Archives For May 2012

Friday Forum

Dave Murphy —  May 18, 2012

There’s something of a lull before the storm when it comes to the Lakers and the media right now, especially the national media. The team’s in a tough spot but it’s too risky to write them off. A win tonight will tilt articles toward redemption possibilities, and a loss will bring out the doomsday scenarios. A game will be played tonight and the focus will shift away (perhaps momentarily) from the last shot of Wednesday night’s game.

The Kamenetzky brothers at ESPN’s Land O’Lakers, IM about tonight’s game with Royce Young of the Daily Thunder.

The Great Mambino at Silver Screen and Roll, writes about the Lakers optimism, despite history not being on their side.

Mark Medina at the L.A. Times reports on Steve Blake dealing with the shot that didn’t go in, and the resulting twitter hate received by his wife Kristen. This one’s beyond the pale.

Kevin Ding at the OC Register shares the news of Pau Gasol being named citizen of the year by the NBA.

Ben Golliver at CBS Sports Eye On Basketball breaks down tonight’s Lakers/Thunder match.

Tom Spousta at the NY Times writes about Kobe Bryant’s recent difficulty closing out games.

Elizabeth Benson at Lakers Nation about lessons learned from the game two loss.

***

There’s a very old Jack London short story entitled A Piece of Steak. It chronicles an aging boxer’s last stand, against a fighter in the bloom of youth. It’s about shelf-life and inevitability, and shares a commonality with many other stories before and since. We know that OKC is younger, faster, and deeper. For now, we wait for the game, hoping that our veteran team can come away with a win, and a bit of extra meat on the bone.

– Dave Murphy

Last night’s loss still stings and will for some time, I imagine. When the team you root for collapses down the stretch, the ‘what ifs’ and ‘should have dones’ live in the front of your mind and sit there, sourly marinating. But that rotting feeling is really about the final two minutes of turnovers, poor transition defense, and poor half court execution. Durant’s steal, Kobe’s three pointer when the offense broke down, Harden’s baskets against a retreating defense were what lost the game.

What did not lose the game was the last inbounds play where Steve Blake got a good shot off, only to miss it just long. That play was designed to get Kobe a shot flaring to the opposite corner. The Lakers have actually used this play at least once this year, against the Hornets (h/t to Sebastian Pruiti for the clip):

As you can see in this clip, Kobe comes off a double down screen from Pau and Bynum looking to get a shot at the top of the key. However, that action is really a misdirection to force the defense to overplay. When the defense rushes to try and deny that option, Kobe then flares to the weak side off a back screen from Bynum to receive a pass and take the shot. While Kobe missed this shot against the Hornets, this is a well designed play (though with a difficult pass) and falls in line with the type of misdirection screen actions that the Lakers have used before this season to try and get a good shot against a defense that is primed to slow the initial flash to the ball.

Last night, however, the Thunder seemed ready to defend this type of action. When the play initially starts, the Thunder are in the type of defensive position that you’d expect. Because they’re only up by a point and a two pointer beats them, their bigs are in position to protect the rim from the Lakers’ bigs diving hard. Kobe’s man is on his inside shoulder to try and stay in between him and the ball. But, once the action starts, everyone clamps down even harder. Perkins bodies Bynum so he doesn’t get a clean pick on Sefalosha who also does a good job of fighting through the screen. Kobe then releases just a hair early in flaring to the corner and Ibaka does a good job of being below the screen so he can cover Kobe as he peels off Pau’s back pick. When you add this to Durant’s long arms disrupting Ron’s view, it’s easy to see why this action got bottled up (h/t to DJ ReMark for the video clip):

Ultimately, Blake got a good shot. Out of all the options coming out of that play – Kobe’s jumper from the deep corner, Pau making a catch at the top of the key and then working to get his own shot, or Blake shooting a wide open corner three – I’m perfectly happy with the look the Lakers’ got. Ron made the right read by passing to Blake, Blake got his feet set and took a shot he’s very capable of hitting, and the Lakers still had a chance to get an offensive rebound because the shot was taken immediately.

I do understand that we can criticize the play design (as Tim Legler did in the clip) as it’s primary option is running to the opposite corner some 45+ feet from the inbounder. That’s a risky pass in any scenario and with the athletes OKC had on the floor plus the recovery time that type of a pass allows, a lot of bad things could have happened had Ron made that pass (including Ibaka shadowing Kobe as Legler implied). Also, the play is seemingly setting up a very difficult shot from Kobe – one where he’d be fading from the basket and likely very close to the three point line and the baseline out of bounds.

