The Lakers pre-season schedule is full swing now and with the Shootout format of four teams (Lakers, Clippers, Jazz, Nuggets) playing a two games each in two days, the Lakers will finish off their weekend with a game against the Jazz tonight. But before we get to that match up, a few thoughts on Saturday’s 102-95 victory over the Nuggets…
The Lakers continue to improve as the pre-season progresses. First and foremost, that means Kobe is looking healthier by the game. In Saturday’s contest, he moved as freely as I’ve seen in any of the exhibition games and had an even more pronounced bounce in his step than he did the last game. On several possessions, Kobe used screens effectively and exploded coming off the pick to get open and make catches flashing to the middle of the floor. He showed good lift on his jumpshot, and while the accuracy on his shot has not yet returned (0-3 from deep), he did make a couple of long jumpers and was shooting in rhythm for most of the night.
The other noticeable improvement is in the offensive execution the team is showing. In the team’s first few games the team was operating at a good level, making the extra pass and looking to set each other up for good looks. However, many times those extra passes were the product of making standard basketball plays that players learn in middle school (drive and kick, swinging the ball around the perimeter to the next open player). But against the Nuggets, the Lakers were making the extra pass within the context of the Triangle offense. On some possessions, the ball was moving cleanly from the wing to the post, from the post to the top of the key, and then reversed to the other side for wide open shots where backside screens and cuts got players open and ready to receive those passes. On others, the ball would go into the post and when the top side guard from the strong side would cut through, he’d set a screen for the big man on the weakside to get him open for an easy catch and finish from the post players’ feed. All of these actions are pretty simple within the offense, but it’s nice to see them executed crisply and for the extra passes to be made that lead to easy baskets.
The Lakers defense looked better as well. Obviously without Carmelo Anthony playing, the Nuggets were missing their key offensive threat and a player that changes how any team defends Denver. However, the Lakers were active in passing lanes (8 steals), got after the glass hard, and did a good job of helping when Denver did break down the defense with a good pass or off penetration. There are still strides to be made on this side of the ball, but it’s obvious to me at this point that with the additions of Barnes, Ratliff, Ebanks, and even Blake (who is just heady player who rarely makes mistakes on either side of the ball) the Lakers are going to be even better on defense this season.
Some notes on a few individual players who stood out to me:
*In the Lakers first few games I’ve mentioned that Gasol hasn’t looked himself, lacking the rhythm and feel that we’ve come to expect. That rust is wearing off now and he looks more comfortable by the minute. Against Denver he made several quick decisions with and without the ball that resulted in easy shots for himself and his teammates. On several plays he received good screens that allowed him to flash into open space to make clean catches in the 12-15 foot range. Rather than hold the ball, Pau quickly rose up and hit those mid-range jumpers. In earlier games, Pau was not as decisive. This progression is good to see.
*Every game this pre-season we’ve mentioned Odom playing well and looks to be in “mid-season form”. Well, that trend continues. But, I’ll take it a step further by saying that Odom actually looks very much like the player from the 2008 and 2009 season that stepped in for an injured Bynum and teamed with Gasol to help lead the Lakers to the Finals. Odom’s movement is fantastic, he’s all over the court on defense, looks confident on offense, and is back to being the plus/minus maven that was the subtle difference maker in helping the Lakers pull away in contests. I know predicting how Odom will play on any given night is an exercise in futility due to his issues with consistency. But so far this pre-season he’s showing me that he may indeed be ready to have the type of season that many of us hoped he’d have last year.
*Matt Barnes isn’t going to have the nicest looking boxscore this season. Last night for example, he had 5 points on as many shots, 3 rebounds, and was -5 in his 16 minutes of action. However, I’m confident in saying that he’s going to be very, very useful for the Lakers this season. He’s just so active. On one sequence he was spectating on the weakside wing as another Laker went to work on offense. After the shot went up, Barnes hustled from the opposite hash mark, grabbed the offensive rebound and put up an off balance put back that netted two points. After that play he hustled back on D, ran to the opposite sideline and tipped a pass out of bounds as a streaking Nugget was looking to get out ahead of the Lakers transitioning defense. I’m not sure how many minutes Barnes is going to play, but I’m very happy with how he’s stepping in and doing the little things that every contender needs.
*The other wing player that stood out to me was Ebanks. Yes he’s a rookie and will be up and down. But last night he showed why the Lakers thought he was a first round talent and expressed surprise that he was still available at pick #37. He, like Barnes, showed a nose for the ball on the glass while also showing a keen understanding of how to slide into open spaces to make himself available for passes. He again flashed his finishing ability and body control around the rim that has many fans excited about him being a potential “Ariza-type” of player. And his jumper looks good when his feet are set. It seem doubtful to me that the Lakers will find many minutes for Devin, but he looks capable of being a part time wing for the Lakers as he does two things (defend, score without plays being run for him) that make him a very good player for this particular LA team. With Artest, Barnes, and now Ebanks, the Lakers went from having no wing depth last season, to almost having too much.
As for tonight’s game, the Lakers face off against a Jazz team that I’m very much interested in seeing play. Utah has lost some key players from last year’s team (Boozer, Korver, Wes Matthews) but have added Al Jefferson to be the new P&R partner for Deron Williams. So while Utah has theoretically taken a step back this year, I’m intrigued by their prospects of being competitive once again – especially with Jerry Sloan barking orders from the sidelines. If there’s one coach that will get the most out of his players, it’s Sloan.
Since both of these teams played yesterday, we’ll see how much burn the starters from both sides get. Last night no Laker played more than LO’s 32 minutes and while Kobe’s chomping at the bit to get more run, he likely won’t play more than the 25 minutes that he saw against Denver. On the Jazz side, Deron Williams sat out with a calf injury and is doubtful for tonight. But every other major Jazz player save Okur (still out recovering from his achilles tear last playoffs) should be in action. That means plenty of Utah’s good frontline (Jefferson/Millsap/Kirilenko) and a chance to see what the Lakers missed out on when Raja Bell starts on the wing.
Another Jazz wing player that I want to see play is rookie Gordon Hayward. Many see the young faced Butler product as just a replacement for Korver, but in reality the swing man has a much more well rounded game than the departed sniper. Hayward is good ball handler, can create well off the dribble, and is an underrated athlete. He has good size (listed at 6’8″) and has the chance to be a very good player if he can build strength.
As for getting the wanted result out of this contest, the Lakers must continue to move the ball well and attack a defensively challenged Jazz interior. The Lakers will have plenty of post up chances by all their starters (save Fisher) and will have size advantages at nearly every position. One player I think will get ample chances in the post will be Ron Artest, especially when matched up with either CJ Miles or Hayward. Against Denver, Ron posted up a fair amount and got good looks at the basket by sealing his man on the left block, waiting for the ball to get back to the top of the key, and then opening up for an easy pass that he could turn into a shot close at the basket. Ron should get some of those same chances this game when any wing not named Kirilenko is guarding him.
I’d also like to see the Lakers take a bit better care of the ball in this game. Last night the Lakers had 21 turnovers and most of them were of the careless variety – nonchalant passes, unprotected dribbles, and mental lapses. Some of these mistakes can be tolerated in the pre-season but others will need to be cleaned up as this team heads into the regular season.
From a defensive side, the Lakers must protect their defensive backboards against a group of players that go to the offensive glass hard. All three starting frontcourt players for the Jazz are good rebounders that excel at gaining position when the shot is in the air and going after the ball. Gasol, Odom, and Artest will have their work cut out for them tonight.
Where you can watch: 7pm in the West on KCAL Fox Sports West (locally) and NBA TV (nationally). Listen live at ESPN Radio 710AM.