Archives For November 2009

In Game Chat: The Memphis Grizzlies

Kurt —  November 6, 2009

I’m at Staples and I’ll be chatting at ESPN’s Daily Dime live plus posting thoughts on the game here as it progresses.

Pregame notes: Phil Jackson strongly hints that DJ Mbenga will get the start. The key for him, he said, is not to get in foul trouble. He said in the preseason when DJ got a start they joked there was a pool on whether or not he would get four fouls in 10 minutes. He might break that tonight.

Also, Phil said that Artest may get time on Zach Randolph, so at some point the Lakers will go small. As for AI, Farmar will apparently get the first shot but if he can’t stop him Brown will get a chance. 30 minutes left to tip off.

• In the media room pregame, Mitch Kupchak was sitting and talking to the Memphis owner. (Insert your own joke here.)

• Almost halfway through the first quarter, and here’s what I learned: OJ Mayo can’t handle Kobe’s dream shake on the block, and the Grizzlies apparently have a philosophical opposition to help defense.

• I a very touching gesture, the Lakers just officially named the scorer’s table after John Radcliff, the team’s long time scorer and a great man. They also gave his family his championship ring from last season. Classy.

• Not a pretty first quarter of shooting — Lakers not named Kobe were 5 of 14. And it wasn’t the Griz defense that did it.

• Luke Walton gets in the air, without knowing what he wants to do far too often. But this last time he made up for it by not hustling back on defense. But his passing keeps him on the floor.

• Just a bad shooting half for the Lakers. The Grizzlies were by far the worst defensive team in the NBA coming in, but the Lakers shoot just 37.7% for the first half and trail by two at the break. Kobe shooting 50%, everyone else 33.3%. The only thing keeping the Lakers close, they have grabbed 51% of their missed shots for

• 7-0 Lakers run to start the second half changes the feel of the game. For now.

• A Fisher PUJIT makes it 10 for 16 from the floor for the Lakers in the second half, and they are up by 11.

• The Lakers go with the small unit (as I’d wanted, but with Powell as the center instead) and keep extending the lead. Lakers shoot 66% and score 38 points in the third.

• Sorry for the site crash, but we’re back.

• Post game, Phil praises Kobe for his shot selection, and calls Josh Powell the best sub the Lakers have had so far this season.

• In the end, this is what the Lakers needed, a comfortable win. Memphis is not a good team (despite a lot of good athletes) and these are the games the Lakers should win handily. They did. You can’t really knock a 16 point win with two starters out.

Mike Conley of the Memphis GrizzliesRecords: Lakers 4-1 Grizzlies 1-4
Offensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 102.8, Grizzlies 109.0
Defensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 101.8 Grizzlies 117.7
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, DJ Mbenga
Grizzlies: Mike Conley, OJ Mayo, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol

The Lakers Coming in: Tonight is going to be entertaining — for fun I want to see the Lakers go small, run with the Grizzlies, score plenty and win by creating turnovers and easy baskets. I would love to see a starting lineup of Fisher, Brown (or Vujacic), Kobe, Artest and Odom, although I bet Phil goes a little more traditional and starts Mbenga for Bynum (because it should match up better with the size Memphis has up front). Still, at points the Lakers will go smaller and if it works it will be interesting.

One of the ongoing discussions in the comments so far this season has been this: Clearly the Lakers are not firing on all cylinders, and some issues like the weak bench play could become big problems in repeating as champions. How worried should we be?

I’m more in the camp with what JD Hastings said in the comments.

One of the biggest benefits of being defending champs is that there doesn’t need to be as much anxiety the next year. The team has proven what it can do. It wants to get it done again, but getting to that stage of the season intact is the most important part of that. Right now is the preseason for the Lakers. Games count, but making sure the little things are in order is worth losing a game or two in November.

Other teams tearing it up right now don’t have that. They all have something to prove. The Celtics need to prove they belong back in the forefront of everyone’s consciousness. The Magic need to prove they deserved to be in the finals. The Cavs need to prove they aren’t trending backwards. The Nuggets are trying to prove they are in the top echelon of teams.