All that said, the real criticism still lies in the Lakers’ play down the stretch and how the play preceding the inbound play by Ron unfolded. In that set Kobe started with 18 seconds on the shot clock but dribbled down the clock even though the Thunder had a foul to give. Watching it live, I was wondering when Kobe was going to initiate his move but it was obvious he was eying the right short corner for his final shot. That’s a jumper he’s hit countless times before and is the epitome of a muscle memory play for him. The fact that he’d want to take that shot isn’t a shock but the way the play unfolded certainly could have been handled better.

In the end, though, none of it went right. And today we all must live with it. Tomorrow offers another chance, one I can only hope offers as good an opportunity to get a win.

Long time commenter Snoopy2006 said it well after the game ended:

When your team fights so hard the entire game – despite being overmatched, just fighting hard, uglying the game up, instigating the physicality – you become invested in every play. You start believing, you start living and dying with each play. When you’re up by 7 with the game almost over, you start to feel hope – which many of us didn’t think possible after Game 1. And when you give that up after 46 grueling, agonizing minutes – it’s heartbreaking.

Heartbreaking. Yep. That about sums it up.

The Lakers had this game won. Up 5 with two minutes left in the game, all the Lakers really had to do was milk some clock and create some points. Any points would have done – FT’s, a jumper, anything that gave them just the slightest bit of extra cushion while also draining some of those precious seconds off the game clock.

They did the opposite, however. A bad pass by Kobe was picked off by Kevin Durant and he raced the other way for a dunk. Three point game. Then Steve Blake telegraphed a pass that Russell Westbrook – Blake’s man, btw – jumped at to tip away that ultimately grazed Kobe’s arm before sailing out of bounds for another turnover. While that didn’t directly produce any OKC points, it shifted momentum a bit more in their direction. Two possessions later James Harden got a layup in transition to cut the lead to one. Then, after OKC fronted the post, deflected a pass, and turned the Lakers possession into a scramble, Kobe missed a three pointer that OKC took the other way. On that possession, Durant used a high P&R to shake free to the sideline where he hit a floater for the go-ahead basket.

With the Lakers trailing by one and only 18 seconds left they ran the clock down to 5 seconds before OKC gave their last team foul to make the Lakers inbound again. On that final possession, the Lakers ran a nice screen action to try and free Kobe going to the weak side of the floor but the D read it pretty well and Ron, in an alert move, passed to a wide open Steve Blake in the corner who fired up a three pointer that missed.

Game over. Heartbreak ensues.

What makes this loss so difficult to deal with is the fact that the Lakers forced OKC to play nearly an entire game outside of their comfort zone. They made the appropriate defensive adjustments to make their offense sputter, holding them to only 77 points on 42% shooting. The Lakers played the P&R much better, hedging higher and harder to pressure the ball handler and contest shots when he tried to pull up after turning the corner. When OKC tried to compensate for the extra help by rotating the ball out of this action, the Lakers weak side defenders read their passes perfectly, deflecting passes out of bounds and picking several off outright. On the curl plays that the Thunder run to get Durant going, the approach was the same – big men left their own man to clog the paint, make KD’s catches more difficult, and then contested shots when he did make catches that he tried to turn into the easy baskets he got in game one. This scrambling, active approach on D limited the Thunder to only 34 points in the paint while allowing them to only shoot 4-17 on shots in the 10-15 foot range.

Offensively, the Lakers also played a style that made the Thunder work. They pounded the ball inside relentlessly, playing bully ball through classic post ups and power back downs from the wing by Kobe and Ron. Thirty-nine of the Lakers seventy-eight shots came in the restricted area and fourteen more came from within 15 feet. The message was clear that the Lakers were going to play a physical, taxing game on offense and for most of the night it kept them close. The pace was what the Lakers wanted, the grinding nature of the possessions was more suited to them, and for most of the night it worked on the scoreboard even if it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing.

It needed to be for all of the night, however. And it wasn’t.

The Lakers fell short and now must re-group while understanding that what they did tonight must be repeated, even if it will be difficult to do so. The Lakers are the overmatched team and with that must come a desperation to compete even when the odds don’t favor them. Tonight was the perfect example of what needs to happen even if botched play down the stretch robbed them of seeing a winning result for their efforts.

