Archives For April 2012

The NBA has leveled its punishment for the elbow Metta World Peace delivered to James Harden on Sunday and it’s a 7 game suspension. This ruling will keep him out of Thursday’s regular season finale against the Kings and will then go into the post-season for the next 6 games – should the Lakers be fortunate to play that many. (N0te that I say “fortunate” not because of any lack of confidence in the team, but rather the playoffs are a minefield and one’s never sure how they’ll play out.)

I’m not sure how I feel about the length of punishment. And while I’m sure many will have opinions on that, I really don’t. Ron earned his suspension by connecting on a blow to the head of another player with an elbow. He made a dangerous play; a play that didn’t involve the ball; a blow that wasn’t delivered within the context of any game action. For that he should be punished and now he has been. At this point it’s time for him, and the team, to move on.

There are still games to play. Depending on what happens over the next couple of days, Thursday’s game may still have seeding implications for the team. The Lakers magic number is one and with a Clippers’ loss or a Laker win vs the Kings, the Pacific Division crown is won and the 3rd seed locked up. After that, the playoffs will be here and the Lakers must try to win a series without their best wing defender; a series in which he wouldn’t be eligible to return until a deciding game 7. So, again, there’s work to do and in the short term Ron is not a part of that work. This is the reality of the situation.

Also, a couple of more words on the incident. Over the past couple of days my main concern has been with James Harden. Head injuries should never be taken lightly and if you’ve ever suffered a concussion you’ll know that even “mild” ones can lead to long lasting symptoms that can be difficult to cope with. We don’t yet know how head injuries translate to a person’s health long term and for that reason I’m hopeful that James is not only okay today, but okay tomorrow, okay next week, okay next month.

I also have concerns for Ron. He’s taken a blow in the media almost as severe to the one he delivered. Of course he was in the wrong. But, by all accounts, Ron is someone that’s made real strides in recent years, is someone that’s well liked by his teammates and has been described more often than not in recent years as a caring person with a good heart. To see him take a beating in the media with incidents from his past put on display as an indictment of the man that he is today is a bit difficult for me as someone that has wanted the best for him; as someone that still gives him the benefit of the doubt. So, in that respect, I hope that he too can heal. He’s certainly not going through the same thing that Harden is going through, but he’s going through something too. (Again, self inflicted, I know.)

Yesterday’s win was thrilling for it’s comeback. It was also the news of the day because of Ron’s elbow. But what may be somewhat lost in the shuffle is that several prominent Lakers sat down the stretch while the win was fought for and secured.

Most notable of those players was Andrew Bynum, who sat the entire 4th quarter and all of both overtimes in favor of Jordan Hill. After the game, Mike Brown mentioned that he followed his gut in playing Hill; that he used evidence from the first half (when Hill played very well) to influence his decision.

One key that Brown brought up was Jordan Hill’s P&R defense in comparison to Bynum’s (and Gasol’s) and how the former’s was in line with what the coaches want from their big men. Dave McMenamin has the report:

Brown said Hill particularly gave the Lakers a lift with his pick-and-roll defense compared to Bynum. “I did not think that Drew, and even Pau at times, the combination of both those bigs were up the floor in pick-and-roll coverage,” Brown said. “Just Jordan Hill’s activity at the point of the screen was better than all of our bigs combined tonight.”

More from McMenamin:

Added Brown: “I know in pick-and-roll coverage, if we tell our bigs — whether it’s Andrew or Pau or whoever — to be up the floor, if you’re not up the floor at the point of the screen and we’re getting hurt and somebody is [playing up on screens], then somebody else is going to play. If we give our guys a coverage, then they’ve got to do it.”

What Brown talks about is very much in line with what I’ve seen from the Lakers’ P&R coverage as well. This is from a couple of weeks ago, when we talked about the downward trend of the Lakers’ defense:

Different Lakers big men are playing the P&R differently. Gasol, McRoberts, and Murphy all hedge hard and try to recover. Bynum, though, does a mix of these things and isn’t always hedging hard – if he hedges at all. Often times Bynum will hang back below the screen and invite the dribble penetration towards him where he can keep the ball handler in front of him and be a deterrent to the guard turning the corner. Bynum does a pretty good job of contesting shots that are taken going the basket but because he’s naturally on his heels when the guard is turning the corner off the pick, he’s been having some trouble contesting the mid-range jumper.

Again, that was two weeks ago. Do you know what’s changed in those two weeks?

