Archives For February 2010

[picappgallerysingle id="8137339"]
The Lakers and the Nuggets simply don’t like each other.  You see it on the court and you hear it in the quotes from the players both before and after the games.  So, when these two teams play a nationally televised game on a Sunday afternoon, you’re bound to see an intense battle where both teams give a strong effort in order to prove that they are the better team.  And that’s exactly what we got in a 95-89 slugfest that saw the Lakers earn their first win against the Nuggets this season.  This was a game that everyone who follows basketball (save for Jeff Van Gundy pregame) thought that the Lakers needed to have.  And what do you know; they pulled it out and showed some of that championship mettle that had been questioned in recent days (especially when citing their record against the NBA’s best teams).  The Lakers wanted to prove a point to critics.  To the other team.  Maybe even to themselves.  And on this Sunday, they did just that.

But it didn’t start out that way.  In what has been an all too familiar theme recently, the Lakers started the game flat footed and sloppy.  Yes, they were able to score on the Nuggets.  The Lakers ran a couple of nice post up plays for Pau, and Ron (more on him later) was able to hit a couple of jump shots.  But for the most part, Denver looked like the stronger, quicker, and better team early.  The Lakers were playing with urgency, they just weren’t playing smart.  Turnovers and fouls had the Lakers looking like a team that couldn’t get out of their own way.  Meanwhile the Nuggets looked like they were intent on steamrolling right through the defending champs.  Denver pushed the ball, attacked the paint hard via dribble penetration, and started out hot behind the three-point line.  Essentially, without the same level of crazy shot making, take what happened in the matchup between these teams on February 5th and just play that through your mind.  After one period, the Lakers were down 8 but it felt like 15.  And the second period really wasn’t much better.  The Lakers continued to play unevenly and the Nuggets continued to take advantage of the Lakers miscues.  All in all, it just looked like the Nuggs were going to run away with this game as all aspects of their game were working while the Lakers were only partially effective.

Actually, not all aspects of the Nuggets game were working.  One player was struggling – Carmelo Anthony.  And he was struggling for the same reason that the Lakers were even partially effective – Ron Artest.  Ron hounded Carmelo mercilessly and bodied him every chance he got.  When Anthony was even able to make a catch, Ron sat on his right hip and forced him into difficult shots or into just passing the ball.  Every time that Anthony made a shot it was over an outstretched arm or with Artest as physically close to him as possible without fouling.  It was just a superb defensive effort from #37.  And then on offense, Ron kept the Lakers in the game.  In the first quarter, Ron had two 3 pointers and two steals (one of which led to a break away dunk).  He followed that up in the second frame with another 3 pointer, 2 assists, another steal, and a drawn offensive foul on Carmelo.  Simply put, Ron Artest was the difference maker in the first half.  Even the Nuggets were still getting most of what they wanted on offense, their main player was struggling.  At halftime, the Nuggets were up 9 but it should have been closer to 20.  Before heading into the locker room, Chauncey Billups would say as much in his short interview.

The second half, especially the fourth quarter, is where the Lakers would really assert themselves and show the style of game that continues to frustrate the Nuggets.  It really comes down to three factors.  First is taking care of the ball.  Based off defensive efficiency, the Nuggets are only an average defensive team.  Sure they have a physicality that can bother the Lakers, but when the Lakers don’t help Denver’s cause by giving them the ball the game becomes much easier for the Lakers’ offense.  Fourteen first half turnovers would only become seventeen by the end of the game and this was a major factor in the Lakers finding a rhythm on offense.

