Archives For February 2011

This win simply feels better than others. As I mentioned in the game preview, a home/road back to back in an arena that the Lakers have traditionally struggled in is a tough task and the fact that the Lakers were able to leave the Rose Garden with a 106-101 victory as Laker fans chanted MVP for Kobe Bryant (without boos drowning them out) is something I’ll remember for some time. Being down 10 points with 5:48 to go and 7 with only 1:44 left made this game seem completely out of reach, but the Lakers still pulled it out. Again, this one will stick with me.

But it’s not just the circumstances that I’ll remember, I’ll also remember how big Ron Artest came up. Playing with a freedom and decisiveness that’s been lacking for too many games this year, Ron was simply fantastic. When the other Lakers couldn’t make a shot, Artest carried his mates with made jumpers and attacking moves to the rim. Every jumper seemed to be taken in rhythm and even when he sidestepped or escape dribbled to get off his jumper he was was able to set his feet and was on balance. He’d end the night with 24 points on only 13 shots (including 5-6 on three pointers) and repeatedly came up big when the Lakers needed him, with his most crucial make coming on a three pointer with under two minutes that cut the Blazers’ lead to 4 and allowed the Lakers to close with a flurry that forced overtime.

But to even get to overtime, the Lakers needed more than just an on fire Artest. They needed Kobe and Pau as well. And they sure did deliver down the stretch. After starting game poorly and shooting only 5-16 in the first half, Kobe came through in the 2nd half and especially delivered in the clutch with the game on the line. After Ron’s aforementioned shot got the Lakers to within 4 points, Kobe hit two jumpers that only he can seem to conjure when he faded along the baseline on his first make and then hit another fadeaway at the FT line from a stationary position that he makes look so much easier than it actually is. In overtime Kobe also made some key plays on and off the ball, scoring well but also forcing two turnovers that put the Blazers behind the 8 ball where they couldn’t recover. All in all, even with the lows early in the game, this was a brilliant game from Kobe as he finished with 37 points, making 9 of his last 15 shots, earning 7 trips to the FT line while also grabbing 9 boards and dishing out 6 assists.

As for Gasol, it seemed like he’d be overshadowed by his PF counterpart as LaMarcus Aldridge was playing phenomenal for most of the game and showing everyone that he too deserved to be an all-star. LMA took Pau to the left block play after play and knocked down jumpers, hit runners when driving to his right, and lost Pau on more than one occasion to get open for easy shots right at the rim. Without LaMarcus playing as well as he was, I think it’s safe to say that the Blazers wouldn’t have been in this game. But despite Aldridge’s strong play, Pau never folded and continued to fight. So even with LaMarcus putting up 29 points on 12-18 shooting, Gasol just kept plugging away and finally found his groove late in the game as he started to figure out how to attack LMA on both ends. Defensively that meant Pau pushing Aldridge further from the hoop and sitting on his right hand to force him to either shoot a contested jumper or make the pass back out to reset the offense. And when Pau got the ball on the other end, he started to use counters to the moves that he had used with some effectiveness all night. After driving hard to his right hand or shooting his jumper as his main offensive weapons for the first 3 quarters, Pau used drop steps and step throughs after those same drives in the final frame to get the Lakers the buckets they needed.

Even though the Lakers were carried by these three guys, this win is more a testament to the team’s persistence and ability to overcome dire circumstances to still pull out a win. By never folding or finding an excuse to accept a moral victory the Lakers showed that championship mettle that many have questioned they possess this season. All the calls didn’t go their way and there were several frustrating moments throughout the entire contest but in the end the Lakers used that energy to positively effect change and motivate themselves to pull through together. I’m cautiously optimistic that this win will serve as the springboard that we’ve all been waiting for this year. And while I feel like I’ve said that several times this year, this game just feels different; this was a game the Lakers would have lost earlier this year but tonight they won on grit and guts. More like this for the remaining games this year, please.