Nothing. Nothing at all. And we have some pictures to show what Brown is talking about:

The first frame is of Kevin Durant operating on the right side of the floor. Kendrick Perkins (who is being defended by Bynum) comes high to set a pick for Durant to go middle. Look where Andrew Bynum is:

Bynum is sitting a full 5 feet below the pick and in no mans land. He has no angle to deal with Durant turning the corner in either direction and isn’t even in a defensive stance. This allowed Durant to turn the corner quite easily and with his long stride get right to the front of the rim where Gasol challenged the shot. KD ended up missing the shot, but because Pau helped, and Bynum never recovered, Ibaka got the offensive rebound and scored on a put back.

This next frame shows a similar story. This time it’s James Harden handling in the P&R:

This time, Harden starts from the left side of the floor and Perkins sets a pick for him to go middle. Bynum is straddling the FT line while Hard gets a clean release coming off the pick with over 5 feet of daylight. Harden simply came off the pick, took a rhythm pull up three pointer, and knocked it down.

Now, compare what Bynum’s doing to what Jordan Hill did late in the game against the same action. Here are three stills from the same possession:

In this first pic, Hill is actively sliding up to the pick to cut off Westbrook’s angle. The result is that Russell strings out his dribble to the left wing, back dribbles and calls for another screen:

Again, look where Hill is. After Perkins clipped Kobe for a second time, Hill has Westbrook directly in front of him with minimal space to make a strong move to the rim. He holds his ground and allows Kobe to recover. At that point, Westbrook calls for yet another screen:

Hill again is in perfect position to slow down Westbrook. He’s even with the pick, in a defensive stance and ready to slide with the ball handler. When Russell sees that Hill is with him stride for stride, he pulls up for an 18 foot jumper that misses.

I don’t want to completely discount Bynum here as he did play the action better on specific possessions. Late in the first half, he played it exactly the way that Hill did in the frames above:

As this frame shows, Bynum stepped up higher to contest Westbrook’s angle. And while Russ still tried to turn the corner (and did successfully get by Bynum) he was forced wider and then tried to finish over Jordan Hill who blocked the shot out of bounds.

The problem is, Bynum takes this latter approach less frequently than his other front court partners and it can lead to botched coverages. This inconsistency is troubling and if the Lakers are going to tighten up their D, this is one of the first places they need to start. Bynum can be such a terror on the defensive end but that will require that he make better choices. I’ll leave the final words on the matter to Mike Brown (again, via Dave McMenamin):

Brown would not place the blame purely on Bynum’s effort. He suggested that Bynum sometimes should stay back in the lane rather than helping on pick-and-rolls because he feels like he has enough length to cover ground late should the guard get into the lane following the screen. That choice by Bynum goes against what Brown is asking him to do. “Sometimes it is effort, sometimes I don’t know what he’s thinking,” Brown said.

BOX SCORE: Lakers 114, Thunder 106 (2OT)

This isn’t going to be the normal good/bad/ugly recap like you normally see out of me. I suppose you can say that I’m mailing in my recap much like the Lakers did today against the Thunder.

Until the 4th quarter, that is.

Of course, we’ll have to talk about Metta World Peace… Ron Artest elbowing James Harden to the head after he made his third dunk of the game. Up to that time, MWP had been playing the hardest out of all the Lakers and they had all the momentum in the world as they cut the lead down to 48-47. Whatever you think of that elbow (intentional, accidental, etc.), it was vicious and I won’t be surprised if he gets suspended 10 games or even more. At the time, it seemed like a death knell for the Lakers as they just seemed to go through the motions (they were as down as many as 18 points). Andrew Bynum, despite having 5 swats, looked sleepy out there. Heck, if someone told me I needed to play basketball at around 12:30 P.M., I’d probably stay in bed, too. But Bynum is a professional basketball player in the NBA and if he’s going to loaf around like that, then he doesn’t deserve to play. And he didn’t play after the third quarter as Jordan Hill (she sounds hot!) and his infectious energy was needed more out there.

Kobe Bryant. What can you say? This is why he is Kobe Bryant. He made most of them big shots. That 3-point runner in the 4th. That 3-pointer in Sefolosha’s face right after. His defense against Russell Westbrook (who finished 3-for-22) was PHENOMENAL. Kobe finished with 26 points and while he didn’t shoot well overall, he put the team on his back (sorry, NSFW video) and willed this team to victory.

