Archives For May 2012

I’m not sure there are many people that expect a Laker win tonight. They’re on the road, are coming off a meltdown loss that triggered some finger pointing comments, and it’s all under the backdrop of the Lakers performing poorly in these types of games (see game 4, Mavericks, 2011 playoffs). Add in several other variables – OKC’s talent and determination, this being their 3rd game in 4 nights – and the Lakers are facing long odds tonight.

That said, the game is happening and the Lakers have said they’ll be ready. Outside of closing games (an important factor, obviously) they’ve played extremely well since game 2 of this series and their blueprint for success is still in place. Will they conjure the effort and resolve needed to win is certainly the number one question but if they do, another game within reach is on the docket for tonight. On the whiteboard after game 4 the words “one game at a time” were written so here’s hoping they take that to heart.

A few keys for this evening:

*Pick and roll coverages remain critical. Down the stretch of game 4, the Lakers’ D came unraveled mostly due to the pressure Russell Westbrook placed in OKC’s P&R attack. He did more than probe, he propelled himself through the cracks and created good shots. We’ve been saying it since game 1 but bears repeating: the Lakers must step up high, contest the ball handler, and make the Thunder go to their secondary options. When the ball moves, the Lakers must rotate and do so with energy and precision. The Thunder want to move the ball around the perimeter to create good looks and this means the bigs must leave the paint to cover Thunder players moving around the wing. Doing this successfully is what makes the defense work.

*Ron needs help in isolation against Durant. Artest is a proud defender that still scraps hard and shows tremendous fight. And, in a lot of situations he’s doing a fine job of bothering Durant. However, one of those areas isn’t in 1-4 isolations where Durant has a live dribble. Durant’s ability to pull up from range is forcing Ron higher out on the floor and his improved handle is making it difficult for Ron to contain him off the dribble. Game 4′s dagger was the product of this exact situation as Ron sagged back playing the drive only to have KD put up a three pointer off the bounce. Ron must do a better job of keeping KD on one side of the floor but his help must be there when he uses his dribble to attack the paint. KD has shown he can be turnover prone when the second defender shows timely help but the issue is that the help isn’t always there. Ron’s been such a great defender during his time with the Lakers that it looks like the back line isn’t as aware when he’s working in isolation. Tonight, they’ll need to be as I expect Durant to attack early and often now that he’s back home.

*Pau Gasol must get a bit greedy, but not overly so. Pau’s been put through the ringer for his game 4 decision making and there’s merit to some of the criticism. For a player as cerebral as Pau, shoot-pass decisions are probably some of the more difficult ones he has to make on any given possession. And, seemingly, his unselfish nature skews more towards making the pass than taking the shot. There’s a reason Pau’s had so many lob assists to Andrew Bynum this season. However, the Lakers, as currently constructed, lack scoring punch. Pau is a versatile scorer and can aid the Lakers in their pursuit of more points. To score, he must turn down passing opportunities and look for his own chances. That said, as a key facilitator within the offense, he must also continue to seek out open teammates who can also boost the Lakers’ O. Pau has a difficult balance to strike tonight but it’s imperative he find it for the Lakers to win.

*Sessions needs more floor time and must do something with it. Games 3 and 4 showed that Sessions can be effective against the Thunder. He’s starting to find creases out of the P&R and he’s using his quickness off the ball to cut into the gaps when his teammates draw attention. He’s been a key player in the 1st half of the last two games but has faded down the stretch and been replaced by Blake in closing games. Well, in game 4 I thought the Lakers paid for keeping Blake on the floor as the Thunder guarded him a bit more closely and didn’t afford him the open shots he’d typically get. In turn, the Lakers had one less play maker on the floor (Sessions) in favor of a spot up shooter not given the room to do what he does best (Blake). I’d love to see Sessions get some extended run in this game and for him to take advantage of it by staying aggressive. I’ve mentioned the need for more points, Sessions can be someone that provides them.