Records: Lakers 39-19 (3rd in West), Trailblazers 32-24 (5th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.7 (2nd in NBA), Trailblazers 108.1 (12th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.0 (9th in NBA), Trailblazers 107.2 (15th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers:Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Trailblazers: Andre Miller, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Joel Pryzbilla
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes & Theo Ratliff (out); Trailblazers:Greg Oden & Marcus Camby (out), Brandon Roy (questionable)

The Lakers Coming in:We’ve been down this path before: Lakers stumble some, Lakers look great for a few games, rinse, repeat. Is this time different? A cynic would say undoubtedly say no, but I’m not so sure. The Lakers seem poised to make a push as there are now less than 25 games on their schedule before the playoffs start. And with the team nearing full health, there are no longer any excuses to meander through the regular season andrisk further slippage in a Western playoff seeding race that will be tight at the top. Plus, with the recent trades of Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams, the lower seeds are setting up in a way where the Lakerswould surely like to be in the #2 slot in order to find the most favorable match up available while still having home court in the 2nd round. Essentially, the incentive to finish the season well is too strong for the Lakers to rest on their laurels after winning a couple of games convincingly.

The Trailblazers Coming in: Somewhat quietly, the Blazers have moved up to 5th in the West on the strength of their 6 game win streak before the all-star break. They’re showing great chemistry through another rash of injuries and are clearly operating as a team that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

The key to their strong play has been LaMarcus Aldridge. The all-star snub has simply been playing out of his mind, averaging 29 points a game in February and rebounding well too (though his 8 boards a game this month are slightly down from the 10 a game he averaged in January). Aldridge has consistently flashed his feathery jumper and done great work on the offensive glass (grabbing nearly 4 a game this year) to be the offensive anchor for a team that’s sorely missed the once great Brandon Roy on the wing.

Speaking of Roy, he’s listed as questionable tonight but could very easily suit up to play. After going through another surgery (this time on both knees), Roy is looking to come back this year and make an impact to help his team make a playoff push of their own. The only question now is what role he’ll take on and how coach Nate McMillan deploys him as the Blazers have been getting strong contributions from Wesley Matthews all year (16.5 points per game this year, nearly 19 a game in February) and don’t want to disrupt the groove that he has going. So, it’s a delicate line that McMillan has to walk as his team is playing as well as it has all year but are looking to mix in the player that’s been the face of the franchise for the past several seasons. How this gets managed will likely be a major factor in how this team plays going into the post-season.

Trailblazers Blogs: Blazer’s Edge has long done great work covering this team. Portland Roundball Society also does fine work that’s worth your time. Check out both sites.

Keys to game: A back to back game, on the road, in an arena that the team has traditionally struggled in. If there’s a game that I see as a real test for the Lakers it’s tonight’s match up with the Blazers. If the team is able to clear this hurdle and come out with a victory, I’ll be very encouraged.

 To get it done, the Lakers will need to play a discipline game as the Blazers aren’t a team that really hurts themselves. They’re a top 10 in terms of taking care of the ball and play at the third slowest pace in order to promote a methodical, controlled attack. Aldridge and Andre Miller operate well in the half court and the team plays to their strengths by running them both into the post to force the defense to either help down or leave them single covered where they can create good looks. So, right out of the gate Gasol and Fisher will be tested on defense and the onus will be on them to slow down an offensive attack geared to put them in disadvantageous positions. Whether or not they’re up to the challenge will go a long way in determining who wins this game.

The Lakers can’t get too caught focusing too much on just these two players, though. As mentioned earlier, Matthews has turned into quite the reliable scorer and Nic Batum is also a player with the potential to knock down shots from long range or put the ball on the floor and attack the rim. Paying more than just partial attention to these players is vital towards getting the needed defensive stops.

On offense, the Lakers face a bit of a tough task solely based off match ups. Aldridge (length) and Pryzbilla (size) offer direct counters to the strengths of Gasol and Bynum. Plus, with Batumon the wing the Blazers also have a very good perimeter defender to match up with Kobe. Tonight, then, execution of the Lakers’ sets takes on an even greater importance than normal. The ball must move to the open man and the players must cut and screen well in order to create the space and passing angles needed to execute those passes. The last thing the Lakers need is to go one on one against long defenders with the rest of the Blazers’ D ready to pounce once a player commits to shooting.

The other major key to this game will be rebounding. The Lakers andBlazers represent two of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league so both teams will have to protect their defensive glass as the other team crashes the paint hard hunting for extra possessions. For the Blazers, this may be a difficult task as they’re one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league ranking 27th out of 30 teams in defensive rebound rate. Meanwhile the Lakers rank 18th (but have been better than that since Bynum returned) so whichever team is able to protect their own backboards will have a leg up in winning this game.

