Archives For May 2010

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The Phoenix Suns deserve credit for their game 3 win.  They made the adjustments that made the difference in the outcome of the game.  Their coaches put in the plans and the players executed them to a tee.  On offense that meant more attacking.  In the Suns’ P&R sets, Nash abandoned the probing style he often uses and instead made quick hitting, pin-point passes to roll men who made aggressive moves after catching the ball in stride.  In their other sets, they went to isolation plays for their big men where Amar’e and Lopez attacked our bigs off the dribble in a decisive manner that made helping and rotating difficult (and where, to the Suns’ credit, the shots were knocked down).  And on defense, they went to a zone that was effective for long stretches and made scoring the ball just a bit more difficult for the Lakers than it had been in the first two games (which was all the difference the Suns needed considering the high octane nature of their offense).

That said, as much as the Suns deserve credit, the Lakers deserve blame.  And loads of it.  Not every player that saw game action played poorly, but most did.  And while we saw Kobe, Fisher, and Gasol put up wonderful stat lines and display their fierce competitiveness, this team – as a unit – did not play smart basketball and it cost them the chance to win this game.

As Phillip detailed in his excellent recap of the contest, the Lakers committed too many turnovers and didn’t attack the Suns’ zone with a consistent approach that would have broken the defense down.  In the 2nd and 4th quarters, the Lakers were all too content to swing the ball around the perimeter and settle for a low percentage long jumpshot  that rarely saw the bottom of the net.  When the Lakers did try to break down the Suns’ zone with passes into the creases, they went for the home run pass through three defenders that often got deflected and stolen.  Again, the Lakers didn’t play smart basketball and it cost them.

Rarely do I rip into the players, but in this instance I was very dissappointed with the approach that they took when the game was on the line and winning was a real option.  Instead of continuing to play the style of basketball that led to a 37 point third quarter, the Lakers got lazy in the final frame and did the least amount of work possible while still hoping for the most rewards imaginable.  Gone was the incorporation of the high post flash and with cutters moving along the baseline.  Gone was the penetrating into the seams of the zone where the defense was forced to collapse and help.  Instead, the Lakers settlled for what was easy rather than doing the extra work required to succeed.  This is not a winning formula and we saw the results of that as the Lakers saw their 8 game winning streak taken out with the trash. 

So now, the Lakers need to make the mental adjustments  that will win them the games needed to advance to the Finals.  Now is the time for the Lakers to get back to thinking the game for a full 48 minutes rather than relying on their physical advantages to win them games.  That means more patience on offense where players move into open space to make themselves available to receive passes (and then the players with the ball, delivering the ball to that open player).  It means less settling for jumpers and more attacking the Suns individual defenders within their zone scheme.  It means playing fundamentally sound defense against players and knowing the scouting report in order to make players go to their weaknesses.  And it means less reaching, hacking, and grabbing that lead to the parade to the FT line that we witnessed in game 3.  Without this type of commitment to playing smart basketball, the Lakers will find themselves in another dog fight in the next game (and in every subsequent game too). 

Over the course of the last 6 quarters of basketball, I’ve seen a shift in the mentality of the Lakers that I have not liked.  Save for the first half of the 4th quarter in game two, the Lakers have morphed from the defensive focussed team that controlled the OKC and Utah series to a team that was more offensive in its mindset and content with outscoring the opponent in front of them.  Granted, I understand where that mentality could come from as the Suns have offered little resistance on defense in this series.  However, when the going got tough and the Suns zone was showing them looks that were not familiar; where a simple dump down to Gasol or a Kobe isolation play would not work, the Lakers got frustrated and settled.  The mental sharpness that won them 8 games in a row was gone.  I’m not trying to say that this series is now tilted back in the Suns favor, but if there’s a repeat of the game 3 effort tomorrow night, that idea won’t be far fetched.  So, all I ask for is a return of smart, focussed play.  A return to the fundamental principles that have gotten this team as far as it has.  If those things happen, I’ll live with the results – win or lose.   I’m going to leave the last word for Kelly Dwyer, who really summed up the way I feel in a few excellently crafted sentences:

“The choice is Los Angeles. Yes, this was the perfect game for Phoenix, but it can come pretty close to this in Game 4, and pretty close to it again in Game 5 if the bench starts hitting. As it’s been all year, this is on Los Angeles.