Second is player positioning teamed with player substitutions.  In the second half, and specifically in the fourth quarter the Lakers went to Kobe on weakside elbow and put Odom in the game.  The combination of these two factors was too much for Denver to handle and it essentially became the go to set for the Lakers offense down the stretch.  This set and player combo does two key things for the Lakers – it puts Kobe in a position where he can either create more easily for himself while also making double teaming him both difficult and costly.  Going back to last year’s playoffs, George Karl has not found a solution for this set as he never seems to feel comfortable leaving a defender on an island against Kobe.  This leads to double teams that Kobe can handle quite well with pin point passes to cutters in the middle of the key or to players in the opposite corner with a skip pass.  This is where Odom’s presence comes into play, as he is the player that has the mobility and instincts to know when and how to cut into space, making himself available and in position to be dangerous on offense.  And boy, was LO effective.  He closed the game with 9 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter and either made shots or drew defenders to get our other guys good looks.  Tremendous play from both LO and Kobe and it essentially won the game for us on the offensive side of the ball. (On a side note, I’m not going to harp on Andrew Bynum’s game against the Nuggs.  He could have played better, but he really didn’t play that poorly either.  His offense was strong enough to command double teams and his defense was okay as he blocked some shots and closed down penetration by using his size but still wasn’t as active on the defensive glass and was at times a step slow in deciding what was the proper defensive rotation.  I think we all know that ‘Drew can play better.  But I still believe that he was okay.)

The third key to this second half victory was the Lakers defense.  I already mentioned Artest, but he deserves another mention now.  Ron was just amazing. He battled the entire night and made his mark on this game by making ‘Melo work hard for everything.  But Ron was not alone in his defense.  Kobe, Lamar, Pau, they all played huge down the stretch of this game by forcing tough shots, contesting, and then (for the most part) securing the defensive rebound.  Even when the Nuggs did secure offensive boards, the Lakers didn’t quit or hang their heads on the subsequent possession and instead just put their hard hat back on and went to work again.  The Nuggets had an offensive efficiency rating of 89.7 in this game.  Their normal output is 112.4.  That’s a huge difference and, ultimately, the difference in this contest.  If Denver can’t score at an elite level, they are beatable and the Lakers have both the personnel and offensive sets to grind out wins against this team.

Ultimately, there are some that will call this game a statement game.  And to a certain extent, I agree with that.  I do think that this game was one where the Lakers wanted to show the Nuggets that they don’t have the upper hand in this matchup.  But, I also think that even if the Lakers lost this game it would not have been the end of the world.  It would have tightened up the race for home court and it would have added to the already confident Nuggets.  It may have also created some doubt amongst the players as to what they can do to beat this team.  But I still believe that the Lakers have a ton of self belief and know that the quest for a championship goes through LA.  However that “if they lost” question needn’t be asked after this one.  The Lakers turned a poor showing with sloppy execution in the first half into a second half that reminded me of game 5 of the WCF from last season.  After the game Pau said that the Lakers wanted to show the Nuggets that they don’t have a chance in a series against LA.  And while I don’t think this game proved that, I do think that the Lakers are now fully aware of what it will take to beat the Nuggets and have the blueprint to do so.

[picappgallerysingle id="7816570"]
Records: Lakers 44-15 (1st in West), Nuggets 39-19 (2nd in West, 4.5 games behind Lakers)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 108.8 (9th in NBA), Nuggets 112.4 (2nd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.0 (1st in NBA), Nuggets 107.2 (16th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Nuggets: Chauncey Billups, Arron Afflalo, Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, Nene

A budding rivalary:  There are only a handful of games each regular season that I truly get excited for.  An 82 game regular season is a long campaign and there are just too many games on the schedule for me, as a fan, to truly get too worked up over.  Like most Lakers fans, a match up with Boston is one of them.  I also love to see the Lakers (and Kobe) go up against the Cavs (and Lebron).  But, besides those marquee games, few others get me perked up and looking ahead.  A match up with the Nuggets has joined that list.  Simply put, I like to see the Lakers match up with the best teams and Denver is in that group.

In fact, coming in, one could argue that the Nuggets are the best team in the league.  Sure, they’re only 6-4 in their last ten games (which is still pretty good) but in those games they’ve beaten both the Lakers and the Cavs – the two teams that most media and fans cite as the league’s best.  And there are stats to back up Denver’s status as one of the league’s top squads.  They have a league best 7-1 record against division leading teams.  And they’re not only beating those teams, they’re winning by an average of double digits.  We all remember the hot shooting that sunk the Lakers back in on the fifth of this month where Denver’s offensive onslaught was both amazing to watch and terrifying as they showed their capabilities – and all without ‘Melo.  And while the Nuggs game against the Cavs wasn’t a blowout, most fans also recall that back and forth game that ended with Carmelo sinking a game winning jumper right in Lebron James’ face.  Denver made wins look easy while also showing the grit that the truly great teams have.  So you’re likely not going to find a team with more self belief than the Nuggets.  And in today’s game, we see a matchup where both teams are sure to want to prove that they are the team to beat in the Western Conference.

