Archives For March 2012

Some games are best forgotten quickly. This was one of those games. Facing an undermanned Hornets team, the Lakers played a relaxed and sloppy game but were able to pull out the win down the stretch by the count of 88-85.

The Good:
The Lakers starting big men both had very good games on offense. Gasol went for 21 points on 8 for 14 shooting and added 11 rebounds with 3 assists. The Spaniard did most of his damage right at the front of the rim (shooting 5 for 7 in the restricted area via NBA.com) as a recipient of some good passes via smart cuts and when operating in the P&R. Gasol showed good hands and classic technique, keeping the ball high and finishing well even when in traffic. Bynum, meanwhile, had 19 points on 7 of 10 shooting and contributed 10 rebounds as well. Like Gasol, Bynum did all his damage right at the front of the rim, using his size to carve out space around the rim while using his power and footwork to get off good shots against a defense that was giving him extra attention all game. Both big men contributing a double-double was certainly a product of the Hornets’ lack of viable big men but considering how often the Hornets went zone, it was good to see both bigs take what the D gave them and not force shots once they got their touches. Both did a good job of playing to their strengths and finding the creases in the defense to get good shots.

Ramon Sessions also deserves some praise for his more than solid game. Sessions also had a double-double with 10 points (on 4 for 8 shooting) and 10 assists. Sessions played a controlled game but opportunistic game, seeking out driving lanes when they were there but also slowing the pace and setting up the offense in the half court when nothing was there. Once in the half court, Sessions ran the P&R well and had several good passes to Gasol and Bynum when they opened up near the basket flashing his vision and playmaking skills in the process. Sessions also assisted on two of Ron’s three 3 pointers and one of Blakes triples simply by moving the ball on time to his open mates. Overall, he showed his ability to be a floor general and lead the team.

The Bad:
The Lakers went in the 3rd quarter leading by 4 points but ended it trailing by 6. In the quarter they shot 7 for 19 (37%) and committed 5 turnovers all while allowing the Hornets to make 10 of their 22 attempts from the field. The Lakers came out with little energy on both ends of the floor and all too often let the Hornets get whatever they wanted on offense while allowing them to dictate to them on defense. The Lakers faced a fair amount of zone in this period and showed that they still don’t have a viable plan to consistently attack this defense, often settling for jumpers around the perimeter (Kobe settled for three 3 point attempts during this stretch) without attacking the middle of the zone via passes or dribble penetration. Losing the quarter by 10 allowed the Hornets to gain the momentum and put them in a hole that they tried to dig out of the rest of the game (finally breaking through with Kobe’s three pointer in the closing minute). Against a team that should have been beaten much easier, the 3rd quarter is where the Hornets gained all their confidence and was the reason the game had the tenor it did late.

The Ugly:
Kobe may have hit the game winner but his shooting was horrendous on the night. He missed his first 15 shots and at one point was 2 for 20 (one make less than his horrid 3 for 20 game against the Jazz that was probably the worst game of his career). He missed jumpers and bunnies alike. He settled for too many three pointers (taking 8 on the night) and wasn’t nearly aggressive enough (showing in his 5 FT attempts) in attacking the basket. After a while it was almost comical (while also being painful) watching him miss shot after shot with the crowd ready to explode in cheers but ultimately letting out collective “oooooh’s” when the ball clanked harmlessly off the rim.

That said, this performance told me that Kobe’s tired. Nearly every Kobe miss was off the front rim and the fact that he settled so often against a team that didn’t have a good defensive option to guard him nor shot blockers to protect the rim were evidence enough. However, after the game when asked if fatigue played a part in his shooting woes he admitted that it had (the exact quote was “maybe a little”). For Kobe to even acknowledge fatigue tells me he’s probably very tired as he’ll rarely admit to any weakness in his game or in how he’s feeling. This isn’t to absolve Kobe from shooting poorly. If he’s in the game he must find a way to be effective. So, he either needs to make more of the shots he decides to take or augment his game (like he did in the 1st quarter) and be more of a set up man for the bigs. That said, it’s imperative that Kobe not be on the floor as much as he has been and that’s not on him. He’s not going to ask out of the game so the coaches (namely Mike Brown) must find a way to get him more rest by leaving him on the bench for longer.

