Archives For May 2010

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As the old saying goes, defense wins championships.  And since the mantra of the site is “the Lakers will only go as far as their defense will take them”, I think it’s best to start our Finals preview with the the Lakers D when the Celtics have the ball.  If the Lakers are to win this series, we all understand that they’ll also need to score the ball, but slowing down the Celtics’ attack will be just as important.  When you’re facing a defensive powerhouse like Boston, you can’t rely on your offense to win you games as they’ll never allow enough points for that to be a winning strategy.  So, the Lakers must get stops.  But how to get them?

Before we get into the sets that Celtics run, we need to explore the individual match ups in this series.  Yes, the success of the Lakers D will be dependent on the team structure and the schemes that the coaches deploy.  But, it all starts on the individual level and that means match ups.  So, the first question is who will guard who?  And even more specifically, who will guard Rondo.  When I exchanged emails with some of our long time commenters, nomuskles was wondering the same thing:

I’m interested to see how the Lakers decide to play Rondo. He’s much improved his scoring ability and decision-making. There’s been a lot of talk about how deadly Rondo has become this year. The crucial question is, can the Lakers make his life difficult and disrupt what Boston wants to do on offense? Against Phoenix, the Lakers showed that they are quite capable of mental lapses in coverage that resulted in wide-open looks for shooters. Being on the same page defensively is critical if the Lakers want to hoist another trophy.

When that question was put to Kwame A., he responded with the answer that most fans probably think is most likely:

The Rondo issue is a tricky one.  Fish really may do just as well as Kobe would guarding Rondo, but what makes me think Kobe should guard Rondo is the Ray Allen factor.  Kobe is not the type of defender that excels at running around screens and staying with a dead-eye shooter.  Kobe is much better on-ball, although Rondo ‘aint no duck walk’, Kobe needs to get the first shot at him.

Ultimately, I agree with Kwame A.  Kobe, at this stage in his career should not be asked to chase Ray Allen around screens and then stay with him when he’s on the weak side in spot up situations.  Plus, this is the way that the coaches have decided to guard Rondo since game 3 of the 2008 Finals.  In the remaining 4 games of that series and the 3 games that Kobe’s played versus Boston in the past two regular seasons (Kobe missed a game this year), he’s been deployed on Rondo.  So, if Kobe is on Rondo, the rest of the match ups should shake out this way: Fisher/Allen, Artest/Pierce, Gasol/Garnett, and Bynum/Perkins.  If the match ups do play out this way, the Lakers will not only need great individual defensive performances from all these guys but they’ll also need them to be keyed in to the Celtics offensive sets as they are a team that focuses heavily on teamwork and execution to get their baskets.

And when analyzing the Celtics sets through Synergy Sports’ database, it was this teamwork and high level of execution that stood out.  The Celtics offense actually is not that complicated.  They run P&R’s with Rondo, stagger screens for Ray Allen, isolations for Pierce, and post ups for KG/’Sheed/Perkins.  But within these base plays, there are several options on each action and the Celtics consistently seek out the extra pass in order to get a better shot.  This is where the Lakers discipline will be tested because even if they are able to shut down Boston’s primary option on a play, the C’s willingness to move the ball or reset their offense will test any defensive scheme and the Lakers will need to be able to rotate to the next player and shift their defense to account for these second and third options that are built into their sets.

A perfect example of this is evident in the baseline stagger screen action that the Celtics run for Ray Allen (and sometimes Pierce). Kwame A. explains:

Defensively, the Lakers have to create a plan to deal with the pin-downs when pierce/allen come to catch and garnett/davis are setting the screen.  These guys set great (illegal) screens, so Pierce/Allen usually have the option of an open shot, or they get the defense to get confused, both defenders go to Pierce/Allen and they both throw a great quick bounce pass to the mobile big who can roll and dunk or pick and pop.  It is a staple play and we will need to rotate weakside help over to prevent the dunk, hopefuly leaving rondo open on the weakside for an ugly jumper.

After looking at this play ran a bit more closely, what I saw was that Rondo starts out with the ball at the top of the key while Ray Allen starts out on the baseline either right outside the lane line or positioned right in the middle of the lane.  After Rondo calls out the play, Allen proceeds to run off a screen from one of the C’s big men and then curl to the opposite wing where Rondo then looks to hit him with a pass.  However, on this action there are a myriad of options and the Celtics will run this play looking for the one that is most open.  If that means hitting Allen curling to the wing than the pass is delivered there – where Allen is in position to shoot his jumper.  However if the big man guarding the second screener (who is usually Perkins) “shows” out to contest the pass to Allen, Rondo will hit that screen man with a pass as he’s the player that’s open or if  Allen does receive the pass but is covered well, he’ll also look to pass to the player that just set the screen for him.  In either case, the rolling big man either has an easy shot at the rim or he has the option to pass the ball to either the other big man that is diving to the rim from the opposite side or to the other wing player that is positioned cross court (usually Paul Pierce spotting up for a three pointer – as seen here in the first play of the highlight).