To add to the already electric atmosphere of two of the top teams in the West playing is the fact that Denver really dislikes the Lakers and gets up to play them.  Our have acknowledged this and know where Denver’s mindset is.  And there are Nuggets players that have no trouble expressing their thoughts about the Lakers.  This is how it goes when teams develop that dislike of each other.  A dislike from facing off in the playoffs in consecutive years.  And when one team is the victor in those series, the bad blood builds and the team that is on top becomes the focus of all the other team’s energy.  The prevailing team becomes the measuring stick and if that team can be knocked off, the sky is the limit.  This is where Denver is right now.  They have the confidence.  The Lakers have not beaten the Nuggets this season.  Now, that want to prove exists for both teams.  The Lakers want this game too.  They want to win this game, and to do that, certain things must occur.

Keys to the game:  Defense is where you must start when analyzing how to beat the Nuggets.  They are the 2nd most efficient offense in the league and if you want to beat them, you must find a way to slow their potent attack.  It all starts with the two headed monster of ‘Melo and Billups.  Stopping ‘Melo is easier said than done.  For the past two seasons, I’ve thought that Melo rivals Kobe as the most complete offensive player in the game.  He’s got every offensive move in the book and can score from any spot from the floor with ease.  So, if you’re going to slow him you need a plan of attack.  It starts with making it tough for him to catch the ball.  Ron has the strength and the quickness to make catches more difficult for Anthony.  So Ron should use his strong body to contest Carmelo’s position all over the court and deny passes.  However, Melo is going to get the ball, so the next step is to crowd Carmelo and make him put the ball on the ground.  There isn’t a player in the league that uses the triple threat position better than Anthony.  He loves to jab step and then either shoot the jumper or take one dribble and then shoot.  Make Carmelo finish at the rim over our bigs.  It’s not the most full proof plan I admit, but when a guy averages almost 30 points a game, you have to give up something.  Slowing Chauncey is actually quite similar to the plan used for ‘Melo.  Billups loves to get space to create his jumper and will look to draw fouls when you crowd him.  If you can take away his (very effective) PUJIT’s, and make him use his dribble without giving him the chance to jump into you to draw the foul, you will win your match up with Billups.  I expect the Lakers to use bigger defenders on Chauncey and that likely means Kobe.  With Sasha out and Ron likely locked on Anthony all game, Kobe is the only guy that we have that can both pressure Billups’ jumper while still having the quickness to not get beat to the basket.  And with Kobe’s experience in guarding Billups over the years, I think we’ll get extended looks at this matchup today.

The other key to slowing Denver’s offense is limiting the Nugg’s fastbreak chances and points in transition – especially against their second unit.  Denver’s bench trio of Lawson, Smith, and Birdman are guys that love to get up and down the floor and will push the pace at every opportunity.  The Lakers can accomplish this slow down in two ways.  First is to hit the offensive glass hard.  Denver is not one of the better defensive rebounding teams, ranking 20th in defensive rebounding rate.  It will be difficult for Denver to run if they’re having trouble securing the ball in the first place.  So, Pau/Drew/LO need to hit the offensive glass hard.  The second way is to run to the paint and create a wall in transition on defense.  Smith and Billups are the only Nuggets that instinctively run to the three point line – everyone else loves to attack the paint.  The Lakers have been a good team at congesting the paint in transition this season and they’ll need their best effort in this regard today.  If the Lakers can get back effectively and still find Smith and Billups in transition when they run to the three point line, I think it will go a long way in limiting Denver’s chances to get the open shots that they’ve converted in our previous games against them