In the end, this is a contest that isn’t a must win but is a win that will go a long way towards stabilizing this team. On twitter, Magic Johnson is calling for a minor trade to shake up the team and prepare them for their finishing kick while I’m sure the current players would much rather have this same group stay together so they can finish what they started back in training camp. But, the best way for the players to get their wish is to play well and win games like this one tonight. Lets see if they can do it.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on KCAL. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.

Around the World (Wide Web)

Phillip Barnett —  February 23, 2011

From Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: All is well! Last week, Mitch Kupchak openly wondered how the Lakers would respond to their three-game skid heading into the break. He had plenty of company. Apparently, though, if there was a message to get, the Lakers absorbed it, running out to a 15-point lead in the first quarter, and more or less putting it away by halftime. For one night, at least, the Lakers looked a lot like the team they’re supposed to be, on both sides of the ball. To say they’ve cured what’s ailed them through the season would be a reach, but it’s hard to argue about how they kicked off the post- All-Star stretch run. Here’s how it broke down…

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: Lost worlds of Orlando, Charlotte and Cleveland? An abyss of two-time defending-champion complacency? An All-Star break vacation with an invigorating pool of reflection? Wherever the Lakers were, they made their way back to their usual mountaintop Tuesday night with a 104-80 throttling of the Atlanta Hawks, at full strength and one of the NBA’s better teams at 34-21 coming in. The team defense that was stressed in an extended video session Monday was featured on the court, anchored by Andrew Bynum’s back line, and the Hawks shot 36.6 percent from the field. Pau Gasol (14 points, 10 rebounds, four assists) was an ever-present stabilizer for the Lakers through most of the first half, and Kobe Bryant (20 points, five assists) encouraged the whole group to ride this train by taking 11 field-goal attempts, still the team’s high.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: With so much surrounding the Lakers’ three-game losing streak, the NBA All-Star break and a trade deadline that could spur different emotions and reactions, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant gathered the team together. He then summed up the first game following the break in as succinct terms as possible. “It’s a roll-call game,” Bryant and other teammates said he described the Lakers’ first contest following the All-Star game Tuesday against the Atlanta Hawks. It’s a matchup that usually leaves Coach Phil Jackson uncertain on how each team would handle the extended weekend of rest, parties and overall separation from basketball. Since the Lakers underwent such scrutiny among fans, media and most importantly themselves regarding their nagging inconsistencies, a three-game losing streak, sixth place overall standing in the Western Conference and the upcoming trade deadline, Bryant emphasized that the Lakers solely worrying about perfecting their role will help alleviate all the problems.

From Dexter Fishmore, Silver Screen and Roll: You can’t really say this was a must-win for the Lakers. Such a thing doesn’t exist in late February. But had they pulled the same crap-in-a-bag act we saw at the end of their Grammy trip, the stink around this team would’ve got extraordinarily pungent. Graciously enough, they spared us the stench and instead began the regular-season homestretch with in first-rate form, pile-driving the Atlanta Hawks, 104 to 80. The blowout took shape in the first quarter, as the champs built an early 15-point lead, which then reached 21 at halftime and 26 in the third. With the outcome never in doubt, Phil Jackson was able to give light minutes to all of his starters in hopes of keeping some gas in their tanks for tomorrow night’s visit to Portland.

From Bret Lagree, HoopOnion: Yes, the Hawks missed several open shots in the fateful first half but they also made themselves easy to guard. Whatever defensive value starting Jason Collins against Andrew Bynum had was overwhelmed by the value the Lakers gained by being able to defend five-on-four in the half-court. Atlanta’s primary ball-handlers, Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford, approached a defense overloaded to the strong side with lots of dribbling. The resultant offensive stagnation further encouraged Josh Smith to continue his evolution into a spot-up shooter which in turn magnified (possibly exaggerated) the damage of the turnovers he committed when attempting to make an aggressive play.

I am way too tired/lazy to write a cohesive essay recapping the game, so you all get a recap in list form!

