Archives For January 2010

The Baller In Chief

Kurt —  January 25, 2010

The Lakers got to meet the President Monday, and the only thing that would have made it better is weather that would have allowed it outside on the basketball court President Obama had installed at the White House. And with the way the Lakers have been playing defense lately, no doubt Obama could have dropped 20 on them.

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Championship teams are not born fully formed, like Venus rising from the sea. They start with just the seed of potential — the talent to be a contender when the season starts. But it takes more to fulfill that potential.

Like the lead character in a novel or movie, there has to be adversity, there have to be struggles in the path. What makes the hero able to achieve their goals in the end is what they had to learn in overcoming those struggles. If an NBA team goes through a season without struggles, they will not be tested and ready for the playoffs (the 72-win Bulls team was the exception to the rule, they were a veteran team that had learned what they had needed to in previous years).

The Lakers are struggling right now, but to me fretting over losses to a decent Toronto team (or other wins and losses) on the road ignores the big picture point. To me, the team needs this. The question is simply: Can they grow and overcome the things making them lose, can they evolve into the team they need to be to win another title? And I don’t know the answer to that. I hope so. I think they have the talent to. I know they have the coach who can get them there. But all that is not enough. Right now the main character of the story (if you’re a Lakers fan) is being challenged and struggling with it. It’s hard, but it has to be hard or what is the point, where would the fun be?

The question is, can this character grow into the hero role?

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For a snapshot of the Lakers problems, let’s break down the last 3:20 of the Raptors game. At that point, the Lakers are up 103-100 after Jordan Farmar just hit a little running floater in the lane (a shot I wish he’d use a little more on penetration).

3:20: Bosh gets the ball at the elbow and throws a high lob pass to the guy cutting baseline — except there are no Raptors cutting baseline, just Shannon Brown, so he gets the steal.

Brown sees nothing on the break so he pulls up and gives to Kobe, who wisely runs time off the clock until 11 seconds are left on the 24. That is when Gasol comes out to set the high screen for Kobe but then he slips it and both Raptors stick to Kobe, so he feeds Gasol a perfect bounce pass at the free throw line. Gasol catches it and drives into the lane and the three remaining Raptors defenders collapsed on him, so Gasol kicked out to Shannon Brown for a wide open corner three. Missed it.

Hedo is the playmaker late in Canada and he comes off a Andrea Bargnani high screen, finds no driving lane takes a step back long two, maybe the worst shot in basketball. Missed it, but Bosh tips it out to Bargnani, who takes a three that he misses. Lakers board.

So now the Lakers are up three with 2:20 left and the ball, and Phil takes a timeout. The Lakers late in games just rely on isolations and the pick-and-roll too much — the traditional triangle sets just go out the window — and in this case Bynum comes out to set the high pick for Kobe. Bargnani plays the pick-and-roll well, taking away Kobe’s driving lane, but Kobe passes out to an open Jordan Farmar, who has Jack running at him. Farmar drives around Jack and gets to a baseline 10-footer, but rather than go straight up with his jump shot he fades left for no particular reason. The result is a miss, but the Lakers use up a lot clock.

Jack brings the ball up for Toronto and pretty quickly decides to drive from the right wing on Farmar. Jordan can’t stay in front of him and Jack gets almost under the rim. The Lakers bigs can’t help because Bosh and Bargnani are spreading the floor and Bynum/Gasol have to defend them in space. Anyway, Jack gets fouled and hits one of two free throws.

1:50 left, Lakers up two. The Lakers counter with some retro offense from the early 1990s — pure isolation. Kobe with the ball and nobody joints him on the at side of the court. It works, he gets to the left elbow and hits that little fade away he loves.

1:40 left, Lakers up four. The Raptors work the ball around the perimeter but never inside, and the result is a Jack three with Farmar contesting, and he misses. An unimpressive possession by the Raptors (and solid defense by the Lakers). Kobe rebounds.

The Lakers push the ball and run the break, Kobe handling the ball in the middle with Brown and Gasol on the wings. Just like we were all taught in junior high, at the free thrown line Kobe makes his decision and passes to Brown, who dribbles behind his back then goes up but is contested so he tries to change his mind in mid air and throws a pass to nobody out of bounds. The Lakers get no points and run little time off the clock, the worst of possible outcomes. It was a bad decision not to slow it down, and that started with Kobe.

Bargnani gets the ball out on the left wing and puts the ball on the floor going baseline. Gasol pushes him that way but nobody helps, so Bargnani gets the and-1 on the foul from Gasol.

