Archives For March 2010

When you watch an NBA game and already know the outcome, you get to look at what happens in the contest in a bit of a different light. In the case of the Lakers/Rockets game, I already knew that the Lakers had beat the Rockets 109-101 when I hit the play button on my DVR this morning. So when I started to watch the game I wanted to look for some of the little things that went into the win.  I mean, when you watched the game, it was obvious that the Lakers size advantage was too much for the Rockets to handle.  It was also obvious that Kobe, Fisher, Farmar, and Brown were making a good percentage of their jumpshots – an act that makes our offense very difficult to contend with because of the freedom it gives Gasol to operate on the block in single coverage.  What was also clear was that early in the game the Lakers played to the Rockets pace, getting into an up and down game where the Rockets speed – boy is Brooks fast – could keep them in the game.  And it was also evident that when the Lakers started to force the Rockets to go up against a set half court defense that the open jumpers were no longer wide open and they started to fall with less regularity.  That’s how a 34 point first quarter turns into an 11 point second quarter.  These are pieces of big picture analysis.  I was looking for the little things.  And what I saw were some subtle adjustments to the Lakers offensive sets.

In the preview for this game, I mentioned that I’d like to see the Lakers initiate their offensive sets more on the weak side with Kobe in the post.  I thought that by setting up the offense on the weak side with post entries to Kobe, the Lakers could then swing the ball back to the strong side and get Gasol going easier against a rotating defense.  Well, it turns out I got half of what I wanted.  What I mean is the Lakers did set up their offense a lot more on the weak side by going into the post.  However, it was Gasol that was on the block and not Kobe.  This was offensive wrinkle #1.

Weakside 1

weakside 2

weakside 3

The three screen shots above are from early in the game.  It was obvious that Lakers wanted to get Pau the ball, but the wrinkle (as stated above) is that he’s not in the hub of the Triangle.  Instead, Pau gets isolated on the weak side where he has more space to work and can see the double team coming (if it does) more easily.  On these three possessions Pau got the first bucket of the game on a beautiful drop step baseline with a lefty hook finish (#1), another layup finish (this time with the foul) on a drop step baseline (#2), and then executed a nice pass to a flashing Odom underneath (after Kobe set a nice back screen on LO’s man that freed up LO to move down to the box) when all the Rockets defenders got caught watching that resulted in an Ariza foul on LO(#3).  Many times this season, the Lakers have been using Kobe as the trigger man on the weak side post.  Kobe’s quite capable on the block and at the pinch post and putting him in this position gives the Lakers a distinct advantage against most defenses as Kobe can either score or make the right read very easily to make a good pass.  However, putting Pau in this position accomplishes two things.  First is that Pau is also quite capable in these positions as he has a refined low and mid post game from which he can score or set up his teammates quite easily.  But second, is that this gives Pau the “touches” that help this offense run smoothly.  This allows Kobe to work off the ball and occupy defenders and their attention while one of our most efficient scorers works on the ball.  Plus it gives Kobe (and our other guards/wings) a chance to to get his shots more within the flow of the offense.  An adjustment like this, while minor, is a win-win.

The second wrinkle that I saw when watching the game was a return of the multitude of screen actions that are built into the Triangle.  Before this road trip started, it was reported the Phil and the coaches put an extra emphasis into three point shooting in practice.  After watching last night’s game, it looks like the coaches may have also put a greater emphasis on setting screens.

screen 1

This play started with Kobe initiating the offense with a post entry into Pau.  Many times this season when the ball goes into the post, the Lakers wings (in this case Kobe and Fisher) run double clear out cuts in order to allow Pau to isolate on the post.  But, in this example, after passing to Pau, Kobe fakes a scissor cut off Pau’s shoulder and instead pins Fisher’s man as Fish circles up to the extended wing to receive the pass.  On this specific play, Fisher missed the jumper, but I liked that we didn’t run the same old action and instead set a solid screen to get a player a good shot.

screen 2

In the above screen shot, Fisher brought up the ball and then immediately swung the ball to Artest.  Now, look at the screen that Pau is setting for Kobe on the weak side block.  This is the type of screen action that has been missing a lot this season.  The typical action on this play would involve Artest passing into Odom or running a P&R with LO all while Fisher and Pau set a double down screen for Kobe for him to circle back to the top of the key for a pass and jumpshot.  Instead, we get Kobe flashing to the front of the rim on a fantastic hard pick by Gasol.

One of the other wrinkles was a return of the high P&R.  I’ve been a critic of the high P&R because I think the Lakers have used it as a crutch too often this season and that it has not been as successful for them as a standard play.  And in recent weeks, we’ve actually seen the Lakers use this play less in favor of starting out our sets through the sideline Triangle initiation or with Kobe on the weak side pinch post.  But against the Rockets last night, the Lakers went back to the high P&R and it was quite effective.  Especially on plays where the ball handler would draw the second defender and then execute a nice drop pass to the rolling screen man.  Below is a perfect illustration of how the Lakers used this play last night:

P&R 1

P&R 2

P&R 3

P&R 4

Look at the screen that Pau gets on Kobe’s man.  Then see how Kobe is able to turn the corner and get into the teeth of the Rockets defense while Pau rolls to the basket.  As Kobe stops and pivots to shoot his jumper every Rocket defender is frozen and Pau is right at the front of the rim ready to receive a pass for the easy lay up.  The Lakers successfully ran this play several times last night with benefitting with several layups.  But one of the reasons this play worked is because the Lakers didn’t depend on it time after time after time or as a bail out play when they didn’t feel like running their sets.  Does this mean that I want to see the Lakers go back to a steady diet of P&R’s?  No, but I wouldn’t mind them starting to mix it back in – especially at times when so many of our other offense sets are working.

As the Lakers head towards the playoffs, it’s important that they start to execute their offense better.  The best way to do that is to diversify their sets and keep the defense off balance where they can’t key in on Pau in the hub of the Triangle and Kobe isolated on the wing.  The Lakers won’t always be successful with the little wrinkles that they throw out against the opposition, but they sure were last night.  Against the Rockets, the Lakers had an offensive rating of 117.2 on 65.2% true shooting.  Granted, the Rockets are a middle of the road defensive team and were severely overmatched by the size the Lakers could trot out (even Mbenga was easily breaking free for easy shots against that undersized front line).  But by using more options within the offense, especially those that create two man games between Kobe and Pau are a great place to start that get our offense going.