And while this game will stay with these players – especially Kobe – for some time, there is no time to sulk over the result. They must take inspiration from the good, stew over what went wrong, and repeat their effort from this game on Friday. It’s really the only way.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Game one was a disaster for the Lakers that us fans would just as soon forget. But for the players, there’s a fair amount to glean from that blowout loss. Because with every missed rotation, bad coverage, and offensive miscue the Lakers can take note and do better. To win tonight, they must.

In a vacuum, that shouldn’t be that difficult. Outside of the first 10 minutes of the game, the Lakers didn’t do much right. And while the Thunder deserve credit for capitalizing on those mistakes, the Lakers can turn tonight’s contest into a much closer affair should they simply avoid being so giving on both sides of the ball.

With that said, here are a handful of things to improve on tonight that can lead to the Lakers evening up the series…

*Play the pick and roll and all other screen actions better. In game one, the Lakers did just about everything wrong in covering the P&R. Guards got caught on screens, big men sagged too low against ball handlers turning the corner, and wings over helped trying to compensate. This led to the Thunder getting clean looks at the hoop and the Lakers hanging their heads as the points piled up. In other types of screen actions the Lakers took the same approach and were burned in the same manner. When Durant curled off picks, his man got clipped without recovering quickly enough while big men sagged below the action waiting to be attacked. If you recall Durant’s first quarter dunk over Bynum, that play was set up because Ron was a step slow in recovering and KD used two long strides to elevate while Bynum hung back.

Adjustments here are easy in principle, but will require effort and discipline in executing them. First and foremost, guards must get through screens quicker. Whether chasing over the top or darting underneath, the guard must recover and do so quickly. Second, the big men must play the screen higher. Whether they hedge hard or play it more flat doesn’t necessarily matter as long as they’re higher in the action and ready to defend when the ball comes at them. Hanging back and inviting pull up jumpers in rhythm can lead to the type of onslaught seen on Monday. Third, the defenders not directly involved in the play must be alert and ready to help the helper. When the bigs commit, teammates must have their backs. Wings must drop down to help defend the paint and everybody must gang rebound.

*Cut out the live ball turnovers. The Lakers first possession was a bad pass that was stolen and dunked going the other way. In the first half they’d commit 7 more turnovers that OKC turned into 16 total points. The Thunder posted the 2nd best offensive efficiency in the league during the regular season and hung a 133 rating on the Lakers on Monday. Giving a team with that level of potency extra possessions – especially ones that lead to the easiest types of baskets – is a recipe for disaster. The Lakers must be more careful, but also act with more purpose on offense. Too many Laker turnovers seemed to be the result of over thinking an action or trying too hard for the primary option instead of looking to counters that were more open. The Lakers need to play smart, but loose. If something isn’t there, go away from it and attack another way. The Thunder are a smart defensive team but the Lakers made them look even smarter by not swinging the ball, not attacking off the dribble, and not using a varied attack. That must change tonight.

*Get Kobe moving into attack positions more often, preferably below the foul line. Whether on or off the ball, Kobe was spending too much of his time working 18 feet and out. At that distance his game becomes overly dependent on making jumpers and as the old saying goes – you live by the jumper, you die by the jumper. Kobe must instead work closer to the rim to find his rhythm. I’d love to see some of the cross-screen actions out of their “horns” actions to get Kobe flashing into the post or curling into the paint. I’d love to see him work more stagger screens that bring him to the short corner or get him on the move where he can make his catch at the pinch post with a live dribble. I’d also like to see him operate in the P&R more, especially with Gasol. It’s been a while since the Lakers utilized their Kobe/Pau P&R on a cleared side that forces the rotations that ultimately lead to Bynum being free under the rim. Dusting that action off would be a sight for sore eyes.

*Push the ball more. The Lakers had 0 (yes, zero) fast break points in game one. Against a long team that has strong individual defenders in the half court, that’s something that needs to change tonight. I’m not asking for the Lakers to turn into the SSOL Suns, but they could do well to take a page from the Spurs handbook and push the ball into the front court and look to seize opportunities against a defense that isn’t set. Be it Sessions or Kobe or Ron, advance the ball and look for the cracks in the D. The Thunder are a middling transition D team that likes to crash the offensive boards. Their will be opportunities to run, the Lakers need to recognize them and pounce.

The Lakers can also look to throw the ball ahead to Barnes leaking out after he contests jumpers. Barnes is likely to see a lot of minutes against Harden and Durant who are both fond of taking long jumpers that he’ll be closing out on. When those shots miss, he can lead out. The same is true of Gasol when he contests Ibaka’s mid-range jumpers in pick and pop situations. Many of these actions end with Serge taking 16 foot jumpers from the elbow area, and if the Lakers are gang rebounding the way they’re supposed to be, Pau can afford to run out a few times a game.

