Archives For April 2011

The Road Warriors

Darius Soriano —  April 23, 2011

Back when I was a kid, if you were to ask me about the road warriors, I would have thought of Hawk and Animal – the devastating tag team wrestling crew whose nickname “The Legion of Doom” always entertained. Yeah, sue me, I like wrestling.

Today, when I think of the road warriors, I think of the Lakers.

Over the past 4 seasons – including this year’s group – the Lakers are 16-17 in playoff road games (for comparison’s sake, the Boston Celtics – the other top level team over this same period – is 12-17 in playoff road games). Think about that for one second. In games where the Lakers travel to the opposing team’s gym and face an amped up crowd in the most hostile enviorinments, they’re nearly .500. When considering that this team is nearly as likely to win on the road as lose – not to mention the fact that over this same period, they’ve clinched 7 series including the 2009 Finals on the road – it’s not a stretch to say that the Lakers are this era’s best road playoff team.

And it all starts with Kobe Bryant. Over at TrueHoop, ESPN Stats & Information has the following nugget:

In true superstar fashion, Kobe Bryant came to play and recorded his second 30-point game this series and 80th of his career. That’s the second-most all-time behind Michael Jordan who did it 109 times. This is really nothing new for Bryant who has excelled in Game Three of a series tied 1-1. Over the last 3 seasons he’s averaged 33.3 points per game while leading the Lakers to four victories (all on the road) in that situation. In fact, for his career Bryant is 7-1 on the road when the series is tied heading into Game Three.

In these games – as close to must win as there are – Kobe’s teams have won at a .875 clip. Also understand, these specific games have proven quite important over the years. Again from ESPN Stats & Information:

Entering this postseason, there have been 175 instances in which a best-of-seven series was tied at one after two games. When the home team won Game Three, it went on to win the series 70.1 percent of the time. When the home team lost Game Three, it went on to win the series only 16.7 percent of the time.

And in order to secure this all important win, Kobe again stepped up last night. He had a tidy line of 30 points on only 20 shots to go along with 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals, and a block.  During half time he gave a sneak peak into his mood with short and direct interview that showed a focus that his team lacked in game 1 of this series. If fans were looking for that first hint that the Lakers really were dialed in, they got it last night with Kobe’s performance a barometer for it all.

Of course, Kobe’s not doing it alone. Andrew Bynum could easily be described as this series’ most impactful Laker and Ron Artest has also been his most consistent since the second season began. But, I’d argue that more than ever this is Kobe’s team as this group truly has taken on his personality. In a conversation I had with frequent commenter/contributor to FB&G J.D. Hastings, this particular Laker group really has taken on Kobe’s personality. They’re feisty and won’t back down from anyone. They seem to rise to the occasion in big games and will do anything to earn the victory. Guys like Artest, Barnes, and Blake have been brought in seemingly just because of their past run-ins with Bryant as he’s always had a great respect for guys that go at him and don’t back down. I could go on and on, but you get the point.

In the end, this team is now starting to remind of the championship chasers from the past 3 season. And last night was just another example of Kobe and his mates following through on their reputation as winners on the road. The playoffs may just be getting started, but familiarity from years past sure is nice. And, again, it all starts with Kobe. Below is a quick clip of #24’s night. Enjoy.

This wasn’t the Lakers first win of the series, but it was definitely their first win showing flashes of the championship dominance of the previous two seasons. After the Game 2 win, commenter J.D. Hastings said, “Teams that win ugly win titles.” It can also be said that those very same teams also win on the road. The Lakers were able to weather the early Hornets sting with their raucous crowd behind them and come out with a solid 100-86 victory in New Orleans.

In ways that we’ve seen before, Kobe came out of the gate aggressive early. His first two points were off of a short jump shot in the paint, and it seemed to start him off with a nice rhythm that he’d carry the rest of the way.  His next basket was a 12-foot jumper that drew a foul from Chris Paul. He followed that with a nice two-handed jam and a circus layup over his right shoulder which drew a foul on Aaron Gray. Kobe’s offensive aggression was completely opposite of his Game 2 performance, where he dedicated himself to limiting the offense of Chris Paul. The rhythm he was able to establish early on with baskets close to, or at the rim really opened things up for him on the perimeter as the game progressed. Kobe knocked down four of seven three pointers, with two of them being wide open looks to start off the second half.