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Records: Lakers 53-19 (1st in West), Rockets 36-35 (10th in West, 16.5 behind Lakers)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 108.8 (11th in NBA), Rockets 107.0 (16th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.7 (4th in NBA), Rockets 107.2 (16th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Rockets: Aaron Brooks, Chase Budinger, Trevor Ariza, Luis Scola, Chuch Hayes

The Lakers Coming In:  Former NFL coach Bill Parcels used to say that “you are what your record says you are”.  And, in sports, I think that’s pretty much truth.  I mean, the Nets and ‘Wolves (for example) are quite bad.  And based off record, the Lakers are one of the best teams in the NBA.  However, the Lakers are also one of the more inconsistent teams in the NBA and they’ve been that all season.  Capable of playing great ball and beating anyone, of playing awful and losing ugly and everything else in between.  This is the truth of what this team is.  Does that mean they can’t win the title?  No, it does not.  But what it does mean that following this team through the playoffs will be a true roller coaster ride that will have fans exhaulting them one game and condemning them the next.  Really, this is the same as last season (see the Houston and Denver playoff series) so I urge fans to try and get used to this fact again.  I do understand that this team has seemingly lacked the “desire” or “hunger” of last years’ team.  However, I also understand that this team is different in its personnel and its makeup.  They are the defending champions that is no longer doing the hunting; they are the hunted.  And that target on your back can become a heavy load to carry night in and night out.  My point in all of this is that while there is no reason to think that this team has some sort of magical switch it can flip to suddenly become dominant, there’s also no reason to think that when challenged in a playoff series that they don’t have the resolve to win.  Seeing what actually happens is why we watch the games.

The Rockets Coming in:  The Rockets have been struggling to get wins lately.  They’ve lost 3 in a row and 4 of their last 5 games.  In their last game, trade deadline acquisition Kevin Martin sat out with a sore left shoulder and the Rockets proceeded to lose to the Clippers.  That game also saw Shane Battier miss his eighth consecutive game due to a hyper-extended left knee.  With that last loss, the Rockets now sit 6.5 games out of the 8th seed of the playoffs with only 11 games left to play.  Basically, at this point, even though this team has fought hard over the course of the season it looks like the Rockets will miss the playoffs for the first time since the 2006 season.  A season that, coincidentally, saw Yao Ming play in only 57 games and T-Mac only play in 47.  And while this teams’ secondary players are more talented than the group that played without those stars several seasons ago, the point remains that this seasons’ Rockets have missed that big time talent that can carry them from night to night.  You can get by on hustle and mettle for only so long before talent level and ability catch up to you.  The fact that a group that’s been led mostly by Brooks and Scola is above .500 this late in the season speaks volumes about the heart and character of this team. This group of guys should be proud about the effort they’ve put forth in the 2010 campaign.

But this season is not over yet and the Rockets will continue to play hard.  Besides Martin, new acquisitions Jared Jeffries and (rookie) Jordan Hill have round roles on this team.  Chase Budinger has turned into a gem of a 2nd round pick and is flashing the talent that had him pegged as a lottery pick throughout his college career.  And when Martin was healthy, Ariza had found his stride again as a highly effective role player that was slotted correctly as a 3rd or 4th option on offense that does the little things to help teams win.  There are positives with this team.  It’s just, in a very deep western conference, they didn’t have enough this year.

Rockets BlogsRed94 is a very good sight that brings in depth analysis and great information on the Rockets.  It’s worth a visit.  Or 50.  Check them out.

Keys to game:  Contrary to popular beilief, the Rockets are not an elite defensive team this season.  They will battle you for position and they will play hard, but they don’t have Yao as a detterent at the basket and are missing their best wing defender in Battier.  This season, they are middle of the road and have holes on defense that can be exploited.

While a fantastic post defender, Chuck Hayes is still undersized and can be shot over the top of.  Tonight will be a night where Pau won’t be able to just back down his defender, but he will be able to get his shot off (granted he doesn’t expose the ball too early to Hayes’ quick hands) by being active on the block and using his quickness to get to spots on the floor where he can be effective.  I’d really like to see Pau get his post touches off of ball reversals rather than on the standard sideline initiation of our sets.  Set up our offense on the weakside with Kobe in the low post and then pass the ball out and swing it around.

Speaking of Kobe, expect a bounce back game from Mr. Bean.  Last night had Phil saying that Kobe “was not himself” and that was pretty obvious to anyone that watched the game.  While Sefolosha deserves loads of credit for his defense, Kobe was not aggressive at all and only took 11 shots even though the Lakers were trailing almost from the outset.  Kobe rarely has two bad games in a row and tonight he faces off against a rookie (Budinger) and a guy that he’s very familiar with (Ariza).  Kobe can go to the post on either of these players and with no shot blocker roaming Houston’s paint, I expect him to try and live at the front of the rim this evening.  The same of which could be said of Odom.  If any player played half way decent last night it was LO.  He should be able to build on that performance tonight against Houston.  Much like the game against the Spurs, the Rockets don’t have a player that matches up with LO very well (especially now that Landry is gone) and Odom should be able to use his speed and quickness advantages to attack Scola in the open court, on dribble isolations, and in sneaking in for offensive rebounds.

On defense, we’re all familiar with Laker killer Aaron Brooks.  Brooks sees Fisher and he (seemingly) thinks it’s time to set a new career high.  That said, what people rarely talk about is how it takes effective team defense to slow a quick guard like Brooks that plays full speed and in attack mode for the entire game.  Yes Fisher needs to shade Brooks better and keep him to one side of the floor as much as possible, but the Lakers’ bigs need to hedge better in P&R situations and rotate earlier on penetration because of Brooks’ speed and ability to close the gap between the three point line and the rim.  Every time Brooks gets a head of steam to the rim, there should be a big man there to deter the drive or contest the shot.  Every time.  If one of Gasol, Odom, Powell, or Mbenga isn’t in the picture it’s a breakdown.

The other key Rocket to watch is Luis Scola.  He’s been on a tear lately and has scored below 15 points only twice in all of March.  Granted his minutes are up now that (other Laker killer) Carl Landry is gone, but he’s taking on the extra load and producing for Houston.  The key to slowing Scola is to understand that he wants to go right.  Luis’ right hand is like Odom’s left – you know that’s where he is going, you try to stop it, and he gets there anyway.  His patented moves are his jump hook over his left shoulder and an up and under straight out of the Kevin McHale handbook.  The Lakers defenders need to shade him to turn over his left shoulder and contest without fouling.

As I mentioned earlier, Houston will continue to fight throughout this game and will not give an inch.  I mentioned Brooks and Scola, but Kylee Lowry is another bulldog off the Rockets bench that will attack every chance he gets.  After last night’s debacle, the Lakers needs to come back strong to show that the OKC match up was only one game and come into this game determined to erase the memories of that wretched loss.  On a side note, media and fans may try to turn this game into a battle of Artest vs. Ariza.  Ignore it.  Both of those players are on the teams they’re on now and while both guys are missed in both cities (Houston may not want to admit it, but before Kevin Martin came on board they could have used a versatile scorer like Ron that could create for himself or his mates while also providing strong, physical defense) but at this point everyone has moved on.  It’s an easy story and that’s why it comes up, but in the end we’re already 70+ games into the year with both teams adjusting quite nicely with their acquisitions.

