Archives For March 2012

The addition of Ramon Sessions has unquestionably sparked the Lakers. While their record is just 3-3 in his 6 games with the team, there has been a noticeable pep in the step of the players and a change in how they’re playing, results be damned. The offensive sets look more crisp, the ball is moving more, and there’s been an increase in easy baskets. The defense has looked about the same – while having the same up and down moments that last night’s performance exemplified – but that’s a topic for another day.

What the addition of Sessions has also shown, though, is that the Lakers remain very much a top heavy team. This was masked somewhat by him coming off the bench for his first four games, but now that he’s starting it’s crystallized for everyone to see. Another way to say this is that the Sessions’ acquisition has essentially better balanced the team’s top talent while not doing much to really increase the quality of the roster – at least in relation to last season.

Let’s look at last year’s roster: Fisher, Kobe, Ron, Pau, Bynum, Odom, Barnes, Brown, Blake, Smith, Ratliff, Ebanks, Caracter, and Walton.

Now this year’s roster: Sessions, Kobe, Ron, Pau, Bynum, Barnes, Blake, McRoberts, Murphy, Goudelock, Ebanks, Morris, Hill, and Eyenga.

If you look at the overall quality of both groups, what’s effectively happened is that the Lakers swapped Odom for Sessions. The rest of the roster is either the exact same or has swapped out one group of veterans and youngsters for another group of similarly talented players. We can argue value in terms of leadership (Fisher) or athleticism (Brown) or skill set, but the fact is that the pieces that are with the team today don’t differ too much in terms quality of player.

And that is the real issue with this current Lakers team. They simply haven’t upgraded too much (if at all) from a pure talent stand point.

Some games, this simply won’t matter. With a top heavy team, that tier of elite players is good enough to win a lot of games. Last year that meant Kobe, Pau, Bynum and Odom doing most of the heavy lifting from night to night. Those players had played together for several years so there was chemistry at play but even if that was stripped away, their talent could lead the team to wins and often did. This season Odom is gone but Sessions is now in his place and his play making and ability to score provides a similar impact when added to the Lakers big three.

When it comes to role players, this is also true. They’ll have games that show why they’re NBA players in the first place by providing strong contributions that help a team win. Whether it’s Murphy knocking down shots, McRoberts providing hustle plays and open court baskets it isn’t too different than Fisher hitting open shots or Brown providing scoring punch and athletic finishes. The pieces and positions they play may be different but the overall talent level and on court, tangible production isn’t.

Again, some nights this won’t matter. The Lakers are third in the Western Conference, first in their division and they didn’t get there by being a bad team. They win more than they lose and do so through a mix of their top shelf talent performing to their standards and the role players filling in the gaps the best way they can. Sometimes this produces strong performances, other times not so much. Against the Grizzlies, the bench played poorly, the top level talent played okay and a loss ensued.

How far this team can go will be dependent on a variety of factors. Can their best players provide what’s needed each night? Can one or more role players raise their game? Can this group find the right mix of chemistry, personnel groupings, and hunger? We won’t know the answers to these questions until they’re in the line of fire; until they’re in a post-season series that requires them to be at their best or fight through a moment to hang on when they’re not.

But when looking at this team, understand that from a talent stand point, not much has changed from last year beyond a reorganization of the talent at the disposal of the coaches. When last year’s team failed, calls to better balance the roster were made and the team that’s before us today is the result for better or for worse. And the fact that Mike Brown is still searching for good lineups that can produce and/or tinkering with who plays and who sits shouldn’t obscure this fact.

If I could recap this game in one word, it would be frustrated.

Fans are frustrated with a home loss that the Lakers could have used to build on their back to back wins over Dallas and Portland.

The coaches were clearly frustrated by their players’ lack of effort on defense and their casual approach on offense.

The players were frustrated by the physicality of the Grizzlies, where tough defense and a patient approach on offense must have seemed like a turn in the torture chamber.

Frustrated. Everyone is feeling it right now.

Save for the Grizzlies of course. Give the blue bears credit in this game. They played harder and smarter than the home team. Rudy Gay paced his ‘mates with 18 points on 14 shots on mostly disciplined attacks off the dribble. He used his quickness advantage over Artest to get below the foul line and shoot turnaround jumpers that Ron tried to contest but couldn’t fully get to. OJ Mayo poured in 12 points in the decisive 4th quarter on hot outside shooting and strong drives to the rim and his 16 points for the game nearly doubled the output of the Lakers reserves (who tallied all of 9 points on the evening). When you add in Haddadi’s 10 points off the bench and Zach Randolph’s 10 and 12 rebounds from a reserve role, the Grizzlies bench gave their team a spark that the Lakers simply couldn’t match.

