Archives For February 2012

Kobe’s First All-Star Game

Darius Soriano —  February 25, 2012

Tomorrow night, Kobe Bryant will suit up in his 14th consecutive all-star game (all as a starter). Sort of amazing to think it’s been that long since he made his first start back in 1998. Also crazy to think that back in that game, the NBA went with players wearing their own team uniforms rather than special all-star ones. Anyways, here’s a look back at that fateful day when Kobe made his first appearance as a starter when he didn’t even start for the Lakers and was in a full on duel with Michael Jordan (one that Jordan won handily, earning his 3rd MVP in the process). Enjoy.

Bits and Pieces

Dave Murphy —  February 24, 2012

I personally would have stuck with the power game in the third quarter last night but what do I know? Regardless, the Lakers split the mini road trip with a win against Dallas and a loss to OKC. I’ll go with the half-full glass, heading into the gathering of stars. Let’s hope the team and organization come back from the break focused, and free from all possible distractions. When diamond rainbow unicorns roam the earth.

From brilliance to carelessness, Helene Elliott at the L.A. Times, writes about the Lakers, sliding into the All-Star break.

Mike Bresnahan at the Times says the team looks fairly fatigued heading into the break. This is shocking news.

Completing our LAT trifecta, Mark Medina gives us five things to take away from last night’s loss.

Andrew Bynum will get an oil change on his right knee, so says Kevin Ding at the OC Register.

Ian Thomsen at Sports Illustrated looks at Coach Mike Brown’s growing pains.

Undressed by the best in the west is how Dexter Fishmore at Silver Screen and Roll describes last night’s loss.

Dave McMenamin at ESPN writes about Sam Presti and the art of burning CDs for Coach Mike Brown.

Kurt Helin at ProBasketballTalk looks at last night’s Lakers/OKC game as a changing of the guard.

Nothing to do with our beloved Lakers but Eric Freeman at Ball Don’t Lie reports that J.R. Smith was fined more than $1 million (about a third of his salary), for missing some practices in China. So… there’s that.

And finally, I can’t resist Matt Moore’s sublime article for CBS Sports, about LeBron’s penchant for having his steak cut up for him at restaurants.

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There’s bound to be plenty more news around the cyber universe but after the last link, I really have no desire to proceed further. Enjoy your weekend, sports fans.

– Dave Murphy

Box Score: Lakers 85, Thunder 100
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 81.7, Thunder 96.2
True Shooting %: Lakers 51.2%, Thunder 60.6%

THE GOOD
The Lakers came out with a concerted effort on the defensive end of the floor, rotating well and defending the pick and roll as good as I’ve seen them in the last few seasons. Guards were fighting through screens while bigs were hedging and recovering back to their men before Russell Westbrook could turn the corner or hit the cutting big. Westbrook struggled early, shooting three-for-eight in the first half with the credit going to the team working together as a cohesive unit instead of allowing Derek Fisher and Steve Blake to try and defend them on an island. Also, the Lakers were ending their defensive possessions with rebounds, not giving up second chance points (only two in the first half). On the offensive end, they had some nice moments with Kobe playing off the ball, but didn’t really put in an effort to maintain that strategy (more on this later).

THE BAD
It looked as if the Lakers were going into the half with all the momentum, they were on a 7-1 run before Russell Westbrook knocked down a three pointer with eight-tenths of a second left to play. On the ensuing inbound, Andrew Bynum carelessly threw it in to Kevin Durant, who knocked down a jumper on the baseline as the time expired. Five points in .08 seconds gave the Thunder the lead and a huge momentum boost aided by the ruckus crowd. The third quarter saw the Thunder getting out on the run as the Lakers turned the ball over and missed four three-pointers, which led to long rebounds and open floor for the spry Thunder legs. Also, they had no answer for Kevin Durant for much of the game. Durant finished with 33 points on 54 percent shooting and six assists, and four rebounds.