All of them need to focus on these things to frame their mindset for later in the season. The Lakers just need to worry that they get healthy and understand everybody’s role. And they have a lot more to adjust to right now than just replacing one starter. Bynum’s increased role, Pau’s (and now Bynum’s) absence, Kobe’s increased post game… these are all elements being worked in. In addition to the fact that a lot of the team focused on resting through the summer and there’s a lot of cobwebs to work through.

If the team is still struggling with OKC in March, or go 0-6 against the big 3 in the East, then I’ll worry, but for now this is part of the joy of winning- letting all the other contenders battle to see who will be our challenger.

The Grizzlies Coming in: Remember how before the season started he mocked the Grizzlies saying they had a collection of ball hogs who would average three assists per game? Well, so far this season, they have assists on 50% of their baskets, 24th in the league. The Lakers are 23rd at 50.1%. I’m not finding that as funny now. (The team in last? Deeeeeetroooit Baaaasketball.)

The Grizzlies can score. OJ Mayo can shoot and create, Rudy Gay can slash, Marc Gasol can shoot a jumper (not as well as his brother, but not bad) and Zach Randolph has always been a scoring machine on the low block. They all are efficient scorers and they can get to the line. They are putting up points and might put up more if Mike Conley was playing better. Part of the reason for the success is they get their shots close to the basket — they are shooting 11.4 threes per game, six fewer than the league average (the Lakers average 16.2). They get close to the basket to shoot.

To beat the Grizzlies you need to score a lot of points — fortunately that has been very easy to do. They are disinterested, disorganized and disheveled at that end of the floor. There is no other way to put it.

Kelly Dwyer over at Ball Don’t Lie added this point about Zach Randolph:

I need to say this about Zach Randolph – he’s trying. He’s still really, truly, bad on defense. But he’s working his tail off, he’s obviously in better shape, and he’s thinking team-first. We knew he wasn’t a lost cause, based partially on how he worked his way back from microfracture surgery. Still, it needs to be pointed out. Randolph is trying.

Blogs and Links: I will be at the game tonight and participating in the ESPN Daily Dime chat, commenting here, and tweeting. Oh, and I may try to look up and see some of the game if I can fit it in.

Three Shades of Blue not only is a quality blog, they may be the only NBA team blog to ever have a one-on-one with their team GM and with team dancers. Now that is access.

Keys to game: Who doesn’t want to see DJ Mbenga and Hasheem Thabeet matched up on each other? The ultimate battle of offensive ineptitude. That is going to be the match up of the night. That or Kobe/OJ Mayo. One or the other.

Both of these teams benches have flat out sucked this year. The one that sucks less tonight will have a big advantage. Iverson — as unhappy as he is — provides them a scoring spark, someone from the Lakers needs to be that kind of spark.

The Lakers are going to score tonight, if they can keep this anywhere near a taco-friendly score on defense (giving up less than 100) they should win handily. That means turning Mayo and Gay into jump shooters — Mayo shoots 59% close to the rim, 42% from 16 feet out to the arc, for Gay it is 71% down to 42%. Normally I’m not a huge fan of the vague “points in the paint” stat but tonight it could be telling.

The other thing the Lakers have to do is crash the defensive boards — opponents are grabbing 32.8% of their missed shots, the highest rate in the league. Marc Gasol and Randolph can board and score inside, the Lakers need to not allow this to happen. This has to become a team focus, not just tonight but for the season.

Where you can watch: 7:30 start on Fox Sports, plus likely all sorts of feeds on the Web.

Los Angeles Lakers vs Houston Rockets NBA Game 7 Western Conference semifinals in Los Angeles
The good news first: Andrew Bynum has a mild strain in his elbow, nothing serious. Also, Pau Gasol participated in practice — not contact drills — on Thursday, the first full practice he has taken part in for weeks.

The bad news: Neither is likely to play against Memphis.