The Lakers bigs also opened things up for Kobe on the outside with stellar play in the middle. Andrew Bynum made his presence felt, especially in the first half. He finished the half with 13 points and nine rebounds, completely dominating the Hornets on the offensive glass. He was decisive with the ball, confident with his jump hook and patient when things weren’t instantly available. He passed well out of double teams and even found cutting teammates. In the second half it was Pau Gasol who stepped up, finally having his impact on the series show up in the box score with 17 points and 10 rebounds. One of the biggest differences I saw in Gasol’s game tonight was how much more Phil had him moving around. Instead of putting him in one-on-one situations and forcing him to bang bodies with Okafor/Gray/Landry, he was often on the move when he caught passes and was in a position get baskets on quick catch-and-shoot situations or easy layups. The easier buckets early in the game seemed to boost his confidence and we ended up actually seeing a somewhat physical Gasol in the fourth quarter. There was one play in particular where Gasol got the ball at the pinch post, lowered his shoulder and muscled his way through Emeka Okafor for two points.

Finally, the Laker role players stepped up huge. Ron Artest is quietly having a great series. He had his offense going in the first quarter, helping to quiet down that New Orleans crowd. He had a nice post move on Marco Belinelli that resulted in a layup and a nice baseline dunk that got him flexing for the New Orleans crowd. Lamar Odom had a very quiet nine rebounds to go along with his 13 points. The Killer B’s didn’t have great games, but they all contributed in some way. Steve Blake hit a timely three, Shannon Brown had one of his patented base line dunks (and no turnovers!), and Matt Barnes had a nice tip dunk over Jason Smith after a Bynum miss.

Overall, tonight was a solid performance for the Lakers. It’s hard to take anything away from a team that goes on the road and takes care of business in the post season. They were huge on the glass, got good performances from their best players and the roll players kept the lead with the starters on the bench. Pau Gasol had his best offensive night and Andrew Bynum is proving that he’s going to be a problem for the Hornets as this series progresses. I didn’t get into this much (or at all, actually), but the Lakers also played an absolutely fantastic defensive game (more on this in the future). Chris Paul had another very good outing, but the Lakers are figuring out ways to limit how much he’s able to control the game. It wasn’t a perfect night, but there isn’t really much to complain about. They’re back in control of the series with a 2-1 lead and will play Game 4 on Sunday.

When it comes to the playoffs the most important game is the next one. As a series evolves each game becomes the most meaningful for each team as the stakes get raised and elimination is one step closer. Game 3 is no different as it offers both teams an opportunity to take control of this series. For the Hornets this game can put the Lakers on their heels again and give them the leg up with a 2-1 series lead and a crucial game 4 on their home court on Sunday. For the Lakers, this game is the chance to put the series right back in their hands by seizing home court advantage back and continuing the momentum they established in game 2.

In order to capture this all important swing game, some keys I’ll be looking for:

*Sustained effort. If the Lakers had any thoughts about this series being a walk they were quickly erased after getting steamrolled by Chris Paul and crew in game 1. The difficulty this match up poses was only reinforced after a hard fought, physical game 2. In order to win that game, the Lakers needed to play hard the entire game, pushing through rough patches and holding off a feisty Hornets group that made several mini-runs that had the game too close for comfort for most of the 48 minutes. Tonight, the Lakers must bring an even more focused approach and energy to win on the road. The Hornets and their crowd will be bursting with energy and ready to run through brick walls to win this game. The Lakers will need to match that early energy and keep the game close – or better yet take that energy away by starting out fast themselves. This group is experienced in such games and understand the stakes, so I expect them to be prepared. That said, a road environment in the playoffs has the potential to knock even the most poised team off stride. The Lakers will need to dig in their heels, take that initial hit, and then hit back with a sustained effort of their own to pull this game out.