Ultimately, Playing 90 possessions against a stout half-court defense will grind any offense down. The Lakers must do more to cash in on the open court chances that present themselves.

*More big to big passing/actions. After the game, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol sat on the bench together discussing strategy. They surely understand that despite having Kobe Bryant on their team, their play will have the largest impact on the Lakers’ chances  this series. With that being the case, they must find more ways to work together in order to take advantage of the aggressive play of OKC’s big men. Both Perkins and Ibaka want to get up the floor on defensive coverages. Both also want to be steady helpers at the rim to block and contest shots. This approach makes both vulnerable to smart cuts, quick duck-ins, high-low passes, and offensive rebounding chances. Ball rotations from the Lakers wings will aid in these actions but both Bynum and Gasol must be ready to take advantage when these opportunities present themselves. They can’t be caught standing and watching, nor can they get down on themselves should things not go their way early. They must continue to work and pound away because these openings will materialize.

*Get some bench production. The Lakers don’t possess a natural scorer off their bench. The reserves aren’t called upon to provide instant offense, their job is to support the starters their mixed with and to run the offense in manner that maximizes those players’ games. However, that doesn’t mean L.A.’s subs can play long stretches without looking for their own shots and knocking down the open looks they’re going to get.

I’ve already mentioned the need for Barnes to run out more and try to get some easy baskets in early offense. He’ll also need to rediscover some of his regular season success as a slasher who finishes at the rim after ball reversals. Steve Blake needs to be assertive with his shot and hit some of the open jumpers he’ll be afforded. He can’t have a repeat of game one where he only took a single shot, looking mostly passive in the process. Jordan Hill must also find a way to get some baskets either as a garbage man on offensive rebounds or by taking advantage of the attention drawn by his post partner by sneaking into the paint and getting good looks off quick passes. No one expects these guys to match Harden point for point but being outscored by the 6MOY as a unit (as this trio did in game 1) certainly won’t get it done.

———————

Yesterday the Pacers stole a game from the Heat in Miami in their game 2 match up. Yes the Heat were missing a key player but the lesson remains the same. These games are winnable should you execute well and go hard the entire contest. The Lakers are underdogs; they’re facing a better team. But they have the pieces that can win should they work their plan well. Tonight gives them another chance to do just that.

Wednesday Storylines

Dave Murphy —  May 16, 2012

The Lakers had a nice first quarter in Oklahoma City to kick of the second round. That the team faded badly coming off a grueling seven-game series should surprise nobody, and that’s taking nothing away from the Thunder. They were squarely on their game and Russell Westbrook would not be denied. The resulting chatter, much of it outside the Lakers’ cyber beltway, painted a more forgone conclusion. The reality however, is that we’re not quite there yet.

The Kamenetzky Brothers at ESPN’s Land O’Lakers have a confab with Royce Young from the True Hoop network’s Daily Thunder blog. That’s a whole lot of free advertising, right there, by the way.

This is a couple days old but still brilliant, Zach Harper at HoopSpeak on MWP’s mind games.

Kevin Ding at the OC Register asks if it’s time for another classic game from Kobe?

Actuarially Sound at Silver Screen and Roll, puts out the call for more effort.

Interesting story in Yahoo Sports courtesy of Jeff Latzke from the Associated Press, about Kobe’s philosophy on taking charges.

Mark Heisler at Sheridan Hoops takes a serpentine turn through L.A.’s two parts of the elite eight.

In other tangentially related news, Mark Medina from the L.A. Times reports that Devin Ebanks was fined $25,000 for taking his shirt off and Andrew Bynum was fined $15,000 for not talking to the media. Okay, you know what? The players shouldn’t have called off their lawsuit. They should have just cleaned out the league for every penny.

***

The Lakers are a team that much of the blogging intelligentsia loves to hate. There are facile reasons why, but I suspect the resentment and causal links run far deeper than my limited attention span allows. Still, I don’t mind taking pot shots. Let the best of six series begin.

– Dave Murphy

The Westbrook Dilemma

J.M. Poulard —  May 16, 2012

With barely any time to enjoy the Game 7 victory over the Denver Nuggets last Saturday, the Los Angeles Lakers had to quickly turnaround and make it to the Chesapeake Factory to take on the Oklahoma City Thunder Monday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference semi-finals.