Well, maybe that’s not bad news for Bynum, considering his track record with Memphis. And as I’ve hinted at before, there were some in the organization that seem to think Gasol could have come back faster (read PJ’s quotes and see where you think he falls on that spectrum).

But to quote Kelly Dwyer, what matters is not Memphis but May. Better to be healthy and error on the side of caution now.

All of this should make the Memphis game entertaining — the Grizzlies are a good offensive team, but so far this young season have been the worst defensive team in the league. And they have AI complaining about coming off the bench, just to add to the distractions.

I think the Lakers go small — Fisher/Brown/Kobe/Artest/Odom and get out and run with the Grizzlies. DJ Mbenga and Josh Powell will need to have good games, but with two teams that can really score this should be an entertaining night at Staples.

Andrew Bynum of the Los Angeles Lakers
Winning two games of a back-to-back road trip is good, doesn’t matter if it was pretty or not. Being 4-1 without Pau Gasol is good, doesn’t matter how easy it came.

First, time for the all-to-regular injury update: Andrew Bynum is going to have an MRI today on the elbow that got hurt — likely mild sprain when hyperextended — on a hard fouled late in the Rockets game. We’ll update this post with any information about his condition and status for Friday night when it comes out. But based on his comments, I wouldn’t be shocked if he missed a game or two.

• Pau Gasol will practice with the team today (Thursday). The Lakers were saying Sunday was the likely return date, but if Bynum can’t go Friday that timetable may get pushed up. We shall see.

Personally, it’s game 6 of the season Friday. I’d rather play without Bynum and Gasol than rush somebody back and extend an injury. But we’ll see how things shake out.

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The Lakers (and we fans) are starting to see some little things that the Lakers will need to do a lot more of to win.. A couple of examples.

• 1:35 left in regulation, Lakers down one. Aaron Brooks has the ball out high and Chuck Hayes comes out to set the high screen, but Bynum (who has Hayes) doesn’t come out past the free throw line. Fisher gets picked off, Brooks comes around, looks up and can set his feet and shoot a wide open three, which he drains. We often talk here about Fish’s defense and how he struggles with guys like Brooks, but defense is a team thing as well this is all Bynum, who did not bother to come out and show on the screen, so Brooks could do whatever he wanted.

Next Rockets possession (1:22, 89-87 Rockets): Same play. Hayes comes out to set the high screen, but this time Bynum comes out and traps Brooks (with Fisher) and the result is a turnover and a fast-break to Kobe the other way (who gets the foul call on a clean block by Hayes). Kobe hits both free throws to tie it up.

The Lakers will see a lot of pick and roll from quick point guards this year, which will be a test for Fisher/Brown/Farmar, but it will take team defense to stop it.

• 2:10 left, Lakers down two: Ron Artest gets the ball out on the right wing, and looks at Kobe then takes charge and dribbles around the key over to the left wing where he shoots a jumper fading to his left and misses.

Then with :40 left and the game tied at 89, Kobe is working the right low block on Battier when Scola comes with the hard double. Kobe finds Artest with a nice bounce pass for an almost straight-away three, which he drains (and we think the Lakers have it won, ha!).

Two things illustrated here. One we knew but it is even more clear now — Ron Ron is a very good jump shooter with incredible range when he sets his feet and squares his shoulders, but on the move he is awkward. Second, Ron is starting find some comfort spot in the triangle — he shoots the three much better from the top of the key than the corner, so that is where he went to space the floor, and it worked.

A few other notes:

• Stu Lantz harped on this on the broadcast: The Lakers final play of regulation, when Bynum came out high to set a pick for Kobe, both players trapped Kobe and he had no lane and no options. Stu questioned bringing another defender out high rather than clearing out when everyone in the building knew Kobe would take the shot. Stu is half right, I think — bringing Bynum out high to set that pick is a mistake because his only threat is a long roll back into the paint. However, that play makes a lot of sense with Gasol — he can pick and pop, trap off him and there is a bigger price to pay.

• The Lakers are letting opponents grab 32.8% of their missed shots — they are giving up way, way to many offensive rebounds and second chance points. I think this is really a matter of focus (getting Gasol back will help, too).