Where you can watch:  5:30pm start in the West on KCAL, also on ESPN Radio 710am.

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Well, well, well.  The Lakers really know how to take the wind out of the sails of a winning streak.  Three days after having one of their better wins of the season, the Lakers come through with one of their worst games in recent memory.  The closest comparison is probably the Bobcats game that was in the middle of the Lakers three game losing streak, but that game was the 2nd night of a back to back and was at least in the 13-18 point range for most of the night.  This game, against the Thunder, was just plain awful.  It was flush down the toilette bad.  I immediately erased it from DVR so that it didn’t infect my cable box.  There were so many things wrong with this game that this recap is really a postmortem.  So here it is, bullet style:

*The Lakers scored their season low in points.  They had an offensive rating of 85.6.  Their true shooting was 45.5%.  And, if you were unlucky enough to watch this game you know that those numbers don’t even do this stink job justice.  I mean, Kobe was 4-11, Pau was 3-10, Fisher was 2-6, Ron was even worse at 1-6.  Even Odom, who didn’t shoot that poorly, needed 16 shots to score his 15 points.  No one played well on offense.  Oh sorry, Ammo and Powell combined for 14 points on 6-8 shooting.  I apologize that I barely noticed the taco unit putting up points when the game had been decided for the final 15 minutes of game time.

*In the preview, I mentioned that the Lakers needed to be conscientious about limiting the Thunder’s offensive rebounding and watching their turnovers committed.  And how did the Lakers do in those areas?  Well in the O-rebounding department, the Lakers only gave up 8.  But they made up for the success in that area by being awful in the turnover game.  18 TO’s for the Lakers with Kobe having 9 of them all by himself.  On Twitter, I mentioned that Kobe looked like the NY Giants version of Kurt Warner with all the fumbles, falling down, and passing to the other team.  But I really liked commenter Bobji’s description as well: “Kobe’s running with the ball like he’s wearing bowling shoes.” Save for a stretch where Kobe hit a few consecutive jumpers, #24 never looked uncomfortable in this game and it showed with his inability to control his dribble or make correct reads with the ball.  Give Thabo Sefolosha a ton of credit here as he stuck to Kobe better than most and didn’t fall for any of the head fakes or get distracted by his myriad of feints and hesitation moves.

*But it wasn’t just the offense that was bad, the defense was terrible too.  For pretty much the entire game Russell Westbrook got to the places on the floor where he felt comfortable and knocked down shots.  23 points on only 13 shots for Russ as he was the star of the show early and often for the Thunder.  And as for Durant, he was able to free himself up on curls and as a ball handler on the P&R to create good looks for himself.  He stroked his pretty jumper when he had space and attacked the rim when he got a step on his defender.  Early on that defender was Artest, but after some early foul trouble it was Kobe.  Then after some cross matching and switching on defense it was Shannon Brown.  But in the end it didn’t matter.  KD had 26 points on 19 shots and would have had 30+ easily had he not shot so poorly from three point range (1-7 on some pretty good looks).

I’d give you more, but what is the point?  The Lakers were beaten handily tonight by a team that wanted this game more and played like it.  The Thunder came out with a ton of energy and an offensive focus that the Lakers did not even attempt to match.  And their defense was superb as they made entry passes difficult and denied ball reversals very well.  Ultimately, my more positive self says that there are games like this and let’s just move on.  But, in the back of my mind, the negativity of another loss where the Lakers just didn’t seem to show up is frustrating.  I hate to over analyze a game like this because it truly was an awful performance.  But the Lakers have given us a few too many of these games this season and that is worrisome.  Do I think this type of game is more than just one loss?  No, I do not.  But do I see the Lakers offering up at least one of these in the playoffs?  I sure do.  We’ll have to see if/when they do how much it impacts the series that they’re playing.

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Records: Lakers 53-18 (1st in West), Thunder 43-27 (6th in West, 9.5 behind Lakers)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.4 (11th in NBA), Thunder 104.5 (17th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.2 (4th in NBA), 100.6 (5th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Thunder: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic

The Lakers Coming in:  With a seven game winning streak in their pockets, the Lakers are building momentum.  They just showed the Spurs what championship level defense looks like while also showing the rest of the league what their offense is capable of when the three ball is falling.  The only thing that’s missing is their starting Center and their back up SF, but even that looks to be rectified soon.  All in all, things are looking up for the Lakers and that is a dangerous proposition considering they’ve already got the second best record in the league and are (along with the Cavs) favorites to win the championship this season.  Things aren’t perfect, but they rarely will be.  All we can hope for is that when it’s needed, the Lakers can play to the level that their talent indicates they can.  The final 24 minutes against the Spurs showed that this is indeed possible.  So as this road trip continues against quality opponents, the onus is on the Lakes to continue to prove it.

The Thunder Coming in:  Let’s just all pause for a second to acknowledge what the Thunder have become.  Three seasons ago, they earned the 2nd pick in the draft with a 31-51 record.  After drafting Kevin Durant with that #2 pick, the Sonics/Thunder proceeded to win 43 games over the next two seasons combined.  And tonight, as we enter this contest, they’ve already matched that win total from the past two seasons with 43 wins in this years’ campaign alone.  And they still have 12 games left in the regular season.  Shrewd drafting from Sam Presti and an inspired hire of Scott Brooks to lead a young team of talented prospects has turned around an entire franchise.  It’s a good time to root for the Thunder, for sure.  And yes, it takes some luck (Kevin Durant is the type of player that can single handedly make an organization relevant) to reach the heights that this team has, but it also takes a vision and execution of a plan.  The Thunder have done just that and only look to get better as the years pass.

As for what’s going on when the Thunder suit up to play the games, they’ve been a bit up and down lately.  They’re 8-4 in March, but have only won two of their last five games.  That includes a blowout at the hands of the Pacers (?!) and a close loss to the Spurs where Durant went for big numbers but his supporting cast couldn’t make enough shots to make SA pay when the Spurs double teamed KD late in the game.  It’s games like those two that force fans to remember that despite the incredible growth of this team that they are still quite young.  They make mistakes and don’t always know how to win the close games.  But they seem to learn when they take their lumps, so it’s only a matter of time before this team starts to figure it all out.

Thunder Blogs:  Daily Thunder is a really good site that deserves a visit.  As I type this, they’ve put up a post that would make our own commenter The Dude Abides smile.  Seriously, go check out the great work that Royce Young is doing.

Keys to game:  The Thunder are an interesting team because they’ve assembled a fantastic bunch of complimentary pieces.  They’ve got Durant and Westbrook who are very good with or without the ball, a do it all Forward in Green, complimentary defensive aces like Thabo and Ibaka (more on him later), and a smooth scoring bench player that helps the second unit continue to score the ball.  So, tonight will be a test as the Lakers play a true team that has good chemistry and knows how to play off of each other and to their strengths.