1:10 left, Lakers up one. Kobe brings it up and gets the high pick from Bynum, first goes left off the pick then swings back right. Hedo is on him but Kobe doesn’t seem to care and the result is Kobe taking a contested fade-away 21 footer that misses over Hedo. Not a pretty possession at all.

What follows was the Lakers best defensive possession of the game. Great switches, Brown fought through the high pick and got help on penetration. Toronto couldn’t find a shot it liked. The result was Hedo taking a desperation long three that missed.

Kobe brings the ball up with 30 seconds and a one-point lead, then eats clock. Eventually Gasol comes out for the high pick, and similar to before (although Gasol set the pick this time but slid out quickly) when Gasol rolled he got a bounce pass from Kobe. Gasol tries to kick out to the right corner and Farmar, but it is knocked out of bounds. So Phil takes a timeout to draw up a play with three seconds left. That play turns out to be Kobe taking a desperation three from the wing, which was not a pretty option or outcome.

We all know the last play, the Hedo drive on the last play where he got a foul call (there may have been a foul on that play, but after letting the teams bang a little for most of the game that was a light call for that late). Complain about the call if you must, but as I always say (as my coaches taught me young) if you leave the game in the hands of the referee late you deserve what you get. This should never come down to the last play, to me that is what matters.

The fact is the Lakers missed shots, turned the ball over early in the shot clock, and generally made bad choices on offense. Starting with not running the offense. They executed poorly. They didn’t help on defense.

All part of the struggles, all fixable things, the question is will they? Can they overcome these struggles?

Preview & Chat: The Toronto Raptors

Kurt —  January 24, 2010

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Records: Lakers 32-10 (1st in West) Raptors 22-22 (6th in East)
Offensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 108.3 (10th in league), Raptors 111.2 (4th in league)
Defensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 101.2 (2nd in league) Raptors 112.7 (30th in league)

Soft? Who You Calling Soft? After the Cleveland game, the “are the Lakers tough enough?” debate has started up again. No doubt, the Lakers were pushed around inside twice now by the Cavs, although I agree with Brian Kamenetzky that the “soft” label is really used a lot to cover up a multitude of other sins.

But I think Mike Moreau has a great take on this (thanks to Busboy for the link). Moreau is the head NBA guy at the IMG training centers (taking David Thorpe’s old job, as Thorpe has gone out his own). I met him at Summer League and he has a great basketball mind, and is a good guy. And he talked about how the Lakers shook the soft label in the playoffs last year.

Go back and look at their series with Denver in last season’s Western Conference Finals. Denver was mauling the Lakers around the basket, killing them inside, beating them up in the paint. L.A. was wearing the soft label again.

So how did the Lakers react? They came back with 54 points in the paint, Odom and Fisher combining for 31 points and 25 assists on 37 field goals, eight players taking at least five shots, and no one taking more than 13. They shared the ball, attacked the rim, and dug in on defense. When last year’s team got punched, they punched back – not only with an aggressive mentality, but with precision execution.
L.A. responded to the challenge on every occasion in last year’s run to the title. They did it first with a change of mind-set, a determination to win the physical battles – from Fisher clocking Scola to Odom crashing the boards to the interior defense locking down. That mentality must be found again on this road trip. The soft, comfy home friendly schedule is over.

But, last year, they also responded with technical points of emphasis in their offense which helped to generate that aggressiveness – more post touches for Gasol, running the high low action between Odom, Gasol and Bynum – which not only got the ball inside and established inside presence, but made plays easier for their supporting cast.

Raptors coming in: Toronto may be a hockey first town, but they have strong hoops culture as well — lots of good blogs and a lot of media coverage. I asked one of them, Hoop Addict’s Ryan McNeil, a couple questions.

1) Defense. Have the Raptors started to play any lately?

Maybe I’m biased but I don’t think Toronto’s defense is nearly as bad as it was made out to be.

Sure, they were on pace to earn the title of worse defense in the history of the NBA, but what people don’t realize is this was just one bad month. Back in November the team was in the middle of getting eight new rotation guys used to Jay Triano’s sets after Bryan Colangelo had a busy season. Throw into the mix Chris Bosh, Antoine Wright and Hedo Turkoglu missed most of the preseason due to injuries and there are plenty of excuses for why the team got off to a rough start.

The team has since regrouped and aren’t as terrible as they started off. Things have slowly improved to the point where in December the team ranked in the top five in terms of team defense. Will they be an elite team on the defensive team? Nope! But come playoff time they’ll have a defensive system in place that they can compete and possibly even surprise a team or two.

Also worth noting is the team threw out a zone defense against Milwaukee on Friday that completely frustrated the Bucks. Look for Triano to possibly throw it out again on Sunday against Los Angeles.