• Darius made a good comment on Bynum:

Bynum (like Pau, but unlike Kobe) gets most of his post touches in the hub of the Triangle (on the strong side where he is flanked by 2 wing players). When the ball is entered into the post from this side, there are a multitude of cuts and options for passes on both the strong and weak side. Bynum rarely utilizes these options and mostly waits for the side to clear so he can go one on one. Now don’t get me wrong, that’s a viable option and he’s good at it. But, in order for our offense to run at a higher level with even more efficiency and contributions from other players, there also has be passing from this position on the court when the options present themselves. Gasol, Walton, even Kobe pass from this position more than Bynum. I just want to see a bit more of it from ‘Drew.

• Remember that last year, the Boston Celtics started the season 27-2. Orlando started 4-3. It’s not about how you start, it’s about how you finish.

Forum Blue & Gold will be down tonight from roughly 10 pm to midnight Pacific, for scheduled maintenance. The server this site is on had issues last night during the game, so tonight it is getting some love from the tech guys, just be warned. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Preview & Chat: The Houston Rockets

Kurt —  November 4, 2009

ariza-artest_feature
Records: Lakers 3-1 Rockets 3-1
Offensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 101.8, Rockets 111.1
Defensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 100.7 Rockets 107.8
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum
Rockets: Aaron Brooks, Trevor Ariza, Shane Battier, Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes

The Lakers Coming in: I called the NBA League Office to double check this: The NBA does not give out a big, shiny trophy for being the best team in the league in November. Not even a consolation prize, no lifetime supply of Rice-O-Roni. Nothing.

Yet reading the comments at this site and around Lakers sites everywhere, you’d swear we were missing out on something. The team isn’t firing on all cylinders right out of the gate and some people seem very concerned. If I could prescribe all Lakers fans a Xanax, I would.

The Lakers have played four games without their second best player, and they are 3-1. Their offense hasn’t flowed smoothly without the guy who makes their offense flow smoothly. Kobe took too many shots, like he was missing the second best player on his team (and like he has always done in the clutch). The bench has struggled like its leader has had to be in the starting lineup.

I’m not saying all is right with the Lakers. They turned the ball over on 25% of their possessions against OKC. They gave up too many offensive rebounds. Kobe made bad gambles on defense. There were too many misses close to the basket. They got away from the triangle too much. But in the end, it is a win (against a good team that could well be the Lakers first-round playoff opponent). But the important thing to remember — we are not yet 5% of the way into the season. It is silly to expect perfection. Every game does not need to be a 25-point win. Accept it, say there are things to improve on, that the team is working on them, and move on.

A few other notes: Phil kept two starters on the floor with the bench guys at every moment in the second half. For one stretch during that time, Ron Artest took over as the focal point of the offense, and he performed well. Until Pau returns and the bench rights itself, this may need to be what happens. And there was more good defense from Artest — you can say the Thunder did not get Durant the ball in positions for him to succeed late (they didn’t), but the fact remains that with Artest on him in the fourth quarter and overtime Durant was 0-5 and a -5. He did not key their offense.

The Lakers forced 14 second half turnovers, which was key (and I’m less sold on Westbrook as a primary ball handler than I was). I really liked the play of Etan Thomas, even if his hair scrunchie had an NBA logo on it (first pointed out by Brett Pollakoff). Once again, heavy minutes for the starters and nobody off the bench playing more than 13. That needs to change tonight on the second night of a back to back.

Injuries Note: No Gasol again tonight. However, the results of the MRI did not freak anybody out, he practiced Tuesday and he may be back by Friday. Patience. But things are getting closer.

The Rockets Coming in: The Rockets are hot, not only are they 3-1 but they smacked down Utah a couple nights ago. Our resident Rockets fan Stephen sent in some thoughts on the guys from Houston:

Starting 5:
Battier(SF) is doing the Battier thing — but he’s been uncharacteristically making 2-3 bad defensive plays each game. He is looking a bit more for offense and showing why he shouldn’t. (Against Portland he tried to do a 360 on fast break, lost the ball and Drexler — doing color — couldn’t stop chuckling for 2-3 minutes.)