On defense, slowing the Thunder offense means containing Kevin Durant.  Which is easier said than done.  But, in my opinion the Lakers have one of the best players to accomplish this.  Ron Artest has usually done a pretty good job on Durant, making him work for every bucket.  In the three match ups against the Lakers this season, Durant has averaged 24.3 points on 51.8% true shooting with 5.3 turnovers.  But when comparing these numbers to his season averages of 29.7 ppg on 60.2% true shooting with 3.4 turnovers it’s easy to see the difference.  Ron will need to continue to body KD all over the court and limit his length by closing down space and forcing him to shoot his jumper over an extended arm.  Durant has a ton of weapons on offense, but Ron is an elite defender and has seen all of these weapons before.  Ron’s physical strength and quick hands will be key tonight in making KD’s life difficult and we’ll see if Ron can continue his previous success against on of the league’s best wing players.

But Durant is not alone as an offensive threat for the Thunder.  The other key player to slow down is Russ Westbrook.  And considering that he’ll be guarded a lot (at least early) by Fisher, the Lakers look to be in some trouble.  That said, there are ways to put the clamps on the young OKC point guard and it starts by treating him the same way that the Lakers have treated Tony Parker for a lot of his career.  Westbrook (like Parker) is not a good three point shooter and is in constant attack mode to try and get to the rim – taking half of his 14 shots a game within 10 feet of the basket.  So, Fisher (and every other Laker defender) needs to sag off Westbrook and bait him into shooting his inconsistent jumpshot.  Go under every screen and in the half court treat him like he’s Rajon Rondo.  If the Lakers can turn Russell into a distributor and limit his explosive forays into the paint it will go a long way to shutting him down.  The other key to slowing Westbrook is to mark him on the offensive glass.  He is the best offensive rebounding point guard in the league (averaging 1.6 a game) and he’s great at finding creases in the defense to find lanes to the rim to gain extra possessions.  And considering that PG’s are rarely tasked with boxing out their own man, he’s very good at using his athleticism to get to the ball.

On offense, the Lakers face a team that has some good pieces in slowing down their key offensive threats.  Thabo Sefolosha is the quick and long defender that has given Kobe trouble in the past.  And then the Thunder also have back up Center Serge Ibaka that is a good defensive big.  Since both of these defenders have the ability to slow our guys, the key to tonight (as it is most nights) is to run our offensive sets and get the OKC defense moving around and put in positions where they have to make tough choices.  In recent games we’ve seen the Lakers move the ball much better and isolate Kobe on the weakside of the Triangle at the pinch post.  This allows him to survey the floor, see the double team if it comes, while also putting him at a money position where his comfort level on offense is strong.  Expect to see Kobe back down Thabo and try to work him on the block and also turn and face up from that 15 foot area so he can either rise up to shoot his jumper or use his variety of jab steps and feints to create a driving lane.  As for Gasol, though Ibaka, Krstic, and Collison will all see time against him on defense, none of them can really handle his wide array of post moves.  What I would like to see is Pau use his mid range jumper to set up his dribble drive and post games.  Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen Pau start to feel more comfortable shooting his 15-17 foot jumper and against this team knocking that shot down will go a long way in opening up the rest of his offensive game.

The other X factor in this contest is, as usual, Lamar Odom.  Jeff Green is kind of an Odom-lite player that moves well and should do a better job than most of staying with LO off the dribble.  However, where LO does have an advantage on Green is on the low block.  If, as I hope, Gasol can knock down his mid-range jumper it should allow Odom more room to slash to the basket off the ball and post up more with space to operate against Green.  With Bynum out, LO has really stepped up his game and tonight having him carry a bigger load on offense may be necessary.

Returning to the macro level, the Lakers must control their defensive glass tonight.  In the three previous games against OKC, the Lakers gave up 14, 17, and 13 offensive rebounds.  Those numbers are too high.  I already mentioned marking Westbrook, but Ibaka is another guy that we really need to pay attention to tonight when securing defensive rebounds.  The other key stat the Lakers need to pay attention to is turnovers.  In the two games where the Lakers won by three points, the Lakers had 25 and 17 turnovers.  In the game that was a blowout, the Lakers had 9.  The Thunder is a team of athletes that will get out in transition and hurt you on the fast break when you just hand them the ball.  If we can limit the give aways, we’ll cut down those chances and make the Thunder work for all their baskets.

Where you can watch:  5pm start time out West on KCAL.  Also on ESPN Radio 710am.

NBA: Lakers vs. Kings Mar 16

Tonight the Lakers will match up against the Oklahoma City Thunder led by the young stud Kevin Durant – young studs I guess I should say. Although extremely young, this OKC team has one of the most talented cores in Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green. Thabo Sefolosha plays his role well and guys like Eric Maynor, James Harden, Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka give them quality minutes off of the bench.

Tonight, the Lakers will have to ratchet up the defense again because they’ll be trying to stop Durant, who has been in a quasi-battle with LeBron James for the league’s scoring title. He’s definitely able to get buckets when and where he wants as witnessed during his ridiculous 29-game streak of scoring at least 25 points. The problems don’t stop there, though. Russell Westbrook, when he’s having an on night, can fill up the score card. Already twice this month, he’s had games where he’s had at least 30 points and 10 assists. He is definitely a much better distributor than he ever was at UCLA, but he’s also been prone to turn the ball over.

Ron Artest and the Fisher-Farmar-Brown trio will be key in stopping those two. In both games that Westbrook has recorded 30 and 10, Durant had at least 35 points and at least two of their other teammates scored in double figures. I like this match up for the Lakers because we get to look at how they’ll fare against two completely different kinds of teams in back-to-back games as the season comes to an end. I like to get a feel for what style of play the Lakers are more comfortable with going into the playoffs, not that it makes any difference, but it’s definitely something interesting to pay attention to as the real NBA season begins.

Game of the Week from the Los Angeles Times: The Lakers have taken plenty of heat for their difficulty winning in Portland, but here’s a streak their followers can enjoy. The Lakers have won 12 consecutive games against the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise. Plenty has been written about the Lakers’ nine-game losing streak in Portland, which finally came to an end last month. But almost nothing has been written about their Thunder run, probably because it’s split across two teams in two cities, the Lakers winning their last six games against Seattle and their first six after the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City. Personally, I hope the streak continues. Seattle was one of my favorite cities on this continent, let alone the NBA, so I wasn’t thrilled when owner Clay Bennett yanked the team out of Seattle. There’s no cheering in the press box, but there’s certainly private delight in a particular team losing here and there.