The Play of the Game:
Obviously Kobe’s game winner is it, but since we covered that earlier, lets go in another direction. As a sucker for big to big passing, this Gasol to Bynum interior dime was great. Even better was how it was set up with Sessions and Kobe running a 1/2 P&R and then Pau setting another screen forcing his man to hedge out on Ramon. After the screen, Pau dove down the lane, made the catch and then shoveled to Drew for the easy dunk. A great action, here:

Going into the 4th quarter, Kobe Bryant had zero points and was 0 for 15 from the field (making it the most shots he’d missed in a row in any game during his career). In the final frame, however, he went 3-6 scoring 11 points and hitting what would be the game winning shot on a pull up three pointer. We’ll have a full write up of the game a bit later but for now enjoy the shot no one (including me) thought he should take, much less thought he’d actually make. This is why he’s Kobe Bryant, though. He does what he wants and, for worse or, in this case, for the better he’s willing to take the big shots. Today it worked out and it brought us all a smile on what was, to that point, a horrid day of Lakers basketball. Enjoy the clip below as it was one of the only good things from this game.

Records: Lakers 31-20 (3rd in the West), Hornets 13-38 (15th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.0 (14th in the NBA), Hornets 100.4 (27th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.5 (11th in the NBA), Hornets 105.5 (18th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Hornets: Greivis Vasquez, Marco Belinelli, Al-Farouq Aminu, Carl Landry, Jason Smith
Injuries: Lakers: Jordan Hill (questionable); Hornets: Eric Gordon (out), Emeka Okafor (out), Trevor Ariza (doubtful), Jarrett Jack (questionable), Chris Kaman (questionable), Gustavo Ayon (questionable)

The Lakers Coming in: With only 15 games left in the season, now is the time for this team to start to sort out some of its issues and find its stride. However, this is easier said than done. The Lakers’ bench is struggling and Mike Brown is still seeking out lineups that work. Ramon Sessions has looked less comfortable in the last two games, scoring a total of 14 points while only taking 10 shots over his 60 minutes of game action. Kobe’s also struggling with his jumper and the Lakers have reverted back to looking to isolate him more on the wing, mid post, and the top of the key. Add in the up and down play of the Lakers SF’s, the big men being a bit more inconsistent in the past week, and the defense not looking as in sync and the Lakers look worse than usual.

There are no easy answers right now. The team is trying to integrate a key player on the fly and his style of play is one that none of the core players are used to having to mesh with. Mike Brown’s rotations are still erratic and while he’s trying to zero in on who should be playing come playoff time, the players he wants in the game aren’t necessarily performing well enough when they’re called upon.

What can happen, though, is the team playing harder and getting back to basics on both sides of the ball. The defense has been slipping and that’s effort and focus related. The same can be said about the rebounding. The offense, despite aesthetics, has actually taken a big step forward with Sessions on board so while we’d like things to look better, it’s more a matter of refining and finding a way to mesh better than an actual overhaul. If Brown can settle on a rotation and get his key players a bit more rest this team can get back on track. That’s certainly a realistic goal, whether it happens or not remains to be seen.

The Hornets Coming in: Right now, the Hornets are a M.A.S.H. unit. Their best two players (Gordon and Okafor) have been and remain injured while their next two best players (Jack and Ariza) are nicked up. Add in Kaman’s flu and Ayon being away from the team for the birth of a child and this team was missing 6 key rotation players in their last game. But, even though missing these guys has made it difficult to win games, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for this franchise. The more losses this team accumulates the more ping pong balls they get in the upcoming draft lottery. As the old NBA saying goes, you have to get worse to get better and this year the Hornets definitely fit this mold. Give credit to their head coach Monty Williams, though. He’s not letting injuries or missing players affect his team’s preparation or effort level. He’s got them playing hard and as competitively as possible. With a better, healthier roster who knows how good this team could be under his guidance, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d be in the mix for a bottom seed in the playoffs.

Hornets Blogs: Hornets 24/7 is a great site, check them out. Also give a visit to At The Hive for more Hornets coverage.

Keys to game: How competitive this game is will be dependent on who’s available to play for the Hornets. If Ariza, Kaman, Ayon, and Jack are able to suit up this team is sneakily good enough to hang with a lot of rosters. If they’re not, they become one of the worst – if not the worst – rosters in the league.

Either way, though, the Lakers need to attack this team with ball movement and quick decisions. As they showed in the 1st quarter of the OKC game, when the Lakers move the ball inside-out and from side to side they can cripple a defense because their talent level in the post and on the wing is too good for most teams. Today, they need to recapture that mode of attack to make a hustling Hornets’ defense scramble all over the court.

To accomplish this, the ball must move. When Bynum catches the ball in the post he must make quicker shot/pass decisions. Drew has been excellent at scoring the ball and overpowering his man but he’s also been too willing to hold the ball in order to get his shot and that’s meant less ball movement and more standing. In essence, he’s looked a like a post up version of the Kobe that draws ire as a ball stopper.

