Archives For March 2010

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(Yeah I went with an old school ‘Zo picture here. What can I say, I’m in that kind of mood. That look on his face is just like mine…)

After game four of the 2004 NBA Finals, Phil Jackson said something along the lines of “we wasted one of the great games from Shaquille O’Neal tonight” as the Lakers lost a game where Shaq went for 36 points and 20 rebounds against the Pistons.  Well, while this game was no where near that magnitude, I feel like the Lakers wasted damn good games from Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant tonight.  Pau went for 26 points and 22 rebounds and Kobe had a well rounded line of 31 points, 5 rebounds, and 6 assists but it wasn’t enough as the Lakers fell to the Hornets 108-100.  Just a frustrating finish to a game in an increasingly frustrating road trip that has the Lakers taking one step forward and then one step backward every other night.

How do the Lakers lose on a night where Kobe and Pau put up such gaudy stats?  Actually, it’s pretty simple.  When James Posey (a substitute, mind you) outscores the entire Lakers bench 13-12, that’s how.  Or how about when Darren Collison (another Hornets back up) matches the point total of two Lakers’ starters (Fisher and Odom) with 17 points.  Another good reason would be how Artest would have shot 5-6 from the field had he not went 1-8(!) from three point country (including several wide open attempts from the corner) leaving him 6-14 from the field and a point total (14) that matched his FGA total.  I think you get my point.  The Lakers outside of Pau and Kobe showed no consistency and the Hornets were steady enough throughout the contest to earn the win.

Really, this game turned on a 17-1 Hornets run that started in the late part of the 1st quarter and ended around the 8 minute mark of the second quarter.  That run saw a 4 point Lakers lead turn into a 12 point deficit that the Lakers would never overcome.  Sure, the Lakers made a strong push of their own at one point coming within a basket when the scoreboard showed 58-56.  But when a Kobe turnover turned into a three on one Hornets fast break, Fisher’s great defense to disrupt a pass turned out to be a curse as the ball bounced around and got kicked out to a wide open Marcus Thornton who ended up nailing a three pointer.  A two point lead went to five and even though the Lakers kept it close for a few more minutes they’d never really threaten again.

Games like this are extremely frustrating because rather than doing the little things that lead to wins, the Lakers did just enough to disrupt comebacks and lose.  On back to back possessions and within three points of tying Kobe and Fisher fire up forced three pointers that miss.  Instead of going into Gasol on the low block, we swing the ball around the perimeter and settle for long jumpers.  Several times in both halves the Lakers had defensive breakdowns that led to wide open shots.  On one play they’d get caught watching as Chris Paul handled the ball on the P&R and then lose track of their man when he’d make a back cut.  On another play, one of the Lakers’ bigs would over help on penetration and give up an easy offensive rebound for a put back bucket.  There were even a couple of plays where Chris Paul was left wide open after he used a hesitation dribble off the P&R because the hedging big man then left him to recover to his own man and then the guard that was supposed to come back to Paul stayed with the switch – resulting in an easy, wide open jumper for CP3.

And then there were the fouls.  The Lakers were reaching and grabbing Hornets players – often out of their own frustration from not getting calls on the other end.  But rather than playing smart and hunkering down on defense, they’d commit needless fouls that ended up sending the fourth best FT shooting team in the league to the foul line for easy points.  These types of mistakes are always costly, but they’re even more painful when they happen the middle of the Lakers trying to make a dent in a lead; when the margin for error is so thin because the deficit is not decreasing but the game clock is.

In the end, this game was just an overall downer.  As I mentioned earlier, the Lakers seem to take a positive step forward and then follow it up with a poor performance.  I wish I could say that this is an anomaly but it’s not.  As we’ve discussed before, the Lakers are consistently inconsistent.  It’s who they are.  They have the talent to win any game while (seemingly) having the attitude that allows them to perform poorly in any game as well.  Whether or not it hurts them down the line remains to be seen, but it is mighty frustrating to watch as the regular season comes to a close.

