Archives For March 2012

Friday Forum

Dave Murphy —  March 23, 2012

This Friday’s Lakers are riding a high note, coming off a convincing win against the Mavericks, including some throwback acrobatics from the Mamba.  It seems strange to me, that we’re already at the top of the stretch – only 19 games until the playoffs begin. Ramon Sessions’s arrival has brought an infusion of pick and roll energy and the effect on his teammates, and the game itself, has been obvious.

Zach Lowe, the Point Forward: Ramon Sessions has played four games with the Lakers, including three against defenses ranked 18th or worse in points per possession — Houston, Minnesota and Utah, though the Jazz played some stingy D in beating the Lakers on Sunday. Sessions has logged a grand total of 100 minutes with his new team after being traded from the Cavaliers. Those 100 minutes might prove totally meaningless in the long haul, such as there is a long haul in this compressed schedule. With all that said, you cannot simply ignore early trends, and the results suggest that Sessions, as many predicted, could have a larger impact on the Lakers than his middling individual numbers in Cleveland indicate he should. Sessions might be only a league-average point guard, the thinking went, but league average would be a giant upgrade over the Derek Fisher/Steve Blake combination — an improvement that might add up to something greater than the difference between Sessions’ individual stats and those of the players whose minutes he would take. Sessions’ numbers have been fantastic. He’s averaging nearly 18 points and nine assists per 36 minutes, shooting a totally unsustainable 57 percent, hitting enough outside jumpers to punish defenders who leave him open and assisting on better than 40 percent of the Lakers’ baskets while he’s on the floor. Even more encouraging: He has transformed the offense, Los Angeles’ weak link, both in terms of increased production and better shot distribution. The Lakers rank 15th in points per possession and have been around that mark all season. Teams that play average ball on one side of the floor rarely compete for championships; the Lakers’ defense has been solid, but not quite good enough to carry a middling offense through four brutal playoff rounds.

Matt Moore at CBS/Eye on Sports: When the Lakers acquired Ramon Sessions at the trade deadline from the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for the “rotting corpse” contracts of Luke Walton and Jason Kapono along with a first-round pick in 2012 and the right to swap picks in 2013, Lakers fans got excited. Here was a real-life point guard, not just a game-managing, “give the ball to Kobe and go sit in the corner patiently” fill-in. Derek Fisher is many good things for a basketball team. Dynamic is not one of them. Sessions, on the other hand, is exceedingly dynamic. The Lakers’ offense under Mike Brown is nothing like it was under Phil Jackson. There were some natural fits at the start of the season. Pushing the ball through the post more to Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, was, in a big way, a good idea. It took some time, though, because of the fact tat Kobe Bryant was the that primary backcourt initiator. Criticize Bryant and you ignore his elite scoring ability, his place in NBA history, and yes, his five championship rings. Ignore those faults, and you’re feigning obliviousness to the simple reality that often times Bryant’s own supreme confidence in his abilities, the very thing that makes him such a phenomenal offensive force, can override his decision-making with regards to the right play. Put simply… dude doesn’t like to pass. He will, he’ll do it, he does, quite often. But if he has his druthers, he’s putting up a FGA. That’s just who he is. How he responds to less control with Sessions running the offense is something to keep an eye on.

Henry Abbott, True Hoop: Going into last week’s trade deadline, the Lakers had various priorities, but, interestingly, not all of them had to do with fielding the best basketball team imaginable. The package they traded for point guard Ramon Sessions included the stale contracts of Luke Walton and Jason Kapono. And that’s no small part of the reason the team had to ship out a potentially valuable first-round pick to get the Cavaliers to agree. Similarly, they recently traded Lamar Odom for a pick (albeit as part of a larger scheme to get Chris Paul that famously fell apart). They have saved money in various deals through the years, including Vladimir Radmanovic, Chris Mihm and Adam Morrison. Not to mention, during the lockout, they took the step of aggressively trimming all kinds of staff, cutting loose various video guys and the like. Meanwhile, isn’t the story that this business is made of money, in the best media market in the NBA, with insanely high ticket prices, no competition from the NFL and one of the richest local TV deals in the history of sports? Forbes says the local TV deal alone will bring the team an average of more than $200 million a year for the next 15 years. Why on earth would they ever do something like fire the video guy, or give up a pick in the name of ditching a contract? There are various answers. One is that they’re paying more than $85 million in salaries this season. Also, while a lot of NBA teams are hobbies for their owners who make their billions elsewhere, the Lakers are the primary business of the Buss family — who are wealthy compared to you and me, but not compared to many in the owners’ club. And, of course, the various layers of luxury tax negotiated into the new CBA will punish the team mightily this year, and even more severely in the future, which requires some planning now. But the biggest answer has to do with one of the crown jewels of last summer’s multi-faceted lockout talks: The NBA now has aggressive revenue sharing. And sources say that alone is set to cost the Lakers very close to $50 million this year, and something similar every year of the new collective bargaining agreement.