The Lakers may have been suffering from tired legs as well as an overall lack of energy in route to a 29-point shellacking at the hands of the Thunder, but there are still some adjustments that will need to be made in order for the purple and gold to have any type of success against their current opponent.

In Game 1, OKC shot 53 percent from the field, 41.2 percent from 3-point range and attempted 29 free throws. Also, the Thunder outscored the Lakers in paint scoring (48-44) and also managed to score more second chance points (21-11) despite the fact that L.A. had 13 offensive rebounds to their 10.

Combine that with OKC only coughing up the ball four times, and the conclusion is rather simple: the Lakers were outplayed and their defense got exposed as they surrendered a staggering 119 points.

The purple and gold’s defense was in trouble in large part because they were simply not able to contain Russell Westbrook.

The UCLA product submitted one of the best all around performances of this postseason so far as he went off for 27 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists and 2 steals on 10-for-15 field goal shooting. In addition, the Thunder point guard only turned the ball over once.

After seeing Ty Lawson and Andre Miller manhandle Ramon Sessions in the first round, Mike Brown made the business decision of sticking a stronger and taller Kobe Bryant on Westbrook. The idea was simple: the Thunder point guard would have to shoot over Kobe’s outstretched arms, have trouble blowing past him off the dribble and wouldn’t be able to take him down in the block given Bryant’s superior strength.

In theory, the idea was brilliant.

In practice? Not quite.

Scott Brooks put Russell Westbrook in multiple pick-and-roll situations involving Andrew Bynum given his unwillingness/inability to come out on the perimeter and hedge hard to disrupt the timing of the action. Consequently, Westbrook exploded off the screens for jump shots at the top of the key with Bynum retreating to the paint.

Although the strategy was unsuccessful in Game 1, it does not mean that such will be the case for the remainder of the series. Indeed, there is still the possibility of Westbrook missing his jumpers and then becoming a little too aggressive; which is where he usually ends up making mistakes and coughing up the ball.

Nonetheless, Brown’s current strategy might prove to hurt his offense.

With Bryant forced to shadow Westbrook, it means that he will have to often match him stride for stride in transition and also run through multiple ball screens. This may cause the Lakers superstar to progressively wear down as the series unfolds.

Also, it’s worth noting that given all of the pick-and-rolls that OKC ran, Westbrook was able to routinely get inside the paint and create high percentage shots for himself and his teammates. Further exacerbating issues, during a stretch in the third quarter, Blake got stuck guarding the former Bruin and he took him to the post and proceeded to score on him seemingly at will. MySynergySports tells us that in post up situations this season, RW converted 36.3 percent of his attempts; but there he was making buckets over the outmatched Steve Blake Monday night.

With that said, the Lakers might still have a trick up their sleeve: Metta World Peace.

World Peace is physical and strong enough to fight through ball screens from Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins and recover to muscle Russell Westbrook and frustrate him when he has the ball in his hands. Also, he has the length to contest his shot as well as the quick hands to help knock the ball loose should RW try to split the trap in the pick-and-roll.

Mind you, putting World Peace on Westbrook might force Mike Brown to alter his lineups unless he is fine with Kobe chasing Durant around screens and defending him down the block.

So the option here may in fact be to have MWP, Kobe and Matt Barnes play together at times when James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are on the court together. Barnes could match up with Durant while Bryant would defend Harden.

This would be a pretty big unit for the Lakers and could be a plus on the boards. Offensively though, Bryant would essentially assume ball handling responsibilities and would have to relinquish some of his scoring responsibilities in favor of setting up his teammates.

It gets tricky though when we look at the regular season numbers.

Turns out that the Lakers only used that trio when they went small (as opposed to big, which is what I originally thought), essentially making MWP their power forward. Have a look at the minutes they piled up during the course of the season as well as which players they accumulated them with and their net plus-minus rating projected over 48 minutes according to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool:

Lineup

Minutes

+/-

Sessions, Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, Gasol

12

+24.4

Fisher, Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, Gasol

11

-17.1

Blake, Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, Gasol

7

-36.4

Blake, Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, Bynum

4

-36.0

Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, McRoberts, Bynum

3

-70.6

The samples are obviously quite small and thus it’s tough to truly draw conclusions from them, but the five-man unit of Sessions, Bryant, Barnes, World Peace and Gasol could potentially be an interesting offensive and defensive unit. Brown could potentially unleash it to match up with OKC whenever they decide to play small ball.

In that scenario, Sessions would end up defending Daequan Cook or Derek Fisher.

