There’s been some other news around here today, but there are actual games to discuss as well. So, back to our regularly scheduled programming.
Records: Lakers 35-11 (1st in West) 76ers 15-30 (13th in East)
Offensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 109.5 (9th in league), 76ers 106.3 (18th in league)
Defensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 102.1 (3rd in league) 76ers 109.3 (22nd in league)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
76ers: Allen Iverson, Jrue Holliday, Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand, Samuel Dalembert
Lakers Coming In: First things first, congratulations to Pau for making his 3rd All-Star game (second consecutive) as a Western Conference reserve F/C. Yes he’s missed some games, but no one can question his value to this team or his talent level. Were other players deserving? Yes (Billups, Kaman, Boozer, Nene are just a few names that pop into my head). But that is always the case and every year there will be legitimate gripes. But, for the most part, I think the selection committee of coaches did a good job of filling out the roster and Pau is well deserved. (On a side note, maybe next year ‘Drew. Use your “snub” as motivation tonight and on Sunday.)
Now, on to tonight’s game. You can blame (or credit, I guess) the quality of recent opponents, but the Lakers’ offense is finding its stride. Players are cutting and setting better screens, the ball is moving, and the distribution of shots is much more balanced. The team just looks more in tune and focused on what they need to do on the offensive end of the floor. They also look more lively. They have a bounce in their step (especially Kobe) and the movement of the players within the offense is more fluid than it’s been in weeks. The team is still playing a bit more P&R than I’d like to see, but Kobe is making good decisions with the ball and when he draws the extra defensive attention he’s making the right read and the correct pass (averaging 7.5 assists over his last 4 games).
Besides the offensive improvements of the last few games, a few other trends have emerged with this team and they’re tied to Phil’s rotations. Over the past few games, we’ve seen a steady diet of Kobe at SF with Farmar and Shannon flanking him in the backcourt. This line up has given us a speed and athleticism dimension that we haven’t really seen since last season (when the Farmar/Ariza/Odom lineup played quite well together). This group is pushing the ball, attacking the basket, and getting opponents on their heels (even in the half court). However, when Kobe is playing SF, that means both of our true SF’s are not. Artest has only reached 30 minutes once in his last 8 appearances and in the last three games Luke has played 10 minutes (in a blowout), 3 seconds, and 9 minutes respectively. You can blame the nicks and bruises that both players have endured this season, but I think you can also point to the fact that Phil has found a backcourt that he likes (Farmar/WOW) and he’s looking for the right player to compliment them at SF – so far, that player looks like Kobe. However, both players seem to be taking it in stride – you never hear Luke complain about his role and Ron is saying the right things. Continuing with the micro-perspective, another recent trend is a certain “machine” like player playing a bit better. Bill Bridges explains:
It has been obvious to me that Sasha Vujacic has been playing well over the last few games. To confirm my impressions, I thought I would look at the numbers. Over the last 10 Laker games (including the win over Milwaukee), Sasha has played in 6. Over those 6 games he has played a total of 25.5 minutes, bit minutes each game. When a player gets such short runs, the expectation is that the numbers will look pretty bad. After all, good numbers translate into more PT, more PT brings numbers back to the mean. Bad numbers = continued spotty minutes. Not in Sasha’s case. On a per 48 minute basis, his 48minute “average” works out at at 37.1 points on 75% FG shooting and also 75% 3FG%, 100% FT%, 5.6 rebounds (3.7 offensive), 5.6 assists, 1.9 steals, 0 turnovers and 3.7 fouls. I roughly calculated his PER (ignoring pace) and it worked out to be about 41. So the numbers confirm what the eye sees. Impressive as his scoring and efficiency has been, he also has been playing in control, moving the ball, making correct decisions, and making no mistakes. He looks extremely facile and comfortable in the triangle and has been an agent of fluidity not turbulence. He also has been energetic on the glass, crashing the offensive boards, and playing good D without fouling too much – no more fouls under the opponent’s basket. Do you think he deserves more playing time? I do.
It’s been tough to get minutes with a crowded backcourt lately. But we’ll see if the coaches start to reward Sasha for his better play with a bit more burn.
The 76ers Coming In: Earlier, I mentioned that the Lakers have not been playing the stiffest competition. That trend continues this evening. While a decent 5-5 record in their last 10 games, the Sixers are not playing that well and have gotten most of their wins against fellow NBA bottom-dwellers.
I think one of Philly’s main issues has been adjusting to their new coach and his offensive scheme. Eddie Jordan was brought in this season and he’s installed the “Princeton” Offense made famous by Pete Carril and adopted by several NBA coaches (Rick Adelman most notably). This scheme is a good one and can be very effective when run properly. However, Jordan doesn’t really have the personnel to run this scheme effectively. He’s got ball dominating guards in AI and Lou Williams and big men like Brand and Sammy Dalembert that don’t exactly remind anyone of Bill Walton. And he’s got them running a system that is based off reads and cuts and lots of motion. So, the passing is suffering (third from the bottom in assists per game) and the offense is not as efficient as it could be.
Keys to the Game: On offense, this is another game where the Lakers should go inside early and establish their size advantage. Dalembert has traditionally struggled with ‘Drew (some of Bynum’s best games as a pro have come against Philly) and Gasol has a big height advantage over the undersized Brand. Pound the ball inside and continue to cut and screen off the ball to get better shots for everyone. Kobe is coming off a very efficient game and that could continue this evening with either Holliday or Iverson being the primary defender. If the Sixers go to Iguodala to guard Kobe, look for Ron to be a primary post passer and then get hand-offs or duck-in passes when he clears the side and tries to pin a smaller defender under the hoop. Also, the Sixers are one of the better teams at forcing turnovers (5th best opponents turnover % in the league) so taking care of the ball is a must.
On defense, the Lakers need to focus on getting back on defense and limiting penetration. Philly does not play at a fast pace, but they have guys that can get out and run (Iguodala, Thad Young, Holliday, Lou Williams) and they will take advantage of the openings you give them. And any team that features Iverson will rely on penetration for buckets so the Lakers bigs must be ready to help on the driving guards. One other play to look for is Iverson driving the paint and looking to Dalembert for the lob finish. AI and Sammy have a good chemistry from their previous stint as teammates and the boost in Dalembert’s offensive game and activity is one area that has improved with the return of the Answer.
Lastly, the Sixers have some talented players. Besides Brand and Iverson, they have a nice group of young talent (the afforementioned Williams, Holliday, Iguodala, Thad Young, and the not yet mentioned Speights). They are at home and they will come out and play hard. In a down season, nothing feels quite as good as taking down the champion of the league. So, the Lakers need to come out focused and ready to play on both ends of the floor. They do that and they could close the door early. However, if they relax or come out uninspired the home team will hang around and keep this thing close. Let’s hope we see the former tonight.
Where you can watch: 4 p.m. start here out west, on KCAL 9. Plus, ESPN radio 710am.