Archives For December 2010

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Records: Lakers 21-9 (3rd in West), Spurs 26-4 (1st in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 112.3 (2nd in NBA), Spurs 112.9 (1st in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.0 (11th in NBA), Spurs 104.3 (9th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Spurs: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, DeJaun Blair, Tim Duncan
Injuries: Lakers: Theo Ratliff (out); Spurs: James Anderson (out)

The Lakers Coming in:  We’ve discussed the state of the Lakers at length in the last couple of days and needless to say it’s not a pretty picture.  Spotty execution on both sides of the ball combined with inconsistent focus and energy has led to suspect play and poor results.  This team has had two blowout losses at Staples, so what the Lakers couldn’t do at home, they now look to do on the road, traveling to San Antonio tonight to face their 2nd top level team in the last three days.

At this point, there’s no predicting what type of performance the Lakers are going to put forward in this game.  For weeks now, Phil Jackson has been pointing to this game (as well as the Hornets game tomorrow) as one that is important to his team.  The Spurs represent a potential playoff opponent and currently sit above the Lakers in the standings.  With those factors being the case, you’d hope that the Lakers have their best effort ready for a conference foe that they have extensive history against.  But after talking a good game leading up to the Heat match up and the result being altogether forgettable (at least I’m trying to forget it), there really is no telling what the Lakers will offer up tonight.

The Spurs Coming in: The Spurs boast the league’s best record and it’s not an accident.  They combine discipline and flexibility to get the most out of their players and do so consistently.  Greg Popovich has once again shown that by coaching his players and developing them in a manner that both plays to their strengths and fit into his schemes, he can build a contender even when many were beginning to count this group out.

However, the way that they’re getting the job done is inverted from their traditional mode of success.  Rather than being a suffocating defensive team that scores enough points to get wins, the Spurs now possess the NBA’s most efficient offense with a defense that can get the stops it needs.  And rather than relying on Tim Duncan to anchor their sets, they’re relying more than ever on the fantastic guard play of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.  Both Tony and Manu have strung together great years and it’s because Coach Pop has loosened the reigns and given them the green light to attack at will without having to slow down the tempo to accommodate an aging Duncan.

Don’t get me wrong, Duncan is still a force and his ability to get needed baskets from the low post against all types of defense a major factor to this teams’ success.  But more than ever this team is blending the unique skills of their guards with the methodical precision of their big man.  This isn’t the cleanest comparison, but this team has sort of moved into the phase that the Showtime Lakers did when Magic became the focal point of the team with an aged Kareem taking a backseat to the dynamic young play maker.  The team is running  more, going to P&R heavy sets in the half court even more often, and using more wing isolations, but still incorporating Timmy as a post threat and initiator to keep him involved.  And as this shift has taken another step forward this year, the Spurs are again a contender.  It seems the more things change the more they stay the same.

Spurs Blogs:  As we highlighted this morning, 48 Minutes of Hell is a fantastic Spurs site that puts out top notch material every day. Give them a read and get smarter about the Spurs.

Keys to the Game:  Despite the contrast leveled in the previous sections of this preview, this is a very winnable game for the Lakers.  If there’s one franchise that the Lakers have experience playing, have a great respect for, and understand what it takes to beat, it’s the Spurs.  You combine that with San Antonio coming off it’s worst performance of the year and the Lakers looking to redeem themselves from their recent stinker performances, and the ingredients for a great game from the Lakers are in place.

To get it done, though, the Lakers need to get back to the execution that it exhibited earlier in the season.

Offensively, the Lakers need to attack the Spurs weaknesses with off ball movement to occupy defenders while attacking quickly and decisively with the ball.  This is a game where Kobe can really impact the game by coming out with an aggressive mentality to score the ball.  He’s traditionally had great success against the Spurs because they really don’t have that top notch defender that can give him fits (ala Nic Batum or Sefalosha) and because of his familiarity with the Spurs’ defensive schemes, Kobe is often able to get to his spots on the floor to get off shots he’s comfortable taking.  So, tonight would be a good night for aggressive Kobe to make an appearance to really set the tone in a road game.

But in the background his teammates must also understand their roles within the sets by setting good screens and cutting hard off the ball to put themselves in position to receive the ball and score for themselves when Kobe picks them out.  By cutting and screening hard, the other players will not only occupy defenders and limit their ability to help, but they’ll open themselves up when the Spurs do commit any extra defenders to help on Kobe.  Ultimately, I hope to see Kobe attack from both the post and from the short wing with mid range jumpers and quick drives before the defense can help on him and then pick out his mates when the Spurs send extra defenders his way.

As for the Lakers big men, I hope to see them be more active off the ball in order to get going.  In recent games, most of Lamar and Pau’s games have revolved around them creating for themselves either off the dribble or in isolations from the mid and low post.  Tonight, I’d like to see them use the motions of the offense better and more consistently to get the ball on the move or in space where they can be quick to take shots in the rhythm of the Triangle.  I’d  also like to see more of the Lakers hand-off sequences between Pau and Lamar where Gasol has the ball at the elbow and Odom comes off his shoulder for an attack move to his strong hand.  The Spurs’ lack of front court quickness should enable this set to be successful and really get both LO and Pau going as any over compensation on this play will mean that Pau too can get some easy shots at the rim by faking the handoff and pivoting inside for a quick drive.  Tonight really is a night where Pau can get going.  Even though Timmy is one of the all time great defenders, Pau has quickness advantages and should be able to get his shots if he’s active moving off the ball decisive when he makes the catch.