From the Lakers end, though, it was truly a lack of effort and commitment that did them in. Yes, some of the players point totals and shooting percentages look nice but when you look closer at the boxscore, you can see the red flags. Bynum had 4 rebounds all game and besides Pau’s 11 defensive boards no Laker had more than 3 defensive rebounds all game. The Lakers committed 16 turnovers, mostly of the lazy and weak variety where they either floated a pass or weren’t strong enough with the ball. Rather than doing work to establish the post or set good screens, the Lakers settled for jumpers or tried to do all their work after having the ball in their hands neither of which were very successful.

But it was the defense that really let the Lakers down. The rim went unprotected. Cutters weren’t bumped. Too many shots went uncontested. When the ball was turned over, too many Lakers watched instead of racing back on D. The result was too many easy shots and on a night where the Lakers couldn’t hit their own open jumpers, they didn’t have the firepower to overcome such poor effort. It got to the point that Mike Brown even sat Kobe in a key stretch of the 4th quarter trying to give his team some life only to bring him back in with under two minutes remaining because that didn’t work either.

And so everyone is frustrated. You, me, the coaches, and the players. But, when you take a step back the realization comes that games like this happen. Some nights the other team comes out hungrier, plays harder, and proves to be better on that evening. Such was the case for the Lakers in this game, just like it was for the Mavs this past Wednesday. Hopefully the team learns from this game and can turn some of that frustration into stronger play.

Records: Lakers: 30-18 (3rd in West), Grizzlies: 25-21 (6th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers: 104.7 (15th in NBA), Grizzlies: 102.8 (21st in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers: 101.8 (10th in NBA), Grizzlies: 101.5 (8th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Grizzlies: Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol
Injuries: Lakers: none; Grizzlies: Darrell Arthur (out)
The Lakers Coming In: Euphoric. A team that was already experiencing more success than the eyeball test would have suggested has addressed its most glaring deficiency and now looks not only like a lock for a top-3 playoff seed, but a legitimately nightmare matchup once the playoffs begin. As we’ll see momentarily, the Lakers have played some solid ball all season, but it’s rather quickly become obvious just how hamstrung this squad was by woeful point guard play in the season’s first three months. Thanks to wins in 16 of their last 22 games, including 7 of the last 10, the Lakers have bypassed the Clippers (loser of 10 of 17 since the All-Star break) for the top spot in the Pacific (now leading by 3 games) and tonight’s opponent as well (the resurgent Memphis Grizzlies), who now trail Kobe & Co. by 4 games.

Now, it would be crazy to suggest that Ramon Sessions will maintain the incredible 58%-shooting, 50%-from-3, near-26-PER form we’ve seen in his first five games as a Laker, but what fans are justified in banking on are the skills he’s brought to this team – namely top-shelf foot speed and quickness, along with an ability to pose a multi-dimensional threat coming off of a screen. It’s a bit early to get too deeply analytical about the long term impact of Sessions on these Lakers – extrapolating off this small sample might lead to a slightly premature Hall of Fame induction and the aggressive tempering of expectations is just no fun – so, as we’ve done in recent days, let’s revel in the fact that we’ve now got a lead guard, and enjoy our own irrational, Linsanity-esque ride for as long as it lasts, knowing full well that if the Ramon Sessions we get in the long haul is even 60% of this Ramon Sessions, the coming weeks are going to be a blast.

The Grizzlies Coming In: The Grizzlies, like the Lakers, had been playing some excellent ball of late. Since a 10-point home loss to the Jazz on February 12 dropped them to 14-14, the Grizz have prevailed in 11 of 18 and, until this week, appeared to be cementing their place in the middle of the West’s playoff seedings.

However, while Memphis, now back at full strength following the return of Zach Randolph, is still a safe bet to finish among the conference’s top eight, losses in each of their last three, including a convincing defeat at the hands of Clippers yesterday, has dropped them into the dogfight at the bottom half of the West bracket. Though currently sixth and just a game behind the Clippers and Mavericks for #’s 4 and 5, the Grizzlies are in a virtual tie with the hard-charging Jazz and and a half game up on the Nuggets in the final three playoff spots, with the Rockets and invigorated Suns breathing down their necks.

