Archives For April 2010

LAKERS

At the end of Darius’ game wrap-up, he asked the question: In the end, was this a pretty game? Of course, his short answer was an abrupt, “no,” and I generally agree with that sentiment.  Although the Lakers played with an amazing defensive game plan on Kevin Durant that slowed down the whole Thunder offense, yesterday afternoon’s game showed that the Lakers are still playing sloppy basketball and exposed some things that the Thunder will have the opportunity to take advantage of.

1. Russell Westbrook went after the Lakers in transition, and will be able to continue to do so throughout the series simply because he’s immensely faster than anyone else on the Lakers’ roster. The Lakers just don’t have an answer for Westbrook on the open floor. They’ve struggled to create walls for opposing point guards in transition all season, and I just don’t think this is a problem that the Lakers are going to suddenly fix overnight.

2. The Thunder started fronting both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, making entry passes much tougher. This resulted in a couple of turnovers – but most importantly it forced the Lakers to go away from feeding Gasol and Bynum on a regular basis. The Lakers have shown that, if they have just a little problem making entry passes, they will move the ball around the perimeter and take jump shots (and they’re not a good shooting team) instead of trying harder to get the ball to the post. It’s clear that the Lakers’ biggest advantage lies in their two 7-footers, the Thunder understand that they can off set this advantage by making the Lakers take jump shots.

3. The Lakers bench actually wasn’t terrible yesterday. They came in and didn’t lose leads while the starters took a break, but they did turn the ball over five times as a unit. I don’t expect the Lakers’ reserves to outscore the Thunder reserves every game, and if they can’t outscore the Thunder reserves AND still account for nearly 42 percent of the Lakers’ turnovers, that could spell trouble for the Lakers as a unit.

There were some positives that we can take from this game, too. Again, like Darius said, Ron Artest did a fantastic job in defending Kevin Durant, who couldn’t have been pleased with his inaugural playoff game. I wrote this in a Game 1 recap for Talkhoops.net:

There were points in last nights game where it felt like Durant wasn’t even on the floor. Although this series is far from over, this will be a great learning opportunity for Durant as he’s on the floor with Kobe, someone who always leaves his stamp on the game. Even though Kobe only shot 31 percent from the field, there was never a point during the game where his presence wasn’t felt. He was active defensively, finishing with two blocks and two steals, and was making the extra pass. The extra pass didn’t always lead to an assist for Bryant, but it kept the defense honest. Durant is going to have to learn to do these things for the Thunder to be more successful during this post season.

Also, Andrew Bynum returned to play with a big 13 and 12 double-double while Pau Gasol finished with a solid 19 and 13 double-double of his own. As I mentioned earlier, the Lakers bench DID outscore the Thunder bench, mainly because of Lamar Odom’s presence, but a reserves-victory is hard to come by, so I’ll take it. What’s most important is the fact that the Lakers won the game. Teams who win Game 1 in a seven game series end up winning the series 79 percent of the time – and PJ is undefeated in playoff series after winning the first one. Before I get into the links, relive that monster block Kobe had on Durant in the third quarter. Classic moment.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b99JmNvJZSc&feature=youtu.be&a

THE BLOGS

My post over at Talkhoops: Andrew Bynum’s health is clearly going to play a huge role in not only this series, but for the Lakers hopes at repeating as NBA Champions. After missing the Lakers’ final 13 regular season games, Bynum made his return to the court in the Lakers first playoff game of 2010 and dropped a 13 and 12 double-double with four blocks in an eight-point Lakers win. The Lakers jumped all over the Thunder early in this game, taking advantage of the tense youngsters getting their first taste of playoff experience. Oklahoma City’s first four possessions read: Kevin Durant missed three; Nenad Krstic missed 20-footer; Durant missed layup; shot clock violation. On the other end Lakers gave the Thunder a heavy dose of looks in the paint, getting Gasol and Bynum going early, and not scoring outside of 15 feet until just over three minutes left in the first quarter, ultimately leading to a 27 to 13 lead for the Lakers after one.

From Silver Screen and Roll: We suspected this wouldn’t be pretty. The Los Angeles Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder have some transcendently talented offensive stars, but the season-long identity of both teams has been grounded in their defensive play. To their own selves the Lakers and Thunder were true on Sunday afternoon, as they kicked off their first-round playoff series with a clutchy, clangy Game One. The Lakers prevailed, 87 to 79, a final score that warms the hearts of anyone nostalgic for the Knicks-Heat playoff series of the late ‘90s. Jeff Van Gundy no doubt felt right at home.

From Hardwood Paroxysm: This was one of the most frustrating games I’ve ever watched and I’m not even a fan of either team. So I can only imagine what it was like for Lakers and Thunder fans. For a while, it looked like the Lakers were going to do what we all expected them to do. They were punishing the Thunder inside. They were trying to teach them a lesson. The lesson was “we’re happy for you that such a young team was able to make huge improvements, win 50 games, get Matt Moore cake and be one of the most surprising defensive teams in the league but we’d like to show you that none of that means anything unless you’ve got size and power and we’re going to show you that we have size and power.”