On offense, the Lakers need to stick to the script that appears every time I write one of these previews.  Run the Triangle offense.  Denver is not a strong defensive team, but they do excel at certain aspects of defense.  One thing Denver does well is defend the P&R.  Both Nene and Martin have quick feet and are very good at hedging on the ball handler and then recovering to their man.  The other thing that Denver does well is help on penetration in the paint with blocked shots (the Nuggs are 4th in the league in blocked shot %).  So, I’d implore the Lakers to run their sets and not rely on screen and roll actions or dribble penetration from wing isolations when on offense.  Instead, post the ball with our bigs and wings and then screen and cut off the ball.  In the playoffs last season, Kobe lived on the weakside pinch post in games 5 and 6 and the results were devastating.  Today, he needs to get back to that position on the floor and work his turn around jumper while also using his turn and face game to get easy shots at the rim.  The Lakers also need to establish Pau on the block against Kenyon Martin.  Martin is a solid defender and can play roughhouse ball on the block, but Pau is too skilled to be held down for an entire game.  The same is true of the Bynum/Nene match up as Drew has a size advantage over the Brazilian and he needs to work hard to establish deep post position so he can exploit it.

This is also a game where the Lakers’ bench will need to play well and stay away from the sloppy play that has plagued them for the past week.  Farmar and Shannon must be smart with the ball in transition and make good post entries.  They cannot rely on just going through the motions and then settling for what is easy for them.  They must do everything with purpose and not fall into the trap of taking long jumpers or over using their dribble.  They need to look to the post first and then if that option is not there, they need to look to reverse the ball to the top side guard or to the pressure release flashing to the FT line.  Odom will also be key (as always).  In last season’s playoff match up with Denver it was stellar play from Odom that helped turn the series around.  His dunk over Birdman was just one example of how an energetic and active LO can make a difference.  Needless to say, that Odom is what is needed in today’s game.

In end, this is a game that is likely to be close and hard fought.  I think the Lakers know that this game has meaning beyond just “1 of 82″ and will play with the urgency that has been missing in some of their recent contests.  It should be a great one.  Let’s get that win.

Nuggets Blogs:  For Denver’s perspective on this game, check out the work that Jeremy is doing at Roundball Mining Company.  Smart analysis and good insight are the norm over there.

Where you can watch: 12:30pm start in the West on ABC.  Also on ESPN Radio 710am.

The game preview will be up later, but in the meantime this video from LD2k (who is simply the best – check him out) got me excited.  Sure it’s an intro to last years WCF.  So what?  It got me in the mood anyway.  Enjoy.  And let’s get ready for a big game tomorrow.

[picappgallerysingle id="8117414"]
We all know the old fable of the tortoise vs. the hare.  Slow and steady wins the race.  Against the Sixers, the Lakers definitely looked slow.  And while they weren’t that steady, they were stable enough to pull out a win against a game opponent.  And for that, they deserve some credit.

But not too much.  Because the Lakers didn’t play particularly well.  As Phil Jackson would say after the game Lakers didn’t play with much urgency and didn’t play with a lot of smarts, but against an overmatched opponent it still proved to be enough.  And even though Philly is not in the same league as the Lakers in terms of talent, they found ways to pester the Lakers for most of this drawn out affair.  To many, it looked like the Lakers weren’t trying.  However, what I saw was a Lakers team that found themselves matched up against an opponent that continued to use the one advantage it had over a bigger opponent, which was their speed.  Lou Williams, Jrue Holiday, and Andre Iguodala pushed the ball at every opportunity against the Lakers and sprinted their way to transition baskets for themselves and for a hustling Sammy Dalembert.  Dalembert was the recipient of a variety of nice passes and found himself in a clean up role for a lot of misses by his mates as the Lakers bigs had to help a lot on penetrating guards in both the half court and transition.  The race was on and the Sixers were sprinting their way to a lead.

But that lead would be tentative all night as the Lakers advantage – their size – asserted itself.  Both Gasol and Bynum were dominant inside for most of this evening and the Sixers just did not have an answer for them in the paint.  Pau and Drew combined for 43 points and 24 rebounds (10 offensive) by using their incredible size and length advantage against the Philly frontline.  And even though the Sixers continued to push the ball, sending waves of athletes at the Lakers (when it wasn’t the aforementioned trio of Iggy/Lou/Jrue it was Rodney Carney and Thad Young and Speights), the size of the Lakers proved to be too much as our bigs eventually found ways to clog the lane and contest shots.  Ultimately turning misses into defensive rebounds and opportunities to go the other way and pound Philly inside again and again.

