Archives For February 2012

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.

Box Score: Lakers 96, Mavs 91
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 110.3, Mavs 104.6
True Shooting %: Lakers 58.0%, Mavs 48.7%

We knew that the Lakers had a bit of a tough mini-road trip ahead before the All-Star break. The Mavs have been pretty hot. They won 7 of their last 8 going into this game.

THE GOOD
Hey there, Pau Gasol. Way to respond to trade rumors with this performance. Pau Gasol showed pretty much the whole repertoire today from the jumpers to the left-handed hooks to lay-ups to tiptoe dunks. 24 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals. And he did a pretty decent job guarding Dirk Nowitzki, too.

Andrew Bynum looked pretty motivated earlier tonight, too. 19 points and 14 boards for the All-Star starting center. And his passing looked much improved today. Too bad, he didn’t get as many touches and shots as I would like.

Derek Fisher had a season-high 15 points in this game (topping his season-high of 13 which also came against Dallas). He shot 6 for 8 (2 for 3 behind the arc) earlier tonight. We all wish he could do this more often (only his sixth time getting double digits this season).

I like how the defense hunkered down on the Mavericks (the Mavs shot 40 percent). The Mavs were forced to shoot more three-pointers than they liked and it paid off for the Lakers (Mavs only shot 8 for 32, 25 percent!). There was also a huge stretch in the fourth quarter where the Mavericks didn’t score a point for nearly four minutes. The Lakers capitalized by going on a 9-0 run, which essentially put away the game.

The bench wasn’t exactly great today… but Matt Barnes nearly put up a double double (9 points, 9 boards). His hustle definitely helped out L.A. Especially late in the game after a missed freethrow (MORE ON MISSED FREETHROWS LATER).

THE BAD
Kobe Bryant didn’t let the game come to him. He stalled the offense in the 3rd while he tried to get his points. He also, for whatever reason, couldn’t handle the basketball and made some questionable decision-making. Kobe just didn’t look Kobe. He finished with 15 points (4 for 15 shooting) and 7 turnovers. But he did come up big at the end which I’ll bring up in a bit.

While I did like that the Lakers packed it in the paint, they still have to do a better job closing out on the perimeter. Yes, the Mavericks didn’t shoot very well behind the arc and we get that the 3-point shot is a low-percentage shot. But you still gotta come out and rotate. The Lakers were lucky that the Mavs didn’t make more treys. They lost a 14-point lead in the 2nd quarter partly because of back-to-back open 3s Dallas made.

And while we’re at it, the Lakers have to do a better job boxing out guys like Brendan Haywood and Shawn Marion. They were mostly responsible for 21 offensive boards for their team. The Lakers closed the gap with 17 of their own but they still gotta keep the other team in check when it comes to that.

The Lakers also had 17 turnovers. But again, Kobe did have the majority of them (he had 7 as mentioned).

Oh, and don’t let Vince Carter think it’s 2000 all over again. He had 18 points in the first half alone. Good thing that Metta World Peace did a decent job at him in the second half when he was out there (Barnes got the crunchtime minutes). Vince only scored 2 points in the final two quarters.

Shoutout to the refs who didn’t call a flagrant foul on Brendan Haywood. He clearly smashed Pau Gasol in the face late in the game.

THE UGLY
Well… we already know if you watched the game. Freethrows. 18 for 31 overall. That was because they shot 8 for 17 in the 4th. They missed six freethrows in a row with less than a minute to go. That would drive anyone nuts. The game would’ve been over earlier had they made, at least, two of those.

I sure hope Kobe is shooting foul shots (5 for 9) at the American Airlines Center right now. And I hope he took Pau (2 for 6) with him.

THE PLAY OF THE GAME
Kobe to Andrew Bynum for the alley-oop dunk with 1:05 left in the game. That put the Lakers up seven (that should’ve put away the game… but ya know… freethrows) which made it a higher mountain for the Mavericks to climb. The play before that was pretty good, too, where Kobe passed it to Pau for a lay-up. Oh, Kobe. Two passes in a critical juncture after you tried to get your points? You’re such a troll. Anyway, the Lakers are now 2-0 against Dallas this season. It’s not the playoffs, sure, but I’m sure the Lakers and us fans can take a little satisfaction out of this.