As can reasonably be said of many teams in similar situations, the Grizzlies simply cannot afford to allow this current slump to extend much further. The Lakers will need to approach this contest with a bit of caution, as evidenced by the absences of Rudy Gay for the entirety of the fourth quarter and Mike Conley for the final 19 minutes against the Clippers, rather than exhausting all of their resources in what likely would have been a futile comeback attempt, the team is likely to see the very best the Grizzlies have to offer.

Grizzlies Blogs: 3 Shades of Blue and Straight Outta Vancouver do an excellent job of covering the Grizz. Give these guys a read.

Keys to the Game: This game is a treasure trove of fascinating matchups. For starters, Ramon Sessions will face the toughest head-to-head matchup of his Laker tenure, when he squares off against a rested Mike Conley. On the wings, each squad’s top perimeter scorer will lock horns with the opponent’s top perimeter defender, as Tony Allen will check Kobe Bryant, while Matt Barnes/MWP attempt to keep Rudy Gay quiet. However, the determining factor in this one is likely to be the battle in the trenches.

While the Grizzlies limited (to some extent) Z-Bo’s minutes following his return from injury, he saw the floor for nearly 38 minutes against the Clippers. With the exception of his 25-minute, 25-point outburst off the bench in his first game back, Randolph’s game has yet to reach its max potential. With that said, he is beginning to look like his old self and is likely not far from a vintage, ground-bound Z-Bo 25-18. It will be vital that Pau Gasol check him aggressively and carry that aggression to the offensive end to make Randolph work on D, preferably out of prime rebounding position.

Meanwhile, the best big man battle in the Western Conference will be waged on the other side of the paint, as Andrew Bynum and Pau’s “little” brother, Marc (one of the only bigs in the NBA capable of matching Drew’s strength) square off. Again, aggression will be the order of the day, as Bynum, in what should be an excellent challenge, will be called on to bring max effort both at the defensive end and on the boards, while controlling his aggression to avoid foul trouble, as he will have to give the Lakers at least 20-12, and no fewer than 35 minutes.

On the heels of a potentially epic Heat-Thunder clash, this ought to be another must-watch. At the end of the day, the Lakers will probably have too much length up front and enough backcourt firepower to prevail, though a blowout would come as something of a surprise. 

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

The Lakers must find a way to diversify their late game offense if they’re going to be successful scoring the ball. Running simple down screen actions for Kobe and/or asking him to create off the dribble isn’t a strategy that will work often enough for it to be the only plan of attack. It puts the Lakers in a position where they’re too dependent on one person to score for their offense to be successful, and beyond that it’s asking him to do so mostly on his own. And while Kobe’s always seemed willing to operate within this type of structure, it’s not the most prudent way of attacking a geared up defense. Of course, missing Bynum surely hurt them as he’s become a very good late game option in the low post. And with his full compliment of players, who knows what Brown calls or what the players decide to run if given the chance. But last night was an example of the Lakers being too predictable. And in the end, that must change or they’ll be too easy to defend on these critical possessions.

The paragraph above was taken from the preview for the Mavs game after the Lakers stumbled down the stretch against the Rockets, losing a double digit lead on their way to a difficult to stomach loss. Losing that type of lead and then dropping the game is rare for the Lakers, but the way their offense performed and the tactics they used to try to score the ball were not.

Too often this year – and in years past – the Lakers have gone to a Kobe-centric offense to produce points. Now to be fair, the Lakers have won a lot of games (and multiple championships) using this strategy and so to knock it completely would be foolish. However, as I implied above, it would also be foolish to only rely on this approach if other options were available.

After that game I decided that the next time the Lakers had a game that was close in the final five minutes that I’d chart possessions, see what the team ran, and look at how successful they were. The Blazers game offered that chance as with five minutes left in the game, the Lakers led by only a single point after Wesley Matthews hit a spot up three-pointer to make the score 87-86 Lakers. Below is what unfolded down the stretch (note: the time remaining is when the Lakers start their possession):