Kurt Helin, ProBasketBallTalk: This tweet from Darnell Mayberry from the Oklahoman, says all you need to know: “Derek Fisher just walked into the Thunder’s locker room”. It’s what he brings to that locker room — more than on the court — that got the Oklahoma City Thunder to sign the five-time champion Derek Fisher. The team has confirmed the signing, Fisher cleared waivers at 6 p.m. Eastern. and signed minutes later. Fisher will be in uniform for the Thunder Wednesday night against the Clippers. Go ahead and circle March 29 on your calendar now — that is when Fisher returns to Staples Center to face the Lakers. The Lakers traded the veteran to the Rockets at the trade deadline, a move made to clear the way in the locker room politically for the arrival of Ramon Sessions. No doubt Sessions is the better player at this point, but Fisher sitting on the bench could have created problems. The Lakers traded him to the Rockets, and Fisher gave up his entire $3.4 million player option next season to be bought out and be made a free agent. Because Fisher wanted to win another ring (he has five as a Laker). Something he thinks could happen in Oklahoma City.

Another article that is well worth reading is Understanding Advanced Stats: The Difficulty of Defense, by Clint Peterson for Hardwood Paroxysm. I didn’t include block text because it’s an article the presents best by reading it in its entirety, with accompanying charts and video. Clint is one of the smarter, and better writers in basketball. Check it out.

A week after the trade deadline and its notable arrivals and departures, the Lakers may finally be finding their stride. They host the Trailblazers tonight – a team that has seen its share of shakeups and difficulties this season. The Lakers are holding onto a solid 3rd slot in the west. Portland is currently in 12th place, although interestingly, only four games out of 5th – that’s how bunched up the lower half of the bracket is.

Kobe Bryant is no longer the uber athlete he was in his prime. The fearless attacking of the rim and posterizing of big men has been replaced with more a more measured and calculating style. That said, when he makes a highlight play, it’s still amazing to see. And, against the Mavs, he made a play that was simply out of this world. Spinning off of a Jason Kidd ball denial in the post, Kobe caught a lob pass that was directly under the rim, got nudged from behind while in mid-air, and flipped up a reverse lay-in all in one motion while falling to the ground. This play happened on over a day ago and I still can’t stop thinking about it. It was that good. See for yourself and enjoy.

Box Score: Lakers 109, Mavericks 93
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 123.9, Mavericks 105.7
True Shooting %: Lakers 68.2%, Mavericks 53.5%

On the heels of a brutal come-from-ahead loss in Houston on Tuesday night, the Lakers wrapped up their Texas two-step in Dallas, where the defending champs and administrators of last spring’s postseason humiliation awaited. More tough sledding ahead? Not so much.

The Good: Practically everything. For starters, you know how all season the “Bad” and “Ugly” sections of these reviews have lamented the Lakers’ inability to a) connect from the outside and b) generate any kind of meaningful production off of the bench? Well, on Wednesday night, the Lakers made a phenomenal 50% of their 18 3-point attempts, six of them by bench players. Speaking of which, the Lakers’ bench was outscored by its Mavs’ counterpart by just two points, 38-36, staggering given we’re talking about, y’know, the Lakers’ bench.

In the starting unit, deadly efficiency ruled the day, as Kobe Bryant, operating within the confines of the offense, scored 30 on 11-of-18 from the floor (and 7-of-7 FT), peppering the Mavs from mid-range all night. Meanwhile, Pau Gasol was absolutely masterful. Pau played one of, if not his best game of the season, connecting on 13 of his 16 shots en route to 27 points (to which he added 9 rebounds). Gasol was unstoppable on Wednesday night, not only making 6-of-7 in the paint, but doing significant damage from the outside as well, shooting 8-of-10 from outside the key, including a perfect 7-of-7 from 17-20 feet between the elbow and success on his only 3-point attempt.

Finally, we have Ramon Sessions. Much to the chagrin of the fans of Cleveland, Sessions has sent shockwaves through Lakerland, providing us with a glimpse into a life that heretofore might as well have existed in another galaxy. Not since the days of Nick Van Exel have Laker fans had a young and explosive point guard at the helm. On Wednesday night, Ramon Sessions played the point guard game that this fan base has desperately been waiting for. In 29 minutes, divided into two extended stretches, Ramon was a revelation, connecting on 7 of 8 shots, including 3-of-4 from beyond the arc for his 17 points, grabbing 5 rebounds and handing out 9 assists.

