Archives For March 2011

Calling this game wild doesn’t really do it justice.

Three Lakers and two Mavericks were ejected. Seven technicals were handed out to seven different players. The teams combined to shoot 62 FT’s. A first half of offensive fireworks turned into a defensive, foul heavy slug fest in the second half. And after it was all said and done the Lakers cruised past the Mavs 110-82 to win their 8th straight game and increase their lead over them to one and a half games in the race for the 2nd seed.

And while most will focus on how this game devolved into a shoving match with flagrant fouls and ejections, what I’ll remember is how the Lakers once again proved that the Mavs truly struggle to compete with them over the course of a full contest. Dallas may have been able to keep this game close early on by making their jump shots and changing up the pace of the game with their reserve guards, but the Lakers bigs were again too much for the Mavs front line to handle.

With Andrew Bynum scoring 18 points on only 9 shots and grabbing 13 rebounds and Pau Gasol pouring in 20 of his own on only 14 shots while chipping in 7 boards of his own, the Lakers starting big men controlled the interior and just wore Dallas down. Bynum especially dominated the paint by earning excellent position inside and punishing any Dallas defender that tried to guard him. On several possessions he simply buried a Maverick big right in front of the rim and executed a simple jump hook for the easy two. As for Gasol, he worked his mid-range game to perfection but also went into the post against Dirk and got off several good looks in the paint as well. And when the Laker bigs weren’t scoring on their own shots, they cleaned up for their mates by securing offensive rebounds cleanly or simply tipping balls back into the hoop after their teammates’ misses.

Despite fantastic performances from Pau and ‘Drew though, Lamar Odom may have been the big man that really made the difference. In a game that many were claiming could determine who wins the 6th man of the year award, Lamar came up big (again) by scoring 16 points on 10 shots, grabbing 11 rebounds, and dishing out 3 assists. When the game was still relatively close at the end of the third and into the fourth quarter, LO went on a personal 11-0 run to break the game open by knocking down three consecutive 3 pointers and then getting to the bucket for a lay up. That push put the Lakers up by 20 and that was essentially the game.

With Dallas down big, however their frustrations started to boil over. Only a couple possessions after LO’s lay in, Steve Blake penetrated on the left side of the floor, took a bump from Jason Terry, and then proceeded to get shoved to the ground by Terry after the whistle blew. Blake, never one to back down, promptly got up and went face to face with Terry to voice his displeasure. As the refs rushed in to break up them up, Matt Barnes came in and gave a strong push to Terry and all hell broke loose. Before you knew it Brendan Haywood was going after Matt Barnes, Barnes was being restrained from behind by a Dallas Coach (who he ended up pushing down when trying to escape his grasp), and Blake and Terry were still trying to get at each other. The whole thing was simply crazy and resulted with Blake, Barnes, Terry, and Haywood all getting tossed.

After order was finally restored to the game, the Mavs made a quick push, the Lakers recovered nicely and got the lead back to 19, and the benches came into the game. However, before all the Laker starters could come out of the contest there was one last incident. After securing an offensive rebound and going back up for a put back, Pau Gasol got hit in the head and knocked to the ground by Brian Cardinal. Shannon Brown then shoved Cardinal and then was promptly ejected for sticking up for his teammate. All in all that meant all three of the Killer B’s got ejected. (As an aside, Brian Cardinal was playing sort of like a hockey goon at this point. I watched him for several consecutive possessions and on each play he took some sort of cheap shot at a player. Whether it was a giving a little bit extra push on a screen or going out of his way to bump a guy when he cut through the lane, he was initiating contact as often as he could. At the time I noted on twitter that he was playing dirty and a couple of plays later he committed his 2nd foul on Pau that ended up getting Shannon ejected.)

In the end, there was so much more to this game that deserves mention that it’s kind of sad most of it will be overshadowed by the chippiness of the game and fact that Barnes may be facing further sanction from the league. I mean, Kobe had another good night scoring 28 points to go along with his 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and two steals. Ron Artest continued his offensive resurgence by hitting several key jumpers, including 2 of his 4 three point attempts, on his way to 13 points. Ron was also very good night moving the ball and in making plays for others, tallying a team high 6 assists while having 0 turnovers. As a team, the Lakers were excellent on both sides of the ball posting an offensive efficiency of 117.0 while committing only 7 turnovers (including zero in the fourth quarter. Their defense was just as great as they limited the Mavs to only 12 fourth quarter points, only 31 in the 2nd half, while posting a defensive efficiency of 87.2. Dallas only shot 36% from the field and no one outside of Dirk had a meaningful affect on the game.

Simply a dominant performance that has the Lakers in prime position to continue their run, playing what’s easily their best ball of the year. At this point, I think it’s fair to say that there isn’t a team playing better ball right now than the Lakers. And considering we’re only 8 games away from the end of the regular season, I’d say that’s pretty good timing.

Records: Lakers 53-20 (2nd in West), Mavericks 53-21 (3rd in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.8 (2nd in NBA), Mavericks 110.0 (8th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.6 (7th in NBA), Mavericks 105.2 (10th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Mavericks: Jason Kidd, Rodrigue Beaubois, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler
Injuries: Lakers: Devin Ebanks & Theo Ratliff (out); Mavericks: Caron Butler & Dominique Jones (out), Corey Brewer (questionable)

The Lakers Coming in: What else can really be said at this point? The Lakers are rolling, they’re succeeding with defense, and with each passing game they seem to be inching closer to the level they’d like to be at for another post season run.