*Hit the glass hard. The Thunder are strong rebounding team but they’re also a team that loves to help on paint touches. Ibaka and Perkins will both leave their men to slide into a contest position when the ball threatens the basket. The Lakers bigs must fight their way to the ball and get second shots. The Lakers haven’t been a very efficient offensive team this series but a way to counter that is to get extra possessions on the glass. Getting them tonight is imperative.

There are many more keys, obviously. Tempo, locking down role players, and avoiding fouls are all important. But none are more than what I mentioned at the top of this post: the Lakers must bring the requisite effort to win. They mustn’t get down on themselves in things don’t go their way. They mustn’t stop fighting if they get in an early hole. The Thunder will be ready to go from the opening whistle and the Lakers must understand that they’ll have to take a couple of shots on the chin and keep coming if they’re to win.

No one expects the Lakers but they must believe that they can. Here’s to both teams flying back to Los Angeles.

After game 4′s brutal come from ahead loss, the Lakers started to analyze what went wrong. And those moments just after the game, when emotions run highest, several had a lot to say about how the game was lost. Chief among them were Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.

Their opinions on the matter differed more than slightly and the story-lines today are of bus tracks on Gasol’s back with Kobe’s hands at the wheel and his foot on the pedal. Of course, this is one way – the popular way, really – of looking at this. But, for my money, it’s actually a symbol of something else. It’s a symbol of these two players who’d once been so in synch, now decidedly now. This idea was expressed wonderfully by Andy Kamenetzky at the Land O’ Lakers blog:

Kobe and Pau aren’t on the same page. At all.

And this shouldn’t be terribly surprising, since it feels these days like they barely share the same court. As this season progressed, the once-electric chemistry and byplay between Bryant and Gasol has increasingly gone the way of the Dodo Bird. They don’t work off each other with nearly the same frequency as the previous four seasons. This is in part a byproduct of Andrew Bynum’s increased prominence, which means more possessions beginning (and often ending) on the low left block. And the addition of Ramon Sessions, a ball-dominant guard while playing to his strengths. Plus, Gasol’s 2012 role, which either parks him in the high post as a general offensive conduit or an anchor for the reserves while Kobe rests.

All of these factors have emerged to practically transform Kobe and Pau into strangers. They’ll occasionally run pick-and-roll together — ironically, often as a means to ultimately to create lobs for Drew — but it’s just as likely, if not more, to see that action between Sessions and Pau or even Pau and Bynum. Bryant and Gasol barely feel like they complement each other any more. They’re no longer killing opponents with beautifully meshed skill sets. They’re arguably the best guard/big man duo since Kobe and Shaq, but you’d never know based on their current usage. This separation of stars is a huge reason, even beyond the inherent roster flaws, the Lakers haven’t been able to consistently maximize their assets this season. Even if you think Bynum has become a better player than Gasol, it’s nonetheless impossible to argue Kobe and Bynum play better together than Kobe and Gasol. And that ultimately leaves the Lakers wanting for more.

AK goes on to explain these players’ different personalities, how they’ve helped each other grow as players, and makes a fantastic comparison to two music legends. I suggest you read the entire thing for a fantastic, nuanced take on an on court relationship not what it was, nor needs to be.

My quick two cents on the matter: What made the Lakers such a fantastic team after the acquisition of Gasol was that his skill set was a perfect fit for the Triangle and his IQ allowed him to pick up the offense like he’d been running it his entire career. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant actually had been running the offense for (nearly) his entire career. This fact allowed them to find symmetry quickly and naturally. They grew together as teammates, building a foundation on an understanding of how to play together within the beautiful confines of a system that both could thrive in.

For better or worse, that system is now gone. When combined with the emergence of Andrew Bynum and his “thirst” for the ball and ability to help the team, Pau has become marginalized. He’s no longer the hub of the offense from the low block, but rather works from the shallow wing and high post. He’s a facilitator of the Lakers’ sets from places where he can be effective but also from a place where his skills aren’t maximized. Meanwhile, Kobe and Bynum’s strengths are played too on every possession.