The Lakers have now won 5 out of 6. They look more comfortable and settled in their roles. And even though the ending was a little bizarre, this is a BIG ROAD WIN by the Lakers. Yes, the Lakers laid an egg against the Suns at Phoenix but I’m going to look at that as an aberration compared to how they’ve been playing as of late.

No rest for the weary. The Lakers go to Oklahoma City tomorrow night for another big game. Both teams are going to be at the tail end of a back-to-back (the Thunder beat the Celtics earlier) so they’re both going to be pretty fatigued (although, yes, Oklahoma City has younger players). If the Lakers win against the Thunder, maybe the whole league should take notice of Kobe and the boys once again, eh?

Don’t stop believin’!

Records: Lakers 19-13 (5th in West), Mavericks 21-12 (3rd in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.1 (15th in NBA), Mavericks 102.0 (20th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.6 (11th in NBA), Mavericks 97.9 (3rd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Mavericks: Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Brendan Haywood
Injuries: Lakers: none; Mavericks: Rodrigue Beaubois (out), Delonte West (out)

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers have won 5 of 7 and are coming off a solid game against the Blazers that showed the full spectrum of what this team is capable of. When they were sharing the ball, hitting shots, and defending with energy they built up a huge lead. When they stopped doing those things, the game got closer than it should have been and the starters (namely Kobe and Pau) ended up playing heavy minutes to secure a game that could have been a laugher. The fact that the win came at home is the other key ingredient to it all but we’ll get to that a bit later.

The Portland win, though, isn’t necessarily the story of the day. Much like how Kobe’s comments about Pau’s future with the Lakers stole the headlines on Sunday night, the players-only meeting and subsequent rehashing of Kobe’s comments are still making more headlines than the results on the floor. Whether the Lakers can use the fallout from all this “drama” to their advantage remains to be seen, but as I wrote when previewing the Blazers game, the hope is that the guys in the locker room start to come together and produce a product that’s better than the sum of their parts. As we’ve all seen, this isn’t the most talented Lakers team of the last several years (even with their elite core) and they need that extra bit of chemistry now more than ever. If players-only meetings and comments to the media help produce that, I’m all for it.

The Mavericks Coming in: The Mavs have won 7 of 8, with their only loss coming against the New York Lins this past Sunday in a game they looked to be in control of until Jeremy Lin went all Jeremy Lin on them (note: it may or not have happened this way, I’m caught up in the madness with the rest of the world).

In any event, the Mavs are playing good basketball and have actually been able to keep their season on track depsite their identity changing from seasons past. Rather than explaining it myself, I’ll let the always fantastic Zach Lowe take it from here:

The Mavericks, an offensive powerhouse last season, rank only 20th in points per possession. But they’ve managed to go 21-12 behind a defense creeping up on Chicago and Philadelphia in points allowed per possession. Dallas is just a different animal. Shawn Marion defends point guards, and the team’s nominal point guard, Jason Kidd, defends whatever position is convenient that night. The Mavs use giant front lines, with three power forwards, and employ zone principles that confuse every opponent.

So, even without Tyson Chandler (who’s playing fantastic man and team defense in New York) the Mavs are playing elite level defense and winning games via the tried and true approach of stopping the other team and getting timely buckets from dependable crunch time scorers.

Mavericks Blogs: The Two Man Game is excellent. You should be reading their work.

Keys to game: The last time these two teams played we were treated to endured a defensive slugfest that saw a total of 143 points scored between the two teams on a combined 57 for 156 shooting. Yuck. Both sides missed a ton of open shots and neither found their rhythm, as physicality ruled.