*Defense by committee. In game 2 the Lakers’ better execution of their defensive scheme had a big part in limiting Chris Paul’s success. But another key in (relatively) containing Paul was the fact that the Lakers threw multiple primary defenders at Paul to consistently keep a fresh body on him while also giving him different styles of defense to deal with. Kobe, Fisher, Blake, and Artest all took turns on Paul and in game 3 I expect a similar approach. It will be interesting to see how many minutes Kobe spends chasing Paul over and around screens and denying him off the ball as the energy expended on that side of the ball takes its toll when trying to be effective on the other side, but I do expect to see Kobe strategically play the Hornets’ best player (and really, the best player – so far – in this series) to try and take him out of this game. I also expect to see Blake get more chances on Paul to see if he can duplicate the success he had in game 2. If New Orleans goes to a small line up with a Paul/Jarrett Jack back court, I don’t doubt that we could see Blake/Fisher or Blake/Kobe for extended minutes to match that unit to give Steve his shot. All that said, it will still take a team effort to slow down CP3. The Lakers bigs must stay true to their principles by taking the right angles and not haphazardly give up space to allow Paul to probe his way to the painted area. Bynum, Gasol, and Odom must all be prepared to pounce on drives into the lane and contest the short shots and floaters that Paul thrived on in game 1.

*An aggressive Kobe. Look, we all know that the 10 FGA version of Kobe isn’t long for this series so we might as well embrace that fact right now. In game 1, Kobe came out looking for his shot and carried the Laker offense for long stretches while nearly every one of his teammates faltered. In game 2 he was intent on getting everyone else involved early and while that helped Bynum, Ron, and Odom get going, it – along with his aforementioned approach on defense – also left him grasping for an offensive rhythm of his own that proved elusive. Tonight, I expect to see Kobe find a better balance on offense and that means a more aggressive approach throughout the contest.  He’s already told Phil that he’ll look to put up more than 10 shots, and I could easily see him starting the game in attack mode, looking to get to the basket where he can not only score but set up his teammates. Remember, Kobe has a history of going for the throat in road games and it’s always been his m.o. to try and step up his game when the venues turn hostile. In the Lakers four game 3’s last year he scored 24, 35, 36, and 29 points so it wouldn’t surprise to see him go for a similar number tonight in order to try and take the crowd out of the game while also putting his imprint on the contest. For what it’s worth, I’m fine with this approach. One of Kobe’s best qualities is the fact that he knows the dynamics of a game and a series as well as any great player ever. If he’s able to control this game from the outset, it will go a long way in shaping the rest of this series.

*A productive bench. Game 2 served as a nice reminder of the Lakers depth and how they have multiple players that can affect the game positively. Forget Ron, Bynum, and Odom as they’re essentially starters that play in the shadows of Kobe and Gasol. There’s an expectation that those guys can produce when called upon and game 2 was their time. Tonight, it’s very important that Blake, Barnes, and Brown can also have good games. Blake must continue to get the 2nd unit organized. Barnes must continue to run the floor, slash off the ball, and rebound. And Shannon needs to play within himself, avoid contested jumpers, and attack the basket (I’d love to see him turn the corner in a hand off sequence and simply try to dunk on whoever is in the lane). This has been a bit of a trying year for Brown and like my past critiques a couple of reserve guards that now play in New Jersey, I’ve been a hard critic of him as the season has progressed. But, I still believe that Shannon has good, disciplined ball in him and that he’ll show it in one game soon. Hopefully it’s tonight’s.

The last time the Lakers found themselves in a series tied 1-1 was last year’s Finals. That group went to Boston in that fateful game 3 and pulled out a win down the stretch with the heroics of Derek Fisher sealing the deal. This team knows how important a 2-1 lead in a series is and also understand how a road victory can deflate the opposition to set up how the rest of the series will play out. I have full confidence that the Lakers will be ready to compete and give their all. Here’s to them pulling it out and getting this series back into their hands.

Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time out west on KCAL and ESPN.

From Andy Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: On two levels, the Lakers’ second unit showed up during the 87-78 Game 2 win over the Hornets. They showed up literally, in that everybody was present and accounted for. Steve Blake was back in uniform after a battle with the chicken pox. And while Matt Barnes participated in Sunday’s loss, he made only a slightly bigger impression than during the final two regular-season games, which he missed because of lingering effects of a recent knee injury. Clearly limited, he played less than nine minutes and without his typically perpetual motion. On Tuesday, however, the small forward actually resembled himself.