Over the course of the second half, the Lakers bigs stayed true to the old fable and won the race with their slow and steady approach and tonight it was enough.  It wasn’t pretty.  In fact, for most of the evening it was downright boring (save for a few alley oops in the first quarter and some intensity down the stretch where the crowd finally showed some life).  But just as the tortoise always did in the story we read when we were kids, the Lakers (and their big men) pulled out this win.

A couple of other notes on this one:

*Kobe played an okay game in terms of stats (19 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds).  He was definitely looking to pass the ball early in the game and I think that lead to the success that our big men had as he was actively seeking out our bigs – though at times to the detriment to the flow of our offense as he seemed to overpass in certain circumstances. I agree with what Phil said in his post game presser – Kobe still seems to be finding his way and is trying to strike the proper balance with his mates while still searching for all the facets of his game. Against Memphis, Kobe was hot with his jumper but did not have much success going to the hoop. Against Dallas, Kobe was out of rhythm in general for most of the night but tried to shoot his way out of it (eventually doing just that in the 3rd quarter, only to not have that final dagger in his bag). Against Philly, he seemed to try and let the offense come to him more early in the game while getting aggressive in the second half with drives to the cup. I think we’ll see him find his groove and strike that balance soon.

*Will we ever see a 40% night from behind the arc again?  Another night with a 5-14 from three point range for this team.  Sadly, this has been the Lakers season when shooting from distance and I think we’re all just going to have to hope that in key games the shooting reverts to past season’s success, even if there is no evidence shown this season that inspires fans to think that night is really going to come.  Against a team that has no chance against us inside (like Philly) a night like this may not mean much, but against other teams we will need better shooting.

*I thought a lot of Philly’s run outs were because of poor floor balance by the Lakers, but upon further review I think it had more to do with the pure speed of the Sixers players.  They were able to secure rebounds and just go and I think their running effort was aided a great deal by the fact that Iguodala secured nine defensive rebounds and was able to turn almost every single one of those boards into a running chance (similar to what we see from Odom on many nights).  When you have a wing/ball handler that is rebounding well, it adds a dimension to your offense and I think Philly benefitted a great deal from that in this game.

*Even though I mentioned that Philly is not nearly as talented as the Lakers, they do have some nice players.  They’re very athletic and their guys can finish in the paint.  But like I said in the game preview, I think they’re mismatched for the style of offense that they run.  Throughout the game, you saw Eddie Jordan furiously yelling at his guys to run the proper sets, when in reality – even for a young team – that shouldn’t be the case for a team that runs the Princeton offense.  Like the Triangle, the Princeton set is a read and react system where players should be moving in unison, setting screens, and back dooring the opponent on overplays.  Philly didn’t do much of this and instead had most of their success off isolation dribble penetration where cutters became open because their man was forced to help in the paint, not because of any built in actions of their sets.  I worry for Eddie Jordan with this group because this roster is not a good match for what he wants to accomplish on offense.

[picappgallerysingle id="4315974"]
Records: Lakers 43-15 (1st in West), 76ers 22-35 (10th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 108.8 (10th in NBA), 76ers 105.7 (20th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.0 (Tied for 1st in NBA), 76ers 108.6 (20th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
76ers:  Louis Williams, Jrue Holliday, Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand, Samuel Dalembert

The Lakers Coming in:  The Lakers, for all intents and purposes, are not playing close to their best ball.  And, in game 59 of the season, that’s probably starting to become an issue.  Earlier in the season, this could be explained away with the addtion of Artest, Pau being on the shelf, inegrating a more polished Bynum, Kobe’s post game, etc, etc.  But at this point in the season, the Lakers should be starting to gel.  I’m not in panic mode, but I am a bit concerned.  It’s not the loss to the Mavericks or any loss that concerns me really.  It’s more the level of play that has me looking a bit harder at this team.  Last season, there were cries from fans about coasting or not playing hard, but this season that is not the case.  I really don’t see a complacent team when I watch the Lakers play.  I see a team that isn’t executing in the manner that it needs to in the moments of the game that may not require the most focus.  I mean, against Memphis and even against Dallas, we saw a team that hunkered down and got the baskets it needed to either win the game or give themselves a real chance.  But what about those moments in the middle of the third quarter or right before halftime?  Those moments matter too and I’m not seeing the attention to detail that I’ve seen in the past. 