Every bit as impressive as his phenomenal stat line was his role in the Lakers’ offense, which only really came to life when he was on the floor. Sessions’ greatest assets are his quickness and speed off the dribble, which he utilized beautifully, starting almost immediately after entering the game with just under five minutes remaining in the first quarter, knifing into the lane and, with excellent decision-making, setting up open jump shots for teammates for each of his 9 assists, including four in a two-minute span late in the first quarter.

We’ve got a point guard!

The Bad: With the third member of their underperforming trio now spending his evenings trying to reign in Russell Westbrook, the “subpar stat line” onus was on Metta World Peace and Steve Blake. Now, truth be told neither of these guys was a complete disaster against the Mavs – MWP managed 4 rebounds, 3 assists and a blocked shot in 25 minutes, while Blake, Mike Brown’s starting point guard “for the foreseeable future,” had two pair, assists and steals, in 17 minutes on the floor – but a combined 7 points on 2-of-9 shooting, even with no turnovers, in 42 minutes is, how can I put this gently, kinda stinky.

The Ugly: Thanks to his averages of 23.7 points and 12.3 rebounds over the last 10 games, Andrew Bynum was obviously a focal point in the Mavericks’ defensive game plan. In the game’s opening minute Bynum grabbed a defensive rebound and converted a pretty reverse layup at the other end. However, rather than building on this dominating this contest the way he has so many of late, that play was the last one of consequence from the big man for some time.

Bynum was (understandably) the target of aggressive double and triple teams on every post touch from that point forward, and was unable to deliver the ball to the open man in a timely or effective manner. This strategy proved particularly effective for the Mavs in the first half, as the Lakers’ perimeter players frequently cut baseline after delivering the ball to Bynum down low. This tactic actually simplified the Mavs’ task, as they doubled aggressively off of the cutter, giving ‘Drew fits and preventing the Lakers from ever establishing him as an offensive threat.

However, the ugliness in Bynum’s performance on Wednesday night is not the result of Mavs’ defense pressuring him into an inefficient offensive game (he was 4-of-5 from the field) or sloppy effort passing out of the post (he didn’t turn the ball over once), but in Andrew’s generally lackadaisical effort. Far too often on Wednesday, Bynum was boxed out on both the offensive and defensive glass by smaller player that have no business doing so. Far too often he jogged back on offense, often not setting up inside the 3-point arc until 10+ seconds of the possession were gone. Perhaps the best example of this lackluster effort came in the first quarter, when, attempting to guard Dirk Nowitzki on the perimeter, Bynum not only failed to get into a defensive stance, but barely had a chance to turn around as the Mavs’ (by far) most potent offensive threat blew by him for a layup.

This is by no means a chronic issue and all’s well that ends well, but for a guy whose untimely ejection set the stage for crushing come-from-ahead loss the night before, Andrew Bynum spent far too much time on Wednesday play with little-to-no spark at all.

Play of the Game: With all of that said, Andrew Bynum linked up with fellow big Pau Gasol with about eight minutes left in the game – this time successfully passing out of a double team – firing a cross-court kick-out to the right corner, from which Pau buried a three-point dagger that put the Lakers ahead 90-76.

On its own this play would not be worthy of PoG, but the brazen, villainous confidence of ‘Drew made it truly memorable. In front of the crowd that is more eager than any other to see him fail (he did, after try to break their gelled-up midget 10 months ago), after making the pass to Gasol, Bynum made his way back down the floor with the ball still in the air, three fingers held aloft for all to see.

Badass.

Unfortunately for the Laker bigs, however, the top spot belong to one Kobe Bean Bryant, who, midway through the third quarter, received a lob from Pau Gasol and finished in a manner that can only be described as sublime.

Records: Lakers 28-18 (3rd in West), Mavericks 27-20 (5th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 104.1 (16th in NBA), Mavericks 102.8 (22nd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 101.7 (10th in NBA), Mavericks 100.1 (4th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Blake, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Mavericks: Jason Kidd, Rodrigue Beaubois, Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, Ian Mahinmi
Injuries: Lakers: none; Mavericks: Brendan Haywood (out), Shawn Marion (doubtful), Delonte West (out)

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers have found ways to lose their last two games, be it through sloppy play or late game dysfunction. Many deserve blame for the losses, so pinning any of these defeats on one person may be easy, but it’s not the most nuanced approach. Too many things went wrong in those games.