From The Daily Thunder: After one quarter, Oklahoma City trailed the defending champions 27-13. The Thunder were 5-19 from the floor, scored a season-low 13 points and just looked completely lost. They were rattled. They were visibly shaken and nervous. The game had a look and feel of a pending blowout. And I don’t blame them. They played like a bunch of 21-year-olds playing in their first playoff game ever. In Staples Center against the Los Angeles Lakers, no less. Heck, I was shaky and all I was doing was watching on a TV 1,300 miles away. I can’t imagine how I would’ve felt if I had to walk onto a court and try and get all that anxiety out while playing excellent basketball. So after 12 minutes, Oklahoma City looked overmatched. They looked a little scared. And I feared the worst for this Game 1.

From Welcome To Loud City: I can’t say I’m surprised. Nobody can say they were surprised. Not even the most die-hard Thunder fan really expected us to win and would be devastated by this loss. And obviously, the local media is going to do all it can to iterate that this was a good loss, a learning experience, a blah this and a blah that. In truth, though, it was just a loss. It was bad. We could have won, and we should have won. But, admittedly, the reason we did lose was because we were young.

From Land O’ Lakers: Was there a switch to flip? A magic button? An enchanted lever? No, but the Lakers turned in a quality effort to take Game 1 against the Thunder… There will be fans, I’m sure, lamenting a lack of style points. But Kobe Bryant, even while acknowledging the need to continue improving, made the bottom line pretty clear. “At this stage,” he said, “you’ve just got to win games. It doesn’t matter how you win them.” Who are we to argue with Kobe Bryant?

THE PAPERS

From the Los Angeles Times: Round 1 to the Wacko. “I couldn’t tell you what kind of job I did,” said Ron Artest, looking completely confused after complete domination. Round 1 to the Ron-O-Lantern. “I’m not going to fool myself into thinking I did anything special,” said the carrot-topped Artest after handing the Lakers their opening playoff victory on a silver platter of elbows and effort. Round 1 to the Anti-Ariza.

From the Los Angeles Times: Turns out it had nothing to do with the Lakers hitting the switch as much as getting Andrew Bynum back on the floor. We’ll get to Bynum’s talking about what he’s learned from reading the “Life of Pi,” his efforts to teach himself Spanish and Sunday’s cheap shot, but first — have you noticed how different the Lakers look with the big kid in the middle?

From the OC Register: This was the sort of controlled dominance expected but so rarely displayed by the Lakers this season. In their playoff opener as defending NBA champions, the Lakers never trailed and never had the mental letdown so frequent in their 25-loss regular season. They defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder, 87-79, on Sunday at Staples Center, getting a big bounce-back effort from center Andrew Bynum in his first game in a month.

From the OC Register: The most black-and-white player in the NBA suggested he’d bring more color before the Lakers are done with these playoffs. Multiple colors, in fact. That’s what Ron Artest hinted at Sunday after covering the league’s top scorer with everything but that dye he used to turn his hair a lovely shade of Corn Flake. And why, exactly, does Artest occasionally decide to go with the flowery ’fro? “I like,” he explained, “when people talk bad about me.”

From NewsOK: Kevin Durant said it felt the same. Said this playoff stage seemed like just another game. But who believes him? Who believes that a 21-year-old who over five months has gone from star to supernova didn’t feel the weight of the NBA world on his spindly shoulders as he walked into the Staples Center on Sunday? For the Thunder to scare the world’s most famous basketball team, to avoid turning into a caviar appetizer for the Lakers’ celebrity crowd, to take this series back to Oklahoma City with a sliver of hope for an historic upset, Durant has to play well.

From NewsOK: Scott Brooks couldn’t be happier with his team’s effort against the daunting defending champions on Sunday afternoon inside Staples Center. If only the Oklahoma City Thunder’s coach could have gotten his players to execute. Brooks saw Game 1 of the Thunder’s first-round series against Los Angeles go to the Lakers after the Thunder struggled mightily to muster anything of substance on the offensive end.

ESPN AND NBA

From ESPN Los Angeles: Kevin Durant was showered, dressed and ready to get out of Staples Center and put his first career playoff game behind him as quickly as possible. He didn’t play poorly, but he didn’t exactly take over the game — or the series — like he has so often and so prolifically this season. Twenty-four shots to get 24 points. Four turnovers, 1-for-8 from behind the 3-point line and the sight of Ron Artest’s bleach-blonde hair still lingering in his head.

From ESPN.com: If Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol hugged like they did Sunday at any point in the last month, Bynum would have a pile of ruined dress shirts lying on the floor at the back of his closet, as his strained left Achilles tendon kept him out of uniform and in street clothes since March 19. The two 7-footers, who play so much bigger than their combined 14 feet when they’re on the court together, held their sweaty embrace, celebrating the Lakers’ 87-79 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder that served as a welcome-back party for Bynum. It just so happens that the team’s oft-missing championship swagger decided to crash the party as well.

From NBA.com: On a play away from the ball in the first quarter, Andrew Bynum may have very well set the tone not only for himself, but for the rest of the series. After getting tripped up on a previous defensive play by Oklahoma City’s Jeff Green, Bynum bounced up and barreled into Green’s chest. No whistle. No harm. But it was a play Bynum felt he needed to make.”I wasn’t going to just let that happen without retaliating,” said Bynum following the Lakers wire-to-wire, 87-79 victory against the Thunder in Game 1 of the first-round Western Conference playoffs.”That’s just part of being aggressive and letting people know and having a presence out there.”