This isn’t to make excuses for Gasol, but fleeting chemistry is more likely to occur when one of the key variables isn’t put in a position where it can flourish most. It’s like trying to grow a plant in soil with an out of balance pH. If the right balance isn’t struck, the plant can not thrive and will ultimately wilt.

I’m also not out to skewer Mike Brown. He’s working with pieces that may not entirely fit well together and trying to come up with a workable plan. However, one of the tasks of a head coach is to maximize the skill sets of the players he coaches and to put them into positions to succeed. Gasol is so talented he could succeed from anywhere on the floor but to claim he’s being maximized now would be a lie.

And now, what this team has are two founational players not really working as well together as they did before. And, for both players, the team, and its fans that is a shame.

If you missed this game, I feel sorry for you and envy you at the same time.

The Lakers played hard tonight. Coming off a back to back game, I feared for how their legs would hold up. I feared how a young, talented, and vengeful Thunder team would take it to them mercilessly. I knew that the Lakers had a plan that worked but worried if they’d have the gas in their tank to execute it.

Early in this game, my fears and worries seemed to be misplaced. The Lakers looked to be the fresher team. They played a quicker tempo than expected and took advantage of their transition opportunities. After a rough start defensively, they found their stride on that side of the floor, getting up on screen actions and contesting shots. They pressured ball handlers and controlled the back boards. They played well.

Kobe Bryant was in full attack mode. He flashed his trademarked footwork but did his work quickly and decisively. He’d swing through, take two dribbles, and explode to the rim. He’d dribble once, slow, and then explode out of a hesitation move. He worked the post, turn and face, and then take a quick first dribble before elevating for his jumper. He drew fouls every which way imaginable. He was brilliant. Until he wasn’t. But we’ll get to that later.

Bynum, too, brought his ‘A’ game. He controlled the post offensively and had his entire arsenal going. On one possession he’d hit a middle jump hook. On another a turnaround jumper. Then, a couple possessions later, he’d sprint the floor for a dunk. After that he’d step through and draw a foul and earn FT’s.

Others also did well. Jordan Hill made an impact on the glass – especially on the offensive end. Ron hit some big three pointers and played hard nosed D, getting his hand on loose balls and helping to force turnovers. Sessions was again very good in getting into the paint and creating for others while Blake was also solid even though he had a rough shooting night.

Things were going well and this is why if you missed this part of the game, I feel for you. The Lakers were holding a lead in the 7 to 10 point range for most of the night and while they weren’t cruising, they were mostly in control.

Only thing is, with a team as good and as explosive as the Thunder, control is fleeting. And this is why if you went and saw the Avengers tonight or had a nice dinner with a loved one or if you simply got caught in traffic, I envy you. Because you wouldn’t have watched the Lakers surrender another lead down the stretch; you wouldn’t have had your heart broken for the 2nd time since Wednesday.

The Lakers led by 13 with 8:02 left in this game. When you lead by that much but then lose by 3 it’s a slow death; it’s stepping in a pit of quicksand. And when you lose that type of lead, it doesn’t happen because of a single play.

The Lakers played poorly on both ends. Things started to pile up and they didn’t have any answers for what the Thunder were doing to them. Defensively, they couldn’t slow Russell Westbrook. He was magical, creating shots out of nothing by sliding through the cracks of the Laker D and masterfully using every inch he was given. If the Lakers didn’t step out high enough on the P&R, he’d hit a pull up jumper. If they came out high and thwarted his first attempt to attack, he’d pull back and then attack again to find the crease he sought. He truly was something special tonight.

