Archives For December 2011

Lakers 92, Denver 89 (box score)
Offensive efficiency: Lakers 97.9, Nuggets 94.7
True shooting %: Lakers 51.5%, Nuggets 52.5%

The Good
Andrew Bynum returned and showed exactly why everyone has been pining for him to get back on the floor with this team. He made an immediate impact on the game, showing that his combination and size and skill can the a real difference maker for this team. His numbers – 29 points on 18 shots, 13 rebounds (6 offensive), 2 blocks, and 1 assist – tell part of the story, but not entirely. Obviously the stats are fantastic and proved that in any give game he can carry the load on both ends of the floor by providing real production. On a night where Kobe (17 points on 18 shots) wasn’t sharp with his shot Bynum filled the scoring gap that LA needed to win this game. And in a game where Denver threw out their own super-sized lineup of Nene and Mozgov as their big men, Bynum’s work on the glass kept the Nuggets honest in being able to fully push the ball as he did major work on the offensive glass and made the Nuggs stay in their backcourt securing rebounds.

Beyond the numbers, though, Bynum did what he would ideally do on every night – he put everyone into their normal slots on both ends of the floor by moving Pau to PF and helping the integrity of the defense by allowing guys to pressure the ball a bit more and then protecting the rim with force whenever a Laker was beat off the dribble or if a big man tried to take control of the paint. The domino affect was real as Bynum manned the pivot on both ends, allowing Pau to work the elbows and shallow wing on offense and be a secondary helper on defense. Bynum’s presence also meant that the offense could work more through the post and create better shot distribution across the entire team. Kobe took a few less shots than normal (maybe if his shot was falling he’d have been a bit more aggressive) but Bynum and Gasol combined for 28 shots and worked 18 feet and in most of the night. This put loads of pressure on the interior of the Nuggets defense and allowed the Lakers many open shots from the outside (more on this in a minute).

Overall, for his first game back and with obvious wind issues after his first stretch of minutes, Bynum played about as well as one could hope and showed how he could impact the floor on both ends. If he’s even 80% this good on any given night, the Lakers have added an all-star to their lineup and that’s something any team would love to be able to say after 4 games.

The Bad
In the game preview I mentioned that the Lakers would need to play a deliberate style and not get caught up playing at the Nuggets’ pace. Well, that didn’t happen. At all. The game ended up having 94 possessions which easily ranks as the fastest game the Lakers have played this year. Too often the Lakers took the quick shot rather than being patient and running their sets and it rarely worked out for them. Long jumpers early in the clock fueled Denver run outs and hasty passes that resulted in turnovers did the same. Considering the advantage the Lakers had inside most of the night, going inside more often should have been the plan but the Lakers shunned that advantage to play loose and in the style of their opponent. The Lakers survived the day mostly because the Nuggets were even more mistake prone and couldn’t make enough shots that they’d typically bury, but that’s not a plan the Lakers can depend on nightly – and certainly not tomorrow night when these teams play again in Denver.

The Ugly
After shooting well from the outside against the Knicks, the Lakers fell back into last year’s habits of not being able to hit an outside shot. They only hit 2 0f their 24 attempts from deep (8.3%!!!!!), and some of them weren’t close at all. Blake went 0-6, Kobe 0-5, and Fisher 0-2. Even Kapono only buried 1 of his 4 attempts from distance. Some of this was fluky, of course, but it’s a bit disturbing that even when the guys were getting good looks they couldn’t  seem to find their range. With Bynum back, the Lakers shooters will be tested more than ever as defenses collapse to take away the paint. If they can’t make defenses pay, the ugliness we saw today will be repeated too many times for anyone’s comfort.

The Play of the Game
With the Lakers down two and only two and half minutes remaining, the clock was starting to become an enemy and every possession more valuable. So, with the shot clock running down and a desperation heave forced to be taken, the Lakers looked like they’d have to fight for another stop after the Nuggets secured the ball. But, that never happened as Derek Fisher (the guy who was forced to shoot against the clock in the first place) hustled his tail off to secure the rebound and then call a timeout before the Nuggets could tie him up for a jump ball. The play earned the Lakers another possession which ultimately led to two Kobe Bryant FT’s that tied the game. The Nuggets wouldn’t score again and that possession proved to be the key to LA’s late mini-run that won the game.

Records: Lakers 2-2 (7th in West), Nuggets 2-1 (5th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.4 (11th in NBA), Nuggets 109.4 (4th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 97.3 (6th in NBA), Nuggets 99.5 (10th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Devin Ebanks, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Nuggets: Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, Nene Hillario
Injuries: Lakers: Derrick Caracter (out); Nuggets: none

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers have won two in a row and are starting to find their identity on both sides of the ball. Offensively they’re using motion based sets to get Kobe free all over the court and when he catches the ball, #24 is looking to attack off the dribble and get into the teeth of the defense. This aggression has led to Kobe taking nearly 2 more FT’s a game this season than last. The Lakers are also working to get Gasol the ball in all his key spots and the Spaniard has adapted himself well to Brown’s schemes. Pau is getting touches on the block, putting up efficient numbers when working in the post, and playing a nice all around game so far this season.