From Joe Gerrity, Hornets 24/7: After another poor Hornets performance from the free throw line, one can imagine that Monty had the guys taking extra shots during practice. That would be the right move considering every player besides Landry is shooting below their season average from the line so far in the series. New Orleans has struggled mightily from the line, shooting a mere 66 percent so far in the series in their 65 attempts. On Wednesday they were particularly bad, making only 20 of 32 total (62.5%). During the regular season the team was better, but not great considering how talented Paul is. They shot 76.5 percent (15th in the league), and even if we ignore West from the equation, they wind up at 75 percent. The playoffs, however, have caused problems for a team that otherwise looks rather hardened under their rookie head coach.

From Beckley Mason and Ethan Sherwood-Strauss, HoopSpeak: Working: The Lakers are never going to shut down Chris Paul, but they did the next best thing: slow him down. They defended Paul with multiple, big defenders like Kobe Bryant and even Ron Artest, then pestered him with Steve Blake, who whore a headband to mask what I can only assume are terrifying chicken pox scars. If Chris Paul is a speedy boxer, the Lakers decided to lean on him all game, hoping to lessen the pop of his punch. Mission accomplished. Paul was able to make a number of outstanding plays, but all the bumps reduced his ability to score and put more of the onus on his less talented teammates. As an added little benefit, the cross-matching also forced Paul to occasionally defend a bigger, stronger player on the other end, sapping his energy even more. Not Working: Boy, what in the world is going on with Pau Gasol? The Hornets are doing a good job of shoving him off his favorite spots, but he should still be able to score effectively against single coverage from the likes of Carl Landry. After all, this is the guy who outplayed Dwight Hoard and Kevin Garnett in consecutive Finals. Bynum buoyed their inside attack, but Los Angeles needs to find ways to get Gasol a couple deep catches, perhaps off of cross screens from Artest or Fisher, instead of “getting him going” by isolating him on the mid block.

From Lee Jenkins, Bobby Corbin was working in the service department at Fry’s Electronics in Manhattan Beach, Calif., when a 7-foot teenager approached the counter. Corbin glanced up at the boy giant’s stubble-free face and assumed he was a college basketball player. Maybe he needed help tricking out his dorm room. “You know how it is with those guys,” Corbin says. “They don’t usually have to do much for themselves.” The kid explained that he was looking for a personal computer, and while Fry’s carries half a dozen brands, he was not interested in any of those. “I want to learn how to build my own,” he said. He rattled off his desired components: a 500-gigabyte hard drive, four gigs of RAM and a graphics card. Corbin was amused and intrigued. He picked out the parts, and as he stood on one side of the counter assembling the machine, his 285-pound customer stood on the other and studied his work. Corbin wondered if this was really a basketball player or just a very tall techie. The next day a Fry’s colleague asked him, “Do you know who that was?” Corbin shook his head. “It’s the new Laker.”

From Wandabap, Silver Screen and Roll: Imagine I gave you the raw box score of the Lakers starters from last night, but withheld the score, except to tell you there was no blowout.  Then you saw that Kobe Bryant scored only 11 points on 3-10 shooting, with 3 rebounds and 2 assists, and that Pau Gasol scored 8 points on 2-10 shooting, and 5 rebounds.  Most likely, you’d think the Lakers lost, right?  For the team’s two best players to score and shoot less than Kobe does himself on any given night, it couldn’t possibly be a good sign, right?  In a Playoff game at that?  In most cases, and probably for any other team in the NBA, it’s the makings of a miserable loss. Instead, the Lakers secondary stars and bench stepped up to carry the night, because they are the deepest, most talented team in the NBA.   This couldn’t happen a year ago.  Or even two years ago.  Bynum wasn’t able to step up and carry the team without being a blackhole.  Lamar wasn’t consistent and confident enough to put the team on his back.  It always fell on Kobe and/or Pau.  The rest of the Lakers fed off of them this time. As time goes on, no longer do they need Kobe or Pau to be All-World to find their own game.  Pau’s slacking?  Andrew raised the intensity. Kobe’s focusing on defending Chris Paul instead of scoring?  Lamar took over the game.