From the Orange County Register quoting a Rolling Stones Article: “(Durant’s ability) to challenge demented three-faced narcissist Kobe Bryant and the Laker hegemony has been the highlight of the year … The now-inexorable climb down the dominance ladder for a megalomaniac like Kobe is a tale every sports fan outside L.A. can’t help but appreciate … “Kobe has always been smart and predatory and pathologically driven, and he’s going to maximize every last drop of ability in an attempt to stay on the throne, so the Lakers will hold off the Thunder for a few more years. But the moment is coming when Kobe is going to throw everything he has at Durant, and this wide-eyed, lanky, respectful kid – nothing personal, Mr. Bryant – is going to kick his @$& anyway. That’ll be a delicious moment, and it might even happen this year.” (Sorry, Rolling Stone Magazine doesn’t provide a link to this story). Don’t count on Durant coming anywhere close to Bryant. Even at 31 years old and with the mileage that comes with 12-plus NBA seasons, Bryant still has more talent and more drive to kick more than one up-and-comers rear end. And do you really think with the Lakers in position to defend their NBA title, Bryant worries about Durant?

Also from the Orange County Register, Phil Jackson explains that the Lakers put more emphasis on 3-point shooting in “the latter part of the season,” and, apparently, Ron Artest has been stealing since he was a kid, not just from Manu Ginobili, but from Little Debbie, too.

Apparently, the Kobe-Lebron Finals chatter is starting back up again, this time with Fox Sports: You know I hesitate to even ask this, since this NBA season has seemed almost destined to end in the Finals with Kobe vs. LeBron. But what if that doesn’t happen? What if the closest we get are those puppets? No offense to the season-ticket holders of the Milwaukee Bucks, for example, but many of us casual NBA observers need a LeBron-Kobe Finals. Forgive us. But we need a reason to be excited about pro basketball, after a season in which one of the dominant storylines has been Clearing Cap Space. Look, give us something, after so many of the moves this season were made not for the postseason, but for the coming offseason. After it seemed like most every team was out of it almost as soon as the season started. If all year it was going to be Lakers-Cavs at the end, the only bright spot is at the end we’d get to see Lakers-Cavs. Yes, if this year promised anything, it was the hope of seeing a new rivalry, of watching two greats at their heights, old style, Magic-Bird. And this is their moment. If they want to take their rivalry beyond foam and 30-second spots, this is their shot. Maybe their last shot. If not now, when?

From the Los Angeles Times on Kobe passing Alex English – and the seven other NBA greats that he’s passed this season: There’s rarely been a month that has gone by this season in which Lakers guard Kobe Bryant hasn’t moved up on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. With exception to the month of December and in the Lakers’ first two regular season games in October, Bryant has broken a scoring record at least once in all the other months. That’s a total of six times, including twice in November, once in January, twice in February and in the Lakers’ most recent game, a 92-83 win Wednesday over the San Antonio Spurs. That game featured Bryant eclipsing Alex English (25,613) for 12th place on the NBA’s all-time leaders scoring list with 25,636 career points.It’s pretty well-established that Bryant scores a lot of points. But it’s surreal to see the pace at which he’s doing it. Last season, Bryant moved up from 23rd on the scoring list to 17th, moving past Larry Bird (21,791), Gary Payton (21,813), Clyde Drexler (22,195), Elgin Baylor (23,149), Adrian Dantley (23,177), Robert Parrish (23,334) and Charles Barkley (23,757) along the way.

ESPN.com has a post saying that Andrew Bynum and Luke Walton could be back on the floor as early as next week. Basket Blog has a clip of Jordan Farmar winning a half court shooting competition, and finally, a collection of quotes from Phil Jackson after yesterday’s practice (sorry, no video):

After Thursday’s practice in Oklahoma City, Lakers Head Coach Phil Jackson answered some questions to assembled L.A. media about his squad as well as Friday night’s opponent, the Thunder. Among his comments: On Sasha Vujacic: Jackson: Sasha has had a year where his shot’s been inconsistent and his playing time has been inconsistent. So we’ve asked him to just play the role that he knows how to do. He’s an efficient guard, he knows how to run the offense, he knows the actions we’re (running). Don’t worry about the shot, it will come when it comes. He was playing really well in short minutes, because Shannon (Brown) has played well and started when Kobe (Bryant) was out and Jordan (Farmar) has had a dedicated role on this team and Sasha hasn’t. But that’s doesn’t mean he can’t help us, and that’s what we’ve been saying.

(UPDATE: I just saw this post by Zach Harper on Hardwood Paroxysm on how Kobe’s supreme confidence is what he appreciates about him, and how he’d like to see it more from the other NBA superstars — most notably LeBron James.)

-Phillip

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Before I get into why I think Ron Artest is the Defensive Player of the Year, allow me to throw out this disclaimer: I am biased. Now, before you stop reading, let me explain. I’m not biased because I’m a Lakers fan (necessarily), I’m biased because I’ve seen nearly every minute that Ron Artest has played this season. This is something that I can not say about the other top defensive players in the NBA. So, because that is the case, I’ve seen first hand and game after game the impact that Ron has on the defensive side of the ball.  I can not make this same claim about some of the other elite defenders around the NBA.  Some may say that fact makes my views distorted or slanted. And that is a solid argument.  However, I will also say that this fact makes me informed about the guy that I’m watching. And the guy I’m watching is a fantastic defensive player that is playing some of the best defense, night in and night out, that I’ve seen in a long time from any player.

I understand that there are several other strong candidates for this award.  Reigning DPOY Dwight Howard is a fantastic defensive player in his own right and if he took home the hardware, I would applaud with little to  no complaint.  Besides Howard though, there’s players like Lebron (he of the chase down blocks and low foul rate), Andy Varejao (a great big man in P&R defense, drawer of offensive fouls, and overall defensive pest), and even defensive stalwarts KG (when healthy) and Tim Duncan (no explanation needed).  So why do I choose Artest?  Take a look at that list of contenders and tell me what you see.  That’s right, save for Lebron, that is a list of big men.  The guys who get loads of credit for blocked shots and rebounds (and to the more astute watcher hedging/recovering on pick and rolls, backline communication on defense, etc). 

But Artest is the all too rare stopper on the defensive wing.  He’s a guy that’s tasked with slowing down the premier offensive talents in the NBA – and does quite a good job at it.   And because Ron plays on the wing, his effectiveness won’t always be measured by the stats that are found in the box score.  Sure, Ron has opportunities to rack up steals – and he does average almost one and a half a game.  But Ron is not a player that gambles a lot in the passing lanes.  So while he may not rack up the gaudy steal numbers of some other players that shoot through gaps and read passes like a DB breaking on an out route (like Kobe, for example), the steals that Ron does pick up are mostly on the ball, litterally, taking the ball away from the man he’s guarding.  Which is just one facet of the smothering on ball defense that he exhibits nightly.