The 76ers Coming in:  The major story surrounding the 76ers right now has little to do with anything that is happening on the court, but rather with a guy that isn’t on it for them right now.  As you’ve likely been reading over the past few weeks, Allen Iverson has been with the team off and on for some time dealing with an undisclosed illness to his daughter.  Needless to say, we all wish that this situation turns for the better for Iverson and his family and my thoughts are with this on court warrior must now be feeling a bit helpless with a situation that he can’t control.

On the court, the Sixers seem to be going through the motions.  I don’t mean that they’re not playing hard, but they’re a team that is not constructed in a way that will promote success for the long term.  To steal a line from Jay-Z, the 76ers seem to be like a treadmill – running in place.  Many around the league were thinking that Philly would be a major player around the trade deadline and make a deal that would shake up their roster so they could start to rebuild with a nucleus that better fits their scheme.  Well, that didn’t happen.  So, the Sixers are still stuck with pieces that don’t quite fit and a coach whose system is rigid and requirese certain types of guys.  I know that if I was building a team that ran a Princeton offense, I really wouldn’t choose to have any of the starters on this team populate that roster.

76ers BlogsPhiladunkia not only has a great blog name, but they bring some great insight to the Sixers.  Also, visit here, to check out some questions I answered for them for their ‘Fo with the Foes series.

Keys to game:  In the last game between these two teams, it turned out to be throw back the clock night as Iverson was vintage and Kobe dueled with him to give the fans of Philly a look back to 2001.  Sadly, we wont see any of that tonight – at least not from Iverson – due to the circumstances that I mentioned earlier.  So, we’re left with the potential for a couple of different storylines that don’t quite provide the same punch, but could be interesting nonetheless.

Offensively, as I mentioned to Philadunkia, the Lakers have an big advantage inside and should go to it.  Bynum and Pau have distinct size advantages over both Dalembert and Brand and should work them on the block and either score with relative ease or make them double and then move the ball to open teammates.  Another advantage the Lakers have is with Kobe facing a rookie in Jrue Holiday.  In these types of circumstances, Kobe seems to relish facing the up and coming young bucks to show them how much further they have to go in their young careers.  So, we may just see agressive Kobe tonight, but I also hope that his teammates come along with him to join the party.  Philly is not a strong defensive team, but one thing they can do is force turnovers.  Philly is in the top ten in opposition’s turnover rate and with the Lakers propensity to turn over the ball in the last two games, this is something to monitor.  The Lakers must not be lazy with their post entries nor with their ball reversals because Philly does have some athletes to take advantage of these mistakes.

Defensively, the Lakers need to clamp down on Iguodala.  In the last game against the Sixers, Ron Artest pretty much locked up AI2 to the tune of 8 points to go along with 5 turnovers.  Without Iverson tonight, Iggy will be depended on more to produce offense but if he can’t muster a better effort against Ron, this game could get ugly on offense for Philly.  Two other players to watch are Philly’s two PF’s, Brand and Thad Young.  In the last game, Brand was the only other Sixer to score more than 10 points by notching 19.  Sure, he needed 19 shots to get there, but he showed he’s still got some craftiness in the post and can still make that 15ft jumper.  Pau may not have his hands full with Elton, but he won’t be able to just ignore him either.  He should really be aware of Brand on the offensive glass as 5 of Elton’s 14 carroms were picked up on our defensive glass.  As for Thad Young, he may not have taken the step that many fans and (surely) his coaches would have wanted him to this season, but he’s still a versatile forward that can do a lot of things on the court.  He has range out the three point line and has a decent handle.  Plus he’s left handed, so he gets an extra credit sticker from me.  He’ll likely find himself matched up a lot with our own lefty, so LO will need to be aware that Thad will hang around the three point line but sneak into the paint if you ball watch too much.  We’re going to need an aware LO this evening, so here’s hoping he ate his sour patch kids before the tip.

Where you can watch:  7:30 pm start time here on the West on Fox Sports West.  Also on ESPN Radio 710am.