Do they show a bit of patience, and run that offense? Or do they go for the quick kill, the home run, the easy way out? They can win with the quick kill, swinging for those fences. The team is good enough to pull it off.

But they can really make their lives a lot simpler if they do it the right way. The way they know, more than any other team in this league, that gives them the easiest and quickest way to win.”

Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol scores on Phoenix Suns forward Amare Stoudemire in the third quarter during Game 3 of the NBA Western Conference finals in Phoenix

During the course of the past four days, everyone put in a position to make a criticism about Amare Stoudemire’s in the first two games of this series added their two cents. There was reason for the basketball world to jump on Stoudemire’s case. He was a revolving door on the defensive end of the floor and couldn’t grab a rebound to save his life. In Game 3, Stoudemire proved why the Phoenix Suns were so tough to beat during the second half of the season as he tied his playoff career high in points (42) while grabbing 11 rebounds in the Suns’ 118-109 win over the Lakers.

Stoudemire was aggressive early and often, getting to the free throw line on four of the Suns first nine possessions, keeping both Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom in foul trouble for most of the game. His jump shot was falling, he repeatedly beat Pau Gasol off the dribble and was finishing shots around the rim that weren’t falling in Games 1 and 2. Steve Nash was finally able to find some passing lanes to feed Stoudemire and the like off of those coveted screen and rolls that they used to move past Portland and San Antonio through the first two rounds of the playoffs. Stoudemire’s improved play seemingly opened things up for Robin Lopez who finished with an admirable 20 points, shooting 80 percent from the field, hitting the wide open jumpers he was getting from defenders helping off of Stoudemire and finishing strong around the rim.

The Suns ability to get their S&R going helped them live at the free throw line as they shot 42 free throws, making 37 of them while the Lakers were only 16 for 20 from the line. The Suns were consistent in their attack of the rim while the Lakers sat around the parameter and hoped for three pointers to fall. Many will look at the 22 free throw attempt difference and claim that the officials were unfair in the way that they called Game 3, but as Snoopy2006 pointed out in the Preview and Chat comments, the discrepancy had everything to do with both teams propensity to attack the rim:

Guys, the FT difference was because of the way we played. We didn’t attack the zone, we stayed out on the perimeter and forced jumpers. We weren’t playing 5v8, we were playing some passive 5v5.

In the first half, when Kobe didn’t go to the line? He was taking (and making) all midrange or long jumpers. When he started attacking near the end of the game, he got to the line.

Let’s keep the whining about the refs to a minimum. Sometimes, it’s warranted. But you can’t just look at the FTAs and say “Look! The refs hate us!” We didn’t attack hearly as much as the Suns did. There were a few times when Amare was hit on a FG and I thought he could have gotten an and-1 after watching the replay. The Suns earned those FTs, and we earned our trips to the FT line.

The fact of the matter is that the Suns made a great adjustment on the defensive end of the floor. Moving to their zone in the second quarter really stifled the Lakers offense. The Suns first showed the zone against the Lakers reserves who failed to produce any kind of offense. Phil Jackson brought in Kobe and Gasol but still failed to see the results that he would have liked as the Lakers finished the second quarter with just 15 points. The Lakers looked to be solving the puzzle that the zone presented in the third, but you could tell that they were never really comfortable as a unit attacking the 2-3.

While playing against the Suns man-to-man defense, the Lakers shot 56.6 percent from the field. That shooting percentage dropped to a lowly 31 percent versus the zone. More importantly, their turnovers per 100 possessions rose from 12.7 to 21.4 when the Suns moved from the man to the zone (all stats from ESPN Stats and Information). The Lakers finished with 17 very costly turnovers and the Suns turned those turnovers into 11 points. In Games 1 and 2, the Lakers dominated the turnover battle, in Game 3, their high turnover rate was a huge factor in deciding the game. After a Lamar Odom free throw gave the Lakers a 90-89 lead, the Lakers turned the ball over three times in the next minute and a half, completely swinging the momentum and the Lakers were never within six after that.