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Records: Lakers 54-19 (1st in West), Hornets 34-40 (11th in West, 20.5 games behind Lakers)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 109.0 (10th in NBA), Hornets 107.1 (16th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.8 (4th in NBA), Hornets 109.8 (23rd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Hornets: Chris Paul, Marcus Thornton, Morris Peterson, David West, Emeka Okafor

The Lakers Coming in:  After getting back on track against Houston, the Lakers are looking start a new winning streak.  As I mentioned yesterday, the Lakers brought back some offensive wrinkles that they have not used consistently this season and it led to better offensive execution.  As the Lakers get closer to the playoffs, fine tuning their offensive and defensive sets are imperative for playing strong basketball when the games take on an even greater importance. 

On the injury front, it looks like Walton and Bynum are on track to return to game action a little after this road trip is over.  If they’re both able to return to the line up by the Spurs game on April 4th, that would give them six games in the regular season to prepare and get their sea legs back for a playoff push.  That sort of timeline is not ideal (I would have liked for both players to get about 10 games in) but I’ll take what I can get and just hope for good health for the entire team heading into the post season.

The Hornest Coming in:  The Hornets finally have Chris Paul back from injury after he missed 25 games with a knee injury.  However, even now that he’s back, the Hornets are still struggling to get wins.  Yes, they beat Dallas in CP3’s return to the court, but they’ve since lost two straight games.  And those losses fit right into the pattern from before Paul’s return where they had only won two of their previous eleven contests.  The Hornets just aren’t a great team right now and are missing the adequate depth to give them a chance to win over the course of an entire game.

Despite the losses though, the Hornets do have some positives surrounding their organization and they came to the forefront because of Paul’s injury.  Rookies Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton have shown that they are very good NBA players that deserve time on the court and can help this team down the road.  While young, they have talent and have games that translate to this level.  Collison’s ability to run the P&R and be an all court threat with his shot and Thornton’s scoring ability may not have ever been put on display to the extent that they were had Paul been healthy, so if there was ever an injury to a top 5 player in the NBA that actually helped a team learn more about itself (other than the fact that they’re bad) it was this one.

Hornets BlogsHornets 24/7 is a great place to start for solid info on the team from New Orleans.  Also check out At the Hive.

Keys to game:  Offensively, the slowing down the Hornets starts with containing their guards and dealing with still underrated David West.  The Hornets guards are excellent P&R players and now that Collison has shown how good he is, there is little drop off when Paul comes out of the game.  The Lakers will need their “A” game tonight when defending the P&R and will need to make up their minds early about what they want to give up.  Both Paul and Collison are capable shooters and are dangerous in the paint as well.  So, will the Lakers chase over the top and give up the driving lanes or will they go under screens and make their guards hit jumpers?  Either way, they must commit and stick to the plan and trust the scheme.  Because miscommunication or errors will lead to buckets.

Slowing West will be on Odom (and I think Ron will get some minutes on him as well) and we should take comfort in the fact that LO is the type of rangy defender that can give West problems.  West loves to shoot the mid range jumper and is a capable driver when you close out too hard on him.  He’s often the screen man in P&R situations and will usually “pop” to an open space where he can get him jumper off.  The Lakers will need to do a good job of helping the helper tonight to avoid letting West get comfortable when shooting his J.  West also shows a good post game, though, so LO will also need to be strong on the block and shade West in a manner where he can’t easily get off his righty jump hook.

One other note defensively: Kobe will need to be more than just a free safety tonight.  Both Peterson and Thornton are capable shooters that will make the wide open jumper.  Kobe can’t find himself watching the ball too often when Paul/Collison are working the P&R.  Because those guys will take advantage of over helping and hit the open players for good shot attempts.  We don’t need the Kobe that was guarding Quentin Richardson in the Miami game.  We need the dialed in version of Bean tonight.  Let’s hope we get him.