Speaking of Kobe, he must find his shot soon or become more of a facilitator. To help him get easier baskets the Lakers must look for him on curls and weak side duck-in’s so he can get shots going to the rim where he’s not actively having to work off the dribble to create for himself. To aid in this, Kobe must do his work off the ball with smart movement – he must set up his screens and time his cuts a bit better. In watching him work off the ball in recent games that pep in his step hasn’t been there and it’s allowed his defender to body him off picks and make his catches harder, pushing him farther from the basket to do his work.

Defensively, all I’m looking for is more effort. Mike Brown’s defensive system isn’t that complex. He runs a hedge/recover scheme in the P&R and the back end rotations are straight forward. However, he asks his players to cover a lot of ground and that means they must be active and hustling at all times. Lately, this hasn’t been the case. Players are doing a lot of pointing and asking another man to rotate for them. Shots aren’t being contested with the same vigor they were earlier in the season. With the defense scrambling more but not hustling as much, the rebounding has suffered. If the Lakers simply go harder for longer, these issues can be rectified. I understand the minutes have piled up. I also understand that disjointed offense can lead to players not going after it on defense all the time. But, the guys need to push through those things and get back to playing defense.

Bad habits have been setting in lately and today’s game offers a good chance to move away from them and get back on track. The Lakers are talented enough to make a run in the post-season but not talented enough that they can’t try give effort and still win. Settling for the easy play won’t get it done for this team and doing so will only lead to disappointment long term. Today, they have the chance to break out of the malaise that’s hurt them this past week. Here’s hoping they do.

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

A few days ago, Darius pointed out a trend he’s been noticing where the Lakers run a 4/5 pick and roll between Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. With the help of mySynergySports, I was able to look into it and saw that they’ve successfully ran a variation of the 4/5 P&R about four times in the last few games, and all four times have had some of the same elements, and it’s those elements that we’ll be taking a look at in this edition of The Break Down.

The set is always initiated with a 1/2 pick and roll between either Steve Blake or Ramon Sessions and Kobe with Ron Artest in the corner ball side (Note: every time I saw this set run, the lineup was always point guard, Kobe, Ron, Pau, Bynum. The point guard was the only variation in the lineup when this was run). On the weak side, Pau sits in the pinch post (or free throw line extended) with Bynum on the block. On this play in particular, Pau set a cross screen for Kobe before he went over to set the screen for Blake. In other sets, Kobe has gone to set the screen without a preliminary cross screen from Pau. Regardless, the set always starts with Kobe setting the screen for whoever the point guard is with Pau and Bynum on the weak side.

After the initial 1/2 screen is set, the point guard takes a dribble in Pau’s direction and gives him the ball at either the pinch post or free throw line extended. Where you see Kobe in this picture is usually about where he stops after he rolls off the screen, but in this particular set, he cuts all the way to the block. The point guard starts heading to the corner to replace Ron while Ron starts sliding up to the free throw line extended. When Pau receives the pass, Bynum starts coming up the line to set the screen for Pau. These actions were pretty much standard of the 4/5 pick and roll sets the Lakers have been running.

In the other sets, Kobe would be around the pinch post opposite of Pau by the time Bynum starts rolling off of the screen. Ron and Blake are in positions similar to every other time I’ve seen this set run. Having those guys on the perimeter opposite of the action completely takes any help defenders out of the paint. Even with Kobe on the opposite block, C.J. Miles has his back turned to the action and the other two defenders are paying more attention to him than the pick and roll that is happing on the other side of the court. Moving the point guard to the corner is probably one of the more brilliant parts of the design of this set. When the ball is on the opposite side of a defender, the defender furthest away from the action has the most leeway in help defense, which would be the guy defending the point guard in the corner. Instead of having a small forward coming down to help, you get C.J. Watson coming down, the smallest guy on the court (he wasn’t even in position to help on this one, but you get the point).

If executed, what you end up with is a fantastic passing power forward throwing a lob to the best finisher at the rim on the Lakers and nine guys watching the big man throw one down. Further more, the best defender on the floor is the one at the top of the perimeter and would be the first guy back should a turnover or missed shot attempt happen. If the pass isn’t on target, you have Kobe at the free throw line and the best three point shooter you have on the floor in the corner wide open.

Last night, the Lakers set up like they were going to run the 4/5 pick and roll right after the opening tip, but instead sent Kobe along the baseline to pop up on the weak side with Pau and Bynum. They ran a 2/5 pick and roll, and after Bynum rolled, Kobe kicked it to the corner where Pau was standing, who subsequently lobbed the ball into Bynum. A new wrinkle, same result. Check out the play illustrated above in real time below.