Scola(C/PF) hasn’t gotten untracked thru first 3 games. He twisted ankle late in Preseason and doesn’t look comfortable yet.

Hayes(PF/C) is grinding away. When he outscores Oden it’s almost a sign of the Apocalypse :) Seriously he is excelling at low post D, and is very active setting screens and slipping towards basket. He is about only quality low post defender Rockets have.

Ariza(SG) is quickly finding his role in the offense. In Game one he repeatedly tried to drive the lane and constantly got stripped. By game three he has learned where he can get his shot-and is taking them. That’s the biggest difference between his Laker days and now — in Houston he’s taking shots that are contested, in LA he’d pass the ball instead. Ariza is not the Rockets go-to guy (Brooks is), but he is often the first option. In Games two and three Ariza got off to fast starts with 19 and 21 points in the first half.

Brooks(PG) has the keys to the kingdom. It’s his team. And he looks like he’s figuring out how to combine scoring for himself w/setting up his teammates. Instead of using his speed in straight lines, he’s figured out how to use the angles on the court to blow past his man and help defense.

Key reserves:
Lowry(PG). Many want him starting as he’s a much better passer and defender than Brooks. Aggressive taking ball to basket and usually draws several fouls. Often left alone at three-point line as he’s a poor shooter from there.

Landry(PF) plays physical, fights for rebounds. Has adequate 15-20 foot shot and is trying to be a post player with very uneven results so far.

Andersen(C/PF) is still feeling his way in NBA. Does have a good stroke out to 20-plus feet, nice low-post turn-around. He’s soft, doesn’t fight very hard for rebounds and can be pushed around

Blogs and Links: Check out Rockets Buzz.

Keys to game: First game of a back-to-back and this will be a challenging one because the building will be rockin’ — the Rockets fans will see this as a measure of revenge for the playoffs last year. Some players may as well. This is no easy win (on the road as the champions, there are no easy wins).

This is a smaller Rockets team — while Chuck Hayes is a good post defender he is six inches shorter than Andrew Bynum. The Lakers have a big height advantage —pound it inside. If the Lakers can get Hayes in foul trouble all the better because their post defensive options get much worse fast. Post up everyone, even Fisher on Brooks. However, with how quick the Rockets are, they may front/deny the post entry and go for steals. The Lakers have to make smart, quality entry passes to the post.

The Lakers must defend the three-point line — as a team the Rockets are shooting 44% this season. The Lakers defensive tendency to collapse and protect the paint could hurt them this game, they cannot leave shooters open at the arc.

Stephen also said these Rockets like to get out and run, but the Lakers have probably looked their best this year in transition (despite the loss of Ariza). The Lakers should run when they can, but post up other times.

Is Trevor Ariza officially a Frenemy of this site?

Every Laker has to be focused on defense, the Rockets have a balanced attack with a lot of ball and player movement. Against Utah, the Rockets scored 113 without one player getting more than 20.

Where you can watch: This game tips off at 5:30 pm Pacific, on KCAL 9 here in Los Angeles.

nba_g_durant_576
Records: Lakers 2-1 Thunder 2-1
Offensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 102.3, Thunder 101.1
Defensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 101.9 Thunder 96.6
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum
Thunder: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Jeff Green, Kevin Durant, Nenad Krstic

The Lakers Coming in: Once again, no Gasol tonight (or tomorrow in Houston). Gasol had an MRI yesterday and check back right here for the update on the results when they come through. Also, Kobe Bryant is running a fever and is not feeling well, so expect him to only play 35 minutes tonight.