Tonight, obviously, I think we’d all like a more aesthetically pleasing game but with the same result (a Lakers win) to discuss after the fact. A few things to watch for:

  • If you look at the boxscore to the last game, you’ll notice Dirk going for 21 points on 8-17 shooting. That’s a good, but not great night and one that I think most Mavs fans would be happy with based off the numbers. However, what that boxscore doesn’t describe is the defense that Pau played on Dirk down the stretch of the game and how he didn’t fall for any of the German’s pet moves, contesting shots expertly and doing it all on an island with no help. Tonight, if the Lakers are to win, Pau will need to bring that same defensive intensity to the floor in trying to achieve the same results.
  • More box score watching gives us insight into what the Lakers’ offensive attack should look like. A hint: it rhymes with Andrew Bynum. The Lakers’ big man was the most effective player in that game, using his big frame to get good post position to score inside. Tonight, the Lakers would be wise to do more of this as Bynum is the one Laker that has advantageous matchups on both sides of the floor (more on this in a second) that should allow him the energy to be a focal point on offense.
  • Kobe too should get his shots, but as mentioned above, he has some things going against him tonight. First is that the Mavs will throw multiple defenders at Kobe – Carter, Marion, Kidd – in an attempt to keep a fresh body on him all night. Second is that Kobe will either have to deal with Vince Carter (who’s having a good season as a 3rd option) or Jason Kidd (where Kobe will have to navigate screens and make key rotations on D) that will affect his legs throughout the game. Taking these factors into account, Kobe needs to be smarter on offense by getting into position to score before he has the ball (either by using screens, making smart cuts, or posting up) rather than isolating on the wing or at the top of the key 20 feet away from the rim. The more he’s able to get into the teeth of D to get his shots, the better.
  • Rebounding will also be key tonight. Despite the Lakers missing 37 shots last game, they only grabbed 6 offensive rebounds. The Lakers must do a better job of getting to the glass on the offensive end, especially when Marion is on Kobe and either Ron or Barnes are matched up against a smaller defender that they can take into the paint to battle for rebounds with.
  • Finally, the Laker bench must provide something of value tonight. As I’ve mentioned before, role players often perform worse on the road, but for this Laker team to start to win some road games, that has to change. Blake, Barnes, Murphy, and Goudelock must hit shots to take the offensive pressure off L.A.’s big three, and must defend well enough that big minutes aren’t needed from Kobe and Pau. This can’t be stressed enough. The Lakers are some legitimate road wins away from being, record wise, one of the better teams in the league and as much as we harp on the things that Pau, Bynum, and Kobe can be doing better, they’re really not the problem here. The bench (as well as Fisher and MWP) must do more and must do it in a place not called Staples Center.

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

Wednesday Storylines

Dave Murphy —  February 22, 2012

The win against Portland on Monday night felt especially satisfying, coming on the heels of Kobe’s statement of support for a teammate that’s still on the block. Players pulled together on the floor. I don’t think there’s any way you watch a team on a regular basis and fail to notice something so elemental. And then Steve Blake, bombing them in with clinical precision. A good win in many ways.

The players-only meeting that followed has been widely reported on and for good cause. Regardless of your take on the team as currently constructed, there are certain things that cannot be disputed. A large scale exodus took place after the Dallas sweep. A new coach and staff were brought in. A lockout followed. A blockbuster trade was scuttled and Lamar exited stage left. The season began and the transition has not been smooth. These things matter, and they get reported on:

Ken Berger at CBS Sports takes the matter head on, writing about a family business that is going through some sweeping changes.

Kelly Dwyer at Ball Don’t Lie further examines Berger’s take, and zeroes in on the aftermath of Phil Jackson’s reign.

The players-only meeting was reported on by Chris Broussard at ESPN.

Weighing in on the upside of the players’ action is Andy Kamenetsky at the Land O’Lakers.

Andy also has a preview up for tonight’s game against the Mavericks.

Mitch Kupchak’s reaction to Kobe’s statement is covered by Mike Bresnahan at the L.A. Times.

Kevin Ding at the OC Register wrote an in-depth article about Kobe’s purpose for airing grievances.. He also wrote a newer missing links piece out this morning.

Over at Silver Screen and Roll, C.A. Clark writes about the fall of empires.