Sure, there’s a chance they catch the Spurs for the #1 seed in the West and there’s still a chance that they could pass the Bulls for the #2 seed for the playoffs overall. That said, I stick with what I’ve been saying for some time: it’s more important that the Lakers be playing their best ball than play in a specific arena. Said another way, the Lakers play what I like to call a mobile game. They’re not a shooting team that is boosted by playing on their home court. They don’t rely on a set of streaky players that need to be at home to consistently play their best. The Lakers’ size, Kobe, and a playoff tested roster can win anywhere when playing at their top guear and venue isn’t the biggest priority. Still though, I’d be lying if I said I’d rather them play a game 7 on the road rather than at home. So, I won’t be turning away wins or a shot at the number 1 seed.

As for the bottom of the playoff draw, I’ve never been a proponent of seeking out a specifc foe and thus advocating a loss in order to draw a specific path for advancement. First of all, the standings at the bottom of the West are too tight to accurately predict and second of all I want the momentum to continue progressing. A loss for the sake of facing a specific opponent may seem logical, but I’d rather the team win as many games as possible and let the chips fall where they may. For all the talk of the Lakers wanting to avoid a specific team, I think it’s more logical to look at this from the perspective of potential opponents. I mean, who really wants to play the Lakers right now?

The Mavericks Coming in: Because we’ve been focused on how well the Lakers have been playing, you may not have noticed that the Mavs have reeled off 5 straight wins of their own. Granted the competition wasn’t that tough but at this point in the year a win against any opponent is key as the race for seeding has taken on extra importance. With those wins, the Mavs have been able to stay only a half game behind the Lakers with only one more loss than our guys. Simply put, they’re not going away and they continue to play strong ball.

And as it’s been all year they’re carried by a veteran crew that just knows how to win games. Dirk is again an MVP candidate that puts up numbers extrememly efficiently. Kidd and Terry provide steady play that only picks up with the game on the line. Marion and Chandler are working well in the paint as rebounders and scorers when the D’s attention is too perimeter focused. And they offer a variety of role players (Cardinal, Beaubois, Peja, Haywood, Barea) that each bring a different dimension to capitalize on the weaknesses of any given opponent. This is just a well constructed team that should not be discounted.

Mavericks Blogs: Check out The Two Man Game for consitently excellent analysis. Also visit Mavs Moneyball as they also do a great job covering this team.

Keys to game: It was only 2 weeks ago that these teams played last. In that game, the Lakers bigs (especially Andrew Bynum) proved to be the difference as the Lakers edged the Mavs by 5 points and pulled even with the Mavs in the win column. Since that game, the Lakers have passed the Mavs to take sole control of the West’s 2nd seed but if they want to keep it that way (the Lakers are up by only a half a game with the same number of wins and only one fewer loss) they’ll need a similar effort from their bigs tonight.

And with that in mind, I’m going to go away from the individual matchups for once and try to zero in on a few themes that I think will really be key tonight. I mean, we all know the names at this point – Dirk, Kobe, Pau, Terry – and surely the individual match ups those players face and how efficiently they go about their business will matter. But what I’m really looking at tonight are the themes of a game. Those include:

An inside/out offense: Dallas has one reliable interior defender in Tyson Chandler. If he picks up fouls or can’t contain Andrew Bynum, this game will tilt heavily in the Lakers’ favor. The ball must go inside early and often to allow the Lakers to set up the tempo of the game and play to their strengths. Remember too that Chandler is quick to show help to his mates while then trying to recover to the glass to rebound. I’d love to see the Lakers attack the paint with players other than Bynum so that Drew can take advantage of a vacated Chandler to pick up extra possessions.

Rebounding: The Lakers must control their own defensive glass and finish defensive possessions by securing the ball. In the last game Dallas secured 15 offensive rebounds. Dallas is the 8th most efficient scoring team in the league and extra possessions only give Dirk, Terry, and the rest of their scorers another chance to hurt the Lakers. Shawn Marion’s activity was especially damaging as his 7 offensive rebounds were a game high. He needs to be boxed out and Ron/LO can’t be caught staring at other offensive threats when they need to be boxing out and attacking the glass.

Mid-range jumpshooting: You’d be hard pressed to find another team that shoots the mid-range jumper as well as the Mavs. Dirk and Terry are both excellent shooters and both can get their shots in a variety of ways – in isolation, off screens, and in P&R actions. The Lakers need to stick to their normal defensive scheme but be more active in contesting these shots than they are vs. other opponents. Bynum, Gasol, and Odom will need to play the P&R well by closing off the paint but still providing a contest of these shots of ball handlers turn the corner looking to shoot in rhythm. This game can turn if one of Dirk or Terry get hot, so the Lakers need to zero in on these guys.

Bench play: The big story going into this game will be the supposed battle between Terry and Odom as they’re the leading candidates for 6th man of the year. But it will be the play of Blake, Brown, and Barnes that I’m really focusing on. Barnes’ activity on D and on the glass could be especially troubling for the Mavs as they don’t have an active wing in his mold that can really stay with him in all aspects of the game. Barnes will likely find himself matched up with Peja a lot, so I’d love to see Matt hit the glass hard and run the lane in hopes of getting a couple of easy baskets in transition. As for Brown and Blake, their defense will be key when matching up with Terry. They can not leave him on screens and can’t be over eager to help teammates and abandon their responsibilities on JET. If history has proven anything, Jason Terry is a Laker killer and he needs to be accounted for at all times.