Meanwhile on defense, the Lakers are playing an aggressive, physical scheme where challenging shots and playing body on body is the norm. Against the Knicks, this led to a lot of fouls and, subsequently, NY FT’s but it also led to 31% shooting and many jumpers finding iron rather than the bottom the net. The D is still a work in progress in some areas – the back side rotations to shooters in the corner can still be a bit slow – but that’s more a product of personnel than scheme. When Murphy or Kapono or even MWP has to sprint from the paint back to their man in the corner it’s simply a matter of foot speed rather than the limitations of the scheme. Over time these guys can start to anticipate that pass sooner but that will only come with better execution of the Laker big men recovering to the paint after hedging on the P&R.

And speaking of big men, the biggest of the all the Lakers will be back for this contest. Bynum’s 4 game suspension is finally over and the young center is ready to join his guys back on the court. What this means for the team remains to be seen but if his emphasis is still on defense and rebounding while playing to his strengths on offense – working the deep low post, hitting the offensive glass – he’ll be a more than fine. If he shows that he can take that next step on offense by becoming a dependable low post scorer against varying defenses, the Lakers become an extremely dangerous team that can’t be discounted from winning anything. Only time will tell, however.

The Nuggets Coming in: The Nuggs are 2-1 and look to have the potential to be one of the better teams in the west. They’re deep, relatively young, have good shooters, good size, and play hard for coach George Karl.

Coming into the off-season this team had questions about what their roster would look like as both Afflalo and Nene were free agents that were at the top of many teams’ wish lists who had needs on the wing and/or in the pivot. However, with both choosing to stay in Denver, this team now has a the core of a team that could make some real noise in the west – especially in this frenetic, compacted season. Their ability to run teams off the court, substitute en masse, and simply keep coming at opponents in waves can be demoralizing if everyone’s shots are falling.

Nuggets Blogs: Roundball Mining Company is a great site for all your Nuggets news and analysis.

Keys to game: This game will be a battle of styles, and whichever team does the better job of making the other team play out of their comfort zone will likely win.

Denver plays at the fastest pace in the league, pushing the ball at every opportunity. The key to playing this style is the ultra-quick (and fast) Ty Lawson, who zooms up and down the court like his shoes are on fire. Every time Lawson catches the ball he’s a threat to get all the way to the rim by darting through a team’s transition D. The Lakers must be aware of this and recover on D to ensure that Lawson doesn’t single handedly dominate them in the open court. However, the Lakers simply can’t pack the paint in transition to slow Lawson. They must also mark shooters running the floor and recover back to the three point line whenever Afflalo, Gallo, Al Harrington, or Rudy Fernandez are in the game. All of these guys are threats behind the arc and all love to trail behind the play and step into a three pointer with no defenders nearby because the entire D got sucked into the paint. So, LA’s strategy must be to build a wall on D and then fan back out to the perimeter to contain shooters.

LA, meanwhile, plays at the 3rd slowest pace in the league and wants to try and get Denver playing at that tempo. The Lakers’ transition D is one key in this plan, but the other is to continue to play a deliberate style on offense. When you watch this team play you consistently see Mike Brown telling his guys to push the ball and get up court quickly, but notice he’s not telling them to shoot quickly. Brown wants the Lakers getting into their sets fast because he’s running motion based sets with multiple options on each call. Be it a Kobe jumper, a Pau post up, or  a wing P&R between Fisher and McRoberts, all of these actions can be set up on a single play call in a single possession and the Lakers need time to execute the actions. It’s also clear that Brown wants them exploring these derivative sequences rather than simply breaking the play to go into isolation. This type approach has meant the Lakers are racing the court while simultaneously slowing down the action at the same time. Today, they’ll need to execute this style perfectly against a Denver team that will tempt them to fire up quick shots and play fast break basketball.

On a micro level, I’m very interested in two match ups today. First is Kobe vs Afflalo. These two match up quite well as Afflalo’s length and strong defensive instincts have given Kobe problems in the past while his evolving offensive game has often burned Kobe that has all too often gone into “free safety” mode against the former UCLA product. Today, I want to see if Kobe is able to crack the defensive code that Afflalo’s shown him in past games and continue to work 18 feet an in both with his jumper and in getting to the rim where he can either finish or earn foul shots. I also want to see if Mike Brown’s emphasis on defensive accountability means that Kobe can no longer play off his man so much and how much Kobe pressures Afflalo on that end of the floor.