On offense, while the Horntes possess solid post defense with Okafor, he is undersized so the Lakers need to go into Pau early and often.  Similar to the way that the Lakers attacked Houston, I hope to see Pau get some post isolations in space on the weakside so he can have room to operate without those pesky Hornets guards digging down and reaching in for steals.  And while Okafor is a good shot blocker, he’s much better getting blocks when you attack the rim and expose the ball.  Emeka has excellent timing, but if you feint and diversify your attack, it is easier to get shots up.  Luckily, this is  trademark of Pau’s post game so he should be able to establish some sort of success.

As for our other main threat, this is another game where Kobe should be able to play efficiently.  He’ll either be guarded by Mo Peterson or the rookie Thornton so Kobe should be able to both go to the block and use the motions of the offense to find creases in the defense to get his mid-range game going.  The same is true for Artest as whichever player isn’t on Kobe will be on Ron and #37 will have a big strength advantage over both players.  We may actually see some effective post ups from Ron tonight especially off of his scissor cut into the lane after feeding the post where he acts like he’s clearing out the side only to stop short and get a post up.

From a team wide perspective, this is a contest where controlling the defensive glass will be key.  Okafor and West combine for over 5 offensive rebounds a game and earn their team many extra possessions by either grabbing rebounds or drawing loose ball fouls.  Considering our front court depth is shallow right now, we don’t need LO or Pau picking up early fouls just contesting rebounds.  Our bigs need to box out, secure the ball, and push the tempo back the other way.  I do think this is a team we can take advantage of in transistion so I’d like to see us exploit them by racing the ball upcourt more.  Especially on the second unit when Aaron Gray replaces Okafor.  Neither of those players will win many footraces, but Gray will come in last almost every time.

Where you can watch:  5:00pm start time in the West on KCAL, also on ESPN Radio 710am.

LAKERS

From Land O’ Lakers: Do not be fooled by the final score. In this case, objects in mirror were not nearly as close as they appeared. Not after the first 12 minutes of play, at least. In a lot of ways, the first quarter of Saturday night’s game could easily have been the fifth of Friday’s debacle in Oklahoma City. The Lakers turned the ball over five times leading to eight Rockets points, allowed easy buckets inside, and ignored too many shooters on the perimeter. After one, the Rockets led 34-27, behind despite shooting well over 50 percent from the floor.  From there, though, the Lakers raised their level far to high for the wee Rockets to reach. (Congratulations to those who saw the height joke coming.) Over the first six minutes of the second quarter, the Lakers scraped their way back into the game, erasing Houston’s lead. Over the final six minutes, they dropped the hammer, outscoring the Rockets 20-2, the 20 coming unanswered. It was 360 seconds of total domination.

From the Los Angeles Times: The Lakers had a fairly easy time beating the Houston Rockets. No, really. Unlike last season’s playoffs, or the Lakers’ return trip to Houston earlier this season, Saturday was a relative breeze for the Lakers, who beat an undermanned Rockets team, 109-101, at Toyota Center. Pau Gasol had a season-high 30 points, Kobe Bryant had a near-triple-double (17 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists) and the Lakers improved to 2-1 on their five-game trip after a deplorable outing the previous night in Oklahoma City. The Lakers’ first quarter was poor and their fourth quarter wasn’t great, but they had a dominant middle two quarters, good enough to win in a city that had troubled them in recent trips. They outscored Houston, 35-11, in the second quarter alone. Gasol was solid, making 11 of 17 shots and eight of nine free throws and blocking four shots.

From the Los Angeles Register: he dust settled just the way the Lakers said it would, with a strong bounce-back effort. Windswept in Oklahoma the night before, the Lakers moved on and smoothly handled the Houston Rockets, 109-101, on Saturday night. At the crux of it was Pau Gasol, who had suggested the Lakers would respond well from trailing Oklahoma City by 33 points Friday night. Gasol helped make sure with a season-high 30 points on 11-of-17 shooting, eight rebounds and four blocks. “We tried to be aggressive and bounce back,” Gasol said. Gasol was facing the Rockets for the first time this season, having missed all three previous games because of hamstring injuries. The Lakers went 2-1 in those games. The Lakers entered the game 42-13 when Gasol plays, beating teams by an average of 7.1 points. It was more of the same Saturday, when DJ Mbenga pitched in with some helpful minutes that couldn’t go to injured center Andrew Bynum, whom the Lakers hope will return in a week.