Defensively, the Lakers two biggest weaknesses will be tested as the Spurs are sure to try and push the ball at every occasion (especially Parker) and they’ll also run multiple P&R’s to try and penetrate the interior of the Lakers D.  While it will be easier said than done, the Lakers will have effectively get back in transition and build a wall against Parker’s one man fast breaks.  Parker loves to push the ball even when he doesn’t have a man advantage and force his way to the rim so he can show off his expert ability to finish at the cup.

When defending the P&R, the Lakers will need to decide what they’re comfortable giving up and then execute their scheme consistently without losing faith.  I’m hoping the Lakers make both Parker and Ginobili jumpshooters by going under screens and making them consistently make 18-20 footers to get their points.  Both players are just too dangerous when they’re able turn the corner and get into paint as Parker is deadly with his floater and Ginobili is one of the craftiest finishers in the league.  So even if these guys start to knock down jumpers, I’d rather start to make adjustments to contest those shots with big men hedging out while still having guards go under screens rather than give up the edge to two guys that finish so well in the paint.

In the end, though, both of these teams are familiar enough with each other’s schemes that this game will likely come down to a star (or two) from either team stepping up to seize control.  Whether it’s Kobe, Gasol, and/or Odom or the Spurs big three of Duncan, Parker, or Ginobili, this game could easily turn because one or more of these guys makes the game his own.  So, while role players like the improved Richard Jefferson or Ron Artest may have a good game in support of one of the stars, I do have a feeling that tonight will come down to one of the aforementioned difference makers.

Where you can watch: 5:30pm start time out west on KCAL and on NBA TV.  Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

The guys over at 48 Minutes of Hell have a lot of Spurs/Lakers content up today, including their 4-Down Podcast where Andrew McNeill and I talk about tonight’s Lakers/Spurs matchup.

Also from 48MOH:

From Scott Sereday, 48MOH: The staple of any Phil Jackson team has long been the triangle offense. The triangle offense relies on creating space and options for skilled scorers to operate. This set produces opportunities to read and pick apart a defense, resulting in many mismatches and easy scores. This video describes the current version of the Lakers triangle offense. The Lakers can produce offense efficiently in a variety of ways. Even without Andrew Bynum, the Lakers are scoring 20.5 PPG on possessions derived from the post, tops in the league according to figures provided by Synergy Sports. The Lakers also score 10.0 PPG on possessions beginning with Kobe Bryant in isolation sets. No other individual player is responsible for more such scores. In addition, the abilities of Bryant and Pau Gasol have contributed to many easy scores for others. The Lakers score 14.6 PPG from cuts, second behind only the Magic. (A couple of these scores started as isolation or post possessions.)

From Timothy Varner, 48MOH: Varner: Very simply, what’s up with the Lakers? Are they on cruise control or is something genuinely amiss? Kamenetzky: Do I have to choose? Certainly complacency was the theme following Saturday’s embarrassing loss to the Heat. Kobe Bryant took the opportunity to take his teammates to the woodshed, saying they know how good they can be… which is the problem. Odom said the team has a problem with cockiness. To what degree their problems can be blamed on boredom is an open question. The complacency discussion to me is less about trying while on the floor- I think most nights they, at the very least, think they’re playing hard- but problems paying attention to detail. Maintaining the mental edge to make the extra pass, cut, and rotation. That sort of thing. Certainly giving a damn wouldn’t hurt, but there are other things going on.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: It’s at least a good sign the team’s taking steps to heal the wounds left from its 96-80 loss Christmas Day to the Miami Heat. But it’s unclear if a competitive practice consisting of the reserves beating the starters, Ron Artest getting a cut under his right eye and Kobe Bryant playing aggressively will make any difference Tuesday when the Lakers play at San Antonio. The Lakers had reported a solid practice two days after their double-digit loss to Milwaukee because of the two-hour length and the fact everyone practiced together. But that meant very little come Christmas Day. It remains unclear whether a simple practice and a agitated Bryant will simply cause the Lakers (21-9) to perform a complete 180-degree turn against the San Antonio Spurs (26-4).

From Chris Tomasson, NBA Fanhouse: Other than with Shaquille O’Neal, Phil Jackson hasn’t had greatness in the pivot during his coaching career. He did still win three titles with former star Bill Cartwright at center and three with never-was star Luc Longley manning the middle. So Andrew Bynum could be regarded as the second-best center Jackson has coached ever. The only problem is the Lakers’ coach can’t get him on the floor much. So pardon Jackson’s frustration regarding Bynum, who has been slow to return to form this season while coming off yet another knee injury. Jackson knows what kind of potential he has in Bynum, who is just 23 but has shown some impressive flashes in his six-year career.

From Andy Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: Never let it be said Kobe Bryant doesn’t have any pull around the Lakers’ organization. After Saturday’s loss to the Heat, The Mamba promised a Monday practice full of butt whuppings. Fire and brimstone. A “wrath of God” kinda vibe. Whatever it would take to shake the Lakers into a sense of urgency. Well, as I reported earlier today, today’s session in El Segundo was a “feisty” affair, according to Phil Jackson (who, by the way, found nothing unusual in Bryant’s practice demeanor beyond some aggressiveness and his literal participation). The mood was competitive and a scrimmage was won by the reserves, which Jackson always gets a kick out of.