The second match up I’m interested in is Bynum vs. Nene. The big Brazilian just signed a monster contract to stay in Denver and I want to see if he’s doing anything different to try and justify his deal. I’ve always thought highly of Nene on both ends of the floor – he’s a very efficient post scorer that plays within himself and on defense he has very quick feet and active hands that make him great in the P&R – but I’m not sure if his value is as high as his contract is for. Meanwhile this is Bynum’s first game back and I want to see how he matches up getting thrown into the deep end of the pool right away. There are few two way big men better than Nene, so Drew will have his hands full trying to score on him on one end and then stop him on the other. If Bynum can hold his own today, I think that speaks well for where he’s at physically after his suspension and, hopefully, where he’s at mentally in being ready for the season.

Where you can watch: 12:30pm start time on Fox Sports. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

A few days ago, J.M. wrote about how Kobe’s role has been different this season with different personnel and a new coaching staff. Today, we’re going to take a look at the subtle differences in the way Pau has been used so far this season. I think it’s important to note that the changes really have been subtle. I went into Synergy and took a look at how often Pau has been put into various offensive situations, and compared it to last season, and what I found was that Mike Brown has Pau in P&R situations a bit more than Pau was in last season. Conversely, although they’re still the bulk of his work, Pau has been isolated a bit less. If you take a look at the two charts below, you’ll notice that everything else is relatively the same save for a few tenths of percentage points here and there.

What has been interesting to watch with Pau is how Mike Brown has made a few changes to do some of the same things Phil Jackson tried to accomplish with Pau in seasons past (which he was successful with for the most part), and how those subtle changes have affected the other four players on the court with him. In this post, I’m going to be paying special attention to how Brown has found ways to isolate Pau on the block or pinch post and how he’s used him in P&R situations.

With Phil running the Triangle, one of the ways that he freed up Pau on isolation sets was to run the center opposite and have the guard throwing the entry pass clear out by cutting along the baseline. For the most part, this clear out didn’t accomplish much except for creating more space for Pau to operate and to give him the comfort knowing that the double team can only come from one direction, as there were no longer any defenders on the side of the court that he caught the ball. What Mike Brown has done is found a way to create the same kind of isolation, but to give the offense a bit more flexibility. Take a look at this set from early in last night’s game against the Knicks.

I’ll let Darius take it from here: It’s easy to see why he’s scoring more efficiently in the post Lakers are doing a good job of getting Pau into position both by allowing him to move into the empty post on his own when he has a foot speed advantage and can beat his man to the spot and by setting cross screens for him so he can get a step on his man when moving to the post. The Knicks game offered a great example of this on a play where Pau got his first of 5 assists. The Lakers set up with Fisher brining the ball up and Kobe on the left wing. Kobe came up to receive a pass but was denied and Fisher waved him off and Kobe back cut and set a cross screen on Gasol. Fisher continued to the wing, made an on time entry pass to Pau, and then cut off his shoulder to the baseline side. Pau dropped the ball off to Fisher and it was an easy lay up. 

What makes the cross screen so much more effective than just the center opposite sets from the past is two-fold: 1) Pau doesn’t have to fight as hard through defenders to get to his spot as a screen is being set on Pau’s main defender (Tyson Chandler in this case) and 2) with Kobe setting the cross screen and popping out, more eyes are going to be focusing on what Bean is doing on the perimeter in stead of taking away the baseline. The primary help defender, Carmelo Anthony, is looking at Kobe as Derek Fisher starts to make his cut, by the time Fish receives the ball, it’s much too late for Melo to do anything about it. Through these first four games, we’ve seen that cross screen a few times, which has really put Pau in a position to succeed. When isolated, especially on the left block, Pau has the ability to use his full offensive arsenal, and as we highlighted above, can pass very well from that position, too.

This next clip shows how far away Brown has gone from the Triangle, but shows how easy it is to get Pau isolated by using Kobe’s presence on the floor. I’m currently coaching a 4th/5th basketball team, and we run this basic motion set exactly (it just isn’t executed nearly as well, as you can imagine). What we’re going to see is down screens from each wing to its respective block. On the right side of the floor, you have Pau setting a down screen for Kobe, who pops out and receives the pass from Fisher. After Fish makes the pass, he clears to the opposite corner, which clears away the right side of the floor for a two-man game between the Lakers’ two best offensive options.

As soon as Kobe pops out from the screen, Pau is immediately battling for position with his defender (Enes Kanter in this situation). As soon as Pau catches the ball, the weak side wing defender (C.J. Miles) immediately comes to help, which gives Devin Ebanks a clear slashing lane should Pau want to get rid of the ball, and suck in Fisher’s defender, allowing for a wide-open three. In this case, Pau knows where the help is coming from, gives him a pump fake and finishes over Kanter for the easy bucket.

What I’ve noticed in these first few games is that Brown likes tons of movement in his offense. Save for a few possessions where Kobe has held the ball for much too long, he’s had guys, and the ball, in constant movement for the most part. Evidence of this is his utilization of Pau in P&R sets.