 

Friday Forum

Dave Murphy —  March 30, 2012

Another week of ups and downs, another game of sections. The Lakers played well for the first quarter and a half, and the Thunder played well from there. Derek Fisher returned, got love from the crowd and showed that he’s not quite ready for the scrap heat. Andrew Bynum showed that he can play fired up after his little episode the other night, and Scotty Brooks showed the art of cutting to the chase. In a sideline interview after the first quarter, he said “that was a bad 12 minutes. We have 36 minutes left to be good.”

Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’Lakers: It would have been nice for Bynum to face the media yesterday at practice following all the controversy surrounding Tuesday’s game in Golden State, answering questions himself rather than asking others to do it. Still, the best statement Bynum could make would be coming out Thursday, playing hard and playing well. For the most part, he did exactly that. From the jump, Bynum was a force on both sides of the ball, hitting four of his first seven shots, for eight points, while pulling down six rebounds. He had some great moments defensively, including one when he altered one shot attempt inside, then pogo-ed off the floor to block Serge Ibaka. In the second half, Bynum had a couple of turnovers, but his performance was more indicative of the team’s offensive shortcomings than his own. On a couple of occasions, he looked to pass out of double- and triple-teams down low but couldn’t find an outlet because his teammates weren’t moving. He finished with 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting, grabbed 13 rebounds — a welcome change after five straight games in single digits — and blocked four shots. The Lakers had plenty of problems Thursday, but he wasn’t one of them. His effort was there tonight. Nobody should be going overboard giving him credit for playing hard, but given the reasonable questions about his maturity we’ve all been asking this week, it was still good to see.

C.A. Clark at Silver Screen and Roll: The Los Angeles Lakers fell to the Oklahoma City Thunder by a final score of 102-93 tonight, and there is some small comfort in losing a game in which there is no overwhelming story line. There were no shocking developments, no benched superstars. It was just a game in which Kobe Bryant didn’t play well, Pau Gasol didn’t play enough (due to foul trouble) and the team could not find an answer for Russell Westbrook in the 2nd half. Nothing strange, nothing even all that unpredictable. Oklahoma City is a very good team, and the Lakers are not good enough to beat the Thunder unless they play well. They didn’t, and so they lost. It’s almost beautiful in its simplicity. Almost. The game started off well enough. With the Laker offense firing on all cylinders and picking up offensive rebounds at will, the Lakers built up a big lead as both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook starrted the game slowly. The Laker lead was 12 at the end of the first quarter, and the team looked locked in as they so often seem to be against top notch competition. But the Thunder started chipping away at the lead immediately, and an 11-0 run to start the second half put the Thunder ahead for good, as Russell Westbrook started nailing mid-range jumpers and attacking the rim for easy layups. Westbrook ended up with 36 points on the evening. For those of you scoring at home, no, Ramon Sessions is no more effective on Westbrook than anybody else in a Laker uniform has been over the years.

 Dave McMenamin & Justin Verrier for ESPN, and the Associated Press: Derek Fisher received a standing ovation before tipoff as highlights of his Lakers career played on the video board, along with a “Thanks for all you’ve done” message. He stood in his warm-ups and waved to the fans, then applauded them back after being hugged by some of his new teammates, who delivered a 102-93 victory. “We definitely want to come in and get this win for him,.” Russell Westbrook said. Fans got on their feet again when Fisher entered the game with 2:04 remaining in the first quarter. One held up an “I Miss D-Fish” sign. “The love and support and appreciation they’ve shown me over the years far exceeded anything I could’ve imagined when I first moved here in 1996,” said Fisher, who finished with seven points in nearly 16 minutes. After the game, Kobe Bryant addressed Fisher’s return, which was his 12th career game against the Lakers. “I think him coming back for a second stint with us and the championships that we won, it makes it a little bit more special than him coming back with the previous teams,” Bryant said. Bryant and Fisher won five NBA championships together in Fisher’s two stints with the Lakers, which were separated by stops in Utah and Golden State. Bryant added that he didn’t watch the video tribute. “I didn’t want to watch it. I didn’t want to look at it,” he said. Fisher discounted the notion he was traded because he would be unable to handle a bench role with the Lakers. “That goes against and flies in the face of not just what I’ve been since I’ve been in the NBA, but the type of team player I’ve been in every group I’ve ever been a part of,” Fisher said. “Team sports raised me in a sense. Besides my mom and dad and my family, I was raised on team sports and that meant and has always stood for sharing, sacrificing, giving of yourself so that the group can succeed. So, that’s what I’m explicitly focusing on doing for the Thunder now, and I’m looking forward to finishing out this regular season and really trying to help a team that was great before I even showed up.”