From The Los Angeles Lakers have assigned forward Devin Ebanks to the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA Development League, it was announced today by General Manager Mitch Kupchak. Ebanks, who was selected by the Lakers with the 43rd pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, has appeared in 12 games for the Lakers this season, averaging 2.9 points and 1.5 rebounds in 6.4 minutes. The 6’9” rookie will be available to play for the Jam tomorrow night in their game vs. the New Mexico Thunderbirds.

From Jevon O, Silver Screen and Roll: To put it simply, I do not think Ron Artest’s defense on Lebron James was terrible.  While I support the notion that Lebron James played a great individual game, played great team basketball, and helped his team to victory; I cannot support the assertion that the defense played by Ron Artest on Lebron James was terrible. Thinking back to yonder days of yore, I remember an article posted here many moons ago where it was discussed that Milwaukee scored a lot of points against a Laker defense that, at first glance, appeared terrible.  But after a rewatch, CA Clark discovered the Milwaukee Bucks took shots the Lakers would want them to take.  Therefore, it was not bad defense,  Milwaukee was hitting the shots, tough shots, that they were being given.  The coaching staff was pleased with the shots taken, and the Milwaukee Bucks played good basketball.  Eventually, things usually even out and the Lakers win (enter biased fan logic).

Righting The Ship

Darius Soriano —  December 27, 2010

After back to back blowout losses – at home, no less – it’s obvious to any basketball observer that the Lakers are playing poorly.  In the past few weeks, they’ve played below a “championship standard” and while wins have come, the caliber of basketball played has been mediocre at best.  During this period, I’ve often taken the approach that patience is what’s needed.  Championships aren’t won or lost in December and in order to reach the goal that this team seeks, there will be growing pains and the general ups and downs that every team goes through.  Essentially, the Lakers are in a funk where their overall talent will get them wins against many teams but on any given night we could easily see a struggle where the Lakers either barely win (or barely lose) or meet a team that has a very good game and a blowout loss results.

This is what we’ve seen in the past two games and I can’t find one person that has an interest in the Lakers’ success happy with it.  Not the coaches, not the players, and certainly not us fans.  We want strong performances and the wins that come with them.  We want momentum to be built so that as the season advances this Lakers team gets better, enabling themselves to peak and play their best ball when it’s needed most.  Right now, we’re seeing the opposite of that.  The Lakers are floundering and based off the last 8 quarters of basketball it’s tough to see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

However, we know – just as the players and coaches know – that better play lies in this team’s future.  The question is how to actually get there.  After the loss to the Heat, Kobe (as well as other players) spoke about correcting their mindset and getting their focus back.  They admitted that right now these games seem to matter more to the opposition and reversing that mentality is their first priority.  Kobe mentioned that he’ll personally reinforce this need to change in practice sessions so that his teammates understand the urgency of the season.

But besides changing the mental approach of the team, the Lakers also need to shore up their on court play and improve their execution on both sides of the ball in order to truly improve.  Greater focus will only go so far if that mental energy is still expended on doing things incorrectly.   Below are two points of emphasis – one on each side of the ball – that I’d like to see the Lakers work on and improve that I think will help this team get back on track.

Offensively, the Lakers need to get back to being decisive in all their actions both when working with and without the ball.  In recent games, players (I’m looking most at Pau Gasol) have not been quick to make decisions with the ball and it’s really hampered the team’s execution.  When a player makes a catch, he needs to know within a couple of beats what the next action is going to be.  Whether deciding to shoot, pass the ball on to an open teammate, or attack off the dribble the man with the ball needs to hesitate less and trust in the decision making that’s being drilled into them in practice and film sessions.

In order to reward that trust, the players off the ball need to start to do the little things better and with more effort and consistency.  Cuts and screens need to be more crisp.  Players expecting a screen need to hold their position for a half second longer to allow the screener to properly set the pick that creates the opening.  When players come off those picks they need to explode into space and anticipate receiving a pass so that they’re ready to catch and either finish or move the ball on again.  The Triangle is a read and react system, but as we’ve discussed many times before it’s also like a dance where the team moves in unison because they’re seeing the same things.  This togetherness is what leads to the type of execution that we saw early in the year.  If the Lakers are to get back on track, they need to rediscover that timing and togetherness.

Defensively, the Lakers don’t have that same history of success from earlier in the year to lean on so they have much further to go before they’re at the level they need to be at.  But, like on offense, if there’s on thing they can improve on it’s their cohesiveness and trust in the scheme.  When you watch the Lakers play, D their rotations are almost always a step slow and it only takes two or three passes to get them into a scramble.  The only way to really improve that is to talk  more and to trust that a teammate is going to be where he’s supposed to be once the offense begins attacking.  Often times the Lakers back end defense is late because the front line defender seems indecisive or not fully committed to the scheme.

We see this consistently on the P&R defense where the big man hedging is either not stepping out hard enough and allowing the guard to turn the corner or he’s stepping out too far and allowing the guard to split the hedge and get right into the paint (we saw Wade do this countless times on Saturday).  This creates confusion on the back end because those players rotations are predicated off the hedge man containing the guard and if that fails the entire defense breaks down.  Many times, it seems to me that the hedge man is too concerned with what’s going to happen after the P&R rather than just focusing on his job and trusting that his back end help will be there.  If the Lakers are to improve their defense, it starts with the hedge man trusting his mates and then the back end guys doing their jobs as needed.  This will create better execution throughout the Lakers D, leading to more stops, and more opportunities to take the ball in the other direction against a team that’s not set up their own defense.