-The Hawks started off frostbite-cold (and pretty much finished frostbite-cold). They shot a combined 1-15 from three, 30-83 overall, and 19/28 from the free throw line! That’s 7%, 37%, and 68%. Part of that was the absolutely suffocating Laker defense, but a lot of it was the Hawks simply missing a ton of shots. The only reason their shooting line wasn’t any worse was a 6-9 night from Al Horford, whose face said (to me) “Please let me be traded.”

-The Lakers absolutely crushed the Hawks in the 1st quarter, leading 28-15 after 12 minutes. Derek Fisher hit his first 3 shots (a clear foreshadowing of what was to come) and the Lakers never looked back. They missed 4 shots the entire quarter, and the lead would’ve been even larger had they not turned the ball over 4 times.

-The bench for the Lakers came out in the second quarter and played terribly for the first 6 minutes. And by terribly, I mean as bad as the Hawks were playing, so the lead only dwindled from 13 to 9. Keep in mind, the Lakers won the game by 24 points, and Luke Walton was -5. Please come back soon, Matt Barnes.

-Can someone please tell me when Steve Blake plans on joining the Lakers? Seems absurd to me that they’re paying him $4 million this year and he has yet to show up…

-To be totally honest, I only half-watched the game after halftime. I was much too busy constructing witty (to me, at least) one-liners on Twitter, listening to my Spanish commentators exclaim “Joshay Smee!!!!” and seeing Josh Smith jacking up a three.

-The 2nd half of this game was really a formality. The Hawks had given up by then and Joe Johnson’s face told me “Man, at least I’m making $1293487 billion dollars a year.”

-Bynum was a complete beast on defense. He finished with 3 blocks and 15 boards, while having at least 5 altered shots which led to horrible misses by the Hawks. Sure he had only 5 points, but he played his role and brought the intensity on defense which was the real cause of the Laker lead.

-One thing about Ebanks and Caracter: say what you want about them being rookies and inexperienced; those guys go hard. Even though it was junk time in a massive blowout, they fought for rebounds and went hard to the basket. Good signs for future Laker depth.

-The Lakers had very balanced offense. The threesome of Kobe, Pau, and Shannon Brown led the way (that one’s for you, Steve W), with 20, 14, and 15 points, respectively. Artest had 11 points on 4-7 shooting, while Fisher chipped in with 10 points. Every Laker scored, even Joe Smith on a fancy, Kobe-esque turnaround. And when Joe Smith scores, you know it’s been a good game for the Lakers.

Overall, it was nice for a change to have a team play absolutely terribly against us. The Lakers, fresh from the All-Star Break, seemed to be expecting the other team’s best, like they had received in the previous few games. But the Hawks showed up and played terribly, while the Lakers showed the defensive intensity and the offensive flow of a championship team. Combine those two and you get a 24 point blowout. Let’s hope this is a good start to the rest of the regular season.

Records: Lakers 38-19 (3rd in West), Hawks 34-21 (5th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.7 (2nd in NBA), Hawks 107.2 (15th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.3 (10th in NBA), Hawks 105.8 (13th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Hawks: Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, Al Horford
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes & Theo Ratliff (out); Hawks: none

The Lakers Coming in: We all know that the Lakers were not playing very good ball right before the All-Star break. They’ve lost three games in a row, including a defeat to the Cavs that must be the low point of the season. However, Sunday’s big game showed me (and I think the rest of the league too) that Kobe and Gasol aren’t just going to allow this team to fall off as the push for the post-season begins. Can that energy that Kobe brought to his MVP performance be carried over to these last 25 games? Will the return of Barnes (who says that he needs a handful of practices to really get back) help give the team that extra wing they’ve been missing? Will the Lakers bigs be able to keep up their strong play (or even improve on what they’ve shown) down the stretch? These are all legitimate questions and one’s that I’d lean towards yes on, but we’ll just have to see. I think it’s fair to say, though, that All-Star weekend has served as a reminder that the Lakers have two of the better players in the game on their roster and that when they’re on their games defeating the team they play for will be difficult. Mind you, the rest of the Lakers will have to follow their lead but I do think the Lakers’ best two players will be ready to forge that path for their mates.