In the end, there may not be a more important regular season game down the stretch. It’s still very likely that the Lakers face this team in the playoffs and a win tonight can reiterate to the Mavs the challenge they’re up against. If the Lakers can effectively hit on three of the above keys, they have a good chance of winning.

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

From Joey Whelan, Hardwood ParoxysmYears from now we may look back on Lamar Odom as the tragic figure of the 2010-2011 NBA season, locked in a perpetual grey area of explanation. Defining the nature of the 31-year-old Laker veteran is akin to defining the role with which he is most often associated – 6th man. It’s a position that has evolved with time but still remains vague in characterization, existing only within the context of “player has come off the bench more times than he has started” nomenclature. Odom has reached a point in his ever changing career where his talent and production levels seemingly eclipse what we consider to be the boundaries of a so-called “role player” and in doing so has subsequently left himself suspended in basketball purgatory. The easy and immediate argument for those opposed to the awarding of 6th Man of the Year to a player of Odom’s status and ability is the simple fact that he is on pace to start more games than any previous recipient. He so closely toes the line for that hard cutoff of playing time that many are inclined to simply push him over the edge into full fledged starter. Yet, it is the fact that Odom, as a result of his timely and elite level of play, shatters our preconceptions of what a player off the bench can be. This – not the number of starts – is truly the decisive factor in the publics’ decisive opinion.

From Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: A Cardinal, an Archbishop, and an E! camera crew walk into a practice… Sounds like the setup for a joke — not necessarily one you’d hear outside the Catskills, though a joke nonetheless — but Wednesday in El Segundo it was reality for the Lakers. Among those inside the gym watching practice were Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose Gomez, and Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, Archbishop of Lima. (I suppose if any two people can be trusted not to reveal the game plan for Thursday’s test against the Mavs, it’s these guys.) Then, after the doors opened to the rest of us, the esteemed pairing was joined by a gaggle of production types filming Lamar Odom for his reality show.

From SoCalGal, Silver Screen and Roll: Lamar Odom has been called many things, including the most unselfish, most versatile, and most underrated player in the NBA. He’s been called the toughest matchup, the guy who makes the Lakers the hardest team to beat. Lakers fans love him, his teammates love him–he’s the emotional center of the team, sports writers love him, Jeff Van Gundy loves him, Khloe Kardashian loves him. What’s not to love? Lamar spent his early years as a Lakers player trying to be the second option to Kobe Bryant, a role he never really seemed comfortable with. In fact, to my eyes he didn’t seem to want to be “here”, meaning playing basketball. Don’t get me wrong, I think he loved the game, but the pressure was probably too much. He also seemed to be easily taken out of a game mentally, particularly when he got into foul trouble. You’d see his head drop and you knew it was over, even in the first quarter. Mind you, this is what I saw, but it may not be what was actually happening. At any rate, it was frustrating to watch, but I stuck by Lamar, hoping things would get better. Thank heavens the Lakers did too.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: Each time Lakers forward Ron Artest patrolled the sideline, an anxious George Lopez awaited him. The Lakers entered the first extra session in what became a 139-137 triple overtime victory last week against the Phoenix Suns, but Artest promised the game would end soon. He and Lopez wanted to immediately head to the Beacher’s Madhouse Theater at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood where they’d film a music video to their newly released single, “Go Loco.” But that had to wait, with each overtime fueling even more uncertainty they would pull it off. The second overtime prompted Artest to promise Lopez the game wouldn’t last longer. It did. Then the third overtime didn’t end until shortly after 11 p.m, meaning Artest’s two- to three-hour music-video shoot lasted until 7:30 a.m.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: The concept still becomes difficult for Lakers forward Lamar Odom to grasp. He remains in serious contention for winning the NBA’s Sixth Man award, yet he acknowledged he’d never envision being in the running for such an honor in the first place after the Clippers selected him as the No. 4 pick in the 1999 NBA Draft. Even when the Lakers acquired him in 2004 from Miami as part of the Shaquille O’Neal trade, Odom didn’t see this scenario happening. He was considered the Scottie Pippen type player to Kobe Bryant, but a failed playoff appearance that season and two first-round exits in 2006 and 2007 eventually spurred the Lakers to acquire Pau Gasol on Feb. 2008. That sent Odom to the bench, a permanent spot Coach Phil Jackson wanted him to embrace as the 2008-09 season opened.

From Mike Bresnahan, LA Times: The Lakers didn’t appeal to a higher power Wednesday, though Archbishop Jose Gomez was at their practice, as was Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani from Peru, taking in a scrimmage from folding courtside chairs. Gomez used to be a San Antonio Spurs supporter but switched allegiances after taking over leadership of the L.A. Archdiocese this month. “A lot of people were praying and telling me to switch from the Spurs to the Lakers. Prayers work. Now I’m a Lakers fan,” Gomez said. “I’m also praying for the Spurs, but a sign from God is that the Lakers are playing much better.”

Dictating On Defense

Darius Soriano —  March 30, 2011

Matt Scribbins provides insight and analysis throughout ESPN’s TrueHoop Network, including at HoopData and Magic Basketball. He graduated with distinction from Iowa State University last spring, where he was also a member of the Cyclone football team. In the fall, Matt is part of Football Outsiders’ Game Charting Project. You can also find him on twitter: @mattscribbins

Location, Location, Location

The switch has flipped. The swagger of the champion is back. The Lakers are 15-1 since the All-Star break, and poised for another journey to the ring. Some people think Kobe’s jutting of the jaw sparked the run. Others credit Gary Vitti for working miracles in the training room. I tend to think it’s the Lakers ability to play traffic cop.