  • 4:52 remaining: Sessions brings the ball up the middle of the floor and calls for a P&R with McRoberts. Sessions doesn’t really use the screen and penetrates to his left hand, probing for an opening. Nothing is there and he kicks to Kobe in the strong side corner. Kobe dribbles out, hits Sessions with a pass on the wing, who then enters the ball to Bynum in the post. After Sessions’ man digs down on the post, Bynum passes to Sessions, who steps into what would by a rhythm three-pointer. However, on the weak side of the floor, Barnes saw that his man was ball watching and made a smart cut behind him. Sessions, while in the air ready to shoot the three pointer, hit Barnes in stride and Matt finished an easy lay in against a flat-footed defense. Lakers lead 89-86.
  • 4:16 remaining: After the Blazers turn the ball over on their next possession, Sessions grabs the ball and races up court only to find the Blazers had done a good job of getting back in transition. He slows down, waits for his mates to get up court, and then attacks the paint behind Bynum – sort of like a RB following his fullback through the hole – who is diving the front of the rim. Sessions doesn’t find any daylight and pulls the ball back. On his retreat, he finds a trailing Kobe and passes it to him. Kobe then attacks hard off the dribble against his man (who is off balance because he was retreating, then tried to close out on Kobe on the catch) and draws a foul when elevating for a foul line jumper. Kobe makes one of two from the line and the Lakers lead 90-86.
  • 3:35 remaining: On the next Blazers’ possession they hit a three-pointer to cut the Lakers lead to one, and Sessions brings the ball up the middle of the floor. He calls for a P&R with Pau, and as before, he goes left, but doesn’t see an opening and passes to Kobe on the strong side wing. Kobe dribbles to his right and Pau comes over and sets another ball screen to try and free Kobe, who then threatens the paint and dishes to Barnes on the right side. Barnes then dribbles hard to the paint past his man trying to close out and dishes to Gasol, who had floated to the left corner after setting the pick on Kobe. Pau shoots a 16 footer from the baseline that misses. However, because the Blazers were in a scramble mode on D, McRoberts sneaks into the paint and taps the ball back high to Kobe, who secures the offensive rebound.
  • 3:18 remaining: After the reset, Kobe hit Pau on the mid-left block for a post up. Because the defense had scrambled, the Blazers were cross matched and they rushed a double team to Gasol. Pau read the defense and made the right read – a skip pass to Sessions, who rose up and buried a three pointer that he could step into with zero pressure on him. That make puts the Lakers up 93-89.
  • 2:38 remaining: On the Blazers’ next play they forced a switch and had McRoberts guarding Felton. Knowing he could beat Josh off the dribble, Felton attacked the paint, saw Gasol stepping up and shot a floater that missed short. Pau grabbed the rebound and hit McRoberts with an outlet pass up the right side of the floor. Once in the front court, McRoberts hits Kobe on the right wing who then dribbles the ball up high and calls Sessions over to run a 2/1 P&R. Kobe draws both defenders and then passes to Sessions on the right wing. Sessions, who is completely uncovered, attacks the paint hard, draws a defender, and then drops off a great pass to a hard cutting Barnes right down the middle of the lane. Barnes bobbles the pass but finishes a lay in once he controls the ball. Lakers now lead 95-89.
  • 2:00 minutes remaining: Kobe brings the ball up the right side of the floor after Crawford hit two FTs to cut the lead to four. Kobe calls Sessions over for another P&R, goes left, and hits Gasol above the three-point line on the right side of the floor. Not in a position to do anything, Pau passes right back to Kobe, who then attacks the middle of the floor but faces a double team at the FT line after coming to a jump stop. Kobe kicks the ball to Pau, who gives the ball to Sessions after he rotated back to the top of the key after the play had broken down. Sessions calls out an action and tries a pass to Kobe at the right elbow that gets knocked away. Kobe chases the ball down, but with the shot clock running down ends up trying to draw a foul when forcing up a three pointer. Luckily, Kobe’s shot hit the front of the rim, bounced straight back to where Sessions was standing, and the Lakers secure the offensive rebound.
  • 1:35 remaining: Sessions calls out a play with the ball above the top of the key. He signals Pau to go to the right block and tells Kobe to move from the right wing to the left corner. After Sessions can’t hit Pau in the post, he swings the ball to Ron, who then enters the ball to Bynum on the left block. Felton immediately leaves Sessions to double team and Bynum makes the good, quick pass to Sessions on the right side of the floor. With the D rotating to him, Sessions hits Ron, who then works off the dribble to the FT line and hits a pull up jumper over his man. The Lakers now lead 97-91.
  • 1:00 remaining: After a quick P&R got LaMarcus Aldridge a lay in, Sessions brings the ball up the middle of the floor. He finds that the Blazers are in a zone (a D that had bothered the Lakers all night). Facing the two guard Blazer front, he and Pau set up a quick P&R and Sessions dribbles to his right. Pau then sealed the guard he screened, called for the ball, and Sessions hit him a step below the FT line. Pau turned over his left shoulder and hit an easy ten foot jumper over a player he had a twelve inch advantage on. The Laker lead is 99-93 and the Blazers call a time out.