In this clip, Pau is trailing Fish as he brings the ball up the court and catches the ball at the top. Fish sets a down screen for Kobe, who takes the ball from Pau and initiates the offense. Pau moves to clear out, but comes back to catch a pass just a bit outside of his range. Instead of Kobe standing and calling for the ball, he sets up his defender going to the left and receives a hand off from Pau, which doubles as a screen back at the top of the perimeter. After the hand off, Pau immediately cuts to the basket as his defender helps on Kobe while the primary defender recovers. The result is a wide-open Pau who finishes in the lane.

These types of plays don’t just get the Lakers easy buckets, but also set the defense up for situations in which they can alternative easy buckets later in the game. As J.M. points out,

Pau’s been a bit more active in the last two games and has showed more confidence in his game and also a willingness to go down on the block to post up and attack his defender.

The end result is that he’s a much more willing and aggressive participant in the P&R now. As opposed to just going pick and pop, he now seems more intent on catching the ball on the move instead of merely being static and waiting for the ball for a jump shot.

His aggressiveness has meant that defenses have titled their weak side help a little more towards him, thus leaving a player on the back end uncovered. This will help create open shots (Pau is good at finding open players on the catch and has no problem deferring to them).

We saw an illustration of this last night as Kobe ran the P&R a few times early in the game (results were a kick-out made three-pointer and a missed dunk). In the third quarter, Pau came up to set another screen for Kobe, but slipped the screen instead of setting the pick, which resulted in the easiest basket of Gasol’s night.

Tomorrow night, the Lakers are going to face a very good Nuggets team, and Pau’s play is going to be a key factor in how well the Lakers fare. What I’ll be keeping an eye on is how much these things change with Andrew Bynum seeing his first game time of this regular season. It’ll certainly clear Pau up for a few more offensive rebounding opportunities, and might give him the opportunity to work a bit more from the pinch post, which I feel is the second most comfortable spot on the floor for Gasol outside of the left block. However Brown intends to incorporate Bynum, I think it’s important for Pau to continue to receive similar touches as the season progresses. The cross screens and the basic motion offense haven’t just worked well for Pau (more in the last two games than the first two), but a lot of the role players have responded well to the constant player and ball movement.

Friday Forum

Dave Murphy —  December 30, 2011

It’s about time we had a fun team again. I don’t mean fun in the ‘we got all the rings’ sense, but more in the way of plain enjoyment. Rough around the edges sure, but that’s part of the appeal – this squad reminds me of the old hockey comedy Slapshot. I’m not quite sure how to describe the sight of Mamba advancing down the court followed by four gangly white teammates, running their asses off to keep up and often rewarded for their hustle with a dish for a trey. The only thing missing is the mighty Medvedenko. Without further ado, here’s some other takes on last night’s game:

Andy Kamenetzky at the Land O’Lakers writes that bro Brian likens Josh McRoberts to a former Laker fan favorite: Like Ronny, McRoberts never stops moving, which creates both an infectious hustle throughout the team, along with opportunities for himself. Whether cutting to the cup for a slick bounce pass from Kobe or an alley oop from Blake (McBob City!!!), good things came for those who don’t sit around and wait. Like Ronny, McRoberts is more of a disruptive defender than a true lockdown artist, but that vigor can go a long way when applied relentlessly. Like Ronny, he’s got a flair for big swats, his most emphatic coming at the expense of Amare Stoudemire along the baseline. And like Ronny, he moves the ball well for a big man, allowing him to take part in creating baskets even if he’s not doling out the actual assist.

Dexter Fishmore at Silver Screen and Roll: It’s possible we’ll look back on this game and think of it as no big deal. Consider the opponent. These Knicks.. I just don’t know, amigos. I bought most of their hype and have thought they were a potential four seed in the East, but they’ve now looked awful in two straight. Tonight in losing to the Lakers 82 to 99, they were lazy and confused and just a raggedy-ass operation. The Knicks might be a bad team for a while, in which case tonight’s game might seem in time like the routine braining of a noncontender. If we do have that reaction it’ll be good news, because it’ll mean the Lakers have turned into the beasts we hoped they could become and we’re once again grading them on a curve befitting title aspirants. Tonight’s performance tantalized with a glimpse. After an unsightly-but-we’ll-take-it win over Utah, the Lakers gave us a pretty one over the Knicks, whom they ground into powder. Still without Andrew Bynum, serving the last of his four-game sentence, they brought that Mike Brown Thump on D and played one brilliant half of offense. Regardless of whether the Knicks are frauds, this was invigorating stuff.

Wondahbap at Silver Screen and Roll: Did you hear it or feel it? “It” being that collective sigh of relief coming from Lakerland. Those of you that didn’t panic after the Kings game, you heard it. Those of you exhaling, are you feeling a little better today? Through their Andrew Bynum-less four game start, the Lakers have given us something to look forward to. They shoulda coulda woulda beat a contending Chicago Bulls team in an opening night loss, made it close in Sacramento in the second game of a back-to-back, then absolutely stomped the Jazz in the third game of a back-to-back set. A game most figured would have the Lakers on E, especially given that the Jazz are fairly young and it was their first game. Next they come back, and wax the Knicks a mere two days later. Are we sure these Lakers are supposed to be old and slow?