Mainly though, it’s the tenacity and determination that Artest displays that has me recognizing his defense.  Really, he just plays hard.  He doesn’t take possessions off.  He fights through screens, he bodies up his man, he closes out hard, and he helps his teammates.  His overall effort is truly astounding when watched within the context of how normal players defend.  Before I got to watch Ron on a nightly basis, I just didn’t understand this fact.  But now, after watching him in 70+ games, I recognize how much effort he puts into defending.  It really is a sight to see.

His defensive versatility is also off the charts.  Last night, Ron battled Manu Ginobili (a SG) and bothered him on pretty much every possession that they faced off.  Sure, Ginobili ended up with some good numbers, but he worked his tail off to get them and took some punishment from Ron on several plays (including one in which Ron and LO doubled Manu and when Ginobili tried to escape dribble, Ron poked the ball away from behind – trademark Artest move – grabbed the ball, bumped Manu off and then powered up for the layup as Ginobili ducked away).    Just over a week ago, Ron did a spendid job on the beastly PG, Tyreke Evans.   Then before that, there was the number he did on Carmelo Anthony.  Ask Kevin Durant who he thinks is one of the toughest defenders he’s faced.  And sure, there will be nights where Ron gets beat – Lebron’s game in January, the first half against Vince Carter a few Sundays ago, or parts of the game that he had against Wade in Miami come to mind – but that happens to even the best defenders.  No one pitches a shut out in this league.  Especially not when facing the types of players that Ron faces.

If you want to look at this from a statistics perspective (which is limited due to the type of defensive stats that are kept and the ability to properly ananlyze defensive impact), Ron holds players to a 12.7 PER Against.  When looking at his on/off floor stats, the Lakers give up less points, opposing teams shoot a lower percentage, and the Lakers rebound better as a team when Ron is in the game.  None of these stats are perfect, but they do begin to tell the story of Ron’s impact on the team defensively.  They just perform better with him on the court.  Not to mention that Ron’s work on defense also means that Kobe doesn’t have to guard the other team’s elite wing player for extended minutes, saving more of his energy for offense, where (if you haven’t noticed) the Lakers have needed him several times this season to make some big shots in the closing seconds.

But bringing this back full circle, Ron is my guy.  I know there are other worthy candidates and the likelihood that Ron wins are pretty slim anyway.  And while I’ve hinted at it before now and mentioned that he should be considered for the award, I’m now fully on board.  If I had a vote, he’d get it.  This doesn’t mean I’m right, but I trust what I see.  And what I see is a player that is facing some of the best scorers in the entire league, night in and night out and either shutting them down, severly limiting them, or making them work as hard as possible to have effective nights.  One night it’s Durant, then it’s Granger, then it’s ‘Melo, then Paul Pierce, Caron Butler, Vince Carter, Ginobili, Wade, Lebron, Joe Johnson, Brandon Roy, Iguodala, and on and on.  So today, I thought I’d just give the man his due and put in my two cents on his defensive performance this season.  To me, it’s award worthy.

Los Angeles Lakers at the San Antonio Spurs NBA Basketball

As Darius said in his game summary, there was a lot to be said about the Lakers win in San Antonio last night. Lamar Odom played great. Kobe’s shots were falling. Pau Gasol, although the box score won’t show it, played a brilliant defensive game. Ron Artest’s five steals felt like much more than just five steals to the Spurs’ offense. And even Jordan Farmar came in and gave the Lakers some valuable minutes with Derek Fisher struggling. The Lakers came out of the break and dominated the third quarter much like we grew accustomed to late in the season last year when they were on their way to a title.

One of the things that stood out most to me was the fact that the Spurs shot 27 three pointers in the game, 16 in the first half. In a game like this, especially against the Lakers, the Spurs of old would have been giving their opponent a much heavier dose of Tim Duncan and Greg Popovic would have never allowed 27 threes to be taken, especially shooting them at the rate that they were. Manu Ginobili and George Hill were able to have big first halves because the Spurs had a few threes drop early, opening up the lanes for them to get to the basket. At the 8:48 mark in the second quarter, Matt Bonner hit the Spurs’ sixth three out of 12 tries. From that point until the 8:11 mark in the third, the Spurs wouldn’t hit another one, missing five in all and would only hit one of their last 10.

The Spurs, as long as Tim Duncan is there, is a team built to work inside out. The Lakers were doing the right thing early by trying to keep the ball out of the paint, which freed up some shooters. A lot of teams have a tendency to keep shooting the money ball after they’ve had early success. The Spurs were 50% through the first 16 and a half minutes, 13% from that point on. Duncan’s continued struggles coupled with the Spurs failure behind the arch is what keyed the Lakers defensive success. Before I link the reactions, here’s the running diary from Basket Blog if you missed the game.

From Land O’ Lakers: Turns out Ron Artest doesn’t just have the colorful personality, controversial past, and distinguished on-floor resume. He apparently possesses a killer sense of timing, too. Evaluations of the Artest-for-Trevor Ariza “swap” have been a consistent feature in discussions of the Lakers all season, with opinions on the issue often vacillating based on a particular evening’s box score. For the record, I was for it then, and would do it again. Others don’t agree, and throughout the year have expressed as much on any given day. Wednesday, for example, Bill Plaschke of the L.A. Times re-iterated the position he’s held since the Lakers brought Ron Ron in in; it was a mistake, one helping explain the team’s flagging performance relative to last season. It was a high profile column generating debate not just in the paper and online, but on talk radio and TV, too.

From the Los Angeles Times Lakers Blog: Immediately after converting a putback, Lakers forward Ron Artest blew kisses to Lakers fans in the crowd at AT&T Center. Immediately after hitting a late-game corner three pointer, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant exchanged high-fives with Lakers fans sitting courtside. And immediately after the buzzer sounded, players gathered along the bench all with smiles on their faces. The Lakers’ 92-83 victory Wednesday over the San Antonio Spurs marked the team’s seventh consecutive win, but this one was much different. While some of the Lakers remained split on if their current play served as a cause for concern, the team unanimously agreed their previous six wins meant very little.

From The Lakers Nation: The Spurs, this season, have been accused of being too old, past their prime, at times lost, and unable to gel with all their new players. They have struggled, it’s certainly no secret, but there has always been an air of confidence about them, from the coach to last player on the rotation, that keeps them in the rear view mirror of veteran teams who know them all too well — like the Lakers. Kobe said in an interview that the Lakers and Spurs have such a rich history together that they could run each other’s plays, and he’s right. That’s why when it comes to this Western Conference rivalry, it is never about one marquee player against another, Kobe vs. Manu, Duncan vs. Gasol. When it comes to Los Angeles vs. San Antonio, it’s always Popovich vs. Jackson and tonight the advantage was Phil’s. Since Parker’s absence, Manu Ginobli and 2nd year player George Hill, have taken on the reigns on this Spurs team and have done it convincingly. The Lakers were at the losing end of this starting backcourt’s success in the first half when George Hill went off for 20 points and, along with Ginobli, never saw a three-pointer he couldn’t hit. The Spurs hit 6-17 from downtown in the first half, to the Lakers’ 2-8.