Obviously, with the way the Lakers have been playing of late there are more than a couple of things on both sides of the ball that need to be improved.  But these are initial steps – along with more focus and urgency – will jumpstart this team.  After the Heat game I mentioned that the loss showed me how far this team has to go in it’s growth towards being a contender.  Well, doing these things better is where I think it starts.  How about you?

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

From Mark Heisler, LA Times: Happily for the Lakers — or as happily as anything can be now — they don’t have to worry about beating Miami in the Finals. Who said the Lakers will make the Finals? One game never means anything, even if it’s on Christmas and bidding on EBay for two courtside tickets reached $41,440. So, as bad as the Lakers looked, with the Heat walking on them in a 96-80 rout, that doesn’t mean it’s time to start worrying. It was time to start worrying a week or two ago, with San Antonio and Dallas showing they weren’t the same old Spurs and Mavericks. For the Lakers, who dominated the West for three seasons, spending 34 days out of first place in the last two, it’s a whole new deal.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: The text message popped up and set off a slight moment of anxiety. Lakers forward Ron Artest was set to arrive Tuesday at the Target Terrace in L.A. Live to introduce his public service announcement with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health, but he just texted his publicist he’d be 20 minutes late because of traffic. It’s not a big deal except this announcement preceded the Lakers-Milwaukee game, meaning arriving late there would result in a fine from Coach Phil Jackson. Artest managed to arrive to Staples Center on time, but his need to monitor the clock epitomized the tug-of-war he felt between balancing his Laker responsibilities and promotional efforts raffling off his championship ring for mental health charities. That’s why Artest felt a sense of relief on Christmas, the day Raymond Mikkael, a father of four and a Hawthorne resident, learned he won the contest, which was announced at the Conga Room following the Lakers’ 96-80 loss to the Miami Heat.

From Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: Depending on who you ask, the Lakers lost a lot of intangible stuff in the wake of Saturday’s Christmas anti-miracle. Gravitas, confidence, and pride, just to name a few. But as I noted heading in, the Lakers faced real, practical consequences from continued spotty play (beyond prompting Kobe Bryant to stick a boot in places boots don’t comfortably fit). During their consecutive title runs, the team reached Christmas with a lead in the Western Conference. Now, after peeling themselves off the Staples floor following the Miami game, despite playing by far the NBA’s easiest schedule the Lakers found themselves not just outside the W.C.’s top spot (five back of San Antonio), but the second as well (three behind Dallas), and in a dead heat with Utah for third (with Oklahoma City a scant half game behind).
From Dexter Fishmore, Silver Screen and Roll: LeBron James was magnificent yesterday, hanging a triple-double on the Lakers in the Heat’s blowout victory. In my initial damage assessment I wrote that “Artest got destroyed by LeBron,” a statement to which a few commenters have objected on the grounds that I was being unfairly critical toward Ron’s defense. So to fact-check myself, I decided this afternoon to hop onto Synergy and rewatch all of LeBron’s plays from yesterday’s game in the hopes of assigning blame where blame’s rightly due. I looked at every sequence in which LeBron was involved either because he took a shot, went to the free-throw line, handed out an assist or committed a turnover. For each one I took note of which Laker (or Lakers) was tasked with guarding him. I recorded the success or failure of the play and compiled the results into a table you can find after the cut.

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

When as many things go wrong as they did against the Heat and the Lakers get blown out on a Christmas for the second straight year, it’s difficult to find a place to start an analysis of the game.  The Lakers simply ran into a team that’s playing much better than they are and the result was a 96-80 thrashing that has me wondering if it’s too late to get a memory eraser for Christmas ala Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  The Lakers were simply that bad today and the Heat were really that good.

Coming into this game, the Lakers gameplan surely revolved around making the Heat a jumpshooting team in the half court and limiting their open court chances by taking care of the ball and attacking the offensive glass.  What resulted, though, was that plan not working on every level conceivable.

First of all, the Heat managed to shoot the ball well from the outside.  They may have only made 9 of their 25 three point attempts, but Lebron James made 5 of his 6 tries and that’s all that the Heat needed to ensure that the rest of their offense would run smoothly.

With James bombing away with great success, the Lakers’ perimeter defense got stretched thin rotating to James where he could then become a playmaker for his team.  He ended the night with 10 assists to only a single turnover to go along with his 27 points and 11 rebounds, consistently picking apart the Lakers defense with pinpoint passes to open teammates or getting his own shot off with relative ease as the Lakers scrambled helplessly to try and find the next open man.

And when James wasn’t doing damage, it was Wade or Bosh taking turns penetrating the Lakers defense or knocking down mid range jumpers.  Wade worked the P&R at an expert level by either turning the corner against a soft hedge or splitting the double team when the Lakers’ big men stepped out too hard.  He constantly found himself in the teeth of the Lakers defense where he either earned trips to the foul line, got an easy finish at the basket, or found an open teammate for an even easier shot.  Wade finished the night with a line of 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 6 assists but was continuously in attack mode and had the Lakers D on its heels for most of the day.