Ben Bolch at the L.A. Times writes about the bench play: Instead of Bryant, Gasol and Fisher, the names that mattered most in the fourth quarter Thursday night at Staples Center were Blake, Barnes and Murphy. Gut-check time became name-check time for the Lakers when their reserves helped secure a 99-82 victory over the New York Knicks. Steve Blake hit a pair of three-pointers. Matt Barnes added a dunk and a three-pointer. Troy Murphy grabbed five rebounds. The Lakers’ bench accounted for 15 of the team’s 19 points in the fourth quarter, thwarting the Knicks’ comeback bid. All told, the reserves combined for 40 points, with Blake collecting 11 and Metta World Peace and Jason Kapono adding nine apiece. “I need a calculator to add up all the points we had from our bench,” Lakers Coach Mike Brown said, “and for me, that’s extremely exciting, especially in a shortened season.”

Mark Medina at the L.A. Times Lakers blog: This was a field day for Kobe Bryant. He said he felt so healthy he didn’t need to wear a sleeve to cover his surgically repaired right knee. The Knicks’ defense also appeared so lax that this served as nothing more than Bryant’s personal playground. In the Lakers’ 99-82 victory Thursday night over the New York Knicks, Bryant’s 28 points on 10-of-17 shooting and six assists reflected both his explosiveness and great court vision. On one play, Bryant drove into the lane and faded back for a baseline jumper over a defenseless Amare Stoudemire. On another, Bryant eyed forward Josh McRoberts cutting to the basket and fed him a crisp bounce pass. On another, Bryant converted off a catch-and-shoot play from Devin Ebanks and sank a three-pointer. On another, Bryant performed a cross-over on Carmelo Anthony as he drove right, cut back and hoisted a Dirk Nowitzki-type one-legged fadeaway. And on another, Bryant banked in a long three-pointer while drawing a foul on Renaldo Balkman for the four-point play. For all the injury concerns facing Bryant, it appears they’re not an issue. At least for now.

Joey Whelan at Hoopspeak had this to say about Kobe, prior to the game: Kobe Bryant has been nothing if not stubborn. His tendency to dominate the ball and force the issue – even as his physical limitations have become more pronounced with age – has been discussed ad nauseum. Last year was the first time in several seasons that the Lakers star was primarily healthy, and it showed in his efficiency numbers. But health wasn’t the only important factor, Bryant also showed he is willing to change his game as his explosiveness decreases. Nowhere was this more evident than in his performance shooting off the dribble – a celebrated staple of his game.

Daniel Buerge (LakersNation) in the OC Lakers blog: Last night’s win over the New York Knicks was impressive in many different ways. Most analysts will spend today talking about what the team did on the floor that led them to their first winning streak of the season. But, there was one telling moment in the second half that really helped summarize what this Lakers team is turning into. After forward Josh McRoberts slammed home an emphatic dunk there was a brief moment when the television cameras focused on Kobe Bryant, who was on the bench at the time. Bryant had a stunned look of amazement before simply chuckling to himself and applauding the play. So, what does this mean? The Lakers are beginning to believe in each other.


A lot of different views with some obvious commonality – Kobe Bryant was on his game last night, the bench play was inspired, and Mike Brown is liking it. We’re only four games into a shortened season and it’s hard to form any big picture for the league on whole – teams seem to be playing great one night, not so great the next. The Lakers may have missed out on the CP3 sweepstakes (thanks again, Mr. Stern), but hey, we got McBobs, Murphy, Kapono and the ever-active Metta World Peace. Andrew Bynum will be back for tomorrow’s game against Denver. Expect the structure to become a bit more inside-out focused. Expect the kinetic energy to remain the same. Who knew, Los Angeles? We got us a lunch bucket gang!

– Dave Murphy

Trying out a new, quicker, and easier to digest format for the recap tonight. Feedback is welcomed. Thanks.

The Good
The Laker defense continues to find its stride and showing that its top 10 ranking after 3 games may not be a fluke. Tonight they held the Knicks to 31.3% shooting (21-67) and an offensive rating of 94.3. Those are both stellar numbers and show that the team is finally starting to click on that end of the floor. On many possessions the Lakers moved as a unit, rotating crisply in order to run players off the three point line and/or contest jumpers when a Knick did have enough space to get a shot off.

Particularly impressive was the defense the Lakers played on Amare Stoudemire, holding the all-star big man to 15 points on 4-17 shooting. Gasol was matched up with Amare for most of the night and the big Spaniard deserves a load of credit as he tempted Amare to take jumpers, stayed in front of him when did attack off the dribble, and contested every shot taken. Pau drew a couple of charges, picked up a couple of blocked shots, and wasn’t afraid of using his fouls when he had to. So, even on a night where Melo got his, the other big offensive weapon for the Knicks never got off and that played a big part in the Lakers getting the win.