Darius added this in the comments:

I just wanted to note that on the 2001 Lakers team:

*Shaq missed 8 games
*Kobe missed 14 games
*Fisher missed 62 games
*The Lakers won 56 games which was good for 1st in the Pacific Division, 2nd in the Western Conference
*The Lakers repeated as Champions and went 15-1 in the playoffs

I say all this because injuries happen and they may disrupt what many were hoping could be a historical season. But we must keep our eyes on the finish line and not just at the starting gate. Like other teams coached by Phil Jackson, the goal is to be playing your best when the playoffs start. Let us have good health when the second season begins and take our chances.

One other thing we need to note about the start of the season (something that has come up in the comments): Lamar Odom has played with a newfound confidence so far. He is handling the ball a lot more in initiating the offense, and with that his assists are way up: Last season he average 3.2 assists per 36 minutes on the court, this season he is at 6.1 per 36, nearly doubled. (To be fair, his turnovers are up from 2.1 to 3.7 per 36.) But more than just numbers, you see it in his game, he looks more comfortable. He doesn’t fear the jump shot and is shooting 44% from the midrange (most of his shots still come at the rim or from beyond the arc). He had an off game against Dallas, the entire team did, but he has been different early on. Let’s hope it lasts.

The Thunder Coming in: There is a buzz about this team right now. And there should be — when you are starting to build a contender, this is what it looks like. They are years and several key players away, but you can see it all starting to take shape, things are coming together. Maybe the best example was their loss — they barely lost to the Trailblazers on a night Durant was 3 for 21 from the floor. That is a team they are building.

Still, Kevin Durant is the star. He was the focus of a little Internet and statistics stir when the ex-Dallas stat guy Wayne Winston said he wouldn’t want Durant on his team. I think that statement borders on the idiotic. I’m personally not a huge fan of the adjusted plus minus stat that Winston lives by, which is a debate for another day, but I think raw +/- numbers have some value. And the fact is that Durant’s +/- was bad and his team did do worse when he was on the court. I think the reason is defense — it is the area where he needs to step up. Scoring matters, but the best can do it at both ends (Kobe, LeBron, Howard, Garnett, etc). If Durant wants to be in that kind of company, his defense needs to get there. (Also, read Henry at TrueHoop’s open letter to Durant, which I thought was very good.)

Westbrook at the point is a key for the Thunder — he sets them up, gets the ball rolling. The former Bruin is the spark plug. Matt Moore over at Hardwood Paroxysms added that Jeff Green and Durant are playing off each other much better this season and that has been a key reason for the team’s improvement. He also said not to sleep on Etan Thomas, who has been playing good as well.

I got to see James Harden at Summer League and really liked his game. In college wasn’t sure what to make of him — some nights he looked brilliant, other nights not so much. But I think had to do with how he was defended; there was not a lot of help around him so double and even triple teams were the norm. Now, with the floor spread around him, his playmaking is standing out (38% of his possessions this season have ended with an assist).

Bottom line, there is reason for the buzz — this team started 3-29 last season, now they are already looking to match that total in their fifth game. The playoffs are not out of the question.

Blogs and Links: Royce is working it over at Daily Thunder.

Also, there is Sonicsgate.

Keys to game: First road game of the year for the Lakers, which shouldn’t affect a team that won the title on the road but it is something to watch. Also, first game of a back-to-back, and you always want to win the first one, it is the easier of the two (last year the Lakers were 14-5 on the front end, and 14-5 on the back end).

One thing to watch is pace — despite all the athletes, the Thunder have played very deliberately so far. The Lakers should push the pace and see if they can get some easy buckets, try to make the young Thunder hurry and make mistakes. And that starts by forcing turnovers. Against Atlanta, the Lakers were able to use their length and some trapping defense to create turnovers. Portland forced 19 Thunder turnovers the other night, nine from Westbrook. The Lakers (who are built similarly to the Blazers in terms of personnel) should try to duplicate that feat.

Durant is going to get his points, but if Artest and whoever else guards him can turn him into a jump shooter he is far-less effective — Durant shoots 67% at the rim but no better than 25% so far this season from anywhere beyond that. Make him beat you with a jump shot. For the second game in a row, Artest’s defense could be key.