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Winning ugly is still winning, so in the case of the 87-79 Lakers victory, I’m very happy.  The Lakers now have a 1-0 lead in their first round series against the Thunder and that bodes well for their future success in this match up.  Phil Jackson has never lost a series (44-0) where his team has won the opening contest and the Lakers game one effort against the Thunder is now the 45th series in which Jackson’s team has pulled out an opening game win.  Whether or not the Lakers can continue that streak remains to be seen, but if today’s game was any indication, it will be tough for the Thunder to win 4 times in the next 6 games.  But we’re getting ahead of ourselves some as there is plenty to discuss about this first game.

This game truly was a defensive battle.  Neither team reached 90 points and the Lakers’ 41% shooting was only a hair better than the Thunder’s 40.3% from the field.  The Lakers held the Thunder to an offensive rating of 94.1 which is 15 points below their season average.  And the key to all of this was Ron Artest’s defense on Kevin Durant.  As the primary defender on KD, Artest helped to hold Durant to 24 points on 24 shot attempts with 4 turnovers.  And when you separate out Ron’s defense from the other Lakers that got time on Durant, you see that KD only went 4-18 from the field for 9 points – excluding FT’s (per ESPN stats and information).  That is a tremendous effort from Artest and should be applauded.  When you can hold one of the most dynamic scorers in the NBA to 22% from the field that is saying something.  But, I should also add that Durant did the Lakers a big favor by continuing to rely on long jumpers in isolation situations.  Based off his regular season stats, Durant shot only 40% from the field in isolation situations but took a bit over 25% of his shots in those exact scenarios.  Coming into this series, I mentioned that this would be a major factor in whether or not Durant would be successful and today that held true.  If KD is going to be content with settling for long jumpers with Ron playing him in close proximity, I’m unsure as to whether he’ll play substantially better than he did today.

And while the Thunder struggled on offense, the Lakers numbers weren’t much better (offensive efficiency of 103.6).  Just like Durant, the Lakers main perimeter threat also struggled with the solid one on one and team defense that he encountered.  Kobe needed 19 shots to score his 21 points, missed 5 of his 12 free throw attempts, and never really found his groove with his outside shot.  If not for him nailing 2 of his 5 three point attempts (one of them a dagger around the 6 minute mark), his 43.2% true shooting mark would have been even worse.  However unlike Durant, Kobe did move away from shooting the long jumper and found ways to get better shots and be effective on offense.  Kobe worked the post and attacked the basket and ended up taking 8 of his 19 shots from within 12 feet (making half of those attempts).  Taking advantage of his time against James Harden in post up situations, Kobe made a couple of nice turn around jumpers, drove hard to the paint to take short bank shots, and did not settle as often as we’ve seen him in the past.  So while Kobe didn’t necessarily have an advantage, he squeezed every ounce out of his match ups that he could and persevered to be as effective as he was in this game.

But, just as both teams superstars had their struggles, both teams’ secondary players did have good games.  For the Thunder that meant Russell Westbrook.  After missing his first 2 shots, Russ found his effectiveness rather quickly and got into the paint to make his next six.  Westbrook terrorized the Lakers in the open court by racing through their transition D and using his superior athleticism to get defenders on their heels and finish at the rim.  Aided by the Lakers’ poor offensive balance and missed long jumpshots, Westbrook was able break free and not allow the Lakers to “build the wall” in transition that would limit his driving lanes.  Overall, Russ scored 23 points on 16 shots and 64.8% true shooting.  He was (literally) the driving force behind this game being as close as it was from the Thunder’s perspective.  If the Lakers want to make life easier on themselves in the upcoming games, they’ll need to do a better job of transitioning from offense to defense and getting secondary defenders back to help in cutting off his angles to the rim.

As for the Lakers, their offensive and defensive success was built on the shoulders of Gasol and Bynum.  The two Lakers bigs played very well inside and combined to put up 32 points, grab 25 rebounds, and block 7 shots (while contesting many others).  The return of Bynum was especially significant as he was the catalyst on the interior.  On multiple possessions he established deep post position and made himself a good target for post entries.  He finished in the lane with authority and on one play in particular got the crowd (and the Lakers’ bench) off their feet with a powerful dunk executed off a fantastic seal of his defender and then a strong drop step to the middle.  And Bynum’s presence allowed Gasol more freedom on offense.  While Pau was not as dominant as hoped in the post against Green, the big Spaniard did continue stroking his silky mid range jumper and was able to score on the block with enough consistency that OKC never really had an answer for him.  The Lakers will need to find a way to get Pau more post touches and incorporate more actions within the Triangle to combat the Thunder’s fronting tendencies, but that’s what the game film is for.  But when it comes right down to it, with Pau making his jumper and drawing help on his post ups and Bynum occupying space and collapsing the defense on the other low block, the Lakers set the foundation for their success on offense.  And with both of them patrolling the paint on defense, the Thunder only grabbed 9 offensive rebounds (on 43 missed shots) and missed good interior looks because of those long outstretched arms.

In the end, was this a pretty game?  No.  The Lakers didn’t shoot well and had some defensive lapses that will need to be improved upon.  But, in a game like this, it’s nit picking to try and find too much fault in the Lakers’ performance.  The Lakers made Kevin Durant work for all of his points and made every member of the Thunder (save Westbrook) play against their strengths.  Offensively, the Lakers will need to improve on getting the ball inside with more consistency, but (as I mentioned) some time in the film room should help that considerably.  So even though there are adjustments to be made, having to make them while possessing the lead in the series is a much better position to be in than vice versa.  And having Phil Jackson being the mind behind making the adjustments helps too.  His record speaks for itself there.  So now, we wait for game two.  But in the meantime, enjoy this first game.  The Lakers earned a win have taken the series lead.  And being able to say that never gets old.