And then there’s this – nothing to do with the Lakers, but it’s a great piece by Danny Chau.

Danny Chau, Hardwood Paroxysm: I miss Andrei Kirilenko. Somehow, he slipped away without us being able to give him a proper farewell for the decade he spent in the NBA. With the lockout and our scrambling to adjust our rituals, schedules, and expectations once the season was green-lighted, Kirilenko slipped through the cracks—like he did so often on both ends of the floor. He’s in Russia now, a place he had pined for in the last four years of his NBA career. He’s with his once-former team, CSKA Moscow, leading them to a successful season in Euroleague. In Russia, he is free to be the player he’s always been, but was only able to show a glimmer NBA: a creative force on offense and defense. While never the most fluid or graceful player, Kirilenko’s most devastating talent was his impeccable timing in every facet of his game. At 6’9”, he saw the floor better than most point guards, and made bullet passes in stationary positions and in motion that slipped through traffic. But his most notable brilliance was on defense, and not just in shot-blocking. In a 2008 Sports Illustrated article, Chris Mannix articulates the impossibility of Kirilenko’s defense:

With Utah clinging to a late four-point lead against Milwaukee, Kirilenko poked the ball away from Bucks point guard Ramon Sessions and took it the length of the court for a game-sealing dunk. What was special about that steal—his fifth of the night—was that it came during a dribble handoff. As Sessions gave the ball to Richard Jefferson, Kirilenko slid his arm between the two and knocked the ball free. “Did he just do that?” marveled a scout watching the game. “He’s Rope Man. He can get those arms in the smallest of spaces.

There is something religious about the franchise player model that most teams subscribe to, placing all hope and faith on one man to lead a team to victory. Not to say that a nightly collective effort is altogether agnostic, but the factors that contribute to success are more complex. There is little room for error. But that isn’t why this season’s Utah Jazz are important. They exist at the fringe of popular discourse—just outside of the clutch debate, the closer arguments, and thoughts of MVP and Finals candidates. The Jazz offer some semblance of purity, however fleeting. They are a collection of good, not great, talents playing stellar basketball as of late. Their play displaces some of the noise, some of the clutter. We thought we found utopia last season in Denver. Perhaps utopia exists further west.

***

The weekend’s here, and the Lakers have a lot of basketball in front of them. They face the Hornets tomorrow and the Warriors on Sunday, as the last month of the regular season arrives.  It hasn’t been a smooth ride, but there’s been progress. And after last night’s defeat, an obvious reminder – there is still ample room for improvenent.  What comes next? What does this team have to do to prepare for the playoffs? Comment away.

– Dave Murphy

Boxscore: Lakers 93, Thunder 102
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 108.1, Thunder 118.6
True Shooting %: Lakers 52.2%, Thunder 53.8%

The Good:
After wondering how Bynum would play after having a string of performances that were newsworthy for the wrong reasons, he came out ready to play against the Thunder. He had 25 points (on only 15 shots), grabbed 13 rebounds (7 offensive), and blocked 4 shots in 41 minutes of action (more on the minutes later). He was a presence on both ends of the floor in the paint, establishing the post on one end and protecting the rim against penetration on the other. Per NBA.com the Thunder only shot 48.8% in the restricted area on the night and a lot of that had to do with Bynum’s long arms and intent to defend the paint with authority.

On offense he flashed the moves that made him an all-star this season. He powered into hooks to the middle of the floor and displayed solid footwork when working the baseline. He made himself available for post catches by doing his work early and kept his hands ready when working off the ball, finishing multiple plays by keeping the ball high in traffic when he made difficult catches. All in all, Bynum was excellent on offense and disruptive on defense. It would have been nice if he could have grabbed more than 6 defensive rebounds (more on this later as well) but considering how often he was forced to help on dribble penetration and in showing help on the cuts and curls that help fuel OKC’s halfcourt sets, he deserves some reprieve in this area.

Also very good was the Lakers performance in the 1st period. The ball moved on offense, players were quick to make smart decisions, and it all led to good shots that were converted at a high rate. The defense was also very good as the Lakers kept the Thunder mostly on the perimeter and contested nearly every shot that went up. The Lakers played a controlled, disciplined style that proved they’re capable of hanging (and beating, if only for 12 minutes) one of the best teams in the league. If they could have bottled that effort for the rest of the game, things may have been different. However….

The Bad:
Let’s make a list, shall we?