From Silver Screen And Roll: Now this is how you start a road trip. This is how you get tuned up for the postseason. By going into the barn of a possible first-round opponent and raining a defensive beatdown on them. The first half tonight was a little ugly, but the second half was undiluted magnificence. The outcome was a rousing 92 to 83 Lakers’ victory over what must be a demoralized San Antonio Spurs squad. It’s the Lakers’ seventh straight win. The Spurs has this one under control early. They were bombing away out of the gate and built a 10-point second quarter lead behind the scoring of George Hill. With Derek Fisher futilely trying to guard him, Hill lit up for 20 first-half points. The defense stabilized when Phil Jackson replaced Fish with Jordan Farmar and then Shannon Brown, but the Lakers were stalling out on offense. Lamar Odom had a good first half, driving to the hole for 12 points, and Kobe Bryant had 10 at halftime, but turnovers and an inability to hit threes meant the Lakers put up a mere 0.98 points per possession (PPP) through the first two quarters. Only San Antonio’s failure to bury more threes – they made 6 of 17 in the first half, and a lot of those misses were easy looks – kept them from blowing the game open.

From Pounding The Rock: Yes, it was torturous.  But, that isn’t what I had in mind.  A game of such distinct halves couldn’t be better exemplified than a pair of songs from Iron Maiden. In the first half, the Spurs were warriors.  They fought.  They scrapped.  They clawed. In the second half, the Spurs were cowards.  They panicked.  They took forced shots.  They played scared. In the first half, the team played with that perfect mix of ultra-high energy and composure.  And it was led by one man. George Hill.  He was marvelous.  He scored on an array of shots.  He was making plays all over the court.  He was aggressive attacking the Lakers in the paint and in transition.  He dominated Derek Fisher.  In addition, Manu was draining 3’s.  Between Manu and George, they scored 32 of the Spurs 48 points and were 5 of 7 from deep.  If it hadn’t been for Matt Bonner losing his shot — 1 for 6 on 3 pointers — the Spurs would have had much larger than a 7 point lead.

From the Los Angeles Times: When was the last time a boring, unimaginative six-game winning streak became a stellar, laudable seven-game winning streak? Wednesday night. The Lakers turned a near-flawless second half into a 92-83 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, extending their two-week run after getting commendable efforts from too many players to avoid a run-on sentence. Kobe Bryant was proficient on offense, Ron Artest was a game-breaker on defense, and Lamar Odom was strong, sore shoulder and all, at AT&T Center. The Lakers dismantled the Spurs in the second half, outscoring them, 51-35, giving up 18 points in the third quarter, 17 in the fourth. Artest had five steals in the second half, the Spurs shot 29.7% after halftime and the Lakers had themselves a quality victory after a slew of ho-hums.

From the Los Angeles Times: The two big men stood toe to toe going at each other, neither backing down, neither much of an offensive threat. But for the Lakers to have Pau Gasol stand his ground against Spurs All-Star forward Tim Duncan on Wednesday night proved to be a big difference in the Lakers’ 92-83 victory. “It wasn’t the greatest offensive night for either of us, obviously,” Gasol said. “But I just tried to make an impact on the game defensively and rebounding.” And he did. Gasol scored 10 points and missed seven of 11 shots. But he had 12 rebounds. What impressed his coaches the most was Gasol’s defense on Duncan. Gasol had two blocked shots, both against Duncan. Gasol limited Duncan to six points on two-for-11 shooting.

From the Orange County Register: Trevor Ariza’s point, ultimately, was that it’s not about the individuals. It’s about the teams. As often as people keep bringing up Ariza leaving and Ron Artest coming – and more of that is on tap Saturday, when the Lakers are in Houston – Ariza wants to live in the now and focus on being a part of the Rockets while Artest does his thing for the Lakers. “why do me and homie (Artest) keep coming up?” Ariza asked me via Twitter on Wednesday night. “I love home but I play in Houston now. Ron plays in la. that’s what it is. they r a great team.” Ariza’s Tweet to me came after the Rockets had played in Oklahoma City, with Ariza their leading scorer in a losing effort that further diminished Houston’s faint playoff hope. The Lakers would go on to dominate the second half of their game in San Antonio, with Artest providing 12 points and five steals in 19 minutes on the floor after halftime.

From The No Look Pass: Hey, Bill Plaschke and Bill Simmons… were you guys watching? This column by Plaschke (he called Ron Artest an awkward fit with the Lakers) didn’t sit well with me. It really makes me wonder whether Plaschke actually watches Laker basketball. I’ve made my point about Ron Artest HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE. Again, what did people expect out of Ron? The ball HAS to be shared if a team is top-heavy. And he was NOT expected to be the second or even third option of the team… so I thought he wouldn’t even average double digits this season. He’s averaging 11 points per game, which is pretty respectable despite not knowing the Triangle full well yet AND having teammates like Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom. Oh, yeah. The Lakers also employ some guy named Kobe Bryant. So there really aren’t enough shots to go around. I only expected Ron to get maybe seven or eight shots a game (he averages almost ten).

From T.J. Simers: Five games, eight days of bonding with the Lakers, and we begin two hours before tipoff here with the Sputtering Machine shooting free throws all by himself.  He makes 105 in a row before missing, making the ballboy run up and down the court for doubting him, and I really like our chances of winning tonight if Sasha Vujacic is standing at the free-throw line. That would be a pretty good indication the Lakers are already up by 20 or so if he’s in the game. I might’ve suggested backing up a few feet since the Machine is being paid $5 million to hit three-pointers and that’s not going so well, but I came here intent on seeing only the good in our heroes.

OTHER LAKERS NEWS

The Los Angeles Times on Bynum and Walton: Not that a team needs a lift while riding a seven-game winning streak, but the Lakers might find one on their injury report. Andrew Bynum and Luke Walton both hope to come back quickly after the Lakers’ five-game trip, either April 2 against Utah or April 4 against San Antonio, both at Staples Center. Bynum said his strained left Achilles’ tendon was feeling better Wednesday, and Walton practiced for the first time Tuesday, doing some non-contact scrimmaging with the team before joining them on their flight to San Antonio. Bynum missed his second consecutive game in the Lakers’ 92-83 victory Wednesday against the Spurs, but said the discomfort was subsiding.