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We’re finally here…

Game one of the Lakers’ title defense is upon us.  This is what we’ve all been waiting for since October and we finally get to see how this team will play in the games that truly do matter (not to say that the regular season doesn’t matter, but you get my point).  We’ve already gone over the major keys to this series when the Thunder are on offense and did the same for the Lakers, so at this point there’s little else to say about this match up.  It’s now time for the games to be played and for questions to be answered based off what these teams do on the court.

Speaking of being on the court, the Lakers have a couple of players that won’t be on it tomorrow.  We already know that Sasha is out indefinitely with his severely sprained ankle.  But, the Lakers will also be without the services of DJ Mbenga.  In Saturday’s practice, Mbenga got poked in the eye and had to have emergency laser surgery to repair the damage.   With the return of Bynum, DJ missing time has less of an impact on the team but this is still an issue that can affect the Lakers.  In the event that there are any issues with Pau and/or Bynum (foul trouble, fatigue, ineffectiveness), the Lakers will not have another Center to turn to and will need to play either Powell or Odom in the pivot.  That’s not exactly an ideal situation against a team that is very good on the offensive glass.  Hopefully it doesn’t come to that and both Pau and Bynum can trade off minutes at center and effectively make this a non issue.

But, again, that is something to look for when the game is played.  At this point, the contingencies are in place and all that is left to do is watch and see what happens.  Personally, I’m excited for what’s ahead; I love the playoffs – with the raised intensity and the extra meaning that is assigned each possession and game.  Saturday gave us some interesting contests that ultimately saw all four home teams win and wrap up a victory in that critical game one.  Hopefully, the Lakers can do the same today.

On a final note, I hope you all enjoy this as much as I will.  There are sure to be ups and downs, but every journey has them and while a championship destination is always the goal, the path to get there is what makes it special.  So, have fun and enjoy the ride.  The Lakers are defending their title, there couldn’t be a better time to be a fan.

Where you can watch: 12:00 noon start in the west on ABC.  Also on ESPN Radio 710am.

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Putting the ball in the basket.  It’s what this game is about.  The last time I checked, the team with the higher score wins the game so being able to perform this simple act is quite important.  Yesterday, we looked at the Thunder’s offense and some of the match ups that will play a major role in the outcome of this series.  Today, we examine the Lakers offense and how to best attack the Thunder.

First a few numbers – over the course of the season, the Thunder were the 9th ranked defensive team in the league (in terms of points per 100 possessions) and were 7th in opposition turnover rate as well FG% against.  They’re a scrappy bunch that relies on solid defensive principles where rotations are ritualistically executed and close outs are almost always performed.  However, that defensive fervor died down towards the end of the season and the Thunder started to rely much more heavily on outscoring their opponents to win games.  When you have Kevin Durant that’s not necessarily the worst approach but for a team that made its mark for most of the season on stopping the opposition that change is important as the post season begins.  Will the Thunder be able to recapture some of that lost defensive focus and intensity?  Against a Lakers team that has some definitive match up advantages, they’ll need to.

Offensively, the biggest advantage that the Lakers have is with Pau Gasol.  Going inside into the big Spaniard will be imperative if the Lakers look to sustain any offensive success.  The return of Andrew Bynum (whether completely healthy or not) means that Pau can slide back to power forward and a match up with Jeff Green (at least at the start of games).  Nothing against Green, but he’s not a defender that’s built to battle the diverse attack that Pau possesses.  Green is only 6’9″ and isn’t a tremendously long player.  He’s got very good quickness, but his lack of height and reach is something that looks very appetizing to a 7’0″ player with arms like a condor’s wings.  As Kurt told me simply and succinctly:

(Pau) is going to be covered by the 6’9″ Jeff Green, who can’t handle him in the post and who Gasol can shoot over at the elbow. Not only is Gasol hot lately, not only has the offense always flowed better when he was the focal point, but also he is the Lakers big offensive mismatch. Exploit it.

So, the Lakers need to go inside to Pau, that much is clear.  But what is the best way to do this?  Typically, Pau operates in the hub of the Triangle where the initial options of this offense begin.  We often see the Lakers start their sets with the sideline initiation where the ball handler passes to the player at the extended wing and then cuts to the (Joel Myers sponsored) short corner.   These two wing players form the Triangle with the big man that is either already at or flashing to the strong side low post.  However, now that Bynum is back, I’d actually prefer that the Lakers set up in a weak side set where after the pass is made to the player on the extended wing the initial passer cuts to the opposite side corner so that the wing man and the post player can play in a two man game.  And I want to see Pau sitting at that weak side low block.  This will give Pau a chance to operate in isolation earlier in the clock and do so in space.  This puts Pau in the advantageous position of not having strong side defenders digging down on him while also allowing him to use his full arsenal against his defender.  For example, when Gasol makes the catch at the post in this weak side formation, he can go to a straight post up move and shoot his jump hook with either hand.  Or he can turn and face to shoot his jumpshot (which he’s been making consistently for weeks).  Or he can turn and face and use an attack dribble to get to the rim.  And not only does this open up all these different options, but it also allows Pau to easily see the double team coming from the opposite side of the court while also opening up the lane for all the screen actions that exist when the three players that create the Triangle on the opposite side start their motions.  There are just too many good options out of this weak side initiation with all of them exploiting the Lakers natural advantage of Gasol vs. Green.