As you can see from the highlight, the quick ball movement and unselfishness leads to a wide open shot from one of the better spot up shooters in the league.  If the Lakers are to contain this action (and others just like it that involve Pierce on the strong side) they’ll need to fight through screens and help each other at every turn (while still recovering and/or rotating).  And this is where the doggedness of Fisher (and Artest) comes into play.  Fisher is one of the better players the Lakers have at fighting through screens to stick to his man or initiating enough contact that he’ll make the refs decide if the screen being set is legal or not – something that is important against a Celtic team that sets…um…some of the better moving screens in the league (as Kwame described above). And while Fish is undersized in being able to contest Allen’s jumper, he is (besides Sasha) the best at playing this action and it’s one of the main reasons I’m on board with Fish on Allen (with Kobe on Rondo).

But slowing these screen actions in the C’s half court sets are only one concern.  The other main way the Celtics get shots are in transition.  Rajon Rondo is a demon in the open court and he’s got some of the best court vision in the entire league.  This leads to him being able to get his own shot by getting all the way to rim on “one man fast breaks” and also controlling the tempo on the break so that when Pierce and Ray Allen run to the 3 point line he can hit them in transition for wide open threes.   So, in order for the Lakers to slow this aspect of the Celtics’ offense down, they’ll actually need to pull on their experiences against the Suns where  they too excelled in running to the three point line with a crafty PG feeding them for open jumpers.  Obviously Rondo is different than Nash in a lot of ways, but in this instance they’re quite similar.  If you close off the lane against him and then recover to shooters, the Celtics then become a half court team and one of their main ways of scoring the ball has been slowed (or even neutralized).

In the end, the Celtics actually embody a lot of the offensive traits that the Lakers have seen from their other opponents in these playoffs.  Like OKC, they have a tremendous talent at SF, a physically gifted PG (who is a much better play maker), and are a team that runs a lot of screen actions and pin downs to free up their wings.  Like Utah, this Boston team is well coached and disciplined and they have no qualms with pulling the ball back out and resetting their offense to get the look they want.  They’re more than willing to make the extra pass and thrive on making defenses work and react to their precision.  And like the Suns, this team is excellent in transition with a penetrating PG that loves to set up shooters that run the three point line while looking for bigs (KG/Perkins) that run to the rim.  Plus, in the half court (like Phoenix) this team will also run a lot of P&R where the PG is looking to penetrate the lane and either get his own lay up or collapse the defense so his shooters get good looks (and I haven’t even mentioned the pick and pops with Wallace – which is very similar to what the Suns do with Frye).  So, in a way, the Lakers should be prepared for what they see from the Celtics.  However, they must also understand that the C’s boast the best combination of players in these roles and that the combination of these traits – while not making them the best offense the Lakers have faced – make them quite dangerous.  And to beat them and slow them down the Lakers will need to show the Celtics that they play defense too and that the top 5 defensive ranking that the Lakers held for most of the season is not a fluke.  Whether they can do it or not remains to be seen, but I have confidence that the Lakers are up to the task.

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Many have commented that there seemed to be a section missing on Artest vs. Pierce.  Sadly this portion was left out of the post and not added back in before it went up.  So without further ado, the missing section on the match up at SF – this section was to appear right after we discussed the C’s screen action in the half-court.)