It’s not about the today’s Lakers, but Jeff Caplan at ESPN/Dallas offers an article about Lamar Odom’s continuing struggles for the Mavericks.

In a good summation of the state of things in Lakerland, Mark Medina for the LA. Times, looks at our current crossroads.

***

The media has generally taken a wait and see attitude with Coach Mike Brown, a guy with big shoes to fill. The grace period has passed. From Brown to the epically dysfunctional Buss family to the continuing trade rumors, a perfect storm appears to be building. The irony (and perhaps the story’s saving grace) is that the players are the ones taking action. The team is doggedly hanging onto fifth place in the west and while lacking in depth, is good enough to compete in a banged-up league with a suicidal schedule. They’ll go as far as their own stewardship will take them this season. They’re at Dallas tonight, OKC tomorrow. As the wheel turns.

– Dave Murphy

The Lakers have played the Phoenix Suns twice in the last five days to varying results. During their win in the Staples Center, there was one play that stood out to me and others on twitter. Andrew Bynum caught the ball at the pinch post and fed a cutting Troy Murphy, who finished the play and got fouled. When I watched it live, it was merely just a great pass from Bynum to Murphy, but after a re-watch, I realized that it was a great play drawn up by the Lakers coaching staff.

The Play starts out with a high screen and roll between Troy Murphy and Steve Blake. Matt Barnes and Andrew Goudelock are straddling the perimeter, creating space in the middle of the floor. As you’ll see, Murphy is coming up from the right side of the court, as Andrew Bynum starts fighting for position with Robin Lopez.

Instead of setting the screen from the direction Murphy was coming from, he slips the screen and Blake begins to drive toward Bynum. The slipped screen confuses Sebastian Telfair and Hakim Warrick — just for a split second — but long enough to free Troy Murphy. Warrick starts to show, when he doesn’t actually need to, and Telfair naturally tries to fight through a screen that isn’t there. With both eyes sets of eyes on Blake, Murphy rolls to the basket. During Murphy’s cut, Bynum begins to open up to receive a pass from Blake.

Steve Blake gets the ball to Bynum, who sees a wide open Troy Murphy cutting down a lane with no defenders in front of him. Hakim Warrick wasn’t quick enough to realize that he made a defensive lapse and found himself about a yard behind the cutting Murphy as the pass was being made. The design of this play was crucial for Murphy being wide open. With Barnes and Goudelock holding their respective defenders near the three point line and Bynum bringing the center out of the paint to the pinch post, there wasn’t anyone around to rotate fast enough by the time the defense realized that Murphy was getting the ball.

The result was Bynum hitting Murphy in stride with a beautiful bounce pass that led to a layup and a foul. Watch the play in real time below.

Boxscore: Lakers 103, Blazers 92
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 113.2, Blazers 101.1
True Shooting %: Lakers 58.6%, Blazers 55.5%

The Good:
In the preview for this game, I wrote this:

Some of what makes a team successful is a bunker mentality where the players can rally together and find a common enemy (of sorts) that serves as extra motivation. Phil Jackson was a master of this during his time with the Bulls and the Lakers, and I’ve got a sneaky feeling that Kobe learned a thing or two about this tactic during his time under Jackson. Right now, this Laker team needs all the extra kicks in the pants it can get. If (Kobe’s statement) helps in that area, I’m all for it.

I’m not going to sit here and say that the way the Lakers played tonight is directly attributable to Kobe’s public backing of Gasol last night. However, I’m not going to dismiss it either.

The Lakers came out tonight focused and ready to play and there was a certain sense of teamwork and camaraderie in the air. The Lakers were moving the ball well, making the extra pass (sometimes to a fault), and taking extra pride when a teammate made a positive play. It was a sight to see the ball zipping around the court, inside and out, from side to side with nearly every player touching the ball on countless possessions. The result was the Lakers racking up 23 assists on their 38 made baskets with a few assists of the highlight variety mixed in.