Offensively, the Lakers simply couldn’t regain their formula for success. OKC started to front the post w/ Perkins taking away easy entry passes to Bynum. Gasol was also fronted when he tried to post but he then countered by moving to the elbow area and shallow wing. With their bigs disrupted, the ball stayed on the perimeter but no one was moving or screening and the ball stuck to a single side of the floor but with few options for release. When this happens, Kobe normally ends up with the ball and he’s going to shoot it. We’ve seen this for years – it’s not a Mike Brown problem, the same thing happened under Phil Jackson. I’m not necessarily even going to blame Kobe here either. He’s on the perimeter and guys are looking for outlets. He’s a pretty aggressive guy in making himself available for the ball and doesn’t mind shooting. Maybe he could have done more to get everyone going. Maybe not.

In the end, Kobe’s play is just one piece of the puzzle though. Again, the bigs couldn’t carve out space. When Pau caught the ball (which, to be fair wasn’t even that often) he wasn’t assertive looking for his shot. The same could be said for Blake. When Ron caught the ball he had no problem shooting but due to his earlier success, he was being guarded more closely and was not afforded the type of open looks he’d already proven he could knock down.

And with all this going wrong, the Lakers gave up their lead. The Thunder chipped away, the Lakers continued to stumble and that was that. Pau’s errant pass and Durant’s dagger three were just the final bright neon signs that fancily displayed what had already been occurring for a full seven and a half minutes. I know those two plays will get the headlines – they were major plays in the final minute of a close game – but let’s be real here. Those plays aren’t even part of the equation if the full collapse wasn’t already on. They may have been the proverbial straw the broke the camel’s back but it’s really the million other straws that break it, no?

After a thousand words of this recap, though, I only have one last thing to say. There’s a way of viewing this that the Lakers have been the better team this series. They’ve only won a single game but have been mostly fantastic in two others with a tragic inability to close out what looked to be sure victories. To that, I say, that’s a nice story but the better team – the team that’s been favored to win – is the one that’s leading 3-1 in this series. Back when the Lakers were winning championships they were the team that would win this game in the way the Thunder did. No lead was ever safe; no game was ever really out of reach. And when the Lakers would win those games – under circumstances very similar to the ones that led to the Thunder winning this one – we’d all say that the Lakers were the better team. We’d say that they found a way to win. Well, give the Thunder credit because in game 4 they found a way to win, they were the better team.

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Last night the Lakers won a game at the FT line and that seems to have sparked some controversy about the nature of the calls, the refereeing, and what that meant about the game. So, before I get into anything about game 4, let me say this…

When it comes to the refereeing, I’ve always taken the same stance: players can’t control how the game is called, they must adjust to it and go from there. When I’m frustrated with the refs it’s normally because they make it difficult for the players to adjust by not calling fouls consistently on both sides of the floor or from possession to possession; that a foul on one end, isn’t a foul on the other. Last night, I didn’t think that was the case. However, what I did think was that much more contact was allowed in the paint than on the perimeter. Thus, any contact around the rim was met with a shrug while guys on the wing earned whistles for slight grabs and holds – especially when they were receiving passes or making their initial move to the rim.

For the players, I’m sure that’s frustrating but they must adjust to that and play on. Ultimately, in a 3 point game, the contest was there for either team to win. Plenty of plays could have been made by either side to claim the victory. The FT’s obviously mattered a lot. Saying otherwise would be disingenuous. But many other plays mattered too. Ignoring those would also be disingenuous. Whether the officiating evens out in the end is rarely my concern because that can’t be controlled. Complaining about it may make you feel better but it doesn’t change anything. I say this when the Lakers win or when they lose.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

The quick turnaround between games means that there’s really no time to dwell on last night’s events. In a way, that favors the Thunder with their frustration fueling them and their younger legs able to carry them. They’ll surely be ready to play tonight; with their youth, they’d probably have been ready to play a double-header last night. This isn’t to say they won’t have any fatigue, but I anticipate it being more mental than physical. These close, hard fought playoff games blunt the brain and that takes time to recover -time neither team will have.