  • The Thunder grabbed 19 offensive rebounds on the night and scored 23 second chance points.
  • The Lakers showed a complete inability to slow Russell Westbrook in the open court as he pushed the ball down their throats on multiple occasions. Westbrook ended up with 36 points on the night, including 27 in the 2nd half.
  • Kobe shot 7-25 on the night, missing some makable shots in the process but also relying on too many jumpers against tight defense in trying to get his baskets.
  • Kobe and Bynum played 41 minutes a piece in a game that was a late game (and mostly meaningless) run from being a double digit loss.
  • The Lakers gave up an offensive efficiency of 118 on the night, a mark that is 8 points (per 100 possessions) higher than the Thunder’s league leading mark on the season.
  • Gasol played 32 minutes. If you wonder why that’s bad, it’s because he was needed for more minutes but couldn’t play them because he picked up 3 fouls in the first 2 minutes of the 3rd quarter and had to go to the bench with 4. He sat the rest of that frame and by the time he got back into the game the game was already heavily tilted in the Thunder’s favor with momentum fully swung in their direction.
  • To rub salt in the wounds of this night, Fisher played well for his new team in hitting 3 of his 5 shots and ended up stopping the bleeding for the Thunder with 3 straight makes when their offense was flailing. The rest of his game was mostly forgettable but those shots, in the moment, were huge for the Thunder.

Ultimately, it was the Lakers’ defense that did them in tonight, though. As mentioned OKC’s offensive efficiency was off the charts good. The Lakers lack of floor balance made OKC’s transition offense even better than normal and the inability to close possessions with defensive rebounds was nightmarish most of the night.

The Ugly:
On a more general note, this game proved that the Lakers are a class below the Thunder right now. OKC couldn’t have played much worse in the first half (Durant was 5-16 for only 10 points, they were sloppy on O and D, etc, etc) but only trailed by 5 after 24 minutes. When Westbrook went nova in the 2nd half, the Lakers had little ability to keep pace and the game got out of hand to the point that the home crowd booed the team. Worse yet, the Lakers looked like a defeated team with no answers on how to solve the Thunder once the game started to turn. OKC’s D tightened and the Lakers couldn’t find a way to attack them with any success, ultimately relying on fading and leaning jumpers.

Said another way, OKC showed that they’re much better than the Lakers and considering it was a home game for the Lakers and that the season only has 15 games left that’s a bad sign. I mentioned before the game that this was a measuring stick game and the Lakers showed that they don’t measure up in falling way short of competing over the final two and a half quarters. Time is running short for this team to get it together and while Mike Brown searches for rotations that work, his big three are playing heavy minutes and wearing down. The formula is a bad one right now and the Lakers must find a way to get it together. And soon.

Records: Lakers 31-19 (3rd in West), Thunder 38-12 (1st in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.0 (15th in NBA), Thunder 110.4 (1st in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.2 (10th in NBA), Thunder 103.4 (12th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Thunder: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins
Injuries: Lakers: Jordan Hill (doubtful); Thunder: Daequan Cook (out), Eric Maynor (out)

The Lakers Coming in: The news cycle is still stuck on Andrew Bynum’s three pointer and subsequent benching, but there are actually bigger, team-wide issues to delve into with the Lakers. For instance, their decline in defense since the trade deadline. Per ESPN Stats and Information, since the trade deadline the Lakers have been the 20th best team in terms of defensive efficiency. They’ve given up about 6 points more per 100 possessions after the trade deadline than before it and this fact needs to be rectified sooner rather than later. Recently they’ve given up too many open jumpers and their inability to slow dribble penetration has been a primary reason. Guards and wings are getting into the lane too easily and it’s forcing big men to help and the defense to collapse, with rotations back to shooters not happening quickly enough. And when the bigs don’t help in time, the Lakers are giving up too many layups and even too many put-back attempts – which is counterintuitive since the bigs who aren’t helping should be in position to secure defensive rebounds.

The news isn’t all bad since the trade deadline, however. Over at NBA.com, John Schuhmann has crunched some numbers on the Lakers since acquiring Sessions and there are a lot of positives. You should read the entire thing, but this note on how big an impact he’s had while on the floor is quite telling:

The Lakers have outscored their opponents by 12.0 points per 100 possessions and by 56 points total with Sessions on the floor over the last seven games. With him on the bench, they’ve been outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions and by 38 points total. That discrepancy is about equal to the difference between the Bulls (+9.5) and the Bobcats (-14.3). So while his team hasn’t shot up the standings upon his arrival, Sessions has clearly been doing his part.