Take last night for example. Below are the plays the Lakers ran, with the results, after Kobe entered the game late into the 4th quarter:

  • Post up for Pau where he went baseline for an up and under move that he missed.
  • A “horns” set (where the ball is entered into the hight post and the weak side big and strong side guard set down screens for the wings) to get Kobe the ball. After Kobe came off the screen he wasn’t open, but received a hand off from Pau that led to him missing a three point shot.
  • Another “horns” set to get Kobe the ball. When he curled into the paint a pass was attempted, but he did not catch it cleanly and a turnover resulted.
  • Another “horns” set to get Kobe the ball. After he makes the catch drifting to the top of the key, he runs a P&R with Gasol, splits the screen and shoots a fading jumper going left that misses.
  • The Lakers run “two down” which is a down screen action to free Kobe up to get the ball. He has the option of coming up to the FT line or can break off his cut to go to the strong side post. Kobe gets the ball, on the left side of the floor and shoots a fadeaway jumper that misses.
  • The Lakers run a 1/2 P&R with Sessions and Kobe. Sessions comes off the pick but with nothing there swings the ball to the opposite wing. The ball is then entered into Pau in the mid-post, but with the shot clock winding down he takes a contested jumper that misses.
  • The Lakers run an isolation for Kobe after a screen action and he hits a jumper.
  • The Lakers run a variation of the same play to get Kobe the ball and he again hits a jumper in isolation.
  • The Lakers run a post-up play for Gasol, but he’s fouled and the Lakers must inbound. After the inbound the Lakers run a hand-off for Kobe and he takes a three pointer that misses.
  • The Lakers run another hand-off play for Kobe at the top of the key and he makes a three pointer.
  • After a Laker foul, the Rockets make one of two FTs, but because the Lakers don’t have a timeout, they can’t advance the ball and Barnes can’t get a full court heave up after fumbling the rebound. Game over.

In the entirety of the last 4 minutes and 45 seconds, not counting the last second heave that wasn’t, the Lakers had 10 trips on offense. Of those 10 plays they ran 2 post ups for Gasol and one Sessions/Kobe P&R that led to another Pau post up. Gasol took 2 shots and was fouled once. Every other time, the play was ran for Kobe and Kobe shot the ball.

Now, maybe this is Kobe’s fault for shooting every time. Maybe it’s Brown’s fault for calling these plays (from the angles I saw on TV, Brown looked to call several plays in this stretch, whether he called all of them I do not know). But what I can say is that 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 Mavericks Coming in: Dallas has won 4 in a row with their last two being impressive victories over the Spurs and Nuggets. In those two games the Mavs flashed a balanced and efficient offensive attack with Dirk leading the way, but with his teammates also playing very well. They’ve been missing Brendan Haywood and Shawn Marion on defense, but their offense has more than made up for any deficiencies (though, to be clear, their defense has still performed well) as teamwork and ball movement have ruled. Recently the Mavs have looked more like the buzzsaw that shredded opponents in the playoffs than the middling offensive team they’ve been for most of this campaign. And that should worry opponents – especially the Lakers – a great deal. Because when this team shares the ball and makes quick and sound decisions, the shots come easy and are usually open. And with the quality of players they have taking those shots, they become very dangerous (as we saw last season).

Mavericks Blogs: The Two Man Game and Mavs Moneyball are both very good sites. Check ‘em out.

Keys to game: With Haywood out and Marion listed as doubtful and unlikely to suit up, the Mavs are suddenly weaker at the defensive spots that would be allocated to Bynum and Kobe. This should put an emphasis on the Lakers working the ball through those two players as often as possible – especially Bynum.

Big Drew will be matched up against Mahinmi and Brandan Wright, both good athletes but both giving up a lot of weight and strength to Bynum. A post-centric attack that features Drew should be the point of emphasis tonight to make the Mavs either double team or watch as he powers to the rim with his low block arsenal. With this sort of attack, though, Bynum will need to be decisive with the ball and make the easy pass to try and set up his mates rather than looking for the homerun pass that sets up the basket. In recent games, Bynum has fallen in love with the skip pass to the opposite corner when the angled, same side pass is the easiest or the teammate rotating to the top of the key is most open. He must show patience  and rather than hunt the actual assist, he must live with the hockey one.

As for Kobe, he’ll see plenty of Vince Carter and Jason Kidd tonight and while he has the advantage over both players, both will get into him and make him earn his baskets. Against both guys I’d like to see Kobe work in the P&R more to spread the Dallas defense out and rely less on him creating his own shot in isolation or coming off curls where the timing and accuracy of passes must be nearly perfect to run the action correctly. If Kobe can catch the ball in space and free of defenders, I’m more than happy to let him attack in whatever way he sees fit, but the Mavs often hound him with defenders right in his hip pocket. Working with more ball screens should serve him well to escape  those defenders.