But obviously, Pau is not the only offensive weapon for the Lakers.  There’s that guy that wears #24 as well.  The key though, in this series, is for Kobe to recognize that he is being guarded by one of the better wing defenders in the league and to play with his head and not be driven by pride or by ego.  Kobe knows he can be successful against this team and it would be easy for him to look at his earlier successes against OKC (look at his point totals in the first three games) and ignore the 11 point stinker he threw up against this team in late March.  But, he instead needs to focus on where the biggest advantages lie – on the interior – and play a style that aligns with this reality.  This isn’t to say that Kobe can’t look for his own shot or be aggressive.  One of the main reasons that the Lakers are as dangerous on offense as they are is because of the threat of Kobe; the opponent’s knowledge of what he’s capable of doing when he has the ball in his hands.  That said, his aggression must be selective and his shots (at least the majority of them) need to come within the flow of the Lakers’ sets where he is working off the ball and running Sefolosha off screens and slashing to the basket.  This will allow him to be efficient and effective while also still using the principles of the offense to help himself and his mates.

From a team wide perspective there are also some important keys that the Lakers need to be aware of.  First is that they need to take care of the ball and limit their turnovers.  The Thunder prey on careless offenses and use their athleticism in the open court to get easy baskets when you give away the rock.  Second is that the Lakers size advantage exists not only on the low block, but on the offensive glass as well.  When Pau and Bynum get deep post position, the help will come and that will open up lanes to crash the offensive boards.  I’d love to hear at least three or four references to the Lakers playing ‘volleyball’ on the glass in each game.  Third, the Lakers can’t get complacent on offense and go away from what works.  That means don’t run the pick and roll just because it’s there and don’t jack up early shots in transition just because that is the shot that is available.  Work the Triangle and do the little things; the correct things that win possessions and thus win the game.

In the end, this series can end up being a lot closer than it (probably) should be if the Lakers don’t diligently look to work their favorable match ups.  The Lakers size, smarts, and experience can be the difference between a short series or long and hard fought one.  As Magic Johnson said so often, it’s winning time.  Will the Lakers take the steps necessary to ensure that they come out on top?  The roadmap is there, they just need to follow it.

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For some time the mantra for this site has been that the Lakers will go as far as their defense will take them.  So we start our preview of the Lakers first round series against the Thunder with how to slow down OKC’s offense.  This will be a task that will be easier said than done.  The Thunder, though ranked only 12th in points per possession over the course of the regular season, do have one of the best offensive players in the league in Kevin Durant, a fantastic young point guard in Russ Westbrook, and other versatile players that can put the ball in the basket.  So, in order to slow down the Thunder, the Lakers must understand OKC’s plan of attack and then systematically start to take those things away to limit those plays’ effectiveness or make them go to other options entirely.

Obviously, when a team has the league’s leading scorer on their roster, their offensive attack starts with that player.  So, keying in on Kevin Durant will be the first priority for the Lakers D.  In the four games that the Lakers played against the Thunder, they actually did an okay job against him.  In three of the four contests they held him below 50% shooting and kept him below his season scoring average.   But we must also understand that three of those four contests were early in the season – he is a better player now than he was before the calendar changed over to 2010.  And even though Durant hasn’t had that singular spectacular game against the Lakers, he still got his numbers.  That is likely to continue this series.  I’ll let Zephid explain:

We all know that Kevin Durant is going to get his; he’s going to get 25+ points.  As good as Ron Artest has been, Durant is getting to that Kobe-Lebron-Wade territory of unstoppable, only containable.  But, it all depends on how many shots he takes to get them.  Similar to Kobe, if we can hold Durant to a 1-1 shot-to-point ratio, we’ll have a very good chance of bouncing the Thunder quickly.  But to do that, we have to keep Durant off the free throw line.  He’s averaging 10 free throws a game, and shoots them at almost 90%, so Ron Artest has to stay down and just give up the jumpers.  At this point, you’d almost rather Durant take semi-open jumpers than send him to the free throw line, he’s so good.

We all know that Phil has already started to combat Durant’s ability to get to the foul line by working the media and calling out the referees.  But how are the Lakers going to try to make the rest of KD’s game less effective?  They need to start by understanding what the Thunder do to get KD the ball and where he’s most effective on the court.

The Thunder’s main goal is to get Durant the ball in three different places.  First is on the extended wing on either side of the court.  To do this, the Thunder often run a simple down screen action with their Center.  Durant starts on the low block, the ball is brought up on that same side of the court, and then the big man sets a down screen to get Durant an easy catch around the three point line.  The second place that Durant loves to catch the ball is on the baseline/mid post in the 12 to 16 foot range.  The Thunder try to accomplish this by running a variation of the setup described above.  But instead of starting at the low block, Durant starts up high at the extended wing, goes to the low block like he’s going to pop back out to the wing (using the down screen described above), but instead of popping back out to the wing he continues to run the baseline and gets a screen at the weak side low block so he can circle to the opposite short corner.  He then receives a pass as the ball rotates back to his side.  The third way that Durant gets the ball in his hands is by running the screen and roll when he’s the screener.  In this arrangement, Durant just sets up at the elbow and comes up to Westbrook (or Maynor) and sets a simple screen where he can run a pick and pop to free him up.  Once the guard comes off the screen, he quickly looks to give the ball up to KD where he is in a position to attack.