With all the ball movement, the Lakers were able to run the Blazer defense ragged, getting easy shots inside early on. Andrew Bynum benefitted the most in the early stages, getting easy dunks and point blank attempts that he converted with ease. As the defense started to adjust and collapse the paint in an attempt to shut down the easy shots at the rim, the Lakers then started to move the ball to shooters on the perimeter and they also took advantage by knocking down their open looks. And just as Bynum was the beneficiary of shots in the paint, it was Steve Blake that took advantage of the extra space behind the arc, making his first 4 three pointers and turning the game into a game of target practice.

It wasn’t just the Lakers’ offense that was doing work, either. Their defense was engaged in the early going, denying the paint and forcing the Blazers to take jumpers. And when Portland did take those outside J’s, Laker defenders rotated well and contested shots and then cleaned up the misses by securing defensive rebounds. The Lakers only allowed the Blazers to score 7 first quarter points (a franchise low for points in a 1st quarter) and with that, the rout was officially on…

The Bad:
Until it wasn’t, of course. This wouldn’t be the Lakers if they crushed an opponent for a full 48 minutes, after all. Around the middle of the 2nd quarter, the Blazers finally got some shots to fall as the Lakers naturally let their respective guard down. Suddenly defensive rotations weren’t as crisp and closeouts weren’t as timely. And the Blazers started to take advantage of the extra space on the perimeter to knock down some three pointers and crawl back into the game. By the time the half time buzzer sounded, what was a 30 point lead was down to 22 and while the Lakers were still in firm control, the writing was on the wall that the Blazers weren’t going to go down quietly.

In the 3rd quarter, the Blazers carried over that momentum they built up going into the half and started to hit even more shots against a Laker defense that was, at that point, purely in spectator mode. When screens were set, the Lakers didn’t step out to hedge hard and when the ball was swung, closeouts were nearly non-existent. The Blazers were able to take mostly uncontested three point shots and got them to fall at an incredible rate. Even when the Lakers started to try and pick up their defensive effort, it mattered little because Portland was able to find their rhythm to the point that even contested jumpers started to fall. The result was a 36 point period for the Blazers and what was once a lead that seemed insurmountable was then down to a manageable 15. That lead would shrink to 10 in the fourth period before Fisher and Kobe hit back to back jumpers with another Kobe lay in tacked on to push the Lakers lead back to 16. Portland would never truly recover and that was seemingly that save for…

The Ugly:
The referees starting to call a tighter game that seemingly caught both teams off guard. The final frame lasted what seemed like an hour after countless whistles blew with both sides complaining about calls that were going against them. (It got to the point that Kobe even earned a technical foul after being called for a charge on a drive against Gerald Wallace. That tech was Kobe’s 7th on the season which puts him halfway to the point where he would earn a game suspension should he keep accumulating them at the pace he currently is.)

What made matters worse was Nate McMillan deciding he would go to a hack-a-World-Peace strategy in the final 4 minutes to try and get his team back into the game. And while the tactic wasn’t successful in stopping the Lakers from scoring the ball nor in inspiring his team to play better offense, it certainly helped ugly up a contest even more by making it unbearably long down the stretch. When you combine this final stretch of the game with how the Lakers stopped playing as hard as they could in the middle part of the contest, you nearly forgot how beautiful the game started with the Lakers getting nearly everything they wanted on offense and building up that huge lead.

The Play of the Game:
Several quality plays to choose from tonight, including Bynum throwing a baseball outlet to Kobe with #24 then euro-stepping past Nic Batum for a sweet lefty lay in and a couple of beautiful big to big passes between Bynum and Pau (with Bynum doing the dishing). Instead, though, I go with Kobe breaking down Gerald Wallace off the bounce with a pretty inside-out crossover and then sidestepping Marcus Camby with a nice fake to finish at the cup while drawing the foul. Kobe may not be the explosive athlete he once was, but he sure can make up for it with savvy and craft:

Records: Lakers 18-13 (5th in West), Trailblazers 17-15 (8th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 102.7 (16th in NBA), Trailblazers 104.4 (11th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.6 (10th in NBA), Trailblazers 99.2 (5th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Trailblazers: Raymond Felton, Wesley Matthews, Gerald Wallace, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marcus Camby
Injuries: Lakers: none; Trailblazers: Greg Oden (out indefinitely)

