from the 5 man. D-Will continues his cut away from the ball, towards the other side of the court where he receives a double staggered screen as he circles back to the opposite wing of the ball. The screen is usually set by Boozer and Brewer because if either of their players leave to get D-Will they pop (Boozer) or cut to the hole for a dunk (Brewer). The Jazz could also run this play for Korver.

One other obvious thing that I picked up after re-watching the Jazz destroy the Clippers last night (the things I do for this blog….):

The Jazz are not a running team, but they will do it off turnovers and they finish well. Deron, once he gets up a head of steam, is virtually unstoppable going to the hole. AK-47, Brewer, even Harpring can finish the break. Like any team, you need to limit the easy buckets to get the win, and simply that means taking care of the ball. Turnovers will hurt the Lakers.

Tomorrow, when the Lakers have the ball.

My Kup of Tea…

Darius Soriano —  April 16, 2009

When you’re a part of the Lakers organization, there is always a legend that you’re compared to or a legacy to live up to.  If you’re a player like Andrew Bynum, be prepared to hear about Mikan, Wilt, Kareem, and Shaq.  Or if you’re Kobe Bryant, you better understand the history of Baylor, West, and Magic and be prepared to have your accomplishments measured up against theirs.  If you’re a coach, even one with as many skins on the wall as Phil Jackson, there are still fans and media members that will talk about the four titles and multiple Finals’ appearances of Pat Riley.   And then there’s anyone who holds the title of GM.  Jerry West, while a fantastic, once in a generation player for the Lakers, will consistently be remembered as the architect of multiple championship teams.  He’s the man that built Showtime, signed Shaq, and had to have Kobe.  He’s the man that (seemingly) won every trade, mastered the salary cap, and made the Lakers the preeminent basketball franchise of the past quarter century.  So, for Mitch Kupchak, following is these footsteps has not been an easy ride.  Ever since he took on the Lakers’ GM position he’s lived in a fifty foot shadow trying fill size twenty five shoes.  But today, with the team that he built destined for another deep playoff run and considered a strong favorite to win the title, it’s time for this man to stand on his own and for him to receive the credit he’s earned.

But before we look at present day, let’s take a look at the path taken to get to this point.  For a long time, Mitch Kupchak was the guy that couldn’t get the job done.  He was the man who couldn’t build a team.  He was the butt of fans jokes and the victim of media scorn.  It seemed like Mitch would never measure up to the man we called the Logo.  Plus there was always someone more than willing to tell us how he wasn’t up to the job.  This was our GM?  I mean, this was the guy that traded Shaq.  The man that thought it was a good idea to exchange Caron Butler for Kwame Brown.  The guy that signed Smush Parker and then kept him.  The guy that made a lottery pick out of an unproven straight from highschool center (who had only played a season and a half of varsity basketball) over more proven college players who could have helped the team right away.  Needless to say, there was definitely reason for concern about the direction of this franchise.   

But what none of us understood was that Mitch had a vision of a team and he had the patience to execute his plan.  Throughout all the criticism that he received, he never wavered from the path that he laid out to rebuild and transition the Lakers from a Shaq-centric team to one that could compete with Kobe Bryant at it’s nexus.  We just had to wait for it to all come together.  Early in his tenure (and in support of a team built around Shaq) he drafted Brian Cook, Luke Walton and Sasha Vujacic.  To add to those players (and after the trade of the Diesel) he also drafted Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar, Ronny Turiaf, Javaris Crittenton, and Marc Gasol. (On a side note – Notice a trend here? Besides Cook and Critt all these players are currently playing pretty well on their respective teams.  Mitch can draft some good players.)  He also made a couple of key free agent signings in adding veterans Mo Evans and RadMan that would help us win games by improving our rotation.  And while only some of these players are currently with the team, the ones that aren’t have been used as pawns in trades that have vastly improved the quality of our roster.  And ironically, after being skewered for the quality of players received in his trade of Shaq, winning trades is what Kupchak has become known for.  Cook and Evans would become Trevor Ariza.  Recently, RadMan became Adam Morrison and ShanWOW.  And the crown jewel of his wheeling and dealing was turning Kwame, Crittenton, Marc Gasol, a future draft pick (that would become Darrel Arthur), and a stack of Jerry Buss’ poker winnings into Pau Gasol.  Not only have these trades given us a better and more balanced team, but they’ve also cleared some payroll and given us a chance to re-sign Trevor and Odom and keep a championship core together.

And he’s done it all through adversity.  We all know Lakers fans are accustomed to cheering for a contending team.  But in the aftermath of the Shaq trade, this franchise was anything but a contender.  The Lakers went from winning titles to missing the playoffs completely.  And when we did make the post season we ended up losing gut wrenching series’ in the first round.  This not only led to fan unrest, but it also led to turmoil and complaints from it’s best player.  Kobe’s trade demands and open pining for a return of Jerry West to his old GM’s post were only the opening salvo in a seemingly unsalvageable situation.  His questioning of Mitch’s decision making in a caught on tape parking lot performance was the icing on the cake that signalled to many people that Kupchak was not in control of this team.  But through it all, our GM displayed cool under fire and acted with patience.  (As usual) Reed made this point perfectly in a recent email exchange:

(Mitch) was severely attacked by everyone (us included) in the initial post-Shaq era.  In the critical summer of 2007 he faced pressure from every corner to blow up the team and trade Bynum, KobeOdom — anyone. We just wanted change and no one believed the team as it stood could ever amount to anything (Kobe included). Despite all of that, and with his job on the line, he held firm and didn’t cave in when nothing worthwhile presented itself. It’s probably difficult to overstate how much patience and confidence that took — and he was absolutely right, as we quickly discovered. Imagine a team with Kobe and Jermaine O’neal as the cornerstones. Or a team led by Deng instead of Kobe. So, some of my biggest props to him are as a result of what he did not do, as opposed to what he did do. 

Read that last sentence again.  Mitch had every reason in the world to dump everyone on this roster and rebuild with young players, picks – whatever he could get by trading any of the pieces on the roster.  Those same pieces, (besides Gasol) that currently make up the core of a championship contender.  But he didn’t.  Can you imagine the unrest we, as Lakers fans, would be going through right now if Kobe was in Chicago?  What we’d be like if we were watching Bynum flourish in New Jersey?  What we’d be missing if we swapped the versatility of Odom for the declining skills of Jermaine?  What our cap situation would look like? I, for one, don’t even want to fathom it.  And we really only have one person to thank for that.  And he’s the same guy that, just a couple of seasons ago, many fans wanted fired.

As I write this it’s only a few days before the playoffs start.  We all believe that this team is on the verge of something special.  We just completed a sixty five win regular season and won the Western Conference by double digit games.  We’ve got the one of the best players of his generation, two supremely talented power forwards, the second best young center in the game, and several excellent complimentary role players.  We are finally back to being a contending team.  And since there’s a credit crisis in this country, I’d like to give a little bit to the guy who rarely gets any – So, thank you Mitch Kupchak.  You’ve made the franchise we love a winner again.  And come playoff time, I think that’s all we could have hoped for.

-Darius