But besides the screen actions and the P&R’s run with Rondo, the other main option of the Celtics half court attack is Paul Pierce.  The Celtics run a variety of screen actions and also place Pierce in isolation situations to take advantage of his all around offensive skill set.  Being the Celtic’s leading scorer, slowing Pierce down is going to be a key factor in this series.  In 2008, Pierce’s ability to beat the Lakers SF’s (RadMan, Walton) off the dribble and create space for his jumpshot made it so Kobe had to spend a lot of time on #34 – wearing Kobe down and making him less effective on both sides of the ball over the course of the series.  However, this season the Lakers have Ron Artest to put on Pierce and it’s this match up that has everyone waiting in anticipation.  And the regular season results from this match up seem to favor the Lakers.  In the two games this season Pierce averaged 13 points (5 below his average), while shooting a combined 4-11 on three pointers.  In the game that that the Lakers won, Pierce was hounded into comitting 4 turnovers and had 5 fouls (none bigger than the offensive foul that Artest drew at the end of the game that allowed Kobe to eventually sink his game winner.)  Now, we must understand that coming into this series Pierce is playing very well and it will take a great effort from Ron to slow him down.  Pierce is coming off (probably) his best game of the playoffs as he scored 31 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in the series clincher over Orlando.  However, if Ron plays Pierce closely and takes advantage of the fact that Paul’s first step is slightly diminished, he should be able to stick with him off the dribble while also being able to contest Pierce’s jumper.  This will be easier said than done as Pierce is one of the best players at creating his own shot, but if Ron plays disciplined D (as he has these playoffs), I expect that we’ll be treated to a level of defense that we all wished the Lakers could have played on Pierce in 2008 where he earned the Finals MVP.

Tomorrow, when the Lakers have the ball…

Today has been one of those days where too many things are going on and I haven’t had time to get to the things that I’d like to.  That means I’m still working on the Finals previews as there is information that I’m still gathering that I think will be useful for you, the readers.  So, again, my apologies in the delay.

However, not all is lost on the preview front.  At 5:30pm Pacific (8:30pm Eastern), I’ll be talking about the upcoming Finals match up with the Celtics on Roto Experts‘ Hoops Edtion Show on Blog Talk Radio.  So come by and visit by clicking this link and listen to me attempt to defeat the Celtics solely with the power of my voice.  Or, more likely, talk about the match up in general.

On the written word front, I’ll have part one of our series preview later this evening when we discuss when the Celtics have the ball…

For nearly every Lakers fan, the first thoughts about the Finals match up with the Celtics are memories from 2008. Revenge is on the mind and we’re all a bit blood thirsty. But when we at FB&G start to roll out out series previews, we’ll be looking heavily at the two regular season games between these two teams. And when looking back at those two games, the thing that stands out is how close the games were. Both teams won a game but did so by a single point. Each team won their game on the road. Both games came down to last second shots (one that was made and one that we’d all like to forget). In one of the games Kobe didn’t play and both games occurred before Nate Robinson was playing for the Celtics. So without further ado, here some video highlights of the regular season games vs. the Celtics. You know, to reinvigorate the hate a bit more.

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The Lakers are going back to the Finals.

Exactly one year (to the day) after beating the Denver Nuggets and advancing to its second consecutive Finals looking to right the previous year’s wrong, the Lakers defeated the Phoenix Suns 111-103 in game 6 of the WCF and are now going to their third consecutive championship series and looking to exact revenge.  The series that everyone has been looking forward to is right around the corner.  But before we think about that next match up, we need to properly take in the events from Saturday and appreciate what the Lakers have done.

First and foremost, the Phoenix Suns deserve our congratulations and a load of credit.  The team that overachieved all season reached the Western Conference Finals and gave the Lakers everything they could handle over the course of the series.  After two blowout losses to start the WCF, the Suns fought as hard as possible in the last 4 games and just came up short.  And while they may not yet have a championship caliber team, they compete with the heart of a champion and they’ve earned the respect of basketball pundits and fans everywhere.  They’re just a great, great team.  And special recognition needs to be given to Steve Nash.  I think commenter Tra said it very well in the comments:

Much Respect to General Nash. I Salute You. The man is so under appreciated. I understand that we have several Good (Paul, D. Williams, Billups, Parker …) , and up & coming (Rose, Rondo, Westbrook, Jennings …) Point Guards in the Association, but if I had to choose 1 to go to war with in a game 7, I would choose Nash over all of them. His Shooting Accuracy, Determination/Competitiveness & High Basketball IQ more than makes up for what he lacks on the defensive side of the ball.

But as great as Nash is, game 6 wasn’t about his brilliance, it was about the otherworldly play of Kobe Bryant.  Over the course of the season we’ve seen game winners, fantastic performances in the face of injury, and that incredible will to win.  But tonight encapsulated the specialness that is Kobe Bean Bryant.  In a closeout game on the road and a home crowd that was ready to explode on the next positive play that their team could produce, Kobe quieted them.  Repeatedly.  The man with the iron will and the ice water in his veins showed how tremendous skill and unshakable focus can combine to create a nearly unbeatable force on the basketball court.  Usually the cliche “he wouldn’t let his team lose” is oversold, but tonight it was dead on when describing Kobe.  37 points (on 25 shots), 10 of 11 at the foul line, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and a +19 in 41 minutes of game time.  He was the dominant force in this game.