From the Los Angeles Daily News: In the end, it might have been just an aberration, a one-game letdown that was a consequence of an 82-game slog through the regular season. Twenty-four hours later, the Lakers played like champs again instead of like chumps. They defeated an inferior, battered and bruised team with relative ease. They ran faster, jumped higher, passed sharper, shot better and made better decisions with the ball. They had more energy and their defense was improved. Buoyed by an electric run to end the half, the Lakers defeated the undersized and undermanned Houston Rockets 109-101 on Saturday night at the Toyota Center. They rebounded smartly from a thrashing Friday by the Oklahoma City Thunder. “We didn’t worry about (Friday) night,” Lamar Odom said, shrugging after the Lakers won for the eighth time in nine games. “It was a beating, but we had to be prepared for (Saturday night), and we were prepared.”

From Silver Screen and Roll: The Lakers started this one sluggish.  They gave up 34 points in the 1st Quarter and it looked liked I was going to start looking for that ticket to New Orleans, because Aaron Brooks came out hot.  He scored 12 points in the 1st, and Jermaine Taylor added another 10.  Not the boxer, in case your wondering, but he might’ve scored another 6 the way it as looking.  The Lakers had energy, but the defense lacking and t looked like it might be another long night.  Then the Lakers really woke up. Probably remembering how much they stunk last night, they scored 35 points in the 2nd while only letting up 11, highlighted by a pretty ridiculous 20-0 run in the last six minutes of the half, where Houston missed 10 straight shots.  Houston went from hot start to merely missing awful shots.  The Lakers rode Pau and Fish actually dropped some buckets, amazingly     -puts shotgun back in case-. To put into perspective how much the Lakers sucked the night before, realize that the Lakers surpassed their point total against Oklahoma less than halfway into the third.

From the Houston Chronicle: The Rockets did enjoy themselves for a while. Jermaine Taylor got his first NBA start, drained a few 3s and did not get toasted by Kobe Bryant. The Rockets forced the Lakers into some missed shots, got out on the fast break and took a nine-point lead. But they also got the Lakers’ attention. Big mistake. When the Lakers clamped down defensively, the Rockets’ offense crumbled. The Rockets had not been stopping the Lakers much anyway, so the Lakers rode their retort to the Rockets’ fast start to a 20-0 second-quarter run and cruised to a 109-101 win Saturday night before 18,583 at Toyota Center, the largest crowd in Rockets history. “I got the sense the whole game,” the Rockets’ Luis Scola said, “they were controlling the game.” The Rockets’ four-game losing streak is their longest of the season and dropped their record to .500 for the first time since the second game of the season. But of the four losses, this was their best, if only because there was a stretch in which they did play well. But with six minutes left in the first half, the Lakers dropped a defensive anvil on a Rockets offense that had begun to crack.

From The Dream Shake: Well, that’s four in a row.  Time to start looking for moral victories, as actual victories have been scarce of late.  But while the losing is disappointing, there is a lot to be happy about as a Rockets fan. What’s to be happy about?  I’m thrilled you asked, Mr. Strawman. 1. Rockets rookies played 72 minutes in tonight’s contest. Jermaine Taylor played against arguably the best SG in the NBA.  He notched 15pts, 5rbs, 3asts, 1stl in 30 minutes of game action.  Sometimes he drove the lane and looked lost, sometimes he couldn’t handle his defensive assignment, but very few can.  Mostly he played like he belonged in the NBA. Jordan Hill, still on a sore ankle, still the tallest usable Rocket, got 8pts and 6rbs.  He drew an assignment against the indispensable Laker, Pau Gasol.  At times the grubby Catalan made Hill look like a rookie, but guess what?  Hill did the same to Pau a couple of times.  Hill is an NBA player, too.