I like that Mike Brown actually stuck with his line-up of Kobe, Pau Gasol, Devin Ebanks, Steve Blake, and Jordan Hill. Ebanks hustled relentlessly (10 freethrow attempts and did a nice job guarding Kevin Durant) and Blake made some timely threes (his threes in the fourth quarter were huge in this comeback). But you really gotta give fistbumps to Jordan Hill. The guy basically revived his career with a 14-point, 15-rebound, and 3-block performance. We just hope that Brown actually gives Ebanks and Hill some minutes from here on out because these hustle guys are too important to let them stew on the pine. Also gotta give props to Gasol. He didn’t look too hot earlier but he finished with a near triple-double with 20 points, 14 boards, and 9 dimes. He got the whole team involved with his great passing.

Oklahoma City was hurt with the loss of Harden (who is a great playmaker and third scorer) but they were up by as many as 18 points. Their fourth-quarter execution needs work and kudos to the Lakers for not giving up and taking advantage. I hope Bynum was observing intently during this game. I hope he learned that you just can’t walk on the court and expect to get 15 boards without trying.

Some have said that the Lakers should be worried that it took two overtimes to beat a Thunder team without Harden. Some have also said we should be worried for the Lakers’ lack of effort in the first three quarters. But there are going to be players that will put forth the maximum effort like Jordan Hill and we should be encouraged that the Lakers actually now have another big man beyond Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy.

No matter how you look at it, this was a HUGE win for the Lakers and their psyche. They’re down to one more game left in the regular season (against Sacramento on Thursday). And hopefully, they can punctuate their wild and wacky season with a win over that lowly squad. Even if Ron doesn’t see action for the rest of the year, we now know that they have guys that can step up and fill that gap. This COULD be a blessing in disguise as we have clamored for Devin Ebanks to get a spot on the rotation.

Get ready for the playoffs, ladies and gentlemen.

Records: Lakers: 40-23 (3rd in the West), Thunder: 46-17 (2nd in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers: 106.1 (11th in the NBA), Thunder: 109.8 (2nd in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers: 104.3 (13th in the NBA), Thunder: 102.9 (9th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Thunder: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha
Injuries: Lakers: none; Thunder: none

The Lakers Coming In: With 96 minutes of ball remaining in a breakneck regular season, and just one day between the end of Game 66 and the beginning of the postseason, veteran playoff-bound squads – particularly those with a nicked-up superstar – are likely engaging in some late-stage R&R. Not in Lakerland, where the Purple and Gold – full complement of talent now in tow – are hustling to get back up to speed while locked in a tooth-and-nail, cross-hallway battle for playoff position and a division title.

After a seven-game absence, Kobe Bryant and his presumably less sore shin returned to action on Friday night in San Antonio. After a slow start in which he made just two of six shots, Kobe found his footing, finishing 7-of-12 from the field for 18 points in 30 minutes. Unfortunately, much of the remainder of the starting five – be it Pau Gasol (4-10 FG, 11 points in 30 minutes), Andrew Bynum (TWO rebounds, just days after grabbing 30 against the same squad) or Ramon Sessions (5 points on 2-of-9 in 24 minutes) – fell well short of the standards they’d set in the Mamba’s absence. With Tim Duncan and Tony Parker scoring an efficient 41 and Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Daniel Green and Gary Neal connecting on 80% (8-of-10) of their 3-point attempts, I’m not sure any team has the bullets in its gun to down the Spurs, but at this time of year, there’s really no excuse for putting forth that lackluster an effort on the boards and offering so little resistance in the midst of a third quarter blitz.

Looking forward, the Lakers welcome to Staples an OKC squad that’s given them fits in both meetings this season – running the Lakers ragged in a 15-point home win on February 23, then overcoming a brutal start in L.A. on March 29 and riding Russ Westbrook’s 36 to a nine-point win on the Lakers’ home floor.

The Thunder Coming In: The Thunder enter Sunday’s showdown in a situation similar to that of Lakers, trailing San Antonio by one-half game for the West’s top spot. Though they’ve won four of five, OKC is hardly firing on all cylinders. Since April 1, they’ve not only failed (in five opportunities) to notch a victory against playoff-bound opposition, but have fallen short of the 100-mark on each occasion and only once connected on better than 45% of their field goal (45.2% v. Memphis on 4/2) and 32% of their 3-point attempts (46.2% on 4/11 v. Clippers).