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers lost on the road again last night but that’s not close to being the story of the day in Laker-land. After the loss, Kobe held court with the media, and spoke his mind about the trade rumors circling around the Lakers and specifically Pau Gasol. The money quotes have been out there since Kobe uttered them last night, but here’s the gist of them from ESPN LA’s report:

“Basketball is such an emotional game, you got to be able to have all of yourself in the game and invested in the game. We didn’t have that,” Bryant said after Gasol had 17 points and 12 rebounds against the Suns. “Pau, it’s hard for Pau because of all this trade talk and all this other stuff, it’s hard for him to kind of invest himself completely or immerse himself completely into games when he’s hearing trade talk every other day. I wish management would come out and either trade him or not trade him.” Bryant made it clear that he prefers that the Lakers choose to not trade Gasol, the four-time All-Star who Bryant paired with to win consecutive championships in 2009 and 2010. “I talked to (Gasol) a little bit about it,” Bryant said. “It’s just tough for a player to give his all when you don’t know if you’re going to be here tomorrow. I’d rather them not trade him at all. If they’re going to do something, I wish they would just (expletive) do it. If they’re not going to do it, come out and say you’re not going to do it. This way he can be comfortable, he can go out, he can play and he can invest all of himself into the game.”

My thoughts on Kobe’s comments are two-fold. First is that I’m glad that Kobe spoke his mind here. Normally it’s the team’s best player that’s in the center of these types of trade rumors (see Melo, now Dwight Howard) and can’t really speak up about how trade speculation can affect a player or the team. In this case, Kobe is the team’s best player and its leader, and is in a position to positively affect his teammates by speaking up about how this situation may be affecting a key contributor. This plays well in the locker room with his mates and shows that he has their backs (especially Pau’s). Second, I don’t think this changes the front office’s approach nor does it affect Pau’s trade value. Mitch has openly said that he’ll make a deal only if it improves the team, and I don’t expect that to change now that Kobe has spoken up. Kupchak has made it clear that he doesn’t have to trade Pau, and if these comments inspire a bunch of low-ball offers for the Spaniard, I expect those will be rebuffed (as they have been up to this point).

Do Kobe’s comments bring Gasol’s mental state more to the forefront than they already were? Yes, they do. However, I’d argue that after every loss or poor performance by Gasol the questions about where Pau’s head’s at were there already. I don’t think that was going to change until after the trade deadline for this season and/or until the Lakers make another big move that does or doesn’t involve him down the road. This would be an ongoing story with Kobe talking or without him talking, so I don’t see much of a difference.

Lastly, some of what makes a team successful is a bunker mentality where the players can rally together and find a common enemy (of sorts) that serves as extra motivation. Phil Jackson was a master of this during his time with the Bulls and the Lakers, and I’ve got a sneaky feeling that Kobe learned a thing or two about this tactic during his time under Jackson. Right now, this Laker team needs all the extra kick in the pants it can get. If this helps in that area, I’m all for it.

The Trailblazers Coming in: At the start of this season, the Blazers were the surprise team of the Western Conference (along with the Nuggets), looking like a real contender that could make a deep playoff run. They started their year 7-3 and boasted wins over the 76ers, Lakers, Nuggets, and Thunder. Since that point, though, they’re only won 10 of their 22 games and are now 8th in the West. Of course, as the Lakers know, the Western standings are a slippery slope where a team can have home court one week and struggle to hold onto a playoff spot the next. That said, the Blazers are a team that’s seemingly lost its way and there seem to be several reasons for it.

Inconsistent guard play has really hurt them. Raymond Felton has played very poorly this season and has become the whipping boy for many Blazer fans (as well as Coach Nate McMillan). Jamal Crawford has come in and seemingly thrown Wesley Matthews for a loop, stunting what looked to be a development path that was on a strong upward trajectory. When you combine these factors with Nic Batum not getting a contract extension before he’s set to reach restricted free agency and some strong questioning about Nate McMillan’s coaching style, you have a team that’s just not where it could be. Whether they turn it around or not remains to be seen, but they have the talent base to do so.