Jordan on Kobe from ESPN.com: Jordan said he wasn’t going to “box myself into” saying if he felt the current core of players that includes Jackson, All-Star Gerald Wallace, Felton, Thomas and Tyson Chandler could develop into a contending team. Actually, Jordan isn’t sure of the best way to construct a championship roster. “There are very few Kobe Bryants out there. LeBron hasn’t won yet. Dwyane Wade had Shaq [O’Neal] sitting next to him and he had Pat Riley coaching him. So there are a lot of other components that come into play to say if you’re an NBA championship team,” Jordan said. “Detroit did a great job in winning and they had no one superstar on that team. Boston won with three All-Stars. The Lakers won with two All-Stars.

Finally, this is a GREAT profile on Pau Gasol from Sports Illustrated (h/t TrueHoop): Pau Gasol walked out of class on Nov. 8, 1991, not sure where he was headed. It was recess at Escola Llor, the private school he attended in suburban Barcelona, and students were starting a soccer match. Gasol wandered the perimeter of the field as if in slow motion, neither playing nor watching, enveloped in a fog that was emanating from a foreign metropolis 6,000 miles to the west. He tried to comprehend the words and letters he had just heard in class: Magic Johnson and HIV. “I was deep in thought,” Gasol says. “I was trying to figure out what it meant and what I should do. It was one of those moments that sticks in your mind and stays there your whole life.” For many of today’s athletes, too young to have seen a president assassinated or remember a space shuttle falling from the sky, it was the first such moment. When the fog finally lifted, Gasol came to a conclusion about his future. He did not decide then that he would move to Los Angeles and play for the Lakers and lead them to a NBA championship. He decided that he would become a doctor and try to cure AIDS. He was 11.

-Phillip

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Many say that the first game of a road trip sets the tone for the entire set of games a team will play on their trip.  If that’s truly the case, there are four other teams that have some problems when the Lakers come to town over the next week.  The Lakers came into San Antonio with a lot of questions facing them.  Could they continue their winning ways against quality teams (after building a 6 game win streak on the gutter dwellers of the NBA)?  Could they summon the intensity and focus that made them champions last season?  Is it possible to turn up their level of play and show the rest of the league that they really are a dominant team on the court and not just on paper?  I know these types of questions (and many others) were on the minds of fans and media alike, but against the Spurs we all got a glimpse of what the answer to those questions may be.

Suffocating.  Strangling. Smothering.  These are words that aptly describe the defense that the Lakers exhibited against the Spurs in second half of their 92-83 victory tonight.  An eighteen point third quarter was outdone by a seventeen point fourth quarter.  A 94.3 offensive rating with a true shooting percentage of 47% on the evening for the team from San Antonio – utterly substandard for a top ten offensive unit.  I don’t think I’ve seen a better defensive stretch all season from the Lakers and they provided it with their backs against the wall as they entered the second half trailing the Spurs by eight points.

And the Lakers only trailed because they couldn’t stop George Hill or Manu Ginobili from getting to wherever they wanted to on the court.  Hill lived in the paint and did an impersonation of Tony Parker that had the Spurs crowd buzzing.  Hill hit floaters.  He hit acrobatic layups.  He hit the corner three and short jumpers with ease.  He’d end the first half with 20 points and had the game’s announcers calling him a superstar in the making.  And then Ginobili showed why he’s already considered a superstar.  Manu was raining jumpers and abusing Lakers defenders.  One step back three was followed by another.  After a missed FT, the ball would again find his hands and he’d nail another long ball.  Three 3’s provided the bulk of his twelve first half points and he looked like he could keep it going all night.  The Spurs backcourt was simply doing whatever they wanted on offense and had the Lakers defense thoroughly frustrated.

But, despite the offensive explosion from the Spurs guards, the Lakers would keep it close.  And it was mostly done on the wide shoulders of Lamar Odom.  In the game preview I noted that the Spurs don’t have a defender that is capable of staying with Odom as our lefty’s ability to push the ball and move fluidly in the half court is a problem for a team that has front court rotation that features the old and/or slow legs of Duncan, McDyess, Blair, and Bonner.  Well, Odom took full advantage of his athletic advantages by getting the ball in his hands and attacking the rim at every opportunity.  Whether in transition or in the half court, Odom found creases in the Spurs defense and went to the rim.  And when he wasn’t the player doing the shooting, he corralled offensive rebounds (3 of his 13 rebounds were off our misses) and created extra possessions for us.  Odom was just everywhere, again, for the Lakers.  The thing I love most about Odom’s game is how he tweaks his style of play to fit what the Lakers need most.  Tonight, in a game where he had the biggest advantage of all our offensive players (save for maybe Kobe), Odom was aggressive with ball, taking 18 shots to lead the team in FGA’s, and really looked for his offense.

Odom wasn’t alone on offense though.  That guy Kobe decided to have one of his most efficient offensive games of the season in this game to help out LO.  On a night where Kobe didn’t get to the foul line, it didn’t really matter because his shooting stroke from all over the floor was so good.  Twenty four points on 11 of 16 from the floor on 75% true shooting.  Kobe ran roughshod over every Spurs defender that guarded him (5 Spurs in all tried to slow down Kobe – to no avail) and it got to the point that the Spurs were running double teams at Kobe when he was thirty feet from the basket.  But that was the beauty of Kobe’s game on offense this evening.  He accepted every double team and ably made passes to open teammates, setting them up for good looks.  Six assists on the night for Kobe (to only 3 turnovers) and he would have had even more had Pau, Fisher, and Artest hit some of the open shots that Kobe created for them.

But, this game really was about the defense.  And it all started with Artest.  Around a month ago, I said that Artest deserves consideration for defensive player of the year.  After tonight’s performance, I’m reiterating that sentiment.  Against the Spurs he reminded everyone of the destructive force he can be on the defensive side of the ball.  He hounded every player that he went up against, not only racking up the stats that show up in the box score, but also doing a ton of little things that help win games.  Five steals (with two leading directly to layups where he swiped the ball and went the other way for the score) and countless other deflections don’t even tell the entire story.  Not when Ron was also able to stop 3 on 2 fast breaks by pestering the ball handler and then chasing him not only out of the paint, but above the three point line.  The stats also don’t show how he had players picking up their dribble and passing the ball away just to have him cease and desist his attack dog defense of them.  Ron truly wreaked havoc on the Spurs offense and it’s performances like these that move the Lakers team D beyond formidable and into the elite category.

Really, there is so much to say about this game that I could go on forever.  I mean, the team had 5 players in double figures.  The Lakers also shot 50% from three point country, making 10 of their 20 attempts.  Farmar and Brown combined for 19 points on 7 for 13 shooting.  Pau Gasol, though not very good on offense (which is a change from his recent performances) helped to hold Tim Duncan to 6 points on 11 shots and blocked two of Timmy’s jumpers in key moments of the game.  And while there were some things to improve upon – another poor showing from the FT line in a road game, the Spurs out rebounded us and out assisted us – the overall performance was just to strong to nit pick on any of those minor points.  This was just a great win and a fantastic way to start the road trip.  We can only hope this continues on Friday in OKC.