Archives For March 2012

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.

So much for building on the momentum the Lakers had going coming into the game. After winning 5 straight, the Lakers lost only their 3rd home game of the season (and gave the road weary Jazz only their 6th win away from Salt Lake all year) by falling 103-99 to the Jazz.

There’s really not much to say about this game, though. Kobe Bryant played his worst game of the season, shooting 3-20 from the field (including 1-6 from three point range) while adding 7 turnovers. He saved his worst for last, as he shot 1-7 in the 4th quarter trying to spark his team when only a couple of baskets could have given the Lakers the control they had sought for most of the contest. It simply wasn’t Kobe’s night, as he missed shots he’d normally make with ease, short-arming bunnies in the paint and rattling out jumpers all evening. Maybe worse than his offensive mishaps though, was how his defense suffered too. Rookie Alec Burks took him off the dribble multiple times in the final frame, beat him for a key offensive put-back, and even sank a jumper in the P&R when Kobe could barely be bothered to fight through the screen. Burks ended the night with a career high 17 points on only 10 shots, and a lot of that was on Bean’s watch. I don’t blame single players for losses (and won’t do it now) but considering how much this team needs Kobe to play well for them to win on most nights, I’ve no problem calling him the primary culprit in this one.

The main reason Kobe can’t take full fault in this one was the fact that the rest of his mates were just as careless with the ball and nearly as negligent on defense as he was. Kobe may have had 7 TOs on his line, but the rest of the team added 17 more, which the Jazz took advantage of to the tune of 22 points. Defensively, the Lakers surrendered 10 offensive rebounds, 28 assists on Utah’s 43 made baskets, and let the Jazz get off 53 shots in the painted area (allowing 52 points). The Laker wings were unable to slow dribble penetration, the bigs were late in rotating, and no one did a very good job of challenging shots. All in all, the Jazz made over 50% of their 2 point shots, with Paul Millsap going off for 24 points and rookie Enes Kanter joining Burks in getting a career high of 17 points on 6-7 shooting. The Jazz certainly deserve credit in outworking the Lakers, but the home team was much too accommodating in letting their opponents get whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted to get it.

Not all was awful for the Lakers, though. The Laker big men were excellent on offense, with Pau tallying 18 points on 8-12 shooting while Andrew Bynum bullied his way to 33 points on only 14 (!) shots. Pau showed a variety of nice moves around the rim and was mostly money on his mid-range jumper. Bynum did what he’s been doing to most opponents lately, catching lobs for easy dunks, posting up with power and finishing with both hands, and flashing excellent footwork and counter moves when the defense tried to take away his primary action. Bynum also displayed excellent touch at the foul line, making 9 of his 12 freebies.

Beyond the big men there were some other good flashes from the team. Sessions’ speed and playmaking for the second straight game made a positive impression. He got his teammates easy baskets in transition and earned 10 FTs simply by using his quickness in the open court and the P&R to draw contact from his defender. Sessions also showed good chemistry with Matt Barnes, hooking up with him for several baskets that helped him get his 12 points on the night.

However, those were the only positives on a mostly sour night. Because while the game was close most of the way, the Lakers simply couldn’t get out of their own way for long enough to seize a game that was there for the taking. The glass half empty approach says that this team still makes too many mistakes with enough below average performers to keep them a tier below, but the glass half full approach says that despite Kobe being awful, the utter carelessness with the ball, and the D being way below where it is on most nights, the Lakers lost by only 4 points. The truth about this team is that they’re still not where they want to be, but are showing some positive signs of getting better. Sessions is helping. Barnes is proving to have good chemistry with both PGs. Bynum has become a beast on more nights than not, and even when he’s not on his game he’s a walking double-double. Yes there’s room to grow, but for the first time in a long time, when the Lakers lose I can still say that things aren’t quite as bad as they look.