THE MISSED SHOTS
The Lakers missed a lot of shots, and a lot of them that didn’t need to be taken. For the second straight night, Kobe took some ill-advised shots. Tonight, Bean shot seven-for-24, with a lot of those shots being off of contested jumpers and shots off the dribble. Kobe looked his best, as he has for much of the season, catching and shooting off of curls and screens or driving to the basket and finishing around the rim. Kobe had a little success on coming off the ball early in the first, but went away from trusting other ball handlers and took it upon himself to create his own shot. Granted, there were at least three possessions that saw Kobe with his head up looking for a teammate with no one else on the offense moving — forcing him to throw up a jump shot. But for the most part, Kobe was trying to force the issue himself, and it’s a huge reason why the Lakers struggled so much in the 2nd half. Kobe wasn’t the only one who struggled to shoot the ball, though. Andrew Bynum’s legs looked dead from the start of this game. He had a lot of good looks, but he didn’t have any lift on those little jump hooks he hit regularly against Dallas just a night ago. All in all, the Lakers just didn’t shoot the ball well. They weren’t horrible on the defensive end, per se, but their inability to put the ball through the hoop really took some of the wind out of their intensity of that end of the ball.

The Lakers will go into the All-Star break with a 20-14 record and 2nd in the Pacific Division.

Tonight, we saw one contender, and one team that is scratching and clawing to try and be one but simply isn’t there right now. The result was a 100-85 loss by the Lakers in a game that saw them hold their own for as long as they could before finally succumbing to the speed, athleticism, and overall talent of the best team in the Western conference.

In many ways, there’s no shame in what occurred in this contest. The Thunder, even though they’re banged up, are clearly the better team. Their defense is one that utilizes rugged, long, and shot-blocking big men flanked by fleet, long, and rangy perimeter players. This combination led to tough sledding any time a Laker found himself with a shot in the paint, as shot blockers stood tall and jumped high to contest shots from every angle. It also meant every time the Lakers swung the ball around the perimeter, the quickness and length of the Thunder wings enabled them to rotate, run people off their preferred shots, or contest the ones that were taken. The end result was a 38.5% shooting night from the Lakers, including a 7-24 night from Kobe and a 5-15 night from Bynum.

The Thunder, meanwhile, did what they do on offense to every opponent they face. They put the ball in the hands of their three playmakers and told them to either go get their own shot or create a look for a teammate. Russell Westbrook only hit 6 of his 17 attempts from the field, but his aggression kept the Lakers’ defense on its heels all night. He attacked off the bounce like he was shot out of a cannon and either got all the way to the rim to earn FT attempts or stopped on a dime to shoot his ever improving pull-up jumper. When he wasn’t working in isolation, he used the P&R to collapse the Laker defense and free up Serge Ibaka for several makeable mid-range jumpers.

And when Russ wasn’t attacking, Kevin Durant was, flashing his efficiency and remarkable skill in the process. Though Ron was able to body Durant early in the game and disrupt his rhythm by crowding his dribble and forcing a few turnovers, it wasn’t nearly enough to knock him completely off track. Durant, not fazed by any defense these days, simply kept taking what the defense gave him and showing why he’s one of, if not the most gifted scorers in the league. When he couldn’t get into the paint, he’d rain a step back jumper. When he did get a step on his man but found a big contesting, he’d scoop up a shot under the arm of the shot blocker or flip up a floater before the big could fully step up. There are certainly many capable scorers in the game today (Kobe, LeBron, Carmelo, to name a few) but there isn’t a more natural bucket getter than the young Thunder forward. He’d finish the night with a game high 33 points on 12-22 shooting and most of it looked effortless.

And then, of course, there was OKC’s super sub James Harden. The beard would pour in 16 points on only 10 shots, using his natural understanding of pace and angles to find cracks in the Laker D and worm his way to the basket. As mentioned in the game preview (and by David Thorpe countless times), Harden reminds us of Manu Ginobili the way he can hurt an opponent off the bounce and with his jumper, and tonight the Lakers saw the evidence first hand.