The Thunder have other options besides Durant. Russell Westbrook cannot be given free run into the paint, if he can penetrate and get rolling it will be a long night for the Lakers. That means the PGs need to play good defense, but also Bynum and DJ and the rest of the Lakers bigs need to make good rotations.

Do not let Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden shoot threes, they will drain them.

Where you can watch: This game tips off at 5 pm Pacific, on KCAL 9 here in Los Angeles. It is on NBATV nationally, thanks to the fans vote.

Lakers/Hawks Thoughts

Kurt —  November 2, 2009

la lakers media day9/29/2009
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.

Preview & Chat: The Atlanta Hawks

Kurt —  November 1, 2009

Lakers-Hawks

I’m at the game, so I’ll be throwing in running notes:

• Bynum spent a lot of warm-ups 45 minutes before the game working on little five footers with the left and right hand. When the game started he promptly missed his first two of those. (He hit the third.)

• Early on tonight, it is the Lakers forcing the Hawks into turnovers, a nice change of pace.

• Rule #1 in transition: Stop the ball. #2: Find Joe Johnson when he runs to the three point line. Lakers not doing that part.

• Why take Johnson out and sit him for a long stretch — he was 7 for 8 from the field with three 3s — if you are Atlanta? Well, because you are Atlanta, I guess.

• Through the first quarter and a half, entire Laker bench in the positive (of +/-). That is a nice change of pace.

• Lakers shoot 59.8% (eFG%) in the first half. You win a lot when that happens.

• Ron Artest on Joe Johnson at one end forces the miss, nails the three at the other. He’s starting to feel comfortable, little by little. Part of a run that has the Lakers up 64-58.

• The Lakers length and size is really bothering the Hawks inside. If LA would stop leaving Bibby at the three point line they would pull away.

• The Lakers 16-0 run, which has basically put the game away, was brought to you by the defense. LA was trapping, jumping lanes, using their length, particularly on the Hawks less stellar ballhandlers. The result was a mess of turnovers (the Hawks are giving it away on 22% of their possessions for the game) and that became a lot of easy points. And a lot of crazy fun dunks.

A couple quick locker room notes postgame: Phil said that the current five-guard rotation is not going to last forever and the guys off the bench not producing will see time cut, those who produce will get more. He really wants to get Fisher’s minutes down, but also Kobe.

Walton talked extensively about the second unit not playing well, getting too much isolation and not playing as a team. He said they realize they need to get it together.

Everyone was praising Artest.

Mike Woodson quote of the night, on taking out Joe Johnson: “Well, I pulled him because he nearly played the whole quarter… He’s got to rest sometimes.” Note to Mike — sometimes you need to ride the hot hand. Especially against the defending champs.
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Records: Lakers 1-1 Hawks 2-0
Offensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 92.5 Hawks 113.1
Defensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 95.3 Hawks 101.8
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum
Hawks: Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams, Al Horford

The Lakers Coming in: Once again, no Pau Gasol tonight. This makes 9 games missed if you count the preseason, and word is it may be weeks rather than days until he returns. Is it time to worry? Not where I sit. It’s not ideal, but hamstrings can linger. Better to rest it now — remember this is game three — then risk it getting worse.

Now let’s talk for a couple minutes about the ugliness of Friday.

First — it’s game 2 or 82, so chill out. Do you know what the award is for being the best team in the NBA in October? It’s the same as November, in case you’re curious.

The Dallas game was not about shooting percentages — the Mavericks shot 1% better than the Lakers (eFG%). What they did was attack the rim. The Mavs got to the line on 32% of their possessions, the Lakers 11%. The Mavs did a good job of trying to clog the lane, the Lakers countered by going with the three, but they hit just 7 of 23. Open shots they often hit clanged out. And when it wasn’t working, they stuck with it. When they got into the penalty a couple minutes into the fourth quarter, the next two possessions down the floor they shot threes.

The other thing, the more irksome thing in my mind, is that the Lakers dealt poorly with their frustration with the refs. They got emotional rather than playing with emotion (as Billieraven put it on twitter: Whine or Win.) The entire team — Kobe and Artest leading the way — did it. Championship teams play through the bad calls, through the frustration and regroup. For one game the Lakers did not do that.