What was just as turning the ball over was the number of three pointers that he Lakers took. They took 32 from long range, their most since their first loss of the postseason when they shot 31 in Game 3 against Oklahoma City. Again, those long shots lead to long rebounds, which create transition opportunities for a team that likes to run as much as the Suns do. The Suns had 18 fast break points in Game 3 compared to just 20 in the first two games combined.

Kobe finished with a near triple double, just needing one more rebound to be added to his 36 points and 11 assists. Gasol had a solid 23 and nine and Derek Fisher added an unexpected 18 points, but the Lakers just didn’t get enough from Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum. Bynum only played eight foul plagued minutes while Odom didn’t really come alive until mid way through the third quarter. Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar, as expected, didn’t have the same effect off of the bench as they did in the first two games combining for only eight points and four turnovers.

In the end, you just have to credit Alvin Gentry for making the right adjustment and rolling with it, however, I don’t see this working for the remainder of the series. The Suns had to play a near perfect game to pull out a game that was within reach until a few ridiculous turnovers midway through the fourth. Stoudemire is not going to average 40 nor is Robin Lopez going to average 20 for the remainder of this series. The Suns still aren’t getting much from the bench that was supposed to be a major advantage over the Lakers reserves (is Channing Frye going to hit another shot?). I think Phil Jackson will make the right adjustments in the way they attack the Suns zone defense. Game 4 is going to be interesting to say the least. Hopefully there will be a lot less attention being paid to the Celtics and more focus on their current opponents. More respect for the Suns from the Lakers organization is in line after tonight. Game 4 will be on Tuesday at 6 p.m. PST on TNT.

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Game 3 will be a test for the Lakers.

I understand that Phoenix has looked completely overmatched for the first two games.  However, home cooking does wonders for a team and with the third installment of this series slated for the valley of the sun, Phoenix will bring their best effort in order to try and get back into the WCF.  They know that a loss today essentially ends their 2010 playoff run and that will be a major motivating factor in them playing their best basketball in order to stay alive.

The one area that we can expect improvement from the Suns is in their bench production.  In the first two games, to nearly everyone’s surprise, the Lakers bench has outplayed their counterparts from Phoenix.  Odom, Farmar, and Brown have just been plain better than Frye, Barbosa, Dragic, Dudley, and Amundson.  However, as the old axiom states, role players play better at home and an uptick in production from the Suns’ reserves is nearly a given.  That means that the Lakers’ bench will need to continue their strong play from the first two games and match the drive of the Suns while also bringing a level of execution that can allow them to keep pace with (or better yet, outdistance) the high octane attack of Phoenix’s back ups.

But, this game will be about more than just the respective benches from each team.  We’re also likely to see a continuation of the adjustments that Phoenix began in game 2.

First and foremost, that means a defensive strategy that the Suns can lean on to slow the Lakers attack.  As we’ve discussed the Suns still have not found reliable options to slow either Kobe or Gasol.  However, that does not mean that they won’t continue to try.  To that end, I think we’ll see the Suns try to single cover Kobe and double team Gasol as much as possible.  From Phoenix’s perspective, Kobe’s game 1 can be looked at as a bit of a fluke.  He made an obscenely high rate of his outside jumpers and did so against solid defense from Hill and Dudley.  From my perspective, a lot of the shots that Kobe made in that first game you can live with him taking (you just have to hope he doesn’t make as many).  What the Suns can’t live with is Kobe controlling the game with his play making as he did in game two.  If’ Kobe is allowed to score 20+ points while racking up double digit assists the Suns are sure to lose.  Today I expect to see the Suns make Kobe go for 40 points and carry the offensive load.  If he can do it, good on him, but he’s going to have to prove it today.