And oh what a game.

The contest started out as a shootout as both teams beat some pretty good (but not great) defense with plain better offense.  Both teams played to their strengths as the Suns pushed the ball up court, found open shooters, and knocked down threes.  Meanwhile the Lakers were getting the ball inside as 6 of their first 8 points came in the paint on two buckets by Bynum and a steal/dunk by Ron Artest.  And throughout the entire quarter, both teams just continued to make shots as neither defense could find a solution to the other teams offense.  Be it long jumpers, foul shots, post ups, or fast breaks, both teams just had it going.  By the time that the first 12 minutes elapsed, the Lakers had 37 points and the Suns had 34.  And while Phil Jackson may have called it ragged and surely thought the pace was too fast, for the fans watching in the arena or at home, it was simply a terrific show.

But as the game wore on, only one team would continue to put up the points.  As the pace slowed and both teams settled into more half court sets, it was the Lakers that found ways to but the ball in the basket consistently.  Sure, Kobe was doing his thing, but in support of #24 was Artest, Bynum, LO, and Jordan Farmar.  Over the middle portion of the game, it was these Lakers that continued to punish the Suns’ zone with penetration, jumpers that the Suns were willing to give up but finding results that were difficult to live with, and inside play that the Suns just didn’t seem to have an answer for.  As the Suns’ D shifted towards Kobe (who was still making shots) and Gasol (who wasn’t), Artest (and others) thrived by knocking down shot after shot that just continued to boost the Lakers lead.  So, by the time that the 3rd quarter ended the Lakers were ahead by 17 and looked to be in a pretty comfortable position.

But, like all very good NBA teams, the Suns made their push.  And they can thank Sasha Vujacic for giving them their inspiration.  Because after Goran Dragic made a nice step back jumper with Sasha trying to contest the shot, Dragic was able to bait Sasha into hitting him in the face with his arm.  After Dragic fell down like he was shot, the Phoenix crowd was suddenly back alive and the Suns had Dragic at the line for 2 FTs (flagrant 1 on Sasha) plus possession of the ball.  And after Dragic knocked down the freebies and then got two more points on a lay up after the inbounds, the Suns had shaved off 6 points from the Lakers lead and the run was on.  After a miss from Odom, Dragic got another layup and the Lakers lead was down to 9.  Farmar put a temporary stop to the bleeding with an 18 foot jumper on the next possession, but that would be short lived as after misses by both teams Frye hit a jumper and Amar’e got a dunk.  And suddenly what was a 17 point game was now a 7 point one with the Suns’ momentum building and their crowd roaring.

However, this is where having Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher pays off.  Both of these players have been in these battles and know what it takes to win on the road in these types of games.  And in the final 7 and a half minutes, it would be these two 13 year veterans that would carry the Lakers home.  First it was a Fisher jumper to push the lead back to 9.  That would be followed by a Kobe jumper and then another by Fisher that continued to match the Suns’ buckets at the other end.  And in the Final 2 minutes, Kobe would take over for good.  Making an array of jumpers that will live forever in his highlight reels, Kobe was simply…Kobe and closed the door on the Suns.  A leaning quick release flick from straight away?  A hanging, clutching jumper from 15 feet on the right baseline?  A 22 foot fade away as he spun away from a double team on the extended right wing?  Yes, yes, yes.  Again, simply amazing.

And while not everything was perfect and there will be improvements that are needed in the Finals, that is something to think about on another day.  Today is about celebration.  It’s not often that a team makes it to three straight NBA Finals.  And it’s even more rare to have one of the all time great players on the team that you root for.  So for now cherish these things; celebrate them as this is not the norm.  We have until next Thursday to talk about the Finals (and we’ll do plenty, believe me) so for now cherish this moment – I know that I will.

And since I can’t resist, check out the Lakers highlights from this win.

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There are few things as difficult as winning a closeout game on the road against a strong home team.  And since this is the exact scenario that the Lakers face this evening, we can only expect this to be the most difficult game of the series.  The Suns are facing elimination and they have a dangerous team that plays its best basketball on its home court and are not going to go down easily.  In order to win this game, the Lakers are going to have to bring their best effort, their highest level of execution, and an attention to detail worthy of a champion.  If they do these things, they’ll be well on their way to a series win.  If they don’t, an “anything can happen” game 7 awaits on Memorial Day.