Over the last 49 seconds of the game, the Blazers run a variety of plays to try and get baskets and when most of them fail, they end up fouling the Lakers. Barnes and Kobe take a combined six FTs down the stretch (making four), with a Wesley Matthews three pointer producing the rest of the points this game would see. The Lakers end up winning 103-96.

The final tallies are quite impressive. In the four minutes before it became a foul fest, the Lakers put up ten points on eight “plays” (but only six trips down the floor). On their two misses they grabbed offensive rebounds and on the secondary possessions scored five points. They ran multiple actions, spread the ball around with no single player taking more than two shots, and weren’t predictable in any way.

After the game, the players and coaches spoke about how defenses must now prepare for more diversity from the Lakers. Not only do they have to worry about the actions to get Kobe the ball, the post up actions for Pau and Bynum, and the P&R sets that Kobe runs, but they must also prepare for the P&Rs that Sessions runs and the transition game that he brings to L.A.’s attack. Against Portland, the Lakers showed that the diversity is not just a part of their normal game plan, but part of their crunch time game plan too. And if that continues, the Lakers will be a much better team down the stretch of games and will be more difficult to beat. In other words, watch out.

It’s really this simple: Ramon Sessions is a difference maker.

He’s not the best player on the Lakers, nor is he the most important. But he’s the guy who’s providing exactly what this team needs, and in his first start of the year, he proved that he can fill in the gaps and supply what’s needed to help the Lakers.

Tonight he had 20 points, 11 assists (with only 3 turnovers), and 6 rebounds. His speed and quickness were key elements in the open court and his savvy and command as a floor general were equally as important in the half court. He was able to get to the rim, hit his outside shot, pick out teammates on time with on-target passes, and run the show the entire time he was on the floor.

One possession stood out to me the most, though. Kobe had just taken a long contested jumper against the shot clock, but the long rebound was tipped back and the Lakers got another possession. Sessions secured the ball, held it near mid-court and the camera zoomed in on a close up. He then signaled for a play, directed Kobe to the weak side and calmly entered the ball into Gasol. After Pau surveyed the floor, the ball was kicked out, then swung around the perimeter until it ended up in Ron’s hands. Ron dribbled to his right and took an in-rhythm foul line jumper that he buried. The Lakers’ lead was six and the game was essentially over.

This play was both minor and major at the same time. In only his 5th game of the season and his 1st start, Sessions took the reins of the Lakers’ offense, decided what he wanted to run, and it produced a basket. The Lakers didn’t have to go to Kobe. Didn’t have to run a screen heavy action or an isolation. They went inside, moved the ball, and a player that isn’t a member of the big three took and hit the shot. We’ve not seen this all year, but it seemed so natural.

And this is what Sessions represents now — he represents possibility.

The Lakers will still be a team that depends on their big three. Bynum scored 28 points tonight on his typical display of brute strength and touch around the basket. Kobe didn’t shoot well but his final line of 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists showed his impact. The same is true of Gasol, who struggled with his hook around the hoop and with the range on his jumper, but still pulled down 16 rebounds and tallied 6 assists.

But the Lakers now have another weapon. Sessions earned eight trips to the foul line. He picked out Barnes on a multitude of cuts and dished to Ron when he sealed his man on the block. He involved McRoberts in P&Rs and drove and kicked to Blake on the wing. He found a way to involve his teammates while still getting his own.

He made a difference.

The Lakers aren’t a new team. Not yet. They struggled to defeat a Blazer team that was blown up a week ago. They didn’t defend the three-point line as well as they could have, and gave up too many open jumpers to LaMarcus Aldridge.

But you can see the promise with this group. The path to being a better team was seemingly drawn in invisible ink, and with Sessions on board the lines are now starting to reveal themselves. Watching the Lakers is becoming more fun, just as you can tell that the players are having more fun when on the court.

After the game Mike Brown said, “I think we can get a lot better than we are now, which is exciting.” I think we can all agree with that.