As for Gasol, I think double teaming him in a variety of ways is the only way that the Suns can slow him down.  While fronting the post or denying passes with the half-front are decent techniques, Pau is simply killing Phoenix whenever he makes the catch.  At this point, I they’ll need to try and force Pau to be less a factor by taking the ball out of his hands.  Remember, Pau is almost too unselfish in that he’s always looking for the right play.  When being single covered by players that can’t guard him (Amar’e and Frye), Pau’s best option is too attack those players and get his buckets.  However, if the double team comes he will not force the action and will make the correct pass to the open player.  If you’re the Suns, making Pau a passer and players like Fisher and Artest scorers is still your best option.  So, from a Lakers’ perspective, today is a day where we’ll need the complimentary scorers to make shots in order to disrupt the best laid plans of the Suns.

On defense, the Lakers must continue to do what they’ve been doing in the first two games in order to disrupt the Suns P&R.  In game 2, the Suns made a subtle adjustment early in the game where they ran much more of their P&R’s to the sideline in order to free Nash up along the baseline.  This led to early buckets by both Lopez and Amar’e as the Lakers bigs were caught in the middle of no man’s land between helping on Nash and recovering to their own man.  I expect to see the Suns run more of this action rather than the standard P&R that is run to the middle of the floor.  In order to slow down this action, the Lakers must collapse harder from the top (to crowd the paint and disrupt interior passes) while also blitzing Nash with the length of our bigs to cut down his passing angles to the perimeter while also making it more difficult for him to take his own shot.

The other wrinkle the Lakers must be prepared for is the Suns’ small lineup with Dudley playing PF.  The Suns made their only sustained run of the game with this undersized group as they were able to successfully space the floor and open up driving lanes off their P&R sets.  These open lanes collapsed the Lakers defense and made it so Richardson, Hill, and Dudley got open shots that they knocked down.  When the Suns go to this line up tonight, all I hope to see is a greater effort from the Lakers defense to recover to shooters and contest shots.  Most of the Suns’ made baskets came with no Laker within 3 steps of the offensive player and those guys are too good of shooters to leave that open.  So, if the Lakers can recover and chase the Suns’ shooters off of their spot and make them dribble before they shoot I’ll be happy.  All I’m looking for is a disruption of rhythm.

In the past, the Lakers have not been the best performers in game 3’s.  They seemingly got over that hump by winning the third game of the Jazz series, but that game was a one point victory where the Lakers dodged two bullets at the end to secure the win.  Against an offensive team as capable as the Suns, it’s tough to imagine the Lakers being that lucky if a similar situation arises.  That means the Lakers must be ready to bring a level of execution and focus that they have only had to show sparingly in the first two games (the first 4 minutes of game 2’s 4th quarter, for example).  If the Lakers can bring that quality of play, I like their chances tonight and moving forward in this series (and beyond).  And speaking of beyond, I understand the want to look ahead.  Boston is now up 3-0 and look to be the East representative in the Finals.  That said, the task at hand for the Lakers is the Phoenix Suns.  So, like a good point guard, it’s good that the Lakers can see the entire floor and understand where all the pieces lie.  But the immediate concern is not the player in your peripheral vision, it’s the one that is standing right in front of you.  Beat that player and you’ve got a lay up.  Pay too much attention to the player that is coming from the side and you pick up an offensive foul.  Keep your eyes on the guy at the rim fellas and the rest will take care of itself.

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I’m not like Marc Stein or Steve Nash (who seem fanatical) or even Bill Simmons in my fútbol fandom.  I don’t follow a team in the EPL and don’t have rooting interests in other club teams from around the world.  That said, like many young kids that grew up in America I played plenty of AYSO soccer and have always had a fondness for the beautiful game.

I’ve always seen soccer as having great parallels to basketball as it’s truly a team game where angles and positioning and team work are necessary for success.  Where fundamental play and technique can help just as much as great athleticism, and those with all those qualities are the best players in the world.  Where, despite the flopping or angling for calls, there’s a toughness that’s required to play the sport – even by those that play a “finesse” game.

Why do I bring all this up?  Because I’m legitimately excited for the upcoming World Cup.  Starting on June 11th, the best players put on their national colors and duke it out to stake their claim as the best team in the world.  Much like the Olympics, the every four year build up to the World Cup makes this event one of (if not the) biggest sporting events in the world and I plan to follow it as much as I can.  And as a basketball fan, I know I’m not alone here.  I already mentioned guys like Stein and Nash, but I know there are many, many other hoops lovers (players, media, and fans) that also go nuts over the game that we call soccer. Are you one of those people? Let me know in the comments (and who you’re rooting for).