Just like when the Lakers got to game 6 of the OKC series and by the time it was game 4 of the Utah series, the X’s and O’s of this match up are now well established.  Yes there are wrinkles that each team can add to their game plans, but in the end it will come down to which team can force the other team into more mistakes while maximizing the strengths of their own group.

For the Suns it will come down to the effectiveness of their P&R and how well they can get the stops that fuel their transition offense. All series the Suns have been at their best when Nash is working his wizardry while running the P&R with Amar’e and Lopez and when they’re able force the Lakers into jump shots that fuel their transition attack where open threes and run outs are easily achieved.

So, from the Lakers perspective, they need to continue to find ways to score against the Suns’ zone defense (or their man to man sets) and make them take the ball out of the hoop so that they then face a set up, half court defense.  This means the Lakers must stick to what works against the Suns’ zone by flashing players in and out of the high post and keeping Kobe on the weak side where he can attack the soft spots of the defense with either his jumper or penetration when the ball swings to his side of the floor.  The Lakers can also use some of the ball screen actions that help to free up Kobe; the screens that help him create easier looks for himself while also generating the defensive help scenarios that get his teammates open shots.  Also, an aggressive and assertive Gasol will go a long way towards victory.  If he’s attacking the basket and looking to finish with desire, it will be just what’s needed to establish his presence in the paint (so no flip shots after barely leaving your feet, please).

On defense the Lakers must continue to stick to their defensive principles by marking the Suns shooters in transition and showing the Suns different looks in the half court.  I’ve touted Nash’s virtues a lot in this series, but one thing that’s gone unsaid is his ability to adjust to whatever scheme you throw at him.  Like the all world quarterback that’s seen a steady diet of cover 2 or the batting champion that’s seen too many inside fastballs followed by the backdoor slider, Nash catches up to what your plan of attack is and then beats it.  We saw this in game 5 with the switching on the P&R and in games 3 & 4 with how he responded to the Lakers disrupting his passing angles to the dive man.  If the Lakers want to slow down Nash, they must throw the kitchen sink at him and not give him the same look every possession.  So, I’d like to see a variety of switches, fighting over screens, going under them, and also some trapping (especially when Nash runs the P&R to the sideline).

Bench play will also be vital in this game.  The last time the Suns reserves were on this court they scored 54 points and steamrolled their Laker counter parts while also more than holding their own against the Lakers starters.  When this group enters the game, it’s imperative that the Lakers not let them get rolling.  So mark Dudley and Frye at the three point line, try to contain Barbosa and Dragic off the dribble, and box out Amundson.  We’ll see if Sasha gets another shot in this game but it would be nice if Farmar and Brown made a useful contribution for the first time since game 2.  My expectations for this group are now back to “just keep it close” and nothing more.  If they can hold a lead or not allow a deficit to balloon, I’ll be more than happy.

The other key to this game is rebounding.  In the Lakers three wins they’ve out-rebounded the Suns by 5 or more.  Limiting the Suns offensive rebounds, the extra possessions and points that come from them will need to be a focus on every defensive sequence.  In the last game, the only Laker starter with less than 5 rebounds was Fisher.  It will take a similar team effort on the glass tonight.  The guards need to close down the foul line and grab the long rebounds while the bigs and small forwards get into the paint and body up on the Suns.

We’re at the point in the season where nothing is easy.  The Suns have already said that they expect to win this game and go back to Los Angeles for game 7.  However, if there’s any team that can close a team out on the road it’s the Lakers.  In the past two seasons the Lakers have beaten OKC, Utah, Denver, and Orlando (for the title) on the road to win clinching games.  They know what it takes and have experience in this exact situation.  The opponent may be new, but that just gives them another foe to add to the list.  Both teams will come in with confidence, but only one team will leave with the win.  Here’s to it being the guys that we root for.

One last note for us fans – enough with the complaints about the officiating.  This is one aspect of the game that we nor the players nor the coaches can control.  And since that’s the case, there is little point in complaining about it (and that goes for us fans the coaches and the players).  I’ll be the first to admit that the refs are far from perfect but I think it’s also clear that the refs miss calls on both ends.  The Lakers have not lost games because of the referees just as they haven’t won them because of the men with the whistles.  The teams that have played better down the stretch have pulled out the games and won.  Again, I’m not advocating for the refs and I think further exploration into how the refereeing can improve is important for the continued progress of the league.  But it’s tiring to continue to have this be such a major talking point.  The positives stemming from the greatness of the players and caliber of basketball being played far outweighs the negatives from some questionable calls.  I truly think we need to get back to appreciating the excellent basketball that’s being played.  End of rant.  Now, let’s get that win and move on to the Finals.