Defensively, the Laker rotations must be sharp, as the ball will be moving all over the court. Kidd will run the P&R and he’ll not only seek out Dirk, but he’ll use the big German’s presence on the court to shift the defense and then hit an open man elsewhere. Once the ball is passed, it will move on to the next man, and then again to the next man until the guy with the ball is open enough to take an uncontested shot. With this type of discipline on offense, the Lakers must show the same amount on defense lest they want to give up open shots to players more than capable of knocking them down.

On an individual level, the Mavs are obviously quite talented too and must be respected when in isolation. Dirk, of course, is one of the best scorers in the league and he’ll try to work over Gasol with his deep jumper and then his show and go moves to get to his preferred spots on the floor. Pau must be quick in guarding Dirk’s J, but also not fall for the fakes that will get him out of position. With Marion likely out, the Mavs also have dual threats on the wing that want to attack off the dribble. The last time these teams met Vince Carter was a key, attacking off the dribble and breaking down the Lakers’ defense. His first step must be respected and I’d much rather him have to take pull up jumpers than for him to shoot in rhythm coming off picks or be able to get all the way to the rim off the dribble. The same applies to Beaubois, who loves to use his quickness to get into the lane. He must be cut off and forced to take contested jumpers.

I haven’t even mentioned Jason Terry or Lamar Odom yet, but you get the picture by now. The Mavs are a dangerous team and if the Lakers are going to stop this slide they’ll need their best execution on both sides of the ball. If they bring it, this is a totally winnable game that can get them back on track. The question of course, is will they?

Where you can watch: 6:30PM start time on ESPN. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Wednesday Storylines

Dave Murphy —  March 21, 2012

The Los Angeles Lakers continue their up and down season, both in games won and lost and within the games themselves, often swinging wildly from quarter to quarter. At their best, they are an elite team – currently in 3rd place in the west and certainly in contention for a championship run. When not at their best, which is too often these days, they resemble a train wreck. Last night against Houston, they dominated in the first quarter, and veered on and off the track for the remainder of the game. Andrew Bynum was tossed and laughed about it on his way out. The team could use an extra serving of leadership right about now.

Brian Kamenestzy at the Land O’Lakers, contrasts positives such as Ramon Sessions’ offensive push, with a lack of ball movement late in the game, and a continued reluctance to put Gasol down on the block.

C.A. Clark at Silver Screen and Roll offers a number of game descriptions, including his least favorite – that the Lakers lost because they found out what worked for them and made sure to stay as far away from that as humanly possible, for the rest of the game. Clark also writes about Kobe today.

Mike Bresnahan at the L.A. Times writes that Bynum’s rejection becomes the Lakers’ dejection.

Devin Ebanks is one of the more seldom seen sophomores in the league this season. Bresnahan and Mark Medina report that his lack of playing time may affect his decision process for next season.

Over at the O.C. Register, Kevin Ding explains that he broke his leg before handing the story off to Jason McDaniel.

Beat writer Darnell Mayberry at the Oklahoman looks at the notion of Derek Fisher as a member of the OKC Thunder.

***

The Lakers are not what is traditionally thought of as a rebuilding team. The presence of our big three tends to draw attention away from an objective big picture. In truth however, the organization in its attempt to move forward for the future, has undergone seismic changes. A chorus line of coaches and players have exited stage left, taking some 34 championship rings with them. The incoming class has decidedly less hardware – Mike Brown worked under Coach Pop during the Spurs 2003 title run, John Kuester was an assistant with the Pistons in 2004, and Chuck Persons is the lone holdover from the Phil Jackson days. Fortunes will hopefully change as the team grows and learns but as we all know, the rebuilding process can be painful. The Lakers visit the championship Dallas Mavericks tonight, another team facing trials and tribulations.

– Dave Murphy

Box Score: Lakers 104, Rockets 107
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 114.3, Rockets 117.6
True Shooting %: Lakers 60.1%, Rockets 62.3%

So much for momentum after that terrible home loss against the Utah Jazz. Maybe they only turned it over 23 times in 3 quarters in this game! And maybe Kobe Bryant made four shots to improve upon his three made field goals from Sunday. Well…?

The Good
I suppose we’ll get the good news out of the way first. Ramon Sessions was so good that he stayed until the end of the game (more on that later). Ramon had 14 points and 4 assists as he pushed the tempo, burned people that guarded him, found his teammates, and ran some good pick-and-roll sets. When he came in halfway through the 3rd, the Lakers were down by 1. He didn’t come out of the game after that and he helped push the Laker lead to 95-83 in the 4th. That game should’ve been in the bag, right?