Have you ever left a stadium with intentions of driving home, but the traffic cops forced you into a gridlock? You just wanted to make one right turn, but instead you were waved through and ended up in pure misery. Well, the defending champs are playing traffic cops on the hardwood since the All-Star break. The Lakers are routing frustrated opponents from high percentage shooting areas, and forcing them to jack up shots from BFE (beyond fifteen, every time).

This article will use the following designations: Zone 1 (within 2 feet of hoop), Zone 2 (3-9 feet), Zone 3 (10-15 feet), Zone 4 (16-23 feet), and Zone 5 (three point shots).

At the Rim

According to Hoop Data, 63.8% of shots in Zone 1 are successful, on average for all teams. Through fifty seven games, 28.24% of shots against the Lakers were attempted in this area. In the last sixteen games, Laker opponents are afforded 1.31% fewer shots per game at this distance. This may not look like a key transformation, but any reduction in the highest percentage shots is significant if the goal is to score points. Nearly a third of the Lakers last sixteen contests have been close (five points or less). In games decided by a bucket or two, it’s critical to get to the rack.

Opponents cannot be thrilled with a reduction in attempts, and compounding this problem is their shooting percentage near the cylinder. Before Staples Center hosted the All-Star Game, teams were making about 62% of their shots in Zone 1. Since February 22nd, the Lakers imposing front line has forced opponents to shoot a little worse within two feet of the rim. The Lakers field goal percentage allowed in Zone 1 since the break (60.9%) would be the best in the West if they played this way throughout the season.

Unfortunately for the rest of the NBA, shots at the rim are a highlight. Before the break, teams were making an above average percentage (39.3%) of shots in Zone 2 versus the Lakers. Phil Jackson and his staff must have placed an emphasis on defending this space during the stretch. Opponents’ shooting percentage has plummeted nearly 22% in Zone 2, falling to below 31%.

Laker opponents are actually making three point shots at higher rate than shots in Zone 2 since the All-Star break. This year, the Bulls defensive field goal percentage of 33.2% in Zone 2 is the best in the NBA, and it’s not even close. It is extremely impressive the Lakers have blown that mark out of the water since the middle of February. Los Angeles may not maintain this absurd rate through the playoffs, but the defensive commitment along their front line suggests they could keep it dang low.

Riding #17 to title #17

The man in the middle, Andrew Bynum, deserves much of the credit for the success inside. If opponents enter Mr. Bynum’s neighborhood, he greets them with a headache instead of a handshake.

No one will mistake Marcin Gortat for Hakeem Olajuwon, but the big man was a beast against Los Angeles recently. Gortat has averaged 4.5 shots per game at the rim this season with the Suns. When Andrew Bynum sat out the recent triple overtime game, Gortat attempted twelve shots in Zone 1, and he made 75% of them. (To the Triple Overtime Conspiracy Theorists – the vast majority of Gortat’s attempts were in regulation). Furthermore, the Suns, who average the third fewest Zone 1 attempts in the West, shot a whopping 36 times within two feet of the hoop. Clearly, Phoenix tried to take advantage of #17’s absence. In the team’s previous meeting, Bynum was in the lineup and Gortat only attempted five shots at the rim. As a team, the Suns attempted half as many shots in Zone 1 when Bynum played.

Want further proof of Bynum’s status as a Do Not Enter sign? During the pre-All-Star slump, the Lakers visited Amway Center on February 13th. In 39 minutes of action, MVP candidate Dwight Howard made 12 of his 13 shots within nine feet of the rim. By the final horn, the Magic had attempted 22 shots in Zone 1 and sent the Lakers into Valentine’s Day with heartburn.

Dwight Howard strolled into Staples Center and faced a vengeful Bynum one month later. This time, Howard only got off eight shots in Zones 1 and 2, and he actually played four more minutes than the previous matchup. More important, he only made four shots within nine feet. The Lakers won by 13 and Howard scored 16 fewer points in Zones 1 and 2. Fairness in conversation, Howard did make three shots from Zone 3. However, you don’t need the Zen Master’s acumen to realize it’s better for Los Angeles if Howard attempts jumpers instead of dunks.

We could provide examples all day, but this is the final one. On December 12th, the Nets hosted the Lakers for Part I of the Kardashian Bowl. This was Bynum’s last game on the bench before he made his season debut. The Nets attempted 36 shots in Zone 1, and another 16 from Zone 2. On January 14th, Bynum was in the lineup for round II. New Jersey attempted 25% fewer shots at the rim, and 20% fewer shots overall within nine feet.

Other factors may have played into the skewed shot distribution with Bynum in and out of the lineup, but the big man is definitely a driving factor in the discrepancies.  

New Approach

Earlier this year, Los Angeles redesigned their pick and roll defense, as described by Kevin Ding. The Lakers wanted Bynum to stay in the lane, instead of helping on guards near the key. Ding said “the concession is the Lakers will let opponents take mid-range jumpers from 15 to 19 feet.” This is an extremely favorable concession for Los Angeles, as long jumpers drop less frequently than shots at the rim.

NBA Playbook’s Sebastian Pruiti has great video examples of this change in philosophy. The best example is this one, when Atlanta’s Joe Johnson works off a screen, sees Bynum in the lane, and is forced to launch a low percentage jumper with Ron Artest in his face.

Pick Your Purple Poison

Would you rather get pummeled by 1986 Mike Tyson, or 1987 Mike Tyson? This is basically the decision opponents face when deciding where to shoot against the Lakers. With Bynum’s dominance inside, teams are actually electing to take on two of the best defenders in history, Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant.