Again, go read the entire thing but numbers like these should be encouraging – especially if the Lakers can regain some of their focus on defense.

The Thunder Coming in: OKC has won four in a row (including a drubbing of the Heat on national TV this past Sunday) and seven of their last ten. They’re playing like a well-oiled machine, stopping teams defensively and putting the gears to them on offense with a multi-pronged attack that’s extremely difficult to slow down, much less stop. Against the Heat, they went away from some of their isolation sets and preyed on Miami’s over-aggressive defense by busting out a nice action built off on-ball screens that left their big men uncovered for easy finishes. Needless to say, it’s plays like that one and their growing maturity and confidence that make them one of the league’s best teams and true contender to win the championship.

Of course, this team also made a move recently by acquiring Derek Fisher after he was bought out by the Rockets. I’ve said a lot about Derek since he was traded at the deadline to the Rockets, but with him coming back to Staples as a visitor tonight, allow me a few more words….

Tonight will be strange for fans and Lakers players alike. Fisher’s play had diminished in the past few seasons but his leadership and presence had immense value to the Lakers. Having him return as a foe – and a member of a top flight team – is…strange. I would have preferred Fisher retire a Laker, but for all intents and purposes, he’ll be a Laker for life for many of us. When he comes into the game tonight, I’ll be clapping for him from my living room just as fans will be cheering for him from the stands. That said, once the ball goes live he’s a member of the other team. As Kobe said last week, it’d be disrespectful of Fisher – as a competitor – to take it easy on him and not try to “destroy” him. So while Fish will always have a place in my heart for all he’s done as a player that’s given me such joy, tonight I want him to leave a loser at the hands of the Lakers.

Thunder Blogs: Daily Thunder is a great site that does an excellent job covering that team. Check out their work.

Keys to game: Because there’s so much ground to cover in this section, I’m going to bullet points for this section:

  • Durant vs. Ron will play a major role in how this game’s determined. In the last match up between these teams, Durant went off for 33 points. He made 12 of his 22 FGs, but an even crazier 10 of his 14 two-point shots. He was able to create off the dribble and get into the paint to finish, or use the threat of his quickness to get up jumpers just out of reach of a good challenge from his man. In the past, Ron’s physical defense and ball denials bothered KD, but in the last game he shrugged off those tactics and still got his points fairly easily. If the Lakers are to win tonight, Ron will need to be better as will Barnes. The Laker bigs will also need to be more aware in how they help on KD off the ball, as they must help Ron and Matt navigate screens and serve as deterrents to the easy passes that KD can catch on the move to set up easy (for him) looks. Of course they can’t over-help as they may fall victim to the play OKC put on Miami, but they’ll need to be smart and disciplined when defending off the ball.
  • Who will guard Westbrook? In the past, Kobe’s guarded Russ and given him a modified version of the Rondo treatment by laying off him and inviting the jumpshot. However, a lot of that match up was dictated off the Lakers not having a PG with enough quickness to stay with Russ in either the open or half court. With Sessions on board, it will be interesting to see who this match up falls to, because if Kobe is on Russ he’ll be expending a lot of energy chasing one of best athletes and offensive weapons in the entire league at any position. I’d much rather prefer to see if Sessions is up to the task and turn to Kobe in crucial possessions if needed, rather than have Kobe chase him around whenever they share the court.
  • The Laker bigs must play big tonight. Ibaka and Perkins are known for their defense, but both Pau and Bynum can have success against them with disciplined offensive attacks. Ibaka is a great shot blocker, but he can be susceptible to shot fakes and quick, assertive moves. Pau can take what the D gives him (which will be his jumper) but he will need to also go to the post for optimal success, and that means dealing with Ibaka’s shot blocking prowess. Quick hooks and power drives when turning and facing will serve Pau well tonight. As for Bynum, he has an advantage over Perkins and has had one nearly every time they’ve faced off when both were completely healthy. He can use his power game and counters to get good shots in close whenever he’s isolated on the block. However, he must also do his work early in possessions by fighting for position before he has the ball. The defense will likely dig down on him to make him a passer, but he should use those opportunities to make a quick pass back to the perimeter and then re-post quickly to get even better position. I know that Bynum’s been the subject of criticism lately, but his play tonight can be a major factor in making that all yesterday’s news. He must simply embrace it and go hard.
  • Kobe will face off against an old foe in Thabo tonight. They’ve gone head to head many times over the years (dating back to when Sefolosha was in Chicago), and in the past year or so I’ve noticed that Kobe’s gotten a much better feel for how he likes to attack the rangy defense offered. In the last game, Thabo didn’t play and Kobe had to deal a lot more with Durant and the underrated Harden on D. With Thabo back in the fold, expect Kobe to have a better plan of attack than he showed the last game. He’ll need it too, because without an efficient night from Bean the Lakers will be hard pressed to win this game.
  • Speaking of Harden, the Lakers must slow him down tonight. He got going in the last game and blew the game open with his shot making and creativity off the bounce. The Lakers didn’t have anyone to really guard him, but I’m hoping with Brown tweaking his substitutions we’ll get to see Barnes on the Beard more often tonight, with Ron still in the game to guard Durant. Harden’s a crafty penetrator and is an excellent P&R ball handler who’s proven to have great chemistry with Nick Collison when both are in the game. Whoever is on him will need to make him shoot jumpers off the dribble, with the back line of the defense ready to step up early and contest shots without fouling. Harden is a master of drawing contact so that last point is very important. Sending him to the FT line for easy points can really get him going and must be avoided.
  • Lastly, I’d like to see Sessions more involved on offense tonight than he was on Tuesday against the Warriors. In that game he was a bit tentative and the Lakers seemed to purposefully go to more big man and wing screen actions to get Kobe, Pau, and Andrew going. Tonight, though, Sessions’ speed and ability to get into the lane and finish or draw fouls once there will be a needed ingredient to a win. Despite his reputation as a strong defensive guard, Westbrook can be taken advantage of on that side of the ball and it will be up to Sessions to do so. Smart drives and cuts, change of pace plays, and open court chances will all be available tonight should he look for them. Here’s hoping he does.