Pau Gasol was very productive with 21 points (although only 4 rebounds). Of course, I expected him to be a more prominent part of the offense in the waning minutes but…

And that 40-point 1st quarter was fantastic (their highest-scoring quarter this season). THAT should’ve put the game away but…

Jordan Hill also made his debut! I suppose that’s also a good thing. And then he got packed.

The Bad
The late-game sets for the Lakers have been as predictable as WWE; they go to Kobe Bryant at the end. It’d be nice if he can call his number as a decoy once in a while. Maybe they panicked because Andrew Bynum was not in the game. You know? ANDREW BYNUM GOT EJECTED in the THIRD QUARTER. Bynum should know better than to talk Mass Effect 3 or whatever the hell he was talking about to the referee (though I kinda don’t get why the ref would eject him as he was ALSO engaged in the conversation). The most recent Western Conference Player of the Week got ejected in a close, road game. Can’t do that.

Ramon Sessions was fantastic while he was in there so I don’t understand the need to go away from him at the end of the game as if he has chicken pox. Isn’t the reason why Sessions was acquired so that Kobe wouldn’t have to handle the ball as much? So much for that. After that aforementioned 95-83 Laker lead, Sessions might as well have watched American Idol because he was not involved in the last 6+ minutes, PERIOD.

Oh, yeah. Kobe Bryant playing hero ball. 10 for 27 at the end for 29 points. These weren’t just wide open misses. A lot of these were forced shots. Come on, Kobe. We know you’re great but geez. Stop it.

The Rockets outrebounded the Lakers, 40-31. I’d like it if the Lakers can put some effort into boxing out. Luis Scola tipped in a missed Rockets freethrow for crying out loud. Sure, Andrew Bynum was ejected and all… but Pau certainly didn’t help the cause by only having four more rebounds than me tonight.

Other things? Playing the high screen-and-roll wrong with Steve Blake getting caught at the sideline (which resulted in Courtney Lee… she sounds hot… steals and dunks seconds later). Bad perimeter defense, especially at the end (3-pointers by Chandler Parsons, Goran Dragic, and Lee). And, of course, that 3-point stab by Dragic that took a 104-101 lead with 28 seconds left. Yeah. I don’t know what else to say now. The offense was mostly stagnant other than the first quarter and when Sessions was making that second half push.

As for the Rockets production? Lee killed the Lakers all night (23 points). Dragic had an awesome floor game (16 points and 13 assists). Luis Scola was steady at 23 points, even though the Lakers were doing their best Derek Fisher tribute on him. Even in the 1st quarter, the Rockets were scoring at will. It was just overshadowed by the Lakers dropping a 40.

At least, 14 turnovers is better than 24?

The Ugly
Well, I just wanna say this: I don’t know what’s worse (or uglier). Either the fact that this is the 3rd road game in a row where they had a double-digit lead and lost… or that they couldn’t beat a Rockets team without Kevin Martin (their leading scorer) AND Kyle Lowry (the point guard the Lakers targeted for a while).

The Play Of The Game
That fastbreak in the second quarter where Kobe Bryant did a bounce pass to a cutting Metta World Peace. I can’t believe MWP dunked it.

I’m annoyed. You saw the ugly section. The last four losses the Lakers had were very winnable games (DET, WAS, UTA, HOU). The Lakers get a dynamic PG in Ramon Sessions, only for him to just coolrelax in the last few minutes. I kinda wish they wouldn’t pack the paint as much when the Rockets were playing the perimeter more. And I wish Mike Brown would go to players other than Kobe during crunch time. It’s just all very frustrating. And, tomorrow night, they got the Dallas Mavericks. So we only have tonight and tomorrow morning to complain.

Strangely enough, the Mavericks haven’t beaten the Lakers this season in two games. So maybe this is a good sign? No?

So just chill… ’til the next episode.

(Also… the last seven games I was scheduled to recap, the Lakers have won. They lost today. So, yes, you are free to blame me as well.)

Records: Lakers 28-17 (3rd in West), Rockets 24-22 (8th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.9 (16th in NBA), Rockets 105.1 (10th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 101.3 (9th in NBA), Rockets 105.1 (17th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Blake, Kobe Bryant, Matt Barnes, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Rockets: Goran Dragic, Courtney Lee, Chandler Parsons, Luis Scola, Samuel Dalembert
Injuries: Lakers: Metta World Peace (questionable); Rockets: Kyle Lowry (out), Kevin Martin (doubtful)

Center of Attention: Andrew Bynum’s been playing very well of late and the league took notice by naming him the Western Conference Player of the Week yesterday. Bynum’s averages in the five-game stretch from the Celtics to the Jazz game were 26 points and nearly 15 rebounds while shooting a shade over 61% from the floor. For the month of March, his averages are nearly as strong, scoring 24 a game with 13 rebounds, while shooting nearly 66% from the field and 75% from the FT line. With that level of production, it’s no wonder the Lakers have announced that they’ll pick up their team option on Bynum’s contract for next season, which will pay him $16.1 million.