The Bad
With the Lakers’ aggressive D, however, came a penchant for fouling. The Knicks shot 41 FTs on the night and converted 34 of them (83%). In a the first half, the Lakers controlled nearly every aspect of the game but found themselves up only 12, mostly due to the fact that the Knicks were hitting their freebies to keep them in it. After the 3rd quarter, the Knicks were only down 8 mostly due to the same reason.  I’m all for the Lakers playing a physical brand of D. I think bodying players off the ball, fighting through screens, protecting the rim, and not conceding any space is a great way to condition your opponent and the refs how you intend to play on any given night. That said, it’s also imperative that you don’t simply hand the other team free points by putting them at the foul line excessively. Tonight I thought the Lakers did a good job of playing the style they wanted, but didn’t do a good job of backing off when they needed, keeping the game closer than it needed to be for longer than it needed to be.

The Ugly
Normally it’s the Lakers that have the biggest PG issues in a match up but tonight that wasn’t the case. No, Fisher didn’t play that well (2-7 FGs, 5 points, 1 assist, 2 turnovers) but Blake did a good job in relief with 11 points on 9 shots (including 3-5 from deep) while tallying 3 assists, and posted a +17 on the night. Meanwhile, the Knick PGs were pretty awful. Toney Douglas and Mike Bibby combined to score 7 points on 3-12 shooting while missing all 7 of their three point attempts. Their one redeeming quality was that they were okay as “playmakers,” as Douglass had 5 assists while also being careful with the ball (1 turnover combined), but when you consider how important PG play is to Mike D’Antoni’s system, their play was a pretty big hole the entire night. It’s crazy how much this team needs Baron Davis right now as he’s simply a better play maker from that spot than anyone on their roster. (Re-read that last sentence again.

The Play of the Game
The clock was winding down and Steve Blake, with few options, passed the ball to Kobe for a bail out jumper. The rest was simply Kobe making something out of nothing the way he has so many times before (h/t to @jose3030 for the clip):

Records: Lakers 1-2 (9th in the West), Knicks 1-1 (9th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 104.6 (13th in NBA), Knicks 100.1 (20th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 98.8 (7th in NBA), Knicks 106.7 (22nd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Devin Ebanks, Josh McRoberts, Pau Gasol
Knicks: Toney Douglas, Landry Fields, Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler
Injuries: Lakers: Derrick Caracter (out), Matt Barnes (questionable); Knicks: Baron Davis (out), Iman Shumpert (out), Jared Jeffries (out)

The Lakers Coming in: It took three games, but the Lakers finally got their first win of the season in their last contest. Coming off a day’s rest, here’s hoping the team can carry over some of the positives from the Jazz game and continue to cut down on the negatives that plagued them in the losses vs. the Bulls and Kings.

We’re already starting to see improvement in how well the Lakers take care of the ball (committing only 20 turnovers combined in the last two games after posting 17 against Chicago) and in playing defense for full possessions by better closing out on shooters and then finishing with defensive rebounds. That said, the Utah game was only one contest and the Lakers must carry over these good habits tonight if they hope to beat a motivated Knicks team.

The Knicks Coming in: And the Knicks will be motivated after the loss they endured to the Warriors last night. The Knicks were able to keep the contest close (even lead for a good portion of the game) until the Warriors’ defense picked up its intensity and Monta Ellis went into full playmaker mode in the 4th quarter, dishing out assists while also getting his own shot to fall. The Knicks simply couldn’t deal with his speed turning the corner and his ability to break down the defense had the Knicks scrambling around to the point that they gave up a few too many jumpers.

Beyond just last night’s game, though, the team we’ll see tonight is a bit different than the one from last year. Gone is Billups and in is Tyson Chandler. The draft yielded a promising young guard many NY fans are high on (Iman Shumpert), but he’s now sidelined with a knee injury. The Knicks have added Mike Bibby and Baron Davis to try and replace what Chauncey brought them but Bibby hasn’t yet shown he’s any better than the player the Heat happily let walk and Baron is still on the shelf with his bad back. This leaves guys like Bill Walker and Steve Novak earning minutes and while their both role players with skills that can help a team, they’ve not exactly top level depth. We’ll see what this team is capable of once all the parts are healthy and clicking, but that time is not yet now and the team will simply have to take its lumps until it is.

Knicks Blogs: There are several excellent Knicks sites to get great info. Knickerblogger and Posting & Toasting are the two places to start, though.

Keys to game: The Knicks have reorganized their team in the hopes of establishing more of a defensive mindset. With Tyson Chandler anchoring the pivot, scoring in the paint against this team got more treacherous. Running Center based P&R’s is also more difficult, what with Tyson’s foot speed and long arms disrupting driving lanes and passing angles whenever the ball handler tries to turn the corner.