If there were ever a measuring stick game, this is it. The Thunder lead the West and are the favorites to represent the conference in the Finals come June. The Lakers used to be the team that was thought of that way, but last year’s sweep and up and down play this year makes that no longer be the case. The other day, Kobe said that he doesn’t understand why people don’t consider the Lakers a title contender and that people seem to discount them too often. That can start to change with a win tonight.

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

Wednesday Storylines

Dave Murphy —  March 28, 2012

The Lakers needed a win last night to get rid of the taste of Sunday night’s debacle against Memphis. Needed, in the sense of moving past Coach Brown’s fourth quarter benching of his reigning superstar, Kobe Bryant. They got the win, but haven’t moved past a coach’s corrective actions. This time, Brown sat the team’s emerging superstar, Andrew Bynum – this after the low-post resident chucked up an ill-advised three-point attempt in the third quarter.

The win didn’t come easily. Credit the undersized Warriors for their effort – a team that’s not remotely superstar found a way back in after being down by double digits. On the Lakers side, Matt Barnes and World Peace played hard, Pau Gasol had 17 rebounds, and Kobe made a couple of clutch baskets at the end to seal the deal.

One of the key differences in the benching of Kobe on Sunday, and Andrew last night, is in their own reactions. Kobe accepted what happened and refused to fuel it as a story. Andrew’s not there yet. His truculent statement to reporters that he’s gonna keep taking threes, was no way to put out a fire. The links are largely Bynum-centric, because there is simply no way around it

Brian Kamenetzky from the Land O’Lakers has a rapid reaction to the games ups and downs.

Marc Spears at Yahoo Sports looks at Andrew Bynum’s immaturity, on a night when Kobe Bryant reached an important milestone.

Dave McMenamin from EPSN provides another look at the benching of Bynum, and his reaction to it.

Kevin Ding at the OC Register has news on Jordan Hill’s knee.

Tim Harvey for Lakers Nation has a nice piece about Kobe and Ramon, 24/7.

Andrew Lynch at Hardwood Paroxysm writes about basketball’s home stretch, 17 games in 31 days.

Dexter Fishmore at Silver Screen and Roll steers the conversation back to Bynum, on a night when Matt Barnes logged the best game of his season, against the team he once played for.

If anyone needs a feel-good post today, news of the Dodgers purchase by the Magic-led group came down last night. Dexter writes about this as well – it’s a terrific development for Dodgers fans, and for baseball in general.

***

Coaching the Los Angeles Lakers is no easy task. Mike Brown came into his job in a lockout year. He’s trying to instill a new system, meld new players together on the fly, and learn how to handle his big three. He’s trying, and was probably right in sitting Andrew down. On whole however, his leadership skills in Los Angeles have been middling. Bringing the boom down on both Kobe and Andrew, in a 48 hour span, heading into the crucial stretch drive, is at the least, curious. Next up, tomorrow night’s game against the best of the west, the Oklahoma City Thunder. And, the return of Derek Fisher –our former peacemaker.

– Dave Murphy