Meanwhile Bosh seemed to take this match up personally as if he was out to prove an entire country of viewers that, he’s actually quite good at this game.  He worked the edges of the Lakers D with his smooth jumper and then used his great first step to blow by defenders when they closed out too hard or tried to pressure him too closely after he’d made a catch and held the ball before making a move.  Bosh was easily the best big man in the game, hurting the Lakers inside and out and grabbing key rebounds when his team needed them.

And while the Heat made it their mission to show that they’re a team to be taken seriously, the Lakers continued to stumble along, ultimately getting frustrated with their inability to generate any momentum.  All game long finding a rhythm on offense was a problem as the Heat’s perimeter defense denied easy passing angles and forced post men to abandon solid position in order to find open space on the extended wing to make a catch.  When the Lakers big men did catch the ball, they struggled to get shots off against the length of Bosh and Ilgauskus and never got it going to be a real threat.

Especially bothered by the Heat’s combination of athletic perimeter helpers and interior height was Pau Gasol.  The Big Spaniard missed his first 7 shots and never really seemed to be an active participant in this contest.  While some of his misses could be considered tough luck, his overall movement on both sides of the ball wasn’t crisp and lacked inspiration.  Even after finding some semblance of offense in the middle part of the game, most of that success was predicated off his teammates setting him up and we all know that the Lakers’ offense is at it’s best when those roles are reversed.  I mean, when Gasol has to be spoon fed baskets in order to get his offense going rather than him being the focal point that his mates feed off, the odds of the Lakers being successful as a unit on that side of the ball decrease dramatically.

What made this game even more frustrating though was the fact that Kobe Bryant, depsite pedestrian numbers of 17 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds, actually played very well.  In the first half he set up his teammates beautifully on countless plays and was the catalyst for the offensive success that the team did have.  Kobe’s aggressive post ups led to double teams that he passed out of brilliantly to hit open teammates that either got up good shots themselves or passed on again to a Laker that was in even better position.

The only problem was that the Lakers shots just weren’t falling with enough consistency to find a flow in the game.  And without that ability to build momentum, the Lakers then started to press which ultimately fueled the Heat’s success on both sides of the ball.  By the time the 2nd half came along, the Lakers looked little like a championship contender and more like a team running experiments to try and find anything that they could call a success.  Ultimately they found some traction abandoning the Triangle entirely and going to Kobe/Gasol P&R’s but the Heat’s defense ultimately adjusted and that experiment also ended up being a false hope for traction.  The game only snowballed from there as the Lakers then wilted when the realization set that their footing for success was false and that any hope of climbing back into the contest was far fetched.

In the end, the Lakers played a horrible game and the Heat played excellent.  I’d say that I’m shocked by all this but based off how both teams had been playing coming into the game, the result shouldn’t really surprise though I know that we’re all disappointed nonetheless.  For the past few weeks I know that I’ve been mostly positive about this team’s long term chances.  And while my mind hasn’t changed about what this team can be, games like this do show me how far this team has to still go before they’re remotely close to being that contender.  They’re not defending well enough to control games when their offense isn’t going well and, sad to say, their offense isn’t performing well enough to outright win games through scoring alone.  So, what you have is close games against mediocre foes, and losses like today’s against the best teams that find their stride on both sides of the ball.  So, there is work to do and, despite games like we’ve seen against the Bucks and the Heat, I expect it to get done.  There’s simply too much talent on the court and the sidelines for it not to.  But until we see the results, we stew.  And another Christmas gets sidetracked by a bitter loss.

Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images

Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images

Records: Lakers 21-8 (Third in West) Heat 22-9 (Second in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 109.2 (Third in NBA) Heat 108.8 (Fourth in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.0 (Tenth in NBA) Heat 97.3 (Second in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Heat: Carlos Arroyo, Dwyane Wade (or Mario Chalmers), LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Zydrunas Ilgauskas
Injuries: Lakers: Theo Ratliff (out); Heat: Dwyane Wade (Day-To-Day, knee)

When the NBA released its schedule, this matchup was one fans immediately seeked, knowing the collective star-power between the two teams would be too much to surpass. Today, we’re finally in store for the marquee matchup between the two-time defending NBA Champions against the newest super group — The Miami Heat. The Kobe Bryant/Dwyane Wade matchup has always been an intriguing dynamic for fans of the game, so naturally, the additions of LeBron James and Chris Bosh to the Heat made anticipation for the Lakers/Heat first meeting of the 2010/2011 season increase exponentially.

The Heat, coming in, seem to be in the process of finding their collective identity, winners of 13 of their previous 14 games, with their sole loss coming against an equally hot Dallas Mavericks team by two points. On the flip side of this matchup, we have the Lakers, who have struggled as of late, getting blown out at home against the Milwaukee Bucks after winning five straight on the road. Just a few weeks ago, the storylines of these two franchises were flipped, the Lakers were looking as if they were poised to outscore everyone who stepped foot on the hardwood while the Miami struggled to a 9-8 record through their first 17 games. At that point, anticipating the Heat’s dramatic turnaround and the Lakers propensity to struggle with sub-0.500 teams would have been awfully tough. But this is where we stand; two star-studded teams, facing off on an NBA tradition of marquee matchups on Christmas day.

Taking a look back at some of Miami’s recent games, there are a few keys the Lakers need to keep in mind if they’re going to be successful this afternoon.