So, the Lakers will need to subtly tweak their offensive sets to better attack the Knicks. While running the P&R shouldn’t be abandoned, it should be run more in doses and at defenders not named Chandler. I expect Amare to start out on McRoberts so LA may be better served running this action with Josh setting the initial screen on Kobe’s man. This would let McRoberts to dive hard to the rim while Gasol circles back to the elbow area to make himself available as an outlet should Kobe get trapped or the dive man is taken away. This will allow Pau to set up for his elbow jumper or to take one dribble to get to the rim and/or turn his back to set up one of his many post moves.

The Lakers should also continue to run their screen actions to free up Kobe at the elbow/top of the key area(s) in order to get him his shots in these preferred spots. Allowing Kobe to make his catches in these areas will also set him up well to unleash is triple threat arsenal on Fields where he can easily get off his jumper or use his variety of jab steps to free him up to get to the rim. These sets will work especially well whenever Murphy and Gasol are on the court as these are the bigs that provide the best spacing and draw their defenders away from the rim for Kobe to more easily get to the basket.

Defensively the Lakers have a tall task in front of them but it will be different than what other Mike D’Antoni units have offered up. In order to secure Chandler, the Knicks had to give up Chauncey Billups and his departure has weakened the Knicks’ P&R game. They use Melo as the creator in these sets more often now – and he’s proven to be a good passer when handling in the P&R – but it’s obvious that Anthony is still most comfortable isolated on the wing where he can use his own triple threat set up to abuse defenders. The diverse ways in which the Knicks use Melo will put a lot of pressure on Ebanks as he’ll need to navigate screens both in the P&R and off ball, work on an island on the wing, and battle in the post against the brutish Anthony. If the 2nd year pro isn’t up to the task, don’t be surprised if MWP makes an early appearance to battle Melo as these two have an extensive history.

Slowing Amare will also be key but he, more than any other holdover Knick, has suffered from the Knicks’ P&R game not being as sharp. Stoudemire is still getting his numbers with relatively good efficiency (18.5 points on 52% shooting) but he’s not yet put up the types of stats that had him mentioned among MVP candidates for long stretches last season. This is likely because he’s shooting a few more jumpers this year than last as he finds himself making catches further away from the hoop and settling for more jumpers. Last night against the Warriors, Amare often floated around the perimeter and served as an outlet when plays broke down and it resulted in him taking long two’s. Maybe tonight he’ll be more aggressive, but I hope the Lakers lay off him and encourage him to flash the range on his jumper. If he buries them, tip your cap and change ends. If he misses, you’ve kept one of the more explosive finishers in the league outside the paint for another possession.

Lastly, I’d like to see the Lakers continue their strong work on the glass. They’ve won or tied the rebounding battle in every game so far and you can see there’s more of a concerted effort to hit the defensive glass by all 5 players. The guards are doing a better job of closing down the foul line and the bigs (for the most part) are attacking the ball when it comes off the rim. That effort will need to continue tonight as Amare and Chandler are two active bodies that will go after offensive rebounds and Melo is one of the strongest SF’s in the game, thus making him very difficult to move out of the lane when he goes to the O-glass. LA will need to keep these three off the glass and the guards will need to make sure that they both help down but not too far so as to give up long rebounds when the Knicks miss three pointers.

Overall, the Lakers need this game to build some momentum moving forward. Bynum will be back in the next contest and bringing him into the fold with a .500 record would be worlds better than this team being 1-3. It’s early yet, of course, but with a shortened season, this team doesn’t want to start in too big a hole.

Where you can watch: 7:30 start time on TNT. Also listen at ESPN Radion 710AM.

Prior to the start of the NBA season, FB&G asked how Lamar Odom’s absence would impact Kobe Bryant’s role with the Lakers this season. Given that Odom was good at initiating some of the offense on his own, it not only alleviated Kobe of some playmaking responsibilities, but it also allowed him to place more emphasis on his own scoring opportunities. Emile Avanaessian shared this nugget at the time:

An unintended benefit of the lockout is that it provided Kobe Bryant with a greater opportunity to rest his achy knees (and whatever else is sore) than he’s had in some time. Odom’s departure totally negates that. Now Kobe must not only navigate his body through a brutal schedule, he will be called upon to do so as the Lakers’ only creator on offense.”

And we are now seeing this manifest itself in the Lakers offense. Steve Blake is a good ballhandler but not an adept playmaker while Derek Fisher is a reputed big shot taker (and he makes them too) but needs others to create opportunities for him. Darius Morris may be young and inexperienced, but he did show the ability to create some scoring plays for himself off the dribble in the preseason. The one problem though, he seemed far more enamored with shooting the ball himself than dishing it off to his teammates.