(As an aside, if you look at Bynum’s averages for the season (18 points, 12.9 rebounds, 2 blocks, 57.8% shooting) and you run those numbers at Basketball-Reference, you come up with an interesting list of names that have put up the numbers that Bynum has if extrapolated out over a full season. When I lowered the rebound  threshold to a 12.5 average in this search, Bynum joined a list with these names: Abdul-Jabbar, Shaq, Gilmore, McHale, and Dwight Howard, and Amar’e. That’s it. That’s the list. Needless to say, Bynum’s having a fantastic year and for all the hand wringing about what he doesn’t do consistently or the fear about his health, he’s playing excellent basketball this season and deserves all the accolades he’s receiving.)

The Rockets Coming in: In their last six games, the Rockets are 3-3 with one quality win (over the Thunder) and one suspect loss (to the Cavs) in that stretch. Those last six contests are important because they represent the games that Kyle Lowry has missed since being diagnosed with a bacterial infection that will keep him out for at least a few more weeks. Adding to the Rockets injury woes is Kevin Martin’s absence with a strained right shoulder. Martin’s missed the last 4 games and is doubtful tonight. Martin’s had a below average year (by his standards), but with him and Lowry both out, the Rockets are down their starting back court and have had to make a go of it with reserves. And while Dragic and Lee have filled in admirably, it’s when they sit that the Rockets are being exposed as their third string players are then forced into action – especially third string PG Courtney Fortson . Over at Red 94, a review of Fortson’s play was explained as such:

Courtney Fortson has been pretty painful to watch in his two appearances thus far, and by that I mean that I teeter on the edge of cardiac arrest when he dribbles.

If the Rockets hope to make the playoffs (and from their perspective, that looks to be the plan as they traded bench players for Marcus Camby), they need to get healthy, and when those players do return they need them to play well. If that doesn’t happen, the odds of the Jazz or the fast closing Suns passing them in the standings are high.

Rockets Blogs: Red 94 is a very good site devoted to covering this team. Also check out The Dream Shake.

Keys to game: As is the case in most contests, the Lakers must look inside against a Rockets team that possesses adequate players, but not those the caliber that the Lakers offer up front. Dalembert, Camby, Scola, and Marcus Morris will be their primary big man rotation, and none of them are particularly good matchups for Bynum defensively (and all of them will also have various problems with Gasol). The last time these two teams met, Bynum had a 21 point, 22 rebound contest on 8-15 shooting while Gasol had 14 and 7 on 7-11 from the floor — and it’s not out of the question for the Laker bigs to put up similar numbers tonight should the touches come their way and their activity level persists at the level it’s been in recent games. The Laker wings must simply cooperate by seeking out their frontcourt mates early in the shot clock.

This isn’t to say that Kobe can’t get into the act. Courtney Lee will play Kobe tight and will use his quickness and athleticism to try and battle Kobe for position on the block, while also chasing him off screens. However, Kobe still has a size and strength advantage that should be exploited in post-up chances and in the open court in early offense. Kobe had a horrid shooting game on Sunday and he’ll surely be looking to bounce back with positive effort tonight. If he’s patient when he has the ball in this hands and works for position when he doesn’t, I’ve no doubts he can get similar shots to the ones he got against the Jazz — but with better results to follow.

Defensively, the key tonight is rebounding. Houston’s offensive rebound rate is very similar to that of the Lakers (they rank 14th to the Lakers 13th in the NBA) and all their big men are very good at keeping the ball alive by back tapping to their guards when the opportunity arises. Bynum and Gasol must be strong in attacking the defensive glass, secure the ball, and then look for their outlets quickly. With Fisher now out of the fold, both Blake and Sessions play at a quicker pace and both look to push the ball up court quickly to take advantage of run-outs by the wings. Barnes (who I have penciled in as the starter should Ron miss this game with his hip bursitis) has benefited the most from this uptick in chances for early offense, but Kobe has also been looking to run out more lately. However, before these guys leak out, the ball must be rebounded.

The other defensive key will be slowing the Rockets’ P&R attack. Dragic is quite crafty when running this action, doing a good job of diversifying his attack with the ball. He’s a capable finisher when turning the corner with a jumper or on the drive, and with Scola and Dalembert he has good options to pass to should the Lakers rotations not be on time. Scola is particularly adept at finding open space around the elbow to shoot his jumper, and while he hasn’t shot the ball as well this season he’s still a threat that must be honored. Camby and Dalembert can also knock down the mid-range J, so both Gasol and Bynum will need to be quick and smart with their rotations and not get caught retreating too far to the paint to guard against penetration. Of course they need to protect the rim, but that can’t come fully at the expense of not recovering, or else they will give up the open shot to guys who can knock it down.