The Heat on Offense:
One of the biggest problems for the Heat, and on some nights, their only problem, is their inability to consistently execute in half court sets. A lot of this problem can be attributed to Miami being a completely different team from what they were just eight months ago, and the rest of it can be attributed to the fact that both LeBron and Wade have been ball-dominant offensive players, not having to play many minutes off of the ball since they’ve entered the league. Until both guys are comfortable playing off of the ball, there will be long stretches of Heat offense where we see shots off of one pass, or unintentional isolations plays because no one moves. This isn’t always necessarily a bad thing as LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh are all fantastic in one-on-one situations, but it does get them in a lot of trouble when they’re playing against teams that don’t turn the ball over. Earlier this week, Darius e-mailed me, expressing the same concerns for Miami’s half court offense:

When this team has to play strictly half court sets, they get bogged down more easily (though that’s been improving too) because they end up running monotonous P&R’s where either Wade or James are relegated to weak side spot up options where their men can become helpers without getting burned by it.  The Heat have been trying to counter this more with baseline cuts by Wade and Lebron when the high P&R is being run and that’s been effective, but they don’t do it enough that it’s a staple of their sets.  Suffice to say, if you can keep this team in the half court and make anyone but James Jones and Mike Miller (and Eddie House) spot up shooters, you’ve got a good chance of watching their O struggle.

Let’s take a look at some game film in their loss against Dallas. In this first clip, we have a Chris Bosh isolation on Tyson Chandler. The play begins with a double screen from LeBron and Wade across the lane to the right block with Carlos Arroyo handling the ball on the right wing. After Arroyo makes the entry pass, he cuts through the lane with Wade spotting up at the top of the key, LeBron spotting up on the left wing and Ilgauskas on the left block. After Arroyo clears to the left corner, the offensive movement is finished, with Chris Bosh taking a contested, fall away jumper in the paint over a 7-foot Tyson Chandler with three other Mavericks in the paint. Bosh knocked down the shot, but a defense can live with that.

This second clip shows Miami running a set with a double high screen with the big who he takes the screen from popping up top (Bosh) and the weak side big rolling to the basket (Ilgauskas) with Wade handling the ball. After taking Bosh’s screen Wade goes toward the basket, get directed to go down the baseline to the left corner, where he takes five non-productive dribbles while the rest of the team and all five Maverick defenders stand around watching him. The defense doesn’t have to rotate from one side of the floor to the other until the shot clock is down to eight seconds left after a skip pass goes to Carlos Arroyo on the right wing. He ends up getting run off of the three pointer by Jason Kidd and turning the ball over.

What the Lakers are going to have to do against this Miami team is make them run as much offense as possible in the half court, and while in the half court, make them jump shooters. The Lakers team makeup is not far from what Dallas’ is in regards to size. With at least two of the Lakers’ bigs in at all times (Pau, LO, ‘Drew, or — if he gets the opportunity to see the floor — Joe Smith) and the Lakers trio of good individual perimeter defenders (Artest, Kobe, Barnes), the Lakers have the right group of guys who can keep LeBron and Dwyane out of the lane, keeping their field goal attempts outside of the paint. Like Darius said, if you can make this team jump shooters, hand have the right guys taking the shots, this offense will struggle. However, as the cliché says, it’s much easier said than done.

The Heat on Defense:
One of the biggest reasons for the Heat’s turnaround is their perimeter defense, which is ostensibly, this team’s biggest strength. In the NBA, it is rare to see a team so collectively aggressive defensively on the perimeter, and the way the Heat play on that end of the floor really has a college feel to it. Both LeBron and Dwyane Wade are fantastic perimeter defenders, but Mario Chalmers can also hold his own with a lot of good perimeter scorers. They pick up men high, and create a lot of pressure, covering up what they lack defensively in the front court. And of course, their ability to create turnovers up top plays to their greatest offensive advantage — an open court. Both Wade and James are nearly unstoppable on the break, and creating turnovers and bad shots on the defensive end is exactly how they get things going. Darius has seen a lot of the same things from this Heat team:

The Heat’s perimeter defense is just tremendous.  With Lebron and Wade both on the wings, they always seem to be able to help in the paint and then recover back to shooters to ensure that three point shots are contested or that shooters are ran off the line completely.  This is one of the reasons that their defensive efficiency is so strong and why their interior defense doesn’t suffer.  When looking at hoopdata, they actually give up the third lowest number of shots up at the rim and have the best FG% against at the rim in the league.  That’s not because of Bosh, Joel Anthony, and Big Z.  It’s because their wings help defend the paint expertly when the ball gets down there and because their wing defense is so strong that they don’t give up the driving lanes that lead to shots at the rim like most teams do.

One more thing about the Heat on defense is that they don’t throw a lot of double teams at guys. Darius mentioned that both James and Wade are brilliant help-side defenders, and they use their help as a faux double-team. There have been a plethora of instances where, instead of sending a double team, either James or Wade have baited entry passes playing from the weak side and come down the lane to strip a big or have been in position to make a layup preventing block. Without James and Wade, the Gasol-Odom-Bynum triumvirate would have a field day against this Miami front court, but with James and Wade lurking, the number of easy buckets for the bigs might be reduced by the presence of great help side defense.

