Last season, the mantra at this site was “The Lakers will go as far as their defense will take them.” Maybe we should not have changed that. Sunday night against Atlanta was the first time the Lakers defense won a game for them this season. And it was the first one where Ron Artest’s defense in particular was the key (with an assist from Mike Woodson).
Let’s break down why Joe Johnson was on fire early (he was 7 of 8 in the first quarter, had 18 points and looked like he wanted to make a run at 81).
Kobe was on Johnson for the first quarter, Artest on Josh Smith. Kobe started “playing free safety” as he likes to call it (we here have called it many other, less kind things). On one play in particular, Kobe left Johnson alone at the three-point line to double Horford inside trying to swipe at the ball for a steal, and Horford kicked it out for an open look by Johnson that he nailed. We all know you shouldn’t leave one of the best pure shooters in the game, but Kobe has and will. In the first quarter, six of those seven baskets by Johnson were assisted — credit here to the Hawks for making the pass to the open guy, these are not your Memphis Grizzlies. But Kobe was leaving him open for those shots.
The Lakers caught a break when, for reasons only he can explain, Hawks coach Mike Woodson sat Johnson for seven minutes of game time with about three minutes left in the first quarter (post game quote, “I pulled him because he nearly played the whole quarter… He’s got to rest sometimes.”). Apparently they didn’t need his shooting.
When he came back out, pretty quickly the Lakers went to Artest on Johnson, and that was it. Artest was relentless. Artest bodied him and gave him almost no space. Artest never left him, never let him easily get to the spots he wanted on the floor, never let him really breathe. Johnson was 1 of 8 the rest of the way with nine points (mostly from free throws), and when it got to crunch time the Hawks could not turn to him. On the night, Artest blocked two jump shots.
Artest on Johnson followed by Kobe on Smith, a guy you can cheat off of in spots, allowed Kobe to gamble more safely and pick up five steals. Then in the third quarter, it was the entire Lakers defense started trapping anyone not named Bibby and we saw a series of forced turnovers (the Hawks had eight in the third quarter) that got the Lakers out to a 16-0 run. The Lakers used their length to force turnovers, block shots and just generally disrupt.
Next up for Artest: Kevin Durant in OKC. But for a night we got a glimpse of what could be, and what we hoped will be.
• We may want Kobe to play less free safety this year, but Phil Jackson seemed to imply he was fine with it because with Artest he had another stopper option. And that helps keep Kobe fresher for the offensive end, where he had what Craig W. accurately called in the comments a quiet 41.
• Hard to argue with a Lakers team that shot 55.7% (eFG%), but they are not exploiting mismatches like they can. Jamal Crawford was on Kobe for a stretch and it took LA a while to start going at that. Artest ended up with the ball in the post a couple times with Bibby switched on him and did not attack. Hopefully this recognition improves.
• Post game, the Lakers bench guys in the locker room admitted they have work to do. Walton talked about the second unit going to too much isolation, not creating good shots through the offense, about needing to pick up the defensive intensity. He said they realize it, and that things and rotations will be different upon Gasol’s return.
If admitting there is a problem is the first step to fixing it, well, at least we’ve got that.
Bill Bridges had thoughts along these lines in the comments.
What is more concerning is the play of Walton, Farmar, and Vujacic. The Lakers need these three to play at an average competence for NBA players to win the West without burning out the starters. Not play well, just the mean.
However, a combination of declining athleticism (Walton), IQ problems (Farmar), and emotional problems (Vujacic) has created a dangerous situation for PJ. Instead of average performance, he is getting failing, D-League, performance.
If you can’t remember the last time Sasha made a shot, you’d be right to wonder. Sasha is no 0-fer the last seven playoff and regular season games. Imagine that. The last time he saw a shot of his, from the field or from the line, go through the hoop was the end of May in 2009.
I think Mitch and PJ has written Farmar off, hoping for a positive surprise but not expecting it. The signing of Shannon and his contract not getting extended are screaming clues. And after 3 years of the same boneheaded plays, he and Ammo must be trade-deadline fodder.
Sasha is another case. He is under a medium term contract at about the league average. He needs to produce at the average. Watching Artest and Fish brick one 3 after another, suddenly the Lakers have very few player who can stretch the defense and open up lanes for Pau and Kobe.
PJ somehow must get Sasha going and cure his malaise. One radical idea is to start him in Fish’s place (at least one game) and give him some serious minutes. If he is still ofer after 30 minutes of play… then you have to just shoot him. But somehow I think he will get a shot to drop. Obviously 2 minutes stretches are just not fixing the machine.
He spent the summer learning the lead guard spot under the coaching staff’s direction, so he can play the position. I think this is a good gamble and not too risky as when Sasha plays poorly, he is a zero. When Farmar plays poorly, he is a huge minus.
To be fair, against the Hawks Walton had his best game of the season and Sasha hit a shot. But the Lakers had a 20-point lead in the fourth, the Hawks put their starters in and the lead shrunk to 12 and Phil was forced to bring the Lakers starters back. Burnout will be an issue over time if this is not resolved.
• Good to see, but off the loss the Lakers did come out more focused and with a more business like approach as a team.
• For the record: Not one bat spotted in Staples Center Sunday night.