2) What is the local feeling on Bosh? Is it that he’ll stay, that he’s gone and should be traded now to get something back, or something else?

I don’t think even Bosh knows what he’ll do this summer so it’s impossible for me to give an educated answer to that question. Sorry.

Does the fact Bosh is keeping an open mind mean Bryan Colangelo will panic and deal him? I doubt it. Based on the law of diminishing returns it makes no sense at this point to deal Bosh unless it’s a good deal for Toronto. Look for the team to ride out the remainder of the season, try to resign him in July and if they can’t the team will work a sign-and-trade with the team that wants to sign him. Even if he bolts town they’ll have a ton of money to put some solid pieces back onto the roster.

Raptors blogs Check out Raptors Republic, these guys are good and hitting it hard in the Great White North.

Keys to game: Toronto is a good offensive team and they are going to score points. If Bargani plays (he’s a game time decision) he’s a big that can stretch the floor with his shooting, always a problem for the Lakers.

Toronto has played a lot of zone defense lately to cover their man-to-man weaknesses. The Lakers need to attack the soft middle of the zone — not with post isolation but with guys flashing into the key, and some high-low would be nice as well. Also, the Lakers shooters are going to have to knock down a few shots over the top of the zone, but they can’t start to settle for that shot every time down.

Where you can watch: 3 p.m. start here out west, on KCAL 9. Plus, ESPN radio 710am.

Preview & Chat: The New York Knicks

Kurt —  January 22, 2010

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Records: Lakers 32-10 (1st in West) Knicks 17-24 (10th in East, 1.5 games out of the playoffs)
Offensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 108.3 (10th in league), Knicks 106.1 (19th in league)
Defensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 101.2 (2nd in league) Knicks 107.5 (18th in league)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Knicks: Chris Duhon, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gillinari, Jered Jeffries, David Lee

Talking Books: I am just finishing up the challenging to read but interesting Death With Interruptions by José Saramago (shout out to our readers in Portugal). If you like literature — in the sense you enjoyed being an English major in college — I recommend it.

The Lakers players just picked up books from Phil Jackson (if they open them is another question). Eric Freeman over at Free Darko does a masterful job breaking down the books and their meanings to the players, this is a post worth a read.

Colin over at the Examiner suggests what Phil should have given his charges.

Knicks coming in: The Knicks are in the playoff hunt. Look at that starting roster above, realize that you are likely taller than their best player coming off the bench, and that first sentences is really saying something. This is a roster that has a long way to go to fit D’Antoni’s system, but the fact he has them this close to the playoffs suggests he is earning his money this year.

David Lee is shooting 55.8%, doing a good job on the boards and proving that good players who hustle can fit in any system if they want. Danilo Gallinari is a good fit for this system and is starting to figure out how to work in it. If you want to read more on their young players, Mike at Knickerblogger has a great breakdown of their progress.

Jordan Hill, the Knicks first round pick this summer, is not seeing a lot of time. I’m going to pass on what David Thorpe said while watching him at Summer League: This is a guy that is going to take a two or three years to figure out how to fit his athletic game into the NBA, and then he is the kind of guy who will work great complement better players, but don’t expect him to play well with lesser players.

Knicks blogs Knickerblogger has been knocking it out longer than this site has been around. And I still check the advanced stats page all the time.

Keys to game: Sometimes, after you get out of a rough stretch where you feel physically and emotionally beaten up, you just need an easy score. Hey, I’m talking about the Lakers big men in the paint, what did you think I was talking about? The point is, the Lakers should be able to dominate Lee and Jefferies inside tonight and control the game that way (the Lakers had a nearly 30 rebound advantage in the first meeting).

The Knicks don’t play slow, but they have become a .500 team lately (14-13 since the Lakers beat them in November) because they have slowed the tempo a little. Basically, if the break isn’t there they run a more set offense, particularly with the starters. Those sets are simple — pick and roll on one side of the court, three guys standing at the three point line on the other — but they can work if you don’t play the pick and roll well. Those guys at the arc will slash to the hoop if you sleep on them. And, with the floor spaced, Lee and Harrington hit the boards hard and have success. The Lakers need to be aware and talk on defense tonight.

Last year, the Lakers had a tough loss then headed to Madison Square Garden, and Kobe set a building record. See any parallels? I think it would be better if he plays within the system tonight, but something to watch.

Where you can watch: 5 p.m. start here out west, on KCAL 9 and ESPN. Plus, ESPN radio 710am.