Oh, and one last reason why I’m looking forward to the World Cup? The fantastic commercials. Nike always puts out some classic spots and this year is no different. Check out the clip below and you’ll even get a little basketball flavor with our own Mr. Bryant. (hat tip to Henry at TrueHoop for passing this along.)

LAKERS

It wasn’t so long ago where Kobe Bryant was struggling to have consecutive nights of high, efficient scoring. There was a definite inconsistency in Kobe’s game that we were unfamiliar with, and it was something that was concerning going into the post season. He would score 28 in one night, then spend the next two nights trying score 28 more. Suffice to say, Kobe spent the majority of the second half of the season looking beat up, and it was painful to watch as he struggled (well, struggled by his terms) to score efficiently. However, we’ve seen a recent burst in Kobe’s scoring, a streak that we haven’t seen from him since the end of December going into early January. I’ve spent a lot of time these past couple of days watching a lot of film of the Lakers recent playoff games and I’ve noticed some things that have contributed to his increase in efficiency.

Contrary to popular belief, scoring explosions don’t materialize out of nothing, there were some other factors that led to Kobe dropping 30 in six straight games, and one of those factors was the two games before his first 30-point game. In Games 4 and 5, Kobe was in his “facilitator mode” making all of the right passes, getting his teammates involved, taking as little shots as possible. Both of those games were blowouts, the Lakers getting blown out in the first and them blowing out the Thunder in the second. The only difference in the games was the fact that other guys were making shots. Kobe finished with 12 and 13 points on 10 and nine shots with four and seven assists, respectively. The most important thing was, when Kobe was taking shots, they were going in about 50 percent of the time (nine for 19).

This opened things up for Game 6, his first 30-point game of his streak. Thanks to Synergy Sports, I was able to go back and watch all of his field goal attempts during the course of his six-game streak and noticed that early in the streak, he got A LOT of shots close to the basket. Phil Jackson put Kobe in positions where he would be most successful. There were a lot of high screen and rolls with Pau Gasol forcing defenders to pick their poison. With Gasol playing as well as he has (to be discussed later), the Thunder and the Jazz were forced to pick their poison. When they picked Kobe, he took advantage of it. The same kind of dynamic happened when Kobe was in post up situations. Kobe found himself isolated in the post a lot in those early games in the streak, which is going to be advantage Kobe 80 percent of the time. Take a look at Kobe’s shot locations in his first game of the streak (from hoopdata.com):

OKCG6

Kobe took 12 of his 25 shots within 10 feet of the basket. Again, he was getting those shots at the rim through the S&R, where he scores in 38% of all such situations and through post ups, where he scores 49.8% of the time in such situations (per Synergy Sports). To put it in perspective, Kobe averaged only 7.2 shots within 10 feet of the rim. Him getting five extra high percentage shots really helped him get going.

It’s not a secret, for a lot of guys in this league, it only takes a couple shots to drop and they can have things going for a whole game. Getting some easy looks early always helps. For a guy like Kobe, getting easy looks throughout a game can get him going for weeks, even for a whole month at a time. We’ve seen this kind of sudden outbreak from Kobe before. In the past, his physical abilities has a lot to do with it, but, much more of it has to do with him figuring certain teams and defenders out. I’ll let Darius take the stage explaining what I mean.

I think the mental part of Kobe’s game is as sharp as ever.  I’ve said this before, but Kobe’s one of the most cerebral players in the game.  He often outthinks opponents and when that mental sharpness is mixed with a physically healthy player, you see the type of results that he’s producing right now.  I mean, Kobe is making the right reads on almost every play.  He’s accepting double teams and making great passes, he’s reading the defense on when to drive and when to shoot his jumper, and he’s directing the offense both when he’s with or without the ball.