The Lakers must understand that due to Durant’s unlimited range, the Thunder don’t really care where Durant catches the ball because he is a threat to score from anywhere.  So, the point of their sets is to just get the ball in his hands and let him go to work.  They don’t run anything complex to accomplish this and essentially run simplistic actions just so he can get a step on his defender to create a passing lane/angle.  And then once he has the ball he’s looking to create a shot for himself (Durant has an assist rate of 9.09 – the league average for SF’s is 12.87).  Understand as well that despite the simplicity of these plays, these are sets that produce a large number of KD’s shot attempts (746 of 1,668 of his FGA’s come off isolations and screens just like these).  So, defending these types of actions (especially in isolation) will be quite important for the Lakers.  Luckily for the Lakers, they employ Ron Artest, a player that just happens to be one of the best on ball defenders in the league.  And against Durant, Artest will need to use all his tricks and craftiness to keep the young star off balance.  Sometimes that will mean allowing the catch and then crowding Durant.  Other times it will mean furious ball denials.  But on every possession, it will mean that Artest must work hard (not a problem for Ron) and body up the willowy Durant in an effort to wear him down.  If there’s one thing that I’ve been most impressed with when it comes to KD it’s that he can make the game look so easy; that at times it seems that he’s hardly working but yet having so much success.  But, Artest is the exact type of defender to counter act that due to his strength and ability to make offensive players work to make the catch, to establish position, and to get shots off.  This is the aspect of Artest’s defense that I’m most interested in when he matches up with KD because over the course of the series, I think it will take it’s toll on him.

But, Durant is not the only key player to slow down.  Obviously when it comes to evaluating the Lakers defense, it’s how this team deals with point guards that is the glaring weakness.  And with Russell Westbrook, the Thunder will pose a challenge at  this position.  Again, I’ll let Zephid share his thoughts on what this match up means for this series:

It’s obvious that the key to the Lakers beating OKC is Russell Westbrook.  During the three times when the Lakers beat the Thunder, Westbrook went 9-21, 5-16, and 5-12.  When they won, Westbrook went 10-13.  So while Westbrook hasn’t played particularly well against the Lakers this season, except during the blowout a couple weeks ago, we’re going to get blown out if we don’t hold him down.

Controlling Westbrook will indeed be a major factor in the Lakers success in this series.  So how should the Lakers approach him?  I asked that question to Kurt and he gave a succinct answer but one that is completely accurate:

Westbrook is a slasher on offense and does not have a good outside shot. Go under picks, dare him to shoot the jumper and the three. Make him beat you from the outside.  (Kurt also explained that this applies to Sefalosha as well.)

Or, as I like to call it, give him the Rajon Rondo treatment.  Dare him to take the jumper.  Build a wall in transition and help off of non scorers (like Thabo) and turn him into a player that must consistently score from 18 feet and out.  Yes, this will be easier said than done as Russell is a player that has excellent quickness and rare athleticism for a point guard.  But, he’s also never faced a playoff defense before and especially one where the coaches have had weeks to look at his game and break down his tendencies.

One other aspect to understand about the OKC offense is something that I mentioned earlier – simplicity.  The Thunder do not run complex sets.  When you have devastating one on one players like Durant and Westbrook, then surround them with Jeff Green (an all around talent that can shoot the three, drive and finish, or post up), Nenad Kristc (a good big man with an okay post game and a good enough mid-range jumper), and James Harden (smooth guard with a very good jumper and underrated play making skill), the point isn’t to run a bunch of complicated actions, but rather to get the ball into the hands of their best creators and let them do their thing.  But, this season, this has led to a couple of issues.  First is the fact that the Thunder are a bit of a turnover prone team (they have the 7th highest turnover rate in the league).  Some of that is because of the predictability of their sets, but it’s also because Westbrook is not the most natural point guard and that can often lead to forced passes or misreads.  Second is the fact that the Thunder aren’t the best executing team in crunch time and have had trouble this season closing out the tightly contested games.  The Thunder are 7-11 in games that are decided by three points or less and are 1-4 in overtime games.  As Kurt told me:

When games tighten up and defenses get tougher at the end of games, the Thunder tend to tighten up as well. Durant is still Durant, but he gets less help and their offense becomes more about isolation, and with that they often become stagnant and they go through dry spells. It’s a learning thing, they won’t do that in a couple of years.

However, Kwame A. thinks that this may be more than just an execution issue, it may be a personnel one:

I think that the Coach of the Year Scott Brooks has actually made a mistake in his lineups to close out games.  Or actually, has a catch 22.  For the Thunder to be a diverse enough offense to be effective in tight game situations I think they need James Harden on the court.  He, along with wildcard Jeff Green, are the only shooters outside of Durant.  Problem is, Thabo is Scott’s guy for shutting down opposing perimeter players, so Thabo is in the game.  This has led them into either having to stick with Thabo-who is a liability to say the least on O, or try to shuffle Harden and Thabo back and forth, and that hasn’t worked out.