So I went to visit a buddy from undergrad who now goes to med school in Cleveland, and since I grew up in Pennsylvania, I’ve never been to a Lakers game live.  Thus, I decided it would be a cool idea to get tickets to Lakers-Cavs and we could go see the game together.  My buddy isn’t too big of a basketball fan, but he was up for it since I was so excited to go.

We ate before the game and went to Quicken Loans Arena, arriving at about 6:15.  The game didn’t start till 8:00, but we figured that it would be better to get there early and see warm-ups than to get there late and miss some of the game.  Well, we ended up getting there too early, and we had to wait outside the gates for a good 15 minutes.  We finally got in and got to our seats, which were in the 2nd level, 13 rows up (in other words, way up there).  However, I was so psyched to see the Lakers live that it didn’t matter to me; I was sitting on the edge of my seat trying to make out who was who out on the court.

The Lakers were on the near side and the Cavs were on the far side.  For the Lakers, it was mostly the bench guys on the court: Shannon Brown was practicing jumpers on the wing, Sasha and Fisher were practicing threes in some sort of competition where they shoot around the three point line till they miss, Josh Powell was working on his pick and pops, and Bynum was working on his low-post moves.  Oh yea, and Ammo was running along the midcourt line, for some unknown reason.  Shortly after that, Jordan Farmar came out and started warming up as well.

There were a few striking things I noticed during warm-ups.  First of all, Derek Fisher didn’t miss.  It was just three after three after three, all of them going in.  Second, Farmar’s “warm-up” consisted of near half-court pull-up jumpers.  You wonder where the PUJIT’s come from?  Well Farmar practices them; really bad, long distance, off the dribble PUJIT’s, at least before this game.  After a while, I zoned out from staring, and just sorta sat there waiting for the other guys to show up.

All the Lakers and Cavs left the court, presumably for their pre-game talks with their coaching staffs while I continued to zone.  About 30 minutes before tip-off, both teams returned to the court with their full rosters, forming lay-up lines as I screamed like a giddy school girl when I saw Kobe.  Then, it happened.

I wasn’t quite sure why at first, considering there was a bunch of ambient noise in the arena, but the crowd just roared.  Then I saw it was because he had arrived: Lebron.  The crowd was screaming with adulation, and Lebron ate it up.  He strutted; he had fun with the crowd; he really gave them a show.  After his ritual half-court shots which sent the crowd into an absolute frenzy (one of the last ones finally banked in), the two teams got ready for tip-off.

Every time the big screen showed Lebron, the crowd erupted with applause.  It didn’t matter what he was doing or where he was; the crowd loved him.  When J.J. Hickson was dunking on the Lakers, the applause didn’t even come close to when the big screen showed Lebron.  And when Lebron had his two And1’s in the 1st half, the crowd absolutely exploded.  It didn’t matter what the rest of the Cavs did; everything revolved around Lebron.  The Cavs take the lead in the middle of the third after trailing the whole game?  Not even 50% of the sound for a random Lebron appearance on the big screen.  The only thing that came close?  Anderson Varejao’s game-winning foul draw.  Otherwise, the Cavs fans simply couldn’t cheer enough for Lebron.  I don’t think I’ll ever hear a crowd cheer louder than when Lebron hit the jumper late in the 4th to put the Cavs up by 7.  When your pants start vibrating, you know it’s loud.

As for the game, I couldn’t really give you any analysis; being there live, I just lost all objectivity and got sucked into the moment.  Every play became larger than it actually was, and every possession seemed like life or death.  It didn’t help that you get almost no stats and can’t keep track of anything, but the whole experience just became surreal after a while.  I did notice the Shaq repeatedly abused our front line, the Cavs cutters picked our back line of defense apart, and Anderson Varejao did all the little  things to beat our bigs.  But, perhaps the biggest but of all, was that Lebron was able to shoot over our defense, draining multiple threes and jumpers, the part of his game which was perhaps his biggest weakness.

Even though the Lakers lost, being live at this game was an amazing experience.  It was tense throughout, with some pretty decent play from both sides.  However, I think the Laker fan I met in the bathroom who almost got into a fight with a men’s room full of Cavs fans put it best:  “It ain’t gonna matta’ when Lebron goes to New York and ya’ll got nothin’ to cheer about.”

If Lebron leaves Cleveland, basketball will be dead in that city.  They adore him, maybe more than LA adores Kobe.  Whoever wins the championship this year, does it really matter when you think about it on this scale?  If the Lakers do win this year, sure we’ll be happy.  But if Cleveland loses this year, Lebron may leave because of it.  And if he’s ever gone, I asked myself honestly: what will they have to cheer for?  Really makes you think about what’s important in sports.