Offensively, the Lakers would have some semblance of perimeter shooting to complement Gasol’s interior game and with Sessions on the floor, Kobe wouldn’t need to be the primary ball handler, which means he could assume his regular scoring duties.

The other units struggled — and it explains why they played so little — with rebounding the ball, protecting the rock and personal fouls.

And really, these are the options that Westbrook — and to some degree Durant — will force Mike Brown to consider. His speed, athleticism and strength will make him a tough cover for just about every perimeter player on the Lakers, but the opportunity to put World Peace on him might prove to be a great wrinkle to throw off the OKC Thunder.

Let’s just remember that such a move doesn’t happen without consequences in all the other matchups.

Does coach Brown drop that first domino in Game 2?

Statistical support provided by NBA.com.

The Lakers have struggled these playoffs to find any sort of rhythm. After 8 games they’re 4-4, have a negative scoring margin, and negative efficiency differentials. And while countless words have been devoted to (literal) front line issues like Bynum’s inconsistent effort and Pau’s up and down play, there’s another key Laker that hasn’t been performing up to a suitable standard.

Ramon Sessions first playoff experience hasn’t been very good so far. In 254 minutes of action he’s shooting 36.8% from the field, only made 4 of his 21 three pointers, is 2nd on the team in assists to Kobe (while assisting on fewer than 20% of the baskets while he’s on the floor), and posting a single digit PER (9.8). These numbers represent a staggering decline from his regular season production. Said another way, in these playoffs, he’s shooting worse and has a lower PER than Steve Blake while only dishing out .8 assists more per game than the man that backs him up.

Needless to say, the Lakers need more from Sessions and they need it quickly. Sessions issues seem multi-faceted, however, so improving on his play is going to take a concerted effort.

Throughout his career and in his first 15 games (or so) with the Lakers, Sessions was asked to run a team where he’d be a key factor in every offensive possession. He was given the freedom to push the ball up the floor to seek his own shot, then pull back and run multiple P&R’s in order to try and create off the dribble if there wasn’t a clear alley to the rim. He had the green light to be as aggressive as he saw fit with very few consequences for a quick or poor shot.

When he first came to the Lakers, this approach was a breath of fresh air. His blazing speed and ability to turn the corner in isolation or P&R sets gave the Lakers an added dimension they’d lacked with Fisher or Blake running the offense. Simply put, Sessions was a creator while the Lakers’ other PG’s were initiators.

As the season advanced, though, Sessions was asked to pull back. His teammates started to make comments about playing at a slower tempo to accommodate the pace Gasol and Bynum are most comfortable playing at. He was shifted to the starting lineup and then had more mouths to feed, integrating his on-ball style with Kobe while still running a post-centric offense. More and more he was running half-court sets that didn’t involve P&R’s for himself, but rather sets that asked him to either initiate an action via a pass to Gasol that flowed into him being a screener and a stop up shooter or for him to keep his dribble high while Kobe ran off picks to get free for a catch and shoot jumper or an isolation.

And in the playoffs, it’s been more of the same. Against Denver, controlling the pace and tempo was seen as the Lakers biggest key to controlling the series. Denver didn’t have the size to play with the Lakers bruising style and the Lakers didn’t have the speed or depth to play the Nuggets’ up and down game. So, the Lakers focused on playing a half court game where each possession would be milked while probing for the best possible shot. Getting the ball into the post was the priority. As the Nuggets double teamed the bigs and left the Lakers’ wings open to shoot jumpers, the Lakers didn’t adjust by taking those looks (Sessions included) but rather tried harder to infiltrate the low post via entry passes through crowded windows.

In the process of turning down open jumpers and playing at a slower pace, Sessions’ game seems so far removed from what it was just a couple of months ago he’s nearly unrecognizable as a player. Yes, he’ll still have a nice drive to the rim on a possession or two and a handful of times he’ll run some P&R’s that involve him and a big man in which he tries to penetrate the D and create a good look for himself or teammate, but these aren’t primary sets for the Lakers.

And so far against the Thunder – granted, it’s only been one game – things haven’t changed. Sessions isn’t attacking and creating, he’s barely even probing and feeling out the D. Instead he’s mostly walking the ball up, looking to get the Lakers into their sets, and then either screening for a teammate or drifting around the perimeter where he becomes a spot up shooter. These simply are not Sessions strengths.

At this point, though, turning things around isn’t as clear cut as it may seem. The Lakers could play faster and could incorporate more actions that play to Sessions’ strengths – classic P&R