So here we are.  The Thunder have the horses, but do they have the schemes to compete against a dialed in Lakers defense?  Can Durant shake free from the grasp of Artest often enough to generate the type of scoring outbursts that his team will likely need to create and hold a lead?  Will Westbrook be able to knock down enough jumpers so that the defense has to play him honestly where driving lanes are open and available?  Will Green be assertive enough?  Will Thabo make enough shots to not be a liability that can be doubled off of?  Can the Thunder execute in the closing minutes of a close game?  Remember, while the Lakers defense has slipped some lately, they are still a top 5 defensive team and were ranked either #1 or #2 in defensive efficiency for several months this season.  If the Thunder are to win, they’ll need the answers to most of the above questions to be yes.  Meanwhile, the Lakers will go as far as their defense will take them.  Which side will win out?  Starting on Sunday, we’ll see.

Tomorrow – when the Lakers have the ball.

NBA: Lakers vs. Kings Mar 16

Below is a collection of links about the Lakers health, struggles down the stretch and previews for their impending first round series with the Thunder. Enjoy them, there’s some really good stuff this morning.

From the Los Angeles Times: Bad day for the Lakers, who lost another player to injury, got drilled by their cross-town rival and angered the All-Star forward on the team they’ll face in the first round of the playoffs. Sasha Vujacic left with a severely sprained left ankle in the Lakers’ 107-91 loss Wednesday to the Clippers and might not be available against Oklahoma City, which plays the Lakers in Game 1 Sunday at noon at Staples Center. Vujacic’s injured ankle wasn’t the Lakers’ only problem. There was also Kevin Durant’s injured ego.

From the OC Register: The worst thing any playoff-qualifying team can feel is successful based on regular-season overachievement. When it gets hard in the playoffs, as it assuredly will, that sense of satisfaction morphs into the grim reaper. The fleeting, subconscious thought: “It has been a great season,” means a sigh gets exhaled when teeth absolutely need to be gritted to survive. Maybe – just maybe – if a team is experienced enough to guard against human nature, then the damage from such a letdown can be somewhat mitigated.

From Kurt over at Pro Basketball Talk: It’s very trendy to be down on the Lakers right now. They’ve given everyone plenty of reasons the last month — spotty execution, horrible outside shooting, questionable defensive rotations and a general malaise. See, there I go doing it — we act as if these Lakers are that other team in LA. The Lakers won 57 games and won the West going away, despite a number of injuries. (Kobe had a number of injuries all by himself, it just doesn’t keep him out of games). It’s trendy to think the Lakers will fall short, and plenty of people are rooting for the Lakers to self destruct in a spectacular, Lindsay Lohan fashion.

From Hardwood Paroxysm: A little over a week ago, the Thunder and their fans were up in arms over poor officiating in their overtime loss to the Utah Jazz. There was good reason for the uproar. CJ Miles got away with slapping ten with Kevin Durant when the league’s leading scorer put up a game-winning attempt. The attempt fell short, the whistle of referee Tony Brothers remained silent and state of Oklahoma went nuts. I warned that if they thought the officiating here was bad and a disaster, they should wait until they’re forced to deal with the officiating in a playoff series against the Lakers. At the time, the Thunder looked to be no worse than the sixth seed in the West. As fate would have it, they dropped to the eighth seed, setting up a showdown with the Lakers in the first round. And it certainly will be a showdown.

From Land O’ Lakers: The Lakers officially began their title defense on October 27 with a ring ceremony and a game against the Los Angeles Clippers. Oodles of pomp, circumstance and promise! Tonight, the campaign is book-ended against those same Clippers, but the vibe couldn’t be any different. Literally and figuratively, the Lakers are limping into the playoffs. Win or lose, there will be a vibe more “lamb” than “lion” as the curtain drops on the regular season.

From the Los Angeles Times: Lakers center Andrew Bynum took part in Wednesday morning’s shoot-around, his first on-court work since sustaining a strained left Achilles’ tendon March 19. “I did a lot of offense,” Bynum said, smiling. “My touch is still there.” He has not practiced with contact, a step he is saving for practice later this week. The Lakers are expected to begin playoffs Sunday against Oklahoma City at Staples Center.

From the LA Daily News: Andrew Bynum took the next step toward returning to the Lakers’ active roster for Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He participated in a few shooting drills at Wednesday morning’s shootaround. He also ran on a treadmill before the Lakers faced the Clippers in the regular-season finale at Staples Center. The next step will be a full-contact workout today while the rest of the team has the day off. If that goes well, he’ll practice Friday.

From ESPN.com: Then again, anger can get you deep into the NBA playoffs. Of all the emotions that emerge in the postseason, a controlled anger can be the most valuable. Ask the 2004 Detroit Pistons. There’s never been a team with more reason to be mad than that collection of castoffs, cobbled together from other teams and low draft picks, a group that took its spiritual guidance from the volatile Rasheed Wallace and filled digital recorders with rationales for his numerous technical fouls.

From NBA.com: The potential for an exciting series is matched by the strange way the series has arrived, with the Lakers tripping over the regular-season finish line as Kobe Bryant struggles with injuries and the Thunder going from a 2009-10 of amazing growth to a reality check of a late slump. Clearly this is not the way either hoped to enter the playoffs.