Trailblazer Blogs: Check out Portland Roundball Society and Blazers Edge for all your PDX news and analysis.

Keys to game: From Phillip’s recap last night:

The Lakers were able to kind of make a game out of what looked as if it would be a blow out. This falls in the ugly category because it led to Kobe playing 40 minutes and Pau playing 36. The Lakers were able to bring the lead down from 25 to 10 more than once in the fourth quarter, and with the score just a few possessions away from the lead, Mike Brown continued to go with Kobe and Pau down the stretch in a game that was a lost cause from the beginning. (Monday), the Lakers will be playing their third game in four nights, and their second of a back-to-back against a very good Portland Trailblazers team.

So while the Lakers return home – a place where they play like one of the best teams in the league – fatigue may be an issue. The Lakers must be ready to compete from the opening tip against a Blazer team that always wants to bring its best effort when they face off against the Lakers. This match up is a blood feud of sorts, so if nothing else goes right, the willingness to go hard all game must be there. Of course, the game will come down to more than just effort. As John Wooden said, we shouldn’t mistake activity for achievement. If the Lakers are going to win this game, they’ll actually need to do some things well.

Defensively, this starts with containing all-star forward LaMarcus Aldridge. LMA’s game is based on strong post play and a feathery jumper, so Pau Gasol will have his hands full. Pau will need to make sure he’s changing ends well, because Aldridge runs like a gazelle and likes to establish position early in the clock to make defenders honor the space he eats up on the block. If Pau can push him farther from the hoop and make him dribble to get into his post moves, that’s already a minor win on any given possession. Pau, though, can’t simply bang on LMA to try to get him off his spot. This is because one of Aldridge’s pet moves is spinning off his man and catching lobs for easy finishes at the hoop.

As hinted at above, pace will also be a factor. In the last matchup between these teams, the Lakers were careless with the ball against pressure Blazer D and that led to fast break chances. This was especially true for Gerald Wallace, who dominated the game with his activity level and his ability to race the floor to get easy baskets. If the Lakers are to slow Wallace, they’ll need to make him a half court scorer by racing back on D and being more careful with the ball when trying to initiate their own sets. By taking care of the ball, the Lakers won’t allow Felton, Batum, or Wallace to play full court basketball, while also limiting the trailing options of Crawford and Matthews to shoot uncontested jumpers against a collapsed defense.

This translates to a careful, deliberate attack on offense by the Lakers. Meaning post touches for Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. In the last match up, Bynum used brute force to overpower the slender Blazer bigs and scored at will early on. This led to double teams that Bynum struggled to navigate (which led to the aforementioned turnovers that helped the Blazers’ offense). At this later stage of the season however, Bynum has made some strides in dealing with the double teams he’s seen, often making his moves before the double can be fully established, making good passes to strong-side wings, or hitting a sliding over wing at the top of the key. Of course there’s still room for improvement in this area, but if the Blazers attack Bynum in this manner tonight, he should be better equipped to make them pay.

Of course, the Laker shooters must also make the Blazers pay for double teaming Bynum (or Pau or Kobe). Murphy, Fisher, Goudelock, and Blake will all see minutes tonight and all must hit some shots to keep the defense loose. Matt Barnes and Ron can also help out by slashing off the ball into the open spaces when defenders turn their heads to watch the ball. If LA’s small forwards can move well off the ball, they can get buckets in the paint and draw fouls on the Blazer big men, which will also further aid Bynum and Gasol. It’s a circle of effectiveness but all sides must play their parts.

Ultimately, tonight would be a good game to win. Not only because of the standings but because of all the peripheral drama I mentioned earlier. Nothing soothes things like a quality win and tonight would represent exactly that. Here’s to the Lakers getting it.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start on Fox Sports West and TNT. Also listen live at ESPN Radio 710AM.