A side note to all this is that Kobe’s always been a player that understands not only defensive schemes but the individual defenders that he’s up against.  I remember how players like Doug Christie, Bruce Bowen, and (more recently) Shane Battier were touted as defenders that gave Kobe problems.  But over time he learned how those players wanted to defend him and ultimately found ways to literally destroy them.  I think we saw some of the same things against Sefolosha at the end of the OKC series as Kobe found out where he could get his shots against him and the Thunder to the point that he could have that 30+ point game that really was the difference in that series.  Then as he’s played against lesser defenders from the Jazz and Suns he’s found his groove and is able to dissect those guys with relative ease.  I know in game 2 against Phoenix, Dudley gave Kobe some issues but I would not be surprised if by the end of the WCF, he’s scoring efficiently against him as well.  Like I said earlier, I think his mental game is just too sharp right now and with another title as close as it is, he’s raising his intensity and focus and we’re seeing the results in a better more efficient player.

More than anything else, Kobe getting easy looks and his mental game is what really got him started. Not that he is the kind of guy to shy away from shots when they’re not falling, but he does have a different kind of swagger on the court when he’s scoring high numbers efficiently. He’s always been one of the most confident players in the league, but he does, as all humans do, have different levels of confidence. When Kobe’s confidence rises, it’s almost tangible. You can see it. You can feel it. And nothing rises his confidence more than those two things, however, when it has risen, his outside jump shot. Look at Kobe’s shot locations during the last game of the streak (from hoopdata.com):

PHOG1

Look at the percentage of his shots from 16 feet in beyond in comparison to what he did in Game 6 against the Thunder. 16 of his 23 shot were jumpers, and he hit better than 55 percent of them. While a lot of this can be attributed to everything that has been mentioned above, there are still a couple more things that can be taken into account, one of them being his health. Again, I’ll let Darius take the floor on this one.

[Kobe’s] finally looking healthy again.  The issues with his knee (and maybe even his ankle) were really hampering his ability to elevate on his jumper and get by defenders off the dribble.  That lack of lift and explosion was hurting his scoring much more than the injured finger, in my opinion.  Folks forget that after he hurt the finger he was still able to shoot the ball well and even had some really big scoring nights where his jumper looked as pure as it ever has.  But after his ankle injury got aggravated when Odom stepped on his foot, his effectiveness was diminished and by the time the reports of his knee bothering him came out he looked like a fraction of the efficient player that he was early in the year.  So, now that he’s seemingly back to full health (or close to it) we’re seeing him play to the level that we’re accustomed to.

Darius saying that Kobe was “still able to shoot the ball well” is really an understatement. The game after he injured his finger, he had 16 points. In the 10 games after that, his lowest scoring output was 28 points, with three 40+ point performances during that time. It really was his ankle and knee injuries that hampered his scoring ability. Kobe taking those games off at the end of the season, and the old legs-sensitive playoff schedule has really been a huge help in terms of Kobe’s health. He’s had a bounce in his step these last few weeks that we really haven’t seen since the first half of the season.

That last factor that has really helped lead to Kobe’s scoring outburst is his teammates. Pau Gasol has been absolutely fantastic this postseason. During Kobe’s streak, Gasol averaged just over 20 points and just over 13 rebounds. Derek Fisher and Ron Artest have both stepped their games up too. Fisher is shooting over 38 percent from behind the arch while Artest is averaging 11.6 points per game during the streak, including two straight games where he scored 15+. However, what’s been the most impressive is the play of Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown who have combined for 13 point and a 52 percent mark from three-point range during this streak. Gasol and Lamar Odom have found the chemistry that was featured during the few games that Kobe missed around the All-Star Break and Andrew Bynum has had his moments.

As great as Kobe has been, a lot of the credit has to go to his supporting cast – and this all comes full circle with what I opened up with. That second game of Kobe’s facilitator mode did more than put him in a position to succeed; it really got his teammates going, too. It’s much harder to double-team Kobe when there are two to four more scoring threats on the floor around him, and as we all know, it’s much harder to double team Kobe in one-on-one situations. This presents a Catch-22 for opposing teams, and this was in full display the night Kobe’s streak came to an end. Phoenix decided to send multiple defenders at him and the supporting cast responded. It’s safe to say, with everyone playing this way, defeating this Lakers team is near impossible.