From Silver Screen and Roll: It seems everywhere you turn, numbers are used to explain basketball these days. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. People love numbers. Real numbers. Made up numbers. Misintepreted numbers. They’re all used to try to figure out this beautiful game of basketball that we love so much. A game sometimes so simple, yet so complex at the same time. But I don’t want to start a debate over the pros or cons about the numbers game to explain basketball. That’s a topic for another day. Instead, let’s focus on a simple number. Sixteen. In this year’s playoffs, the number 16 is the most important one of them all.

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The regular season is no more.  And sure, fans, media, even the players and coaches aren’t thrilled with how the season transpired (and especially with how it ended).  But, with where we stand now that doesn’t really matter.  I believe there is an old saying about water under bridges and another about spilled milk that apply right now.  So, with the second season only days away, I’d like to see a few things…

*A healthy Andrew Bynum.

*A revived Kobe Bryant.

*Strong defense buoyed by our twin seven footers and Artest leaning on wing players to the point that they make catches 30 feet from the basket.

*A frustrated Russ Westbrook not being able to crack the code of a playoff defense.

*Long playoff series between the Celts/Heat and ‘Blazers/Suns. 

*More twitter wars between the players.  You know, stuff like this.  That Nuggets/Jazz series is going to be a war.

*Some made three pointers.  Any Laker or two will do, I’m not that picky.

*Good ball movement from smart passes.  Hard screens that lead to off the ball player movement.  You know, Triangle execution.

*George Karl pacing the sidelines for the Nuggets.

*Our favorite foes in ‘Gone Fishin’ pictures with EJ, Chuck, and Kenny.

*Joakim Noah and Lebron James face to face

*The Spurs.  As long as the red-hot version of Manu doesn’t show up.  If he’s there, umm…forget I said anything at all.

*One last hurrah from our man D-Fish.  I think he’s got one more post season of big shots in him.

*The media forced to slowly change it’s tune on the vulnerability of the Lakers.

*A bunch of promos for ‘Saving Grace’ and ‘The Closer’.  Oh sorry, wrong list.

*Smart analysis from the TV guys.  (A guy can dream right?)

*Pau’s jumper remaining as silky as it has for the past few weeks.

*An Eastern Conference Finals between the Cavs and Magic.  Those guys have unsettled business.

*An entertaining Finals that features the Lakers.

*A parade down Figueroa and a shiny new Larry O’Brien Trophy for everyone to spill champagne on.

Los Angeles Lakers at Oklahoma City Thunder

With the finale of the very last game of the season, Phoenix/Utah, the Western Conference playoff bracket was finally set. With the Suns win over Utah, it moves them into the number 3 slot, creating an interesting road for the Lakers to the Finals – something that I was ultimately hoping for.

In the Lakers previous two post-seasons, they had to go through both the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets to get to the Finals. Even though the Lakers were 8-3 against the Jazz and 8-2 against the Nuggets in the series they played in the previous two seasons, those were the series before the Finals that put their respective stamps on the Lakers post season. This season, however, the Nuggets and Jazz will play for the right to try and knock off the Lakers in the second round.

If the Lakers are so lucky to get back to the Western Conference Finals, it appears that they’ll either end up playing the Dallas Mavericks or the Phoenix Suns. I’m not really into predicting the future, but conventional wisdom would hold that the Suns have a fairly decent chance of moving past a Portland Trailblazers team without Brandon Roy. Phoenix has been playing better than just about anyone in the NBA in these last few weeks and, without Portland’s all-star, Phoenix should roll. The other series places the new-look Mavericks against a Spurs team who are seemingly making one-last-hurrah. Last night, their young talented point guard, George Hill, left the game early with an ankle injury (the same ankle that he missed games with earlier this month). With Tony Parker’s hand still not completely used to dribbling and shooting the basketball, not having Hill will create problems for a Spurs team that struggled to beat the Mavericks all season. Although seemingly far fetched, nothing is guaranteed and either of the two best teams after the Lakers can go down.

But assuming they don’t, it creates an interesting dynamic for this postseason. The Lakers will have to go through a familiar foe to play what have been the two best Western Conference teams since the All-Star break. Yesterday, I got into a debate with reader J.D. Hastings via Twitter (shameless plug, but you can follow me here) about the merits of playing this Suns teams in the playoffs. While I recognize that the Lakers were 3-1 against the Suns this season, I’ve always been a firm believer of having momentum going into the postseason. Now, I’m not suggesting that either the Mavericks or the Suns will beat the Lakers because they’ve been playing better down the stretch, but I do believe that it’s foolish to take either of these teams lightly – especially the Suns. While it’s much harder to loathe this team without D’Antoni and Raja Bell on their half of the sideline, it’s just as easy to ponder how the Lakers are going to stop the Nash/Stoudemire S&R. But this is all assuming that the Lakers move past the Thunder in the first round.

Last night, Kevin Durant sealed up the scoring title, making him, at age 21, the youngest scoring champion ever. As Phil Jackson would tell it, much of that has to do with how many times Durant gets to the line. Now, I’m not really into this Jackson/Durant media scuffle, but I would like to point out that Durant is one of the best young men in the NBA. He carries himself like a champion and has been the ultimate teammate in his short tenure in the league. We’re going to have a more in-depth look at this Lakers-Thunder series before they meet for the first time on Monday. With three full days of rest, I’m hoping we’ll have some positive reports about Andrew Bynum getting some full practices in with the team since he strained his Achilles, and some good news about Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar. The Lakers are going to need to be full strength no matter who they’re playing this postseason.

-Phillip