From Eddie Maisonet, Ed The Sports Fan: Its all about what we perceive is “valuable”. Kobe’s case for MVP is a clear one. His effect on the game is astounding, the man is always lurking, looking ready to pounce to make another big play. Kobe’s as valuable as he is because he’s put in the work, and has the pedigree of winning. Frankly, it scares the shit out of people, and makes folks refuse to bet against him. Kobe isn’t all that different now than he was when he was putting up 35 a game in ’05, nor is he that different than when he was the #2 guy behind Shaq in their three-peat years to kick off the 00’s. We see Kobe’s value differently now that he’s got a supporting cast worth a damn and he’s gunning for titles again.

From Brian Champlin, Lakers Nation: There’s a look in a player’s eyes that he gets when he knows that he’s the best on the floor. It’s a cool air of confidence. A quiet determination that requires little boasting or demonstrative gesturing. Only the occasional fist pump after a big 3 point play. A glare after securing a tough rebound. Yet believing that you’re the best is no easy feat when you suit up nightly with the likes of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. When you’re matched up in the playoffs with possibly the best point guard in the NBA. But on Wednesday night, to the surprise of perhaps everyone but himself, Andrew Bynum had that look. Let’s get this one straight. Without Andrew Bynum the Lakers lose the game and go down 0 – 2 in what could conceivably be one of the biggest first round meltdowns in NBA history. Thankfully, Andrew was exactly where he was needed.

From Emile Avanessian, Hardwood Hype: So while my public suggestion that we’d arrived at the end of the road for the current era of Laker basketball may have been spawned by the frustration and short-sighted anger of an irrational fan, it may not have been totally off base. This is not to suggest that Kobe Bryant’s at the end of the line, or even that his days as a top-tier NBA player are behind him, but the reality- one that’s not very comfortable to think of if for no other reason than it reminds us of our own mortality- is that we’ve entered a stage of the Kobe Bryant that we never did with Magic, one that’s not been seen in Lakerland for nearly 40 years- the long goodbye. For the first time in about four decades, Laker fans are dealing with a (at the time) locally beloved, top-6 all-time player that, while still excellent and capable of playing at a high level for several more years, has slipped noticeably from prime. Where we are now with Kobe is where we would have been with Magic in the 1990s, had his career not been derailed by HIV. We know it would have happened, but never had to see it. With Kobe, we’re actually seeing it.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: The Lakers’ most consistent presence through two playoff games has come from an unlikely source, none other than Ron Artest. He’s averaged 15.5 points on 45.5% shooting and 8.5 rebounds in 34.5 minutes per contest, a stark improvement from the numbers he posted in the regular season with a career-low 8.5 points on only 39.7% shooting in 29.4 minutes per game. Artest attributed the turnaround to decreasing his workload of off-court conditioning and shooting exercises since the All-Star break, though he didn’t reveal specifics. “I used to be in the gym a lot,” said Artest, who averaged 15.5 points on 45.5% shooting in 34.6 minutes per game following the All-Star break. “I can’t do it now. You can’t be here shooting and wasting your legs.”

Lastly, I joined ESPN’s 5-on-5 discussion on all of the games being played tonight. You can check that out here.

More Thoughts On Game 2

Darius Soriano —  April 21, 2011

Last night’s win is still taking up a lot of space in my crowded brain. So with that, I’ve no choice but to spill out random thoughts about the Lakers’ first win of these playoffs…