The Hawks Coming in: Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. That’s pretty much how I’ve viewed the Hawks for several years now. They’ve done a very good job drafting and getting capable players to form a perennial playoff team but never been able to break through. And this year is no different. They currently sit in the 5th seed in the East and the four teams ahead of them are clearly better teams. And with Horford still relegated to playing Center (when he’s clearly a PF) and Bibby being relied upon as a vital contributor, I don’t know if that’s going to change. Their problem though, is that they don’t have the assets to acquire help and because they paid Joe Johnson what they did while simultaneously committing healthy dollars to Horford and Smith, they also don’t have the cap flexibility to add an impact free agent in the upcoming seasons.

Coming into tonight’s game, the Hawks have lost 3 of 4 games with their lone win coming against the Pistons. They’ve not been playing their best ball and a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that Horford still hasn’t come all the way back from a back injury that occurred when taking a hard foul from Blake Griffin earlier this month (an injury that had him play sparingly in the ASG) and the fact that new Coach Larry Drew is still trying to find the right combination of players to go to each night.  One player that is playing very good ball though, is Josh Smith. His February numbers have been outstanding as he’s been averaging 20 points and 9 rebounds on nearly 54% shooting. But even with that production the Hawks are only 4-3 this month. Again, this team just can’t seem to get over the hump.

Hawks Blogs: Brett LaGree does a great job providing news and analysis over at Hoopinion. Also check out Peach Tree Hoops for Hawks info.

Keys to game: If the Lakers are to get back on track tonight and start their post All-Star push, they’ll need to refocus on both sides of the ball. The Hawks offer up a solid team that matches up well in several areas, but if the Lakers play smart and disciplined they’ll be able to come away with a win.

As we say pretty much every game, going inside early and often is a key on offense. Even if the Hawks go to a big line up (sliding Horford and Smith down to PF and SF respectively) and start Jason Collins or Pachulia, the Lakers must work inside out and try to get the bigs going. Gasol is coming off a solid if unspectacular ASG and getting him some touches against Horford or Smith should be a priority. Against either defender Pau should be able to get quality looks as Smith lacks the size and Horford may still be a bit banged up. If it is in fact Horford that gets the call to defend Gasol, I’d love to see Pau get some isolations at the elbow and short wing where he can test Horford’s foot speed off the dribble and shoot his mid-range jumper that has been a major weapon all season.

On the wing, Joe Johnson offers a solid defender against Kobe but one that #24 should still be able to create quality looks against. By getting Kobe moving off the ball and working in the post, I think the Lakers should be able to exploit Joe on D while also wearing him down some so his offense isn’t as effective when the sides change.

Speaking of defense, the Hawks have tried to go away from their isolation heavy sets of prior seasons but haven’t fully been able to break the habits that have set in. Johnson still works best from the wing where he can use the threat of his jumper to drive into the teeth of the D and put up his little floater. He’s also a post threat and will shoot the J when open so Artest (who will likely draw the assignment) will have his hands full chasing Joe off baseline screens and then playing on an island after the catch is made. I’d love to see Ron force Joe baseline as often as possible and make him shoot step back jumpers or drive all the way to the rim where Bynum and Gasol can offer assistance.

Obviously this means that the Lakers help schemes will be tested tonight and not just on isolations from Joe and Crawford. The Hawks also run a lot of pick and pop with Horford with Josh Smith slashing off the ball. The Lakers help schemes will need to compensate and account for Horford moving into open space at the top of the key as he’s one of the more unheralded jumpshooting bigs from that spot. A lack of rotation to him will result in two points more often than not. As for Smith, his movement off the ball is an issue that needs to be accounted for as he’s very good finding creases in the D and going after the ball on the offensive glass. If the Hawks go big to start the game, slowing him down will fall on Artest (or Kobe) so boxing out and tempting him to shoot his jumper are the biggest priorities there.

The other key tonight will be the battle of the benches. Jamal Crawford is a yearly candidate for 6th man of the year and can be an explosive scorer behind the arc and shooting his mid-range jumper when he gets it going. Jeff Teague is a great change of pace guard for the Hawks as well, often pushing the ball and looking to get buckets in the open court against defenses that aren’t used to his quickness after dealing with methodical guards like Johnson and Bibby. The Lakers bench will need to mark these two players and understand that they’re in the game to get up shots and put points on the board. That means ball pressure and transition defense will take a greater importance whenever these two players enter the game.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time out West on Fox Sports West and on NBA TV. Also listen live at ESPN Radio 710am.