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