The Lakers’ defensive goal since Christmas has been to force long jumpers, and now they are. Before the break, teams attempted 24% of their shots in Zone 4. During the 15-1 stretch, challengers have increased their percentage of long jumpers by about 7%. Historically, this is a horrible zone from which to shoot.

Since the break, Los Angeles has forced opponents to shoot more than 15 long jumpers (16-23 feet) in all but three games. In the games that teams shot fewer than 15 (@Miami, vs. Orlando, vs. Phoenix), the Lakers are 2-1, and one of the victories was the two point win versus Phoenix.

So, why are players still attempting shots from Zone 4 versus the Lakers?

One easy answer – the Lakers hold teams to a lower three point percentage than anybody else in the West. Since the break, the Lakers’ opponents have slightly increased their percentage of attempts beyond the arc. Even better news for Los Angeles is that teams are making 6.2% fewer of their shots in this zone.

With defensive stoppers all along the perimeter, it’s basically free money for Los Angeles if teams launch it from beyond the arc. Factor in Matt Barnes return to the lineup, and this facet of the defense is a sure bet to wreak havoc in the playoffs.

Final Horn

The Lakers improvement on defense makes them the favorites to win the NBA Finals, again. It is important to note the champs haven’t made their money beating up poor shooting teams during this run. Using effective field goal percentage as a barometer, they have faced five of the top six shooting teams in the NBA (Dallas, San Antonio, Phoenix, Orlando, and Miami) since the break.

It won’t be surprising if Kobe grabs his sixth title this summer, and Phil takes home his twelfth. What is surprising is they will lean so heavily on a kid to do so. Andrew Bynum, who is younger than Minnesota rookie Wes Johnson, is anchoring the Lakers defense in their quest for three-peat.

The dominance Bynum has shown recently makes the trade talks around the All-Star break comical. Obviously, adjustments would have been made, but it’s hard to believe the Lakers would be surging on the defensive end if Bynum was playing home games in Denver.

Critics, and players, can continue to take shots at Bynum and the Lakers all they want. Just remember – the shots won’t come from close, and the long range attempts will be off the mark.

-Matt Scribbins

From C.A. Clark, Silver Screen and Roll: The Los Angeles Lakers are, without a doubt, the hottest team in the NBA.  With 15 wins in 16 games since the All-Star Break, against the toughest portion of their schedule no less, the Lakers seem to have confirmed suspicions that their early season struggles were a bit of a mirage.  That veteran leadership and championship pedigree didn’t just disappear. The method to their hotness has been a vastly improved defense; the Lakers were giving up 105.7 points per 100 possessions before All-Star Weekend, and have allowed just 98.2 points per 100 after.  When the terms championship pedigree, veteran leadership and vastly improved defense are combined to form a team that seems to be peaking at just the right time, there is but one inevitable conclusion.  Obviously, the Lakers have flipped the switch.  They are trying now, focused, locked in.  It’s a nice, easy answer that explains exactly how the Lakers can go from looking like a decaying empire to looking like a dominant juggernaut.  But the easy answer is the lazy answer.

From Dexter Fishmore, SBNation: Through most of the 2009-10 NBA season, a schism divided Laker fans into opposing camps. On one side were those who endorsed management’s offseason decision to part ways with Trevor Ariza, a hero of the 2009 championship push, and sign Ron Artest to take over the small-forward position. On the other were those who thought Ron too old, flakey and shot-happy and who regarded Ariza as a better fit. This debate came to an end with a minute left in Game Seven of the NBA Finals last June. That’s when Artest hit the biggest shot of his career, a three-ball that extended the Lakers’ lead over the Celtics to six points and propelled the champs to their second straight title. It’s not fair to Ron, Trevor or the front office that a move be judged based on whether a single shot goes down, but when the Lakers and Celtics play a Game Seven, rationality hits the open road. Fair or not, Ron’s clutch basket forever validated the Lakers’ decision to sign him.

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: Leave it to Tex Winter, who while on the Lakers’ staff was one of Andrew Bynum’s harshest critics, to have the explanation for why Bynum has turned his career and this entire Lakers season around. Winter espoused a theory that has always stuck with Phil Jackson’s longtime mental-health consultant, George Mumford, during their years together building up all those Bulls’ and Lakers’ brains to win all those NBA championships. According to “The Readiness Principle,” as Mumford calls Winter’s idea: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. The patient wisdom in that statement did not keep the passionate Winter from ranting and raving about what young Bynum wouldn’t learn early in his Lakers career, but ask either Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, and they’ll tell you how much they appreciated Winter’s ranting and raving in a world of gushing and groveling around them.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: The Lakers would rather avoid engaging in this exercise, knowing that winning games will quell any uncertainty about their standing in the Western Conference. But with the Lakers (53-20) trailing the San Antonio Spurs (57-17) by 3 1/2 games for first place in the conference and holding a one-game lead over the Dallas Mavericks (52-21) for second place with nine games remaining, it sure is tempting to see what needs to happen for everything to fall into place. That’s why the intrigue surrounding Thursday’s game against Dallas remains pretty obvious. Not only would a win give the Lakers a needed cushion against the Mavericks, it could close the gap against the Spurs if San Antonio can’t end a four-game losing streak Thursday against Boston. “Whatever is going to happen is going to happen,” Lakers forward Pau Gasol said. “The thing we have to keep in mind is continue to play well and continue to win. If that means we catch them and pass them, great. If it doesn’t, we move on.”