Also, credit Dallas, who played well. This is why 72 was a great media talking point but never reality — this league is deep with good teams, the Lakers are without their second best player, there just are no easy wins.

It’s a lesson in a long season of lessons to prepare one for the playoffs. Learn and move on.

By the way, a few people in the comments have pointed to Ariza’s point totals the first couple of games. Of course he is putting up bigger numbers — he is the focal point of the offense. He has to carry the scoring load. If he were still in LA, he would not be getting the touches or putting up those stats. Still, I’m happy to see him doing well, I like the guy.

The Hawks Coming in: Everybody talks about the “Big Three” in the east, but the Hawks may well be team number four. And they are good.

They are off to a hot start in part because of very efficient play from Josh Smith, who has a True Shooting percentage of 72.3% (for those unfamiliar, True Shooting percentage is basically a points per shot attempt stat that counts both free throws and three pointers a number, the league average so far this season is 52.8%.) He is shooting that well because he is attacking the rim — 7 of this 10 shot attempts per game come at the rim. (Stats from Hoopdata)

I watched a chuck of their season opening win and this is a good defensive team — they are long, quick, like to jump passing lanes and work hard to create turnovers then get out and run. On offense, they run pretty standard NBA sets, but use them to highlight their players’ athleticism. It is the athleticism rather than the system they use to create shots. Also, the Hawks have been good on the boards, particularly the defensive glass.

Jamal Crawford comes off the bench for them and looks like a good fit with this group, and he can still light up the scoreboard. Also, our old friend and solid pro Mo Evans is solid off the bench for them.

Blogs and Links: Hoopinion is the best of the Hawks blogs, and is smart about the NBA in general.

Also, the final NBA previews: The Western Conference

Golden State Warriors: Golden State of Mind 
 
Los Angeles ClippersClips Nation



Sacramento Kings: Sactown Royalty | Basketball Fiend | Cowbell Kingdom 
Bonus Links: See full schedule here |

Keys to game: At halftime, can we just have a Shannon Brown vs. Josh Smith dunk-off?

This is one of those games where the Lakers perimeter defense will be key — Kobe will be on Joe Johnson, Ron Artest on Josh Smith (it is certainly possible they switch that up for stretches). In the crunch against Indiana it was all Johnson, he was the creator of the offense and often the shooter, take him out of rhythm and the Hawks may flounder.

However, just as key a matchup will be Derek Fisher on Mike Bibby. The non-USC Bibby has been a Laker killer his entire career and now here he plays into the Lakers weakness. Also, he hangs at the three point line and as Smith or Johnson penetrate he becomes a kick-out option, particularly late in the clock. However, Bibby plays poor defense and Fisher (and Brown and Farmar) should be able to score on him. This needs to be a good PG night for the Lakers.

The Hawks attack the rim with passion, the Lakers need to clog the lane and need to take away some of the easy baskets. That means Bynum (and DJ) making good rotations. Also, the Hawks will get some calls, the Lakers need to deal with that emotionally. Also, Bynum and the Lakers as a whole need to use their length to their advantage on the glass.

The Lakers need to take care of the ball, the Hawks love to go for the steal. They are long and athletic and their defense is based on getting steals. On the other hand, Josh Smith and Marvin Williams will turn the ball over, trying to trap or pressure them would be a good thing.

The biggest advantage the Lakers have is length and height inside (we will miss Gasol this game for that reason). They may do it anyway, the Lakers should go to Bynum early, and see if he can get Horford in foul trouble. That said, the Hawks will bring help and go for the steal — Bynum needs not to continue to be a black hole inside, he needs to pass out when pressured.

After a bad last game, I am curious to see how the Lakers come out tonight.

Where you can watch: 6:30 start of Fox Sports. For those of you outside LA, remember this is free League Pass trial week.

Also, I will be at the game tonight, so look for updates here as well as on twitter from Staples.