The end result? Through three games, Kobe Bryant has an astounding usage rate (an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor) of 39.1 percent. Consider this, the single greatest usage figure in the history of the NBA belongs to none other than Kobe Bryant. He achieved the figure of 38.74 percent during the 2005-06 season, when the Los Angeles Lakers finished with a 45-37 record. And as of right now, he is surpassing that.

The Lakers could almost live with that figure if Kobe was a point guard or a player in his prime; but as the team’s aging primary scorer, the burden on the star’s shoulders is far too heavy. Consequently, the Lakers’ season could go in one out of three different ways:
1. Mike Brown could ride this out until the end of the season. With Bynum set to return shortly from his suspension, it should alleviate some of the ballhandling duties from the Black Mamba since the ball will be going down low to ‘Drew who will occasionally draw double teams and kick it out to shooters for open looks.
2. The Lakers take their early lumps with Darius Morris and hope that he figures out the offense, his teammates and the pace of the game as the Lakers morph into a dangerous playoff team late in the season.
3. Mitch Kupchak uses the trade exception acquired in the Odom trade to bring in Ramon Sessions, Mo Williams, T.J. Ford, J.J. Barea, Jordan Farmar (I’m kidding), or Jose Calderon (completely unrelated but still relevant: Andre Iguodala would look great with this Lakers team) to help the team in the dribble penetration department.

The only problem with the third scenario at this point is that the Lakers may be clinging to the possibility that they have an opportunity to acquire Dwight Howard at some point around the March 15 trade deadline; thus it complicates matters a little given that the team will probably need all the assets in can muster to make an enticing trade proposal to Otis Smith and the Orlando Magic. Although given Smith’s track record as a GM, I would probably low ball him from now until late January and then make a semi-decent proposal and hope he feels overwhelmed. Just remember, the Magic gave Rashard Lewis a contract nearly on par with Kobe’s current one.

Given that Mike Brown is still figuring this team out, it seems as though the most likely scenario at this point may well be that he rides this thing out and hops on Kobe Bryant’s back along with Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher. Through three games, the Lakers are 1-2 but just as well could have been 2-1 if not for the debacle against the Chicago Bulls.

A lot of times, it’s easy to get lost in a narrow view of the season as opposed to stepping back and looking at the big picture. With Andrew Bynum set to return after the Thursday night game against the New York Knicks, we should get a clearer picture of what to expect from the Los Angeles Lakers for the remainder of the season.

Nonetheless, with Kobe nursing a wrist injury and carrying the load like no other player has ever done before in league history, one should pay close attention to how the team fares with and without their starting center. If for whatever reason the former league MVP is still asked or takes it upon himself to do the heavy lifting, Mitch Kupchak may well have to intervene by tweaking the roster for the sake of salvaging Kobe Bryant’s season.

The last thing the purple and gold and its fans want, is a spent Kobe Bryant by the time the playoffs roll around.

Once again, eyes on the big picture.

Wednesday Storylines

Dave Murphy —  December 28, 2011

Three games in three nights. Everyone said it would be a tough test for an older team. Or, for an older team with a new head coach and staff, a shortened training camp and the loss of its 6th man of the year. Plus, new roster additions in the form of late second-round draft picks and journeymen role players. Not to mention torn wrist ligaments for the team’s superstar, and no Andrew Bynum due to suspension. Casual, right?

Christmas Day showed gutty if sloppy resolve. Monday was just a mess. Last night was the first “must-win” of the season and the Lakers came through with a blowout, a markedly sharper performance on a night when they should have been playing on dead legs. If there’s a singular storyline so far, it’s that we’re in wholly unfamiliar territory but we’ll gladly take our first win.

At ESPN’s Land O’Lakers, Brian Kamenetzky details five takeaways for last night’s game, including Pau Gasol’s best game of the still young season.

C.A. Clark at Silver Screen and Roll, points out the many ways things could have gone south for the Lakers, and how the basketball gods instead, frowned on the Jazz.

Chris Sheridan at Sheridan Hoops, writes about the calming breeze, now originating from Los Angeles.

Mike Bresnahan at the L.A. Times, logs the first Staples Center “we want World Peace!” chant.

Also at the Times, Mark Medina from the Lakers blog, points out Kobe’s balancing act – being aggressive at the basket and still getting teammates involved.

Kevin Ding of the OC Register relays Kobe’s assertion that they ‘shoulda won all three’ and that it’ll take some time to break themselves of Phil Jackson-engrained habits.

Over at ProBasketballTalk, Kurt Helin delves a bit deeper into the ‘shoulda’ assertion.

Three losses in a row would have brought out the sharp knives. Observers were beginning to gather and shuffle around before last night’s win. They’ll be tracking the new-look Lakers throughout the season, it’s the nature of the beast. Mike Brown’s candor and determination for accountability have served him well so far. Still, it’s about wins and expectations in Los Angeles and now the Lakers have to do it again against the Knicks, on Thursday night.

– Dave Murphy