From Mark Medina, LA Times: The question left some players squirming, politely declining to answer no matter if I quoted them publicly or protected their thoughts in anonymity. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson immediately expressed his disinterest in the topic saying, “We’ve talked about this before and I’ve said no. I’m not going to talk about that.” And then some players immediately shifted from cliches to honest assessments when I told them their names wouldn’t be attached to the answer. We’re not really dealing with state secrets here, but it may as well be in the world of sports. I simply wondered which potential first-round opponent would the Lakers consider most dangerous. Of course, some refused to participate, mentioning how the they’re more worried about how the rest of the regular season shapes up than worrying about who they face in the first round of the playoffs. But Laker fans surely do.

From Sean Sweeney, DIME Magazine: We’ve heard it before from Kobe Bryant: Shannon Brown does things that I could never do. He repeated it again last night after Brown decided to nearly jump through the backboard, switching hands in mid-air effortlessly. We just wish Aaron Gray would’ve jumped. Also, catch Kobe’s reaction after the jump.

With the post season rapidly approaching, we’re nearing the point where the regular season awards will be voted on. Over a series of posts, I’ll make my argument for a specific Laker to win an award or be included on one of the All-NBA or Defensive teams. Today, my take on why Ron Artest should be named to the All-Defensive 1st Team.

It’s difficult to quantify defense with statistics. Sure, we have the typical box score stats of steals and blocked shots. And over time we’ve also become more comfortable using advanced metrics like adjusted plus/minus, on and off-court statistics, and PER Against to try to paint a clearer picture of which players are most helping their teams on that side of the ball. However, none of these stats truly tell the whole story and we’re often left  judging players based off reputation or snippets of games that we watch when determining the best defensive players.

All that said, Ron Artest should make the All-Defensive 1st Team this year.

No, I don’t have the magic stat that sums up his impact. I could cite that when he’s off the court, the Lakers allow 2.15 points per 100 possessions more than when he’s on the court. I could tell you that his PER agasint is 14.4 (when playing SF) which is, technically, below league average production. Or I could tell you that he averages nearly 1.5 steals a game. But none of that would really do him justice when judging how good a defender he’s been this season.

We often talk about defensive anchors in this league and we mostly talk about big men. Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut, Joakim Noah, Kevin Garnett, or even Andrew Bynum. This makes sense because players who can protect the basket and limit the easiest scoring opportunities have enormous value.

Well, Ron Artest is a defensive anchor that plays on the wing. The Lakers consistently put him on the other team’s best wing scorer and tell him to lock him up, and he does it.

This is where PER against doesn’t do Ron any favors. Look at that link again and you’ll notice that Ron doesn’t have any defensive statistics related to playing shooting guard. However, against the Clippers Ron spent nearly every minute on the court guarding Eric Gordon, who just so happens to be their leading scorer and their starting SG. The results were classic Artest as Gordon went 3-14 and scored only 7 points. In different games this year, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Roy, and Kevin Martin have also had to deal with Artest hounding them all over the court as Kobe got switched onto lesser wing threats. But we don’t see that reflected in Ron’s PER against (meanwhile Kobe’s PER Against when facing SG’s is 13.3)

Ron’s versatility hasn’t been limited to guarding SGs either. Earlier in the year when Bynum was hurt, or when the Laker bigs have been in foul trouble, the Lakers have been forced to go small and Ron’s had to guard PFs. Statistical metrics may not show it, but Ron’s given Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, and David West (and in a recent game, Carl Landry) issues too. I specifically remember a game vs. the Clippers where Bynum was out and Lamar Odom was having trouble dealing with Blake Griffin. In that contest, Artest switched onto Blake and proceeded to push him off his spots, and ended up forcing a steal on an entry pass into Blake that helped clinch that game. (As an aside, late game steals have become somewhat of a specialty for Ron, as he snatched the ball away from Steve Nash late in the triple OT game agaisnt the Suns that helped secure that win, as well as stealing the ball from Griffin on a fast break in the aforementioned recent Clipper game that helped secure that win.)

But forget going outside his natural position to defend players. Small forward is one of the more stacked positions in the league and Ron more than holds his own against the best of the best. In three games this year, Kevin Durant has shot 36% and scored 5 points below his season average when facing Artest and the Lakers. And while Pierce, Carmelo, and LeBron have had at least one good game against him, Artest came back in the rematches against those players and held them to relatively poor nights. (After going 11-18 in the first game, Pierce went 6-15 in the rematch. After going 8-14 on Christmas, Lebron went 7-17 in the rematch. After going 14-25 in the first game, ‘Melo went 10-24 in the rematch. Ron has done a great job of bouncing back against some of the best SFs in the game.)

Beyond the raw numbers or even the versatility offered, though, it’s Ron’s sheer presence on that side of the ball that I value the most. I understand that there are other premier wing defenders but in all the games that I’ve watched I rarely see such an intimidating, aggressive defender as Artest. He’s constantly poking the ball away or forcing a player to pick up his dribble, or even pestering a player into making an errant pass. How many times have you heard an announcer (either the LA crew or the opposing one) say that you “can’t play with the ball in front of Ron Artest”? How many times has a player had to turn his back to Ron (and completely removing himself as a threat to make a basketball move in the process) in order to shield the ball and ensure that Ron didn’t get his hands in to disrupt the play? This type of stuff happens several times a game and there’s no statistical measurement that can accurately place value on what that means to the Laker defense.