Rightfully, all eyes with be on OKC’s dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but it’s the remainder of the roster, and their ability to neutralize the Lakers trio of stars. In the paint, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins (averaging 17 points, 19.5 rebounds and 5 blocks in the previous two meetings), with glue guy extraordinaire Nick Collison off the bench, will lock horns with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, whom they’ve “held” to a combined 37 points and 20 rebounds per game.

Meanwhile, in the backcourt, Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden will look to extend Kobe’s struggles against the Thunder. In the two previous meetings, Kobe has managed a combined 47 points on an awful 14-of-49 (28.6%) from the field, due in large part to the length and athleticism of OKC’s defenders.

Thunder Blogs: For the latest news and insight on the crew from OKC, check out the excellent work done by Daily Thunder and Welcome To Loud City.

Keys to the Game: Win the battle of the bigs. It’s tough to imagine Kobe hitting the floor in full facilitator mode, but he will do well to work off of his elite duo of seven-footers on the inside. Conversely, I’d look for the Thunder to pack the middle in an effort to entice not just Kobe, but all of the Lakers perimeter players (I am including Gasol here) to abandon the inside-out approach in favor of a jump-shot heavy approach. Be it via strong entry passes or dribble penetration, a top priority for the Lakers on Sunday will be to knife into the paint and take advantage of the defensive aggressiveness of the OKC bigs to earn frequent trips to the foul line and frequent, foul-induced trips to the bench for Perk and Ibaka (especially Ibaka, with whom on the floor, the Lakers’ offensive efficiency drops to just 86.7, compared with 108.6 without; great stat from Matt Moore, via Twitter).

Additionally, and thanks to Darius for his great input here, there are two areas of great importance. First, the Lakers’ ability to deal with Westbrook in the pick and roll will be vital. In the teams’ last match up, Russ was dialed in from mid-range, which, combined with the Lakers’ bigs (namely Bynum) sagging below the screens proved deadly. It will be interesting to see if the Lakers maintain this approach on Sunday, or tweak their scheme by having the bigs play the screen a bit more aggressively. This is not to say that the bigs will must hedge hard, but by playing a bit higher on the screen, Westbrook will have to deal with a defender – one prepared to contest the mid-range J – earlier, and perhaps be forced into more rushed decisions.

Finally, and every bit as importantly, the Lakers must get back in transition. It is vital that the Lakers effectively “build a wall” against Westbrook’s penetration, while also staying with the Thunder players filling the lanes. The keys here will be better floor balance and the perimeter guys prioritizing transition D over crashing the offensive glass. With Pau and Bynum – two of the best in the biz – already attacking the offensive boards, MWP and Matt Barnes will be far better served in working to limit OKC’s easy buckets by limiting run out opportunities.

Whether it ultimately results in a victory remains to be seen, but with the Clippers nipping at their heels, a possible second round matchup looming and third career scoring title in the balance (27.9 per game, v. Durant’s 27.8; yeah, you’re right, Kobe probably doesn’t care at all about that), look for Kobe and the Lakers to ratchet up the intensity on Sunday afternoon.

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

For the second time in four days, the Lakers faced the Spurs and were throttled, this time by the count 121-97. The game leaves the Lakers even in the loss column with the Clippers and reeling with the Thunder coming to Staples on Sunday. The game offered a glimpse into what’s been an all too common theme of late for the team we cheer, a collapse on defense with lots of questions that need answering.

Some observations from the defeat:

  • The Spurs are one of the simpler teams in terms of offensive scheme. They run high P&R’s with Parker (and some with Ginobili), space the floor with shooters, and use Duncan as an outlet at the high post if initial actions don’t lead to a compromised defense. When not running the P&R, they use simple screen actions off the ball to free up their wings to put them into positions where they can attack off the dribble or shoot open jumpers while mixing in simple post up actions for Duncan. But, within this simplicity is a profound discipline that, when teamed with familiarity and comfort, can be devastating. Tonight, the Lakers took the full brunt of this attack on the chin, consistently finding themselves spread thin and unable to cover all the options the Spurs opened up through expert ball movement.
  • The Lakers inability to cover all these options mostly stemmed from the way they covered the Spurs initial P&R. Basically, if you rewind almost a year, you’d find that the way the Lakers tried to contain the Spurs tonight looked eerily similar to how they tried to guard the Mavs’ same action. The Lakers bigs (and primarily Andrew Bynum) sat well below the screen inviting the guard to turn the corner while attempting to deter him from advancing all the way to the rim. This technique gave the ball handler (mostly Tony Parker) room to either pull up for a mid-range jumper or pick out a teammate (sometimes Duncan, sometimes the man in the corner spacing behind the three point line) for an open jumper. Parker consistently made the right pass/shoot decision and torched the Lakers with this action all night. Sometimes that meant pulling up for the J himself and knocking that down. Sometimes it meant passing it back to Duncan who was wide open in the 16 to 18 foot range who also knocked the shot down. Or, he’d hit Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard in the corner and they’d knock down the jumper. In any event, what this action produced was wide open shots more often than not and the Spurs hit them.
  • Once these shots started to fall with consistency, the Lakers defense was put in positions where they started to scramble. They’d charge at Duncan and he’d put the ball on the floor and shoot a little flip shot. They’d rush to the corner and Green or Leonard (or Ginobili) would put the ball on the ground and further compromise the D. Or, Parker would use the threat of his jumper and drive deeper into the paint and either get a shot at the rim or collapse the D further. And against a collapsed D, the Spurs would just make the next shoot/pass decision correctly. Again and again and again.
  • This was the Lakers’ night on defense. They’d scramble, someone would help, a pass was made, someone would help again, and sooner or later someone would not help the helper and an open shot was created. The Spurs did this all night in nearly every half court set and slowly bled the Lakers to death.
  • The Spurs, though, also ran. They pushed the ball after makes and misses. Outlet passes were tossed over the heads of Lakers and Paker et al were off to the races, looking for the best good shot they could find against a defense that wasn’t ready to defend. This often meant shots right at the rim as Parker pushed down broadway only to find himself flanked by at least one teammate (and usually more). And when it wasn’t Parker running a traditional break, it was Leonard or Green leaking out. Or Stephen Jackson. Or Gary Neal. Or…you get the point.
  • Kobe Bryant played tonight and he looked good. He played a controlled game in the first half before asserting himself in the 3rd quarter by looking for his own shot more. It will take a bit of time for him to find his comfort zone back with a group that found theirs without him, but I’m not concerned about it. Kobe looked to make the extra pass even when the initial action was run for him. He looked to shoot when he had advantageous position to do so. The offense looked clunky at times as Kobe sometimes found himself jockeying for position close to where Bynum was set up or when he didn’t see Ron or Barnes breaking open into the post, but, again, that’s going to happen at times.
  • Ramon Sessions is in a funk. I’m not going to guess at what the root of it is but I’d imagine his bum shoulder and making an adjustment to playing at a pace that’s slower than his ideal one are part of the issue. In any event, he’s not looked right for several games in this recent stretch of contests and that needs to be rectified sooner than later. Against the Spurs, he seemed to have trouble with a defensive scheme that either allowed him his jumper or invited him all the way to the rim to try and finish over a contesting big man. His shots never seemed to be in rhythm or come comfortably. I would have liked to have seen him go to his in between game more by taking more floaters but it just didn’t happen tonight. I have a feeling he’ll see the same type of defense on Sunday so maybe we’ll see an adjustment then.
  • In the third quarter – where the Lakers gave up 35 points and were outscored by 14 – they hung their heads and looked defeated. I can understand the feeling as the Spurs operated with Borg-like (the Star Trek villain or Swedish tennis player – you choose) precision and hammered them. But I must say it was disconcerting seeing them with no answers and little fight. I’m not saying they quit (far from it, actually) it was just a sense that they’d resigned themselves to the loss after the Spurs made their push. Again, I can understand it.

After the game, Kobe spoke of the adjustments that would need to be made and that they would, indeed, be made. On twitter, in the midst of the rout, I said something similar. The Lakers problems in this game were mostly about helping the helper in the half court and floor balance issues that led to poor transition defense in the open court. These are fixable issues. They’ll need study, to be addressed in practice, and to be drilled repeatedly but they can be fixed. That said, they will need to be fixed. This game looked too much like the games we saw in the Mavericks’ sweep last year. And, since that was nearly a year ago and involved an entirely different coaching staff, that’s worrisome.

There are two games left in the regular season and then the playoff will be here. A week from today, the Lakers will have a first round opponent primed to try and pick at the scabs of the wounds from losses just like this one. Here’s hoping the Lakers defense is up to stopping them.