From the Lakers side, they’ll have both mental and physical fatigue to battle. They too have been through the ringer mentally. Only  a few days ago they literally gave away a game and last night pulled out a similar contest. The roller coaster ride of those events would be taxing on any team, even a veteran one like the Lakers. Physically, they’ll have to deal with heavy legs. They’re trying to play a power game that requires the battling for position on every possession. That war for real estate is one of attrition that grinds players down. Being the aged team doesn’t aid them here and bouncing back to provide the same effort tonight will prove difficult.

It’s necessary, however. For the Lakers to win, they must continue to ugly up the game. The Thunder continue to be the favorite as the deeper, younger team. But if the series remains a slugfest, the gap lessens between both squads. A back alley brawl favors the bigger, more physical team. And as Mike Brown has said, he wants his group to carry that label. If the Lakers can force this type of action on the Thunder, they can get the them to play on their turf both figuratively and literally tonight.

That said, expect more adjustments from the Thunder tonight to counter L.A.’s gameplan. The Lakers are daring the Thunder big men to beat them, gambling more and more as these games (and possessions) progress. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are leaving their men with reckless abandon to help on screen actions. Off the ball they’re stepping out – sometimes as far as the three point line – to help with ball denials to obstruct passing angles. Sooner or later the Thunder are going to recognize this and simply pass the ball to their big men who are setting screens and test the Lakers rotations underneath. I mean, if Kevin Durant is going to draw his man and the man guarding the screener, that screen man is the one that’s open. If the Lakers weak side  rotations (especially the backside big) isn’t quick to rotate, this action will start to produce layups. They must be ready to help the helper and thwart these counters.

The Thunder also showed a nice offensive wrinkle where they ran Durant off a pin-down screen and then used him as a screener on the ball in the P&R for Westbrook. Durant darting to the top of the circle got Ron trailing and in poor position to help on the ball handler as he turned the corner off KD’s screen. This action freed Westbrook on at least two occasions and set him up with clean mid-range jumpers at the foul line. This is a creative play and the Lakers must be ready for it, and other actions that involve a man coming off a screen only to set another. These types of actions can work with any of OKC’s three main perimeter threats handling the ball or setting the screen so the Lakers must be ready to help – especially the back line bigs who become primary rotators when the perimeter D breaks down.

Offensively, the Lakers must simply do what they’ve done the past two games. Last night Andrew Bynum didn’t shoot well but he got the exact looks the team wants him to get. When he battled for position he was able to work 10 feet and in, where a power dribble set him up for any one of his hooks or counters. He was visibly frustrated that some of these shots weren’t falling but his perseverance led to him earning FT’s while also contributing to the overall gameplan of bully ball through power post ups. This is the approach that he needs to take again tonight, with the hope that some of those bunnies he missed start to fall.

Kobe too must build on his approach from last night. As I mentioned in the preview and Jeff Van Gundy mentioned during the telecast, Kobe’s economy of dribbles and quick strike attack are what will work best against this team. One dribble pull up jumpers, two dribble attacks to the rim, and movement off the ball that gets him paint touches are how he can score best. Sefolosha is one of the better defenders around but even he can have trouble dealing with a decisive Kobe who isn’t looking to fake his way into baskets.

Ultimately, though, the two players who really need to bring their ‘A’ offensive games are Ramon Sessions and Pau Gasol. Sessions’ first half was a sight for sore eyes, as he worked well on and off the ball attacking the seams of the defense to either score or set up teammates. Tonight he’ll likely need to take and make a couple of jumpers to keep the defense honest but it’s his overall mindset needs to carry over from last night. He must be assertive and inject himself into the action, the Lakers are a much better offensive team when this happens.