As much as OKC deserves their praise – and this win – the Lakers shouldn’t be buried here. For the better part of two and half quarters, the Lakers held tight in this game despite the troubles of Kobe and Bynum. This team battled defensively, worked the glass, and hit timely shots to hang tough. The Thunder are such an explosive team, but the Lakers did well to close down the paint and contest every jumper, making it quite difficult for OKC to find that comfort zone that they so often tap early into early when playing at home.  On an individual level, Pau Gasol continued his strong play of late by scoring 22 points on only 14 shots while chipping in 9 rebounds and 3 assists. He took, and knocked down, the open jumpers that were there for him and also did some good work in the post (though he was clearly more effective shooting his elbow jumper). Ron also had a decent night offensively, hitting three 3-pointers for his 9 points on the night while also playing strong D (even though, as mentioned earlier, Durant was still able to hit some amazing shots).

Outside of those two, however, the only other Laker to hit even half his shots was Steve Blake (3-5 for 8 points) and that simply will not get it done. Not against a Thunder team that’s only lost one game at home; not against the team that’s the class of the conference. This contest showed that the Lakers don’t have the horses to keep pace with this team right now and while that’s not necessarily a surprise, it does crystallize their position at this time. The Lakers ultimately tired as a team and couldn’t keep pace with a young and athletic Thunder team that looked like they could have played 20 more minutes if they had to (and this, just as it was for the Lakers, was on the 2nd night of a back to back).

What this game also showed me, though, is that the Lakers need a rest. The first half of this season has been a grueling test of physical resolve for all teams, but that’s especially been the case for the Lakers. Their Big Three log heavy minutes and Kobe, especially, has looked gassed these last two contests — shooting flat jumpers and showing little explosiveness when working off the dribble. In addition, this has been a mentally taxing campaign. From learning new schemes on the fly, to the trade rumors, to the statements to and from the front office, the Lakers have spent as much mental currency as physical up to this point of the season. And while they’ve done a very good job of compartmentalizing and in some cases even using the drama to fuel them forward, a break is welcome.

So now, while this loss may fester for a day or two, it’s time to recharge. Yes, Kobe and Andrew are going to Orlando for the all-star festivities, but they all get to step away for a few days. And while there still may be change on the horizon, that stuff can wait until next week and into the middle of next month.

Records: Lakers 20-13 (5th in West), Thunder 26-7 (1st in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.3 (15th in NBA), Thunder 108.9 (2nd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.7 (11th in NBA), Thunder 102.4 (14th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Thunder: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Daequan Cook
Injuries: Lakers: none; Thunder: Nick Collison (questionable), Thabo Sefolosha (out), Eric Maynor (out for the season)

The Lakers Coming In: As Darius pointed out yesterday, on the floor the Lakers have fared pretty well of late, and will be looking to kick off All Star Weekend with what would be their biggest victory of the season.

Not coincidentally, the bigs are in great form, with Andrew Bynum averaging 16.1 (on 56.3%), 13.9 rebounds, 2.3 blocked shots and just two personal fouls per game in February, while Pau Gasol has averaged 17.9 and 13.1, while connecting on 47% of his field goal attempts. Kobe continues to be Kobe, delivering roughly 26- 5- 4 this month, though he’s struggled with his shot, as evidenced by field goal and free throw percentages of just 40.6% and 79% (compared with his season averages of 43.9% and 82.5%, respectively). And the bench – deservedly much-maligned all season – has been not-atrocious (small victories, people), led by Matt Barnes (8.5 points, 5.8 rebounds in his last 8 games) and Steve Blake, who’s recorded 3+ assists in 6 of his last 7, the lone exception being his 5-triple, 17-point outburst against Portland Monday night.