From The Lakers Nation: Midway into the five game road trip, the Lakers have a record of 2-1, and have two more games on Monday and Wednesday. The Lakers came into the road trip on fire, winning six straight games and looking to extend their streak at San Antonio. The San Antonio Spurs came into last Wednesday’s game with the sixth seed at 42-27. The Lakers were very familiar with the Spurs and could possible meet them in the Playoffs this season. “We’re relatively familiar with San Antonio,” Jackson said. “They played us in the playoffs a year ago. We have a rivalry that goes back a long ways. We have some sense of who they are and how they play.” Even with All-Star guard Tony Parker out, the Spurs were still very talented, and with George Hill leading the point, the Spurs were looking for an upset. The game was aggressive off the bat, and in the first quarter Lamar Odom put in 10 while Hill had 14 on 5-7 shooting. The Lakers were outscored in both of the opening quarters and were down 48-41 at the half. The Spurs had all the momentum going into the third, but the Lakers made adjustment and came out firing.

From Silver Screen and Roll: I’ve been riding Derek Fisher pretty hard lately.  I take no pleasure in continuing to point out the obvious flaws in his game.  It’s not my idea of a good time to break down statistically how bad he is on both sides of the ball.  It’s simply part of the job description.  In analyzing why this Los Angeles Lakers team is failing to live up to expectations, Derek Fisher is a key element.  Not the only element, or even the most important one.  But, the continued degradation of his skills is certainly playing a vital role in helping this team to appear mortal. Or so I think.  But hey, I’m an open minded kind of guy.  So I’ve decided to give Derek a chance to prove me wrong.  Tonight, I give Fisher the chance to show me all of the “unseen” things he does to help the team.  Whenever Fisher is on the court, I will literally watch him the entire time.  I admit, I’ve given Fish a tough assignment, as tonight’s game pairs him with the uber quick Aaron Brooks, who is no stranger to leaving Fisher in his dust.  But, lets see what intangibles the naked eye can spot when it’s trying really hard to see them.

From Pro Basketball Talk: Take a look at our NBA’s Race to the Playoffs. Go on. Acquaint yourself. It’s a mess. Particularly the Western Conference.  There are seven teams that could end up in the 8th spot, staring down the Lakers (we’re tossing out the Grizzlies, love them as I do. No way anyone’s going in the tank like they need them to). Denver, Dallas, Utah, Phoenix, San Antonio, OKC, Portland. Any one of them could wind up under the crosshairs of the defending champions.  One of the things Greg Popovich has talked about extensively is the imperative of avoiding that eighth seed, of not ending up in a tussle with LA in the first round. It’s a fairly easy idea. Try and avoid the best team as long as possible, hope someone else does the dirty work for you, hope they get tired, hope they get banged up, go as far as you can, get as much playoff money as you can, stay away from the big, bad Lakers.  And pardon me if I sound like Owen Wilson in The Royal Tenenbaums (“What this book presupposes is… ‘What if he didn’t?'”), but I do keep having the same thought. Isn’t it better to get LA sooner rather than later?

From the Los Angeles Times Lakers Blog: Looking ahead to the remaining schedule, Lakers center Andrew Bynum shared two weeks ago that the team should aim to end the regular season with 60 victories. Back then, the Lakers were just beginning what would be a seven-game winning streak and the team had brainstormed ways to build momentum to ensure sharpness entering the postseason. Naturally, winning came to mind. Lakers forward Ron Artest chalked an even more ambitious goal, trying to win out all the remaining games. Even if that didn’t happen, the Lakers (54-19) are well within that 60-win plateau with nine games remaining. Of course, even the Lakers’ recent six-game winning streak was met with justifiable shrugs among the team and media mainly because five of the opponents were sub.-500 teams and none of the wins featured sharp play.

From the Los Angeles Times Lakers Blog: Has Phil Jackson lost control of the Lakers? Uh, no. The Lakers coach opined after Friday’s lopsided loss in Oklahoma City that the way players responded to his coaching would factor into his decision whether to return next season. Lamar Odom laughed at the notion that Jackson had somehow lost the players. “I don’t think that’s the case

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.