As for Pau, he must move from supporting actor to lead role tonight. Last night’s game gave him the opportunity to mostly facilitate and work the glass but he’ll need to be more aggressive looking for his own shots in game 4. He can shoot his jumper over Ibaka when given space but, like Kobe, can make quick drives to the rim when he’s crowded on the perimeter. Last night he tried to create off the dribble but settled for pull up jumpers but tonight he must try to get all the way to the rim to get baskets and/or earn trips to the foul line. Also, he must find a way to beat the fronting defense he faces when matched up with Nick Collison. He must continue to try and root Collison up the the lane line, something his teammates must recognize and then throw the ball over the top off ball reversals and high-low actions.

The difference between a 2-2 series and 3-1 series is huge. If tonight ends with the latter, the Lakers may be able to fight off OKC (much like Denver did the Lakers last round) for a game or two more but the inevitability of ultimate defeat will loom large. However if it’s the former, the Lakers are right back in the series with both teams needing to take 2 of 3 to advance. Even as an underdog, that’s where the Lakers would like to be. Tonight will require all their fortitude, discipline, and guile. But the plan is in place for them to follow. They just have to go get it.

If you’ve ever played a lick of organized hoops, you’ve had at least one coach who stressed the importance of hitting free throws. Tonight, the age old adage of free throws winning games came to fruition as the Lakers connected on 41 of 42 from the charity stripe to cut the Thunder series lead to 2-1. Through three games, we’ve seen the Lakers get blown out, take a gut-wretching loss and gut out a three-point win. The following are what I felt were a few keys to tonight’s win.

  • Ramon Sessions finally got off to a good start tonight. He spent a lot of time in the paint, hitting on a few floaters in the lane and got a few layups. And when he didn’t score, his penetration freed up open shots for others, including the three-pointer that Ron hit at the end of the half. During the half, Darius tweeted that Sessions only recorded eight points and five assists in his previous three games combined; tonight, he had 10 points and four assists at the half. Although he didn’t see the floor much in the second half, and when he did he wasn’t much of a factor, it was nice to finally see his presence felt in a positive manner.
  • Continuing with our PG theme, after Blake missed the game winner in Game 2, he responded tonight with a decent game off the bench and helped to close out the game tonight with some solid defense on Russell Westbrook and James Harden down the stretch. He hit two jumpers about midway through the fourth and shot 4/5 from the field for 12 points. He even had eight rebounds (!).
  • Andrew Bynum didn’t have the greatest shooting night tonight, just two-for-13 from the field, but he physically punished the Thunder bigs when he caught the ball with deep position. It was interesting watching him fight for position with Kendrick Perkins, who is no push over. Both bigs won individual battles on various possessions, but Drew was able to draw several fouls on the Thunder bigs to get to the free throw line, where he hit 11 of 12 (the Lakers only miss from the line). As the game progressed, Bynum seemed to lose interest in fighting and calling for the ball and the Lakers as a unit seemed disinterested in trying to get him the ball, which led to a few forced possessions down the stretch.
  • Kobe also didn’t have the greatest shooting night (nine-for-25 for the second straight game), but he found a way to get to the line 18 times — without a miss. There was a stretch in the third quarter where the Lakers did nothing but run a mid-post isolation on the wing for Kobe against Thabo Sefolosha which resulted in a few empty possessions. They switched things up with a couple of high P&Rs, once with Gasol, once with Bynum, and he was able to take a couple of uncontested mid-range jumpers, which he knocked down. In the fourth quarter he took advantage of match-ups and switches, including two straight jump shots over Fish and a drawn foul on the smaller Russell Westbrook.
  • Despite the Laker win, Kevin Durant continued to play out of his mind. He had 31 points on 23 shots which included a monster jam over Jordan Hill; an awkward, off balanced shot that kissed off the glass after bouncing off Ron Artest; and another wild shot that he flipped in while falling down. At some point, KD is going to fall back to earth, but if he continues to shoot as well as he has all series, the Lakers are just going to have to focus their defensive efforts to stopping everyone else. He’s been absolutely incredible.

Tomorrow, the series picks up again as tonight was the first of a rare post-season back-to-back. Lets hope the guys get much rest, tomorrow will be another dog fight with the young guns of the Thunder.