After a tough loss on Sunday the Lakers need to get back on track tonight. Their road woes are real, but the schedule is not forgiving and if they want to keep their lead in the division (and the home-court advantage in the playoffs that comes with it), the Lakers need to win games like this one. The Rockets are down two of their better players and don’t have the big man depth or talent to battle with the Laker twin towers for 48 minutes. The bench will also need to step up and bring stronger performances than they have lately in support of the big three and there’s no better time for that to happen than this evening.

Where you can watch: 5:00PM start time on KCAL. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

I’m not a big fan of the meme surrounding clutch play. I’ve found that too often people who toil in the territory of claiming or refuting who is and who is not clutch do so at the expense of at looking at the entire game. That possessions that happen outside of the accepted construct (5 minutes or less in the game with a margin of 5 points or less) don’t meet the definition of clutch, that what matters most is scoring or shot making and the efficiency in doing so, that positional confines or players’ roles aren’t front line variables to consider, etc, etc.

Said another way, there’s too much gray area surrounding the arguments of clutch play for me to get worked up about it either way.

I’m more than happy to admit that as a game winds down and the score is close, the contest is more exciting. I’m also happy to admit that it’s thrilling to see someone hit a game winner and that misses in those instances don’t carry the nearly the negative connotation that a made shot carries a positive one.

This surely influences how I view Kobe Bryant. But as a Lakers’ fan, and someone that’s appreciative of having him spend his entire career helping the team I root for achieve more success than any other team during his era of play, I’ll also admit I’m a bit biased here. I mean, I’m objective about how Kobe’s late game play can both help and hinder the Lakers (last night is just the latest example of the latter) but over the years I’ve learned to accept Kobe for what he is: a fantastic basketball player who has had a bunch of success playing the game the way that he sees best while also being far from perfect. If you want to focus on the “far from perfect” part, that’s fine. If you want to focus on the “fantastic basketball player” part, I’m good with that too. After all, he’s both.

Again, I accept this.

I don’t care much about his place in history because those are of often mythical match ups that spur on hypothetical arguments that will never be solved. I don’t care how he stacks up against present day players because he’s 16 seasons into a career whereas his “peers” that carry the elite tag have had careers half as long (or less) to this point. I don’t need to argue who is better. I’m quite comfortable knowing that Kobe’s still quite excellent at this game and has been so for so long that he’s viewed this way both as a present day participant and through a historical lens. The fact that he’s in this discussion means more to me than if someone proves to me he’s better than another all time great.

Let’s get back on track though, shall we?

I don’t much care for arguing if Kobe’s clutch or not but I do know that the way we’ve come to define what is or isn’t clutch is too limited for my taste. For example LeBron gets gunned down by many fans for passing up shots to instead hit an open teammate in the closing moments of a close game. Some extrapolate this to mean he’s scared or deficient in the clutch. That he’d rather not miss than take and make the shot. I’ve no clue if any part of that last sentence is true but I can tell you I’ve read it about a thousand times in the last few seasons. Meanwhile, Kobe’s discussed and critiqued ad nauseam for the exact opposite reason.

Again, though, all we’re really discussing here is taking the shot. Is that all that matters? I’d argue no. And, while this topic has been covered some at this site before, there are others that would probably agree with me. Like Jared Dubin from Hardwood Paroxysm who covered this ground well in this fantastic read about what Kobe does and does not do in what’s become known as crunch time. He looks at Kobe’s stats from all angles and comes to this conclusion:

Kobe is such a lightning rod in the clutch discussion because his ardent supporters usually maintain that he IS clutch because of the game-winners and the championship rings, while statheads maintain that he ISN’T clutch because he usually doesn’t hit those game-winners and “count teh ringzzz isn’t an argument.” The track record on game-winners is indisputable. He doesn’t have a very good one. But he’s still an excellent shot creator – one of the best in the league at getting himself an open look – who routinely draws double and triple teams down the stretch of games, gets to the free throw line at an elite rate, steps up his rebounding and passing and usually wins. In other words, he’s a really, really good clutch time player, just not for the reasons his biggest supporters seem to think he is.

I suggest you go read the entire thing to better understand all the data that drove his conclusions. It’s a smart and well written piece that tries to get at more than just the shot that is or isn’t taken; that goes in or misses. And bringing some color to this gray area can only help us understand this part of the game better. Even if we’re not that fond of even discussing it in the first place.