In the end, I know that Ron’s a long shot to make 1st team. Last year he probably had an even better defensive season and he didn’t make either 1st or 2nd team all defense. It doesn’t help his cause that the Lakers are looked at as a team that relies heavily on their big men as their defensive catalysts. Nor does it help that Ron plays with Kobe (who has a strong defensive reputation of his own) and is backed up by Matt Barnes, yet another player with a rep for playing strong D. But I’ve watched the games. I know how Ron’s been asked to chase players around screens, lock them down in isolation (where based off Synergy’s statistics, he’s a top 10 defender and only allows .53 points per play), and expertly challenge their shots. I’ve seen first hand how he changes the game on that side of the ball by cutting off passing angles, forcing turnovers (that aren’t neccessarily recorded as steals), and making players take extra dribbles that burn precious seconds off the shot clock. Even when he’s had a bad game he’s bounced back in the next one to play even better.

This year, he’s just been too good to go without recognition. Here’s hoping that he gets it.

Fast Break Thoughts

Darius Soriano —  March 28, 2011

There’s a lot of different topics cluttering my brain today, so no better way to address them all than with an installment of Fast Break Thoughts…

*Most fans have a player (or more) that they look at more critically than others. For years, the guy that I’d often judge a bit more harshly than others was Jordan Farmar. There’s no need to get into those reasons again, but lets just say that I was okay with him moving on as a free agent. However, with Farmar gone a new player has taken his place: Shannon Brown. I like Shannon as a player and think he deserves a lot of credit for his developing and growing his game. During his time as a Laker he’s made tremendous strides as a shooter and ball handler. That said, multiple times a game I find myself not able to look past his penchant for over dribbling or his mistakes on defense. Too often, he gambles for steals or doesn’t close out with a hand up (preferring to run at a players legs). Too many times he ignores making the post entry in favor of probing the defense while dribbling the ball between his legs. He’s too much gunner and not enough wingman for my liking. Again, he’s made great strides as a player and by all accounts he’s coachable, accountable, and a hard worker. However, I find myself wanting less freelancing and more commitment to doing the little things better. Maybe I’m being too hard on him.

*Last night Derek Fisher started the game 0-7 and finished the game just 1-8, scoring only 2 points. He chipped in 3 rebounds and 4 assists while tallying a team high +26 on the night. This type of statistical line gives Fisher supporters and bashers ammunition in their next barroom argument about his value to the team. But I’ve never questioned his value just because those little things that I’m asking Shannon Brown to do get done by Fisher on a nightly basis. Maybe I turn a blind eye too often to Fisher’s weaknesses while playing up his strengths more than I should. In any event, I couldn’t agree with Roland Lazenby more here.

*Last week, Rob Mahoney wrote that the Chicago Bulls should be the favorites to win the championship. Based solely off his power rankings and his playoff odds predictor, John Hollinger’s numbers agree. That said, over at The Point Forward, Zach Lowe tells us that the Lakers are once again the favorites to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy come June. An excerpt:

Put simply, the Lakers are playing both offense and defense better than anyone else. They’re also as healthy as any veteran-heavy team can expect to be now. Ron Artest is surging, Pau Gasol’s mid-range jumper has reached the point where it should inspire terror in opposing fans upon release, and Andrew Bynum is playing the best all-around ball of his career. In doing so, Bynum is helping change the Lakers’ identity in a way that makes them fit more closely the conventional notion of a “playoff-style” team (if you believe in such things). And even so, they remain unconventional in ways that make them extra difficult to deal with.

I know it’s extremely convenient of me to agree with Zach here (after all, look at the name of this site), but I do. One of the main reasons behind my not-quite-there thoughts on the Bulls is because of the team they remind me of: The 2008 Los Angeles Lakers. Like our guys from 2008 the Bulls have made a big leap from their previous season, losing in the 1st round of the playoffs the previous year and coming out of nowhere to lead their conference. They excel on one side of the ball (in this case defense), while being middle of the pack on the other side. They employ the likely league MVP. They have several players (and a coach) that are considered winners, but haven’t had a lot of success together as of yet. In the end, I do think the Bulls have what it takes to reach the Finals. I’m just not convinced they have what it takes to bring home the hardware. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but I feel like I’ve seen this before.

*Speaking of the Bulls, they’re one of the teams whose performance down the stretch I’m watching closely. Along with the C’s, Mavs, Heat, and Spurs, the Bulls represent a team that could be a post-season opponent in which the rest of the regular season will dictate home court advantage should a match up with the Lakers occur. For up to the minute standings, look here. So you know, however, the popular take is that the Lakers won’t catch the Spurs for HCA in the West. That’s an opinion that I also agree with.

*Not sure how much of the NCAA tourney you’ve been watching but there have been some great games on in the past couple of weeks. For what it’s worth, I’ve been impressed with a handful of college players including Kyrie Irving of Duke, Harrison Barnes of UNC, Derrick Williams of UofA, and Kemba Walker of UCONN. Walker has especially impressed me as his shot making and moxie are otherworldly. I’m sure others from that list of players will make better professionals, but watching Walker dart around the court, hit step back jumpers, set up his mates, and do it all with a sense of the moment has been very impressive.

*And speaking of the Tournament, my bracket is officially dead. I don’t have a single team alive in the Final Four and am near the bottom of the rankings in our FB&G pool. As for the winner of our pool, that’s yet to be established as Bob’s Bracket has a 5 point lead and still has his pick for National Champion alive.

*Lastly, we haven’t discussed this much here but the reality is sinking in that the Sacramento Kings will relocate to Anaheim (likely to be named the Royals). If you haven’t heard, Phil Jackson has spoken out against this relocation and it’s now being reported that this move could cut into the revenue from the Lakers recently inked TV deal with Time Warner. That’s a lot of money.

From Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: Pau Gasol. Particularly with David West on the sidelines, the Lakers have an enormous advantage inside against a team like New Orleans. Emeka Okafor and Carl Landry are both undersized, and while Aaron Gray is bulkier off the bench, he’s not very good. It’s a game Gasol should dominate, and he did. In the first half, he scored in just about every way possible, whether running the floor to finish on the break, hitting from mid-range, or- best of all- absorbing contact inside from Landry and Okafor earning a pair of and-one opportunities. By the break, he’d converted six of his nine shots for 15 points, but perhaps more importantly hauled down nine rebounds on a night Andrew Bynum struggled to stay on the floor (see below).

From the K-Bros, Land O’ Lakers: Said Derek Fisher after Sunday’s 102-84 win over the Hornets at Staples: “As you move through a season, particularly for a team that has the experience we have, there are ebbs and flows in a season you embrace. You understand there are certain things that are just part an NBA season. When you’re on that high and things are going good, it’s important to maximize it and ride it out. I think that’s what we’ve done. We haven’t all of a sudden said it’s important to us now. As we started to play good right after the break, we found some things that we could kind of hang our hat on, and stuck with it. It’s been good for us.”

From Ryan Schwan, Hornets 24/7: The Lakers jumped out to a big lead in the first quarter, running their offense, taking advantage of all the size mismatches on the inside, and drilling every open look they got.  The Hornets didn’t give up all game, cutting the lead to single digits several times, but in the end, they couldn’t hit their own open perimeter shots and fell 102-84 to the Lakers. I said before the games that for the Hornets to win, they were going to need Landry to go off and their perimeter guys to hit their shots.  The Hornets perimeter guys, however, didn’t comply, and it wasn’t because of some sort of stellar perimeter defense.  They simply failed to knock down the open shots they did get.  3-17 from deep, including 1-10 from Marco and Trevor.  I expect that from Trevor, but Belinelli’s inability to hit his shots hurt badly.  Paul himself was off for a lot of the game, shooting several shots so short that they were very nearly airballs.  23 points from three of your starters?  That’s not cutting it against anyone.

From Dexter Fishmore, Silver Screen and Roll: Sometimes, life’s like a box of chocolates that contains only one kind of chocolate: you know precisely what you’re going to get. Such is the case these days with games between the Lakers and Hornets. The teams assemble on a basketball court. The Lakers deploy their superior size, depth and talent to pound away inside. Kobe Bryant goes to work on whoever’s guarding him. Hornet shooters honk a bunch of open looks. Lakers win comfortably. Cut. Print. That’s a wrap. Everything went according to script tonight at Staples Center, where the Lakers prevailed, 102 to 84, to tie a bow around a four-game season sweep of New Orleans. We can look forward to a four-game postseason sweep should these teams meet in the playoffs

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: After winning consecutive NBA championships, the Lakers feel like going 15-1 after the All-Star break isn’t much reason to — in the words of Ron Artest’s new song — “Go Loco.” “We just feel like we’re in a good rhythm,” Kobe Bryant said calmly after the Lakers’ 102-84 victory over the New Orleans Hornets on Sunday night at Staples Center. The Lakers are now four games behind injury-plagued San Antonio for the NBA’s best record. The Spurs and Lakers both have nine games left, including an April 12 date at Staples Center. Asked if the Lakers are motivated by catching the Spurs, Bryant replied: “We’re motivated by winning. It doesn’t really matter to us whether we catch ’em or not.”

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: Lakers coach Phil Jackson isn’t focusing the Lakers’ quest for it, but he said before the team’s game against New Orleans on Sunday night: “All things are possible in this game.” Jackson was talking about the Lakers maybe rallying all the way past San Antonio for the best record in the NBA. After the Spurs’ loss in Memphis on Sunday, the Lakers went into their game with New Orleans knowing a victory over the Hornets would leave the Lakers just four games behind San Antonio (57-16). The Spurs have nine games left, but seven of them are against teams with winning records — and one is against the Lakers at Staples Center on April 12. Jackson said the Lakers are not plotting to pass the Spurs, who expect to have Tim Duncan (ankle) back for some final regular-season games.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: After placing his shoes by his locker, Lakers guard Derek Fisher walked past the television and shot a glance at the screen. The Memphis Grizzlies were seconds away from securing an upset victory Sunday over the San Antonio Spurs, the team with the NBA’s best record that seemed destined to have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. But Fisher didn’t flinch for one second. He simply walked past the monitor and headed toward the exit. There was a game to play. Three hours later, the significance of San Antonio’s loss came into perspective. The Lakers’ 102-84 victory Sunday night over the New Orleans Hornets reduced the gap for first place in the Western Conference to four games and secured a one-game lead for the second spot over the Dallas Mavericks, which clinched their fourth consecutive victory with a win Sunday over the Phoenix Suns.

From Mike Bresnahan, LA Times: Lamar Odom has never made an All-Star team and never won an individual award, unless you count the Eastern Conference player of the month in March 2004. But the Lakers forward is closer than ever to taking home a personal keepsake. Odom and Dallas Mavericks guard Jason Terry are in a tight race for the NBA’s Sixth Man Award. Odom is quick to point out he’s already a winner. “I’ve got two awards,” he said, pausing for effect. “Two championships.” Then he got reflective about winning something on his own. “It would be a great accomplishment,” he said. “I never would have seen myself four or five years ago coming off the bench.”