However, as we saw with the Lakers early in the season, that overly aggressive perimeter defense can come with a cost of being beat back door, something I saw even with bigs like Tyson Chandler and Dirk in the Dallas game. Considering this, I think Matt Barnes can have a huge game, as he moves as well as anyone in the league without the ball. If the Lakers can move the ball, and move without the ball, they can counter the Heat’s aggressiveness with easy buckets. We see offenses taking advantage of aggressive defenses in football all the time with screen passes and draw run plays. The same principles can be used on the hardwood with passes to the pinch post and back door cuts — as long as the offense continues to move. The Lakers have the right offense, and the right personnel to do these things, it’s just a matter of getting it done. The Lakers have the propensity, much like the Heat, to stand around and watch sometimes.

I have no doubt that the Lakers have all of the right tools to beat the Heat, it’s just a matter putting those tools to use. I think the winner of the first quarter wins this game. Whoever is able to execute their game plan earlier is going to have a huge leg up because the Heat is a team that goes on huge runs at a time, for long periods of time. No team in the NBA rides momentum within individual games better than the Heat. I look forward to an exciting Christmas Day game.

Lastly, I wanted to wish all of you (even the Celtics fans) a Merry Christmas from all of us here at Forum Blue and Gold. Enjoy the game, the holiday and the time with your families and let’s hope the Lakers get this win.

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Those that follow this site know that I’m a fan of X’s and O’s.  When I watch games I often put most of my focus on the action taking place off the ball in order to see how the players are deployed and what wrinkles are implemented to make a play successful.  I’m a fan of the little things and often those are the product of what the coaches emphasize and the nuance of the scheme that a team runs.  This is the stuff that matters to me most because even though talent is always needed to win in this league, the truly elite teams – the ones that contend for championships year after year – are the ones that pair those players with the best schemes that are executed the best possession after possession over the course of a game, a playoff series, a season.

So saying all that, it’s no surprise that out of all the marquee names and match ups between the Heat and the Lakers, the one I’ll be most interested in will be taking place on the sidelines between Phil Jackson and Erik Spoelstra.  Don’t get me wrong, the action on the floor will carry the game and I’ll be paying close attention to how Artest guards Lebron, how Kobe and Wade go at each other, and looking at Gasol and Bosh to see which big man can most affect the game.  But when the ball tips off and the chess match between the coaches begins, I’ll also be looking at the adjustments made and what points of emphasis become apparent on both sides of the ball.

For what it’s worth, Phil Jackson is already begun prepping his team by putting them through a pretty grueling practice session yesterday.  From Land O’ Lakers:

“We got a lot of stuff done,” confirmed Pau Gasol. “We worked intensely. It was probably one of the best days we’ve had all year.”   Phil Jackson praised the continuity offered by working with everyone present and accounted for. Guys like Andrew Bynum (newly returned) and Joe Smith (new in every sense) were given the rare opportunity to build dress rehearsal chemistry with the entire active roster. Steve Blake mentioned detail-drenched sessions on both sides of the ball. Lamar Odom echoed that assessment, noting how much easier it is to address “small things” with a full compliment of players.

The story goes on to cite that the longer than expected practice session was just as much a reaction to the poor play offered up by the Lakers in Tuesday’s game versus the Bucks as it was an effort to prepare for tomorrow’s game against the visiting Heat, but it’s also easy to see that this session was designed to get his team ready for one of the more anticipated regular season games this season.  And I’m sure that Coach Spoelstra is doing the same.

While some (most?) will point to this match up of coaches and think it’s a mismatch out of the gate, there’s actually a history of close games between these two coaches when their teams match up.  Phil may have a history of unprecedented success in this league and Spoelstra’s relative inexperience as a head man makes it easy to dismiss his credentials in this match up, but when you look at the results from the games between the Lakers and Heat during both men’s tenures you’ll see a string of nail biters that were split between the teams. (None more famous than the one from last year where Kobe needed a miracle shot to take down the Heat in their lone visit to Staples.)

And with this history of close games, coaching strategy and adjustments to what the man pacing the opposing sideline has in store will surely come into play.  What types of defensive schemes will each coach use?  What offensive wrinkles will be put in place to get the key players in position to do the most damage?  Will substitutions be altered for match up purposes?  What counters will be put in place to limit the effectiveness of the other’s moves?  These are only a few questions that I’ll be looking at throughout the game but there are literally dozens more.

So while I’m watching Kobe and Pau doing work at the elbows and Lebron and Wade trying to get out in transition, I’ll also have one eye on the sidelines to look at what the coaches have in store in order to pull this game out.  It may not be the sexiest part of the Christmas Day game, but it could prove to be the most meaningful.

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From Mark Medina, LA Times:  The Lakers trickled out one by one to the media appearing as excited about the Christmas Day game against the Heat as they did facing the Boston Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals.

Read that on face value, and you’d think Phil Jackson suggested a certain Heat player has benefitted from favorable officiating, Kobe Bryant lambasted LeBron James’ hour-long special announcing his “Decision” and every other Laker wondered aloud why the Miami Heat has received more media attention than the two-time defending champion.

Instead, it featured Jackson poking fun at anyone who thinks a Christmas day game means anything. “What do you mean how to view it, like it’s a championship game or it’s a playoff game?” Jackson said when I asked him how he wants his team to view the contest since he and the team has downplayed the surrounding hype all week. “No. It’s not a playoff game. It’s a Christmas Day game. You go out there and play hard and enjoy the day after it’s over.”

From Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: This year, the Lakers have no such questions of self-worth to overcome, no need to establish championship mettle. True, in basketball and the stock market alike past performance is not an accurate measure of future earnings, but the idea consecutive titles doesn’t give the Lakers flexibility to keep one game against an Eastern Conference foe in proper perspective seems like a stretch.  Certainly it would for Derek Fisher. Asked after Tuesday’s loss if Saturday represents a measuring stick game for L.A., he was blunt. “No. I think it’s a big game in terms of excitement and anticipation and the marquee matchup in terms of the star power,” Fisher said. “That’s what makes it a big game. I don’t know if it’s about using it as a measuring stick. It may be different in their locker room, but in my opinion, for us, no.” The good news for fans? They hype isn’t all for naught. The game still matters, on a couple levels.

From Beckley Mason & Ethan Sherwood Strauss, The Heat Index: For these teams this game means no more nor less than any other nonconference game on the schedule. And you’re right, no game played in December necessarily gives either team a discernible advantage going into future matchups. Hindsight may inform significance, but for now, all we have are two elite teams playing a game worth one win.  But I think you overlook a crucial element, and that is that this game will feature five of the top fifteen players on the planet in one 94-by-50 foot space.  This in itself demands celebration.  Drawing consequence from 1/82 of a season can be absurd, but what about the inherent meaning of seeing the three best wing players of the past decade on the court at one time? How about the worth of being privileged to a contest of styles between the fury of the Heat fast break against the mature elegance of the Lakers’ Triangle?  This meeting is a basketball eclipse. So what if the dulling glare of the 82-game grind returns December 26th? The spectacle of this regular season ritual is worth taking in.

From Dave McMenamin, ESPN Los Angeles: The two biggest names in all of basketball today — Kobe Bryant and LeBron James — do not share a natural rivalry. One has played his entire career in the West with the Los Angeles Lakers; the other has been in the East with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat. They have never squared off with a championship on the line, or even a playoff series, for that matter. Still, they share a fascinating dynamic. For Bryant, a competitor always looking for an edge, James is a perfect foil who plays many roles.

From John Krolik, The Heat Index: To put things simply, the “Who is the NBA’s best player?” debate no longer carries the weight it did when the Cavaliers and Lakers were rolling through their respective conferences. The Lakers have relied on Kobe less and less each season since they acquired Gasol in February 2008. Gasol was arguably playing at a higher level than Bryant for the first month of the season, and the Lakers are 21-8 despite the fact that Kobe has scored 35 or more points only once this season (and the Lakers lost that game). Considering that Bryant once averaged 35.4 points per game, that’s a pretty radical shift.  LeBron, of course, decided to leave the team built for the sole purpose of maximizing his production. For seven years, the Cavaliers’ success was directly correlated to how well LeBron played, but that’s not the case in Miami. The Heat don’t need LeBron to be firing on all cylinders to win. In fact, they were leading the Mavericks after LeBron went scoreless for an entire half. There will be times when it will be in the Heat’s best interest for LeBron to step out of the way and let Wade take over, or let Bosh operate out of the high post and attack the rim.

From Tom Haberstroh, The Heat Index: As the much-anticipated Christmas Day matchup approaches between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat, the parallels between Chris Bosh and Pau Gasol will be obvious. Both are All-Star big men who, after struggling to bring home championships for their original franchises, changed scenery as they entered their primes, joining clubs brimming with talent. What’s more, they’ve each drawn considerable criticism — no matter how unwarranted it may be — for their supposed “soft” play.  Bosh and Gasol can sympathize with each other in many respects, but it’s also worth appreciating their distinct differences. Here are three:

From Dave McMenamin, ESPN Los Angeles:  The team practiced longer than usual, staying on the floor for two-plus hours, and every player on the roster went through the full activities, other than injured backup center Theo Ratliff.  “We were all able to be a part of the practice, which hasn’t happened all year,” Gasol said. “Everybody was in it. That was probably the first practice all year we had that.”  Added Lakers coach Phil Jackson: “It was much more running, a little more duress out there playing hard and working on some things we have to do as a team.”  The practice was as much a preparation for Miami as it was a recovery from Milwaukee. The Lakers’ last game was a 19-point loss to the Bucks — their largest margin of defeat this season — and Thursday was the team’s first practice since then after an off day Wednesday.  “I told the players today, I thought their comeuppance might come against Miami, but Milwaukee delivered the blow,” Jackson said. “So maybe it got their attention so they can get focused on basketball.”

From Ryan McNeill, Slam Online:  As Odom used a towel to wipe the sweat off his head, he wasn’t able to hide a grimace after playing through one of his worst games of the season. However, even while battling the flu, Odom still managed to snatch seven rebounds and scored 11 points while going an efficient 5-9 from the field. It turns out a flu has been the only thing to be able to slow Odom down this season as the points and rebounds he contributed during the win against Toronto are a far cry from the 16.0 points and 9.9 rebounds he is averaging so far this year.

From Saurav A. Das, Silver Screen & Roll: “Kobe Bryant is the greatest 15-year player to ever play the game” -Philadelphia 76ers colour commentator, during the Lakers – Sixers game last Friday. He then went on to clarify that he did not mean that Kobe Bryant was the proverbial G.O.A.T, but that no player had played as well in their 15th season in the League as Kobe Bryant was then (and, by extension, is now). At a glance, this might come across as hyperbole as Kobe’s numbers this season seem to be average (for him, anyway) at a glance, but with deeper examination the numbers present a compelling argument.