  • Pau Gasol is taking a lot of heat for his performance so far this series and based off his stat lines and his penchant for shooting turnaround jumpers, I can understand why. Nearly every one expects more from Gasol (myself included) and it’s fair to say that he’s been a disappointment in the first two games. That said, last night I spent nearly the entire final three quarters pleading to my TV for the Lakers to run any sort of action that would put Pau in better position to do damage. Nearly every time the Lakers ran an action for Gasol to get the ball, it involved him moving from weak to strong side without the aid of a screen to make the catch or asked for him to fight for position on the weakside for a post isolation. I’ve come to the conclusion that these plays will not work. Carl Landry and Emeka Okafor are simply stronger than Gasol and are consistently uprooting him and knocking him off his spots. Furthermore, when Pau does make the catch he’s unable to drive by them or back them down without also being bumped off his path (please note, this is not a complaint about the refereeing). All I ask is for someone, anyone, to set a screen for Gasol to give him that extra second to make a catch without a defender draped all over him. Any screen will do. A back screen in Center opposite sets. A cross screen by a cutting wing to bring him to the middle of the key when the strong side post is filled. A rub screen by the guard when Pau makes his catch at the elbow. Any of these actions will work and all of them are basic actions built into the Triangle. I just don’t see the point in telling Pau that the solution to all of his problems are getting lower (to build a stronger base) and working harder. That’s part of the solution, but not all of it. The coaches need to help him help the team.
  • Our old friend Trevor Ariza really hurt the Lakers yesterday. He hit a variety of shots – some unexpected, some not – that really kept the Hornets afloat on offense. And while I understand that a repeat performance isn’t likely, it’s surely possible considering how Trevor did his damage. The Hornets consistently deployed Ariza on the extended wing and had him avoid the short corner. They moved him up high so that in the event that Chris Paul passed him the ball he could either shoot the three in space or attack hard to the middle of the floor to his strong hand. The Lakers wings are going to help off Trevor consistently (as they should) to cut off the lane when Chris Paul drives, but when they recover to Trevor they mustn’t do so in a way that invites the drive. I don’t know about you, but I’m happy to surrender open three pointers to Ariza and make him prove he can get hot like it’s 2009. Yesterday he hit 2 of 3 from deep, but can he hit 5 of 7? The Lakers never made him prove it and instead ran out to him only to see him use his dribble to drive right by the close out. In a game of mostly expert defense from the Lakers, this was one area they needed to be better. Hopefully in game 3 and beyond, they will be.
  • Andrew Bynum’s fantastic game was discussed at length in the recap, but one thing I was especially proud of was his singular focus and lack of moping when things didn’t go his way. On one specific play Bynum posted up hard on the ball side only to see the ball swing back the other direction and go into Gasol instead. Pau lost the ball and the Hornets ended up racing the floor the other direction. In season’s past, Bynum – who did not get the post touch he desired earlier in the possession – might have moped back on D and trailed the play. Instead he busted down court in a full sprint and ended up picking off a cross court pass to a man that was in the corner. Big Drew ran nearly baseline to baseline to grab a steal on a pass that the Hornets only made because they thought it was open. Bynum erased that opening with pure hustle and desire. It was a single play in a series of sloppiness from both sides and likely won’t be remembered by anyone when the playoffs are over. But it stood out to me. Our guy has come a long way in the past 18 months.
  • I’m a believer in statistics and how they can be used to further analyze the game. I respect metrics like PER, on/off stats, pace based efficiency numbers, and all the insight that can be gleaned from them. That said, last night a Laker scored 0 points, grabbed 3 rebounds, handed out 5 assists (to 2 turnovers), had no steals or blocks, but had a major impact on the game. Steve Blake may not have given the Lakers much on the stats page (save for the team high in assists that were a strong tangible contribution), but his organization of the Lakers sets, his ability to involve his teammates on offense, his desire to push the ball up court, and his scrappiness on defense were all key ingredients to the win. I know that for many Blake has not been the guy we’d hoped in terms of numbers provided and stats accumulated. But last night he gave his team a shot in the arm. He made a difference. I’m very happy that he’s back.
  • I’m really hopefull that Shannon Brown can find his stride at some point these playoffs. His good to bad possessions ratio has been steadily moving in the wrong direction and I’d love for him to find a way to reverse the trend. His last couple months of action could be perfectly summed up by the sequence where he sunk a three pointer after a great two man game of post entries and kick outs, only to come down the next possession and jack up an extremely suspect long jumper. Maybe I should stop holding out hope, but I have to think he can find some sort of rhythm to his game this post-season. The Lakers will need him.