However, as Darius also pointed out yesterday, the Lakers’ recent run of solid form is not the main story swirling around this team. If it’s not one with this team, it’s sure to be another. Between The Veto, the charitable contribution of Lamar Odom to the Dallas Mavericks Repeat Fund, incessant Dwight chatter, Kobe’s divorce and Metta’s media squabbling with Mike Brown, there’s arguably been more to monitor off the floor with these guys than there has on it. And now we have the latest episode of The Adventures of Team Turmoil.

An ugly, remnant of December’s near-acquisition of Chris Paul (y’know, other than the lack of a point guard worthy of NBA starter status), the Lakers’ desire (or lack thereof) to part ways with Pau Gasol – and everyone’s thoughts on the matter –are the hot topic du jour. However, as speculation about the Lakers’ need (and preparedness) to make a major move have ramped up, a more troubling issue seems to be simmering just beneath the surface – the Lakers’ front office, once the NBA’s paragon of stability and leadership, has begun to more closely resemble Gob Bluth’s gaming ship, anchored to past greatness only by an increasingly embattled Mitch Kupchak.

We know for a fact that the Lakers are willing to surrender Pau Gasol in exchange for a young franchise cornerstone. We also know that Pau, one of the league’s top 15 players and arguably its most skilled big man, always the consummate professional, is at least slightly (I’d wager more) upset by this. Finally, Pau Gasol remains a Laker, and a damn good one at that. That’s about it.

Meanwhile, however, this episode has greased the tracks for Kobe, who – in both a show of support for Pau and a desire to maximize his chances at Ring #6 – has hinted at his growing frustration with the organization’s new regime. Since, we’ve gotten a “you do your job and let me do mine” rebuttal from Kupchak and a players-only meeting (usually good for a short-term boost), but nothing to suggest that calmer waters are imminent.

With all of that said, the Lakers have now won 6 of their last 8 outings (including 4 of the last 5), including wins over the Blazers and Mavericks in their last two, and at 20-13, sit a single game behind the greatest Clipper team ever for the West’s #3 seed. It’s conceivable (if not likely) that given the torrent of frustration and distraction that continually washes over this team, moments spent on the court are among their least stressful these days. With the All-Star break (and a few days to refuel) imminent, look for the Lakers, win or lose, to put forth maximum effort against the class of Western Conference.

The Thunder Coming In: I feel like there is an inordinate amount of chatter these days centered on the Thunder’s flaws and the “wide openness” of the West come playoff time.

It’s true. This is by no means a perfect team – they are turnover-prone (a league-high 15.9% of the time), mediocre on the boards (15th in Offensive Rebound Rate and 24th in Defensive Rebound Rate), lack a traditional low post scorer and have seen their second unit hamstrung by injury, but make no mistake, these guys are good. Really, really good.

For starters, only the Miami Heat are more efficient offensively (by one point/100 possessions) and boasts a higher True Shooting Percentage (57%, v. 56.9%) than the Thunder.

Next, and I feel like we are beginning to take this a bit for granted, OKC’s 1-2 punch is nothing short of devastating. In Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (or, in the interest of staying neutral, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant), OKC features a top-two duo that is an absolute nightmare for perimeter defenders, getting to the rim at will (11.8 attempts per game), finishing once they get there (66.1%) and delivering from distance (47.4% on long 2s; Durant is 36.7% from 3).

Once you’ve got your brain wrapped around that pair of potential 40-pointers, it’s time to deal with the NBA’s best bench player, (I cannot remember where I saw this comp – apologies to whomever I am stealing this from) this era’s Manu Ginobili, James Harden. In addition an extremely impressive stat line (16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game, 47/37/86 from FG/3-pt/FT and 21.1 PER), Harden is the ultimate glue guy, as Royce Young describes:

It’s really hard to explain to people how important Harden is to the team. He’s not just a great sixth man. He’s like the mediator between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. What he provides is just so necessary to the flow of the team. It’s like he’s a pressure-release valve so that Durant and Westbrook don’t have to do everything. He scores, passes and operates a terrific two-man game with Nick Collison. He plays well with Durant and Westbrook and plays really well running the Thunder’s second unit by himself. It’s hard to say he’s more valuable than Durant or Westbrook, but it’s closer than you think.

And finally, while OKC does not rank among the NBA’s elite at the defensive end, the shortcomings of a susceptible perimeter defense (27.4 FGA at the rim – 2nd worst in the NBA) are masked effectively by Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and (when healthy) Nick Collison, a last line of defense that effectively defends the rim (7th lowest FG% allowed at the rim; #1 Block Rate) and does not give away points at the free throw line (a league-average .215 FT Rate allowed).

Flawed? Yes. But warts and all, this is the best team in the West.

Thunder Blogs: Daily Thunder consistently cranks out some really excellent work (check out some of Royce Young’s thoughts on tonight’s matchup here), as does Welcome To Loud City on SB Nation.

Keys to the game: It’s impossible (well, maybe not impossible, but pretty tough) to predict what the Lakers’ roster will look like following the trade deadline. What we do know, however, is that Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are here now, while Dwight Howard, Deron Williams and Gilbert Arenas are not. All BS aside, let’s see where this Laker team is at. For all of the gaping holes on the roster and turmoil surrounding this team, the Lakers have managed to win more than 60% of their games thus far and remain well-positioned to finish in the top half of the West playoff picture.

OKC represents a brutal matchup for, well, anyone. While it would be silly to expect Thursday night to deviate much from that script, there are a couple of factors that could play out in the Lakers favor.

First and foremost, the Lakers must rely on their interior defense and rebounding, particularly at the offensive end, to control the tempo of the game (at 93.8 possessions per game, OKC plays at the third-highest pace in the league; at 89.9, the Lakers are 21st) and keep the West’s most potent offensive attack under control. This entails keeping Gasol and Bynum, both of whom are rebounding at an elite level and are playing excellent defensive ball this season, out of harm’s way, with harm in this represented by OKC’s pair of whistle-drawing projectiles.

To this end, the perimeter D will be called upon to challenge OKC’s perimeter scorers. In addition to providing the clamored-for offensive spark that too-often has been missing, this is an area in which the Laker bench, namely Matt Barnes (and, though not a bench player, MWP), must provide value. If MWP still possesses any of the elite defensive skill he exhibited in the 2010 playoffs against Durant, this would be an opportune time to conjure it up. Another defensive matchup that could loom large is Barnes on Westbrook, as RW’s speed, power and perpetual motion are too much for Kobe to deal with while also trying to offset OKC’s firepower at the offensive end, and Derek Fisher and Steve Blake… HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!

Sorry. Moving on…

Provided the Lakers are able to keep Bynum and Gasol on the floor for big minutes, the massive duo in the middle will be vital to the team’s success on the offensive end as well. Bynum has a decided size advantage over any front line defense the Thunder can put forth, and the Lakers will do well to feed the beast in an attempt to control tempo, collect some easy buckets and use the aggressiveness of OKC’s bigs (particularly Ibaka) against them to lure them into foul trouble. This become double important with Nick Collison banged up – he will be limited by a biceps injury if he plays at all, as with AS break looming, and no worse than 26-8 in the bank, this may be a good opportunity to get him an extended period of rest.

In spite of all that’s gone (and continues to go) wrong, the Lakers still rank among the NBA’s better teams. These trying times, rather than tearing the team apart, appear to be having something of a galvanizing effect on this crew. Even so, it is admittedly a tall order ask any team to roll into OKC and down the Thunder. However, I would not put it past this frustrating, but talent, but oh so exasperatingly frustrating team to notch a signature road wins against a legitimately elite opponent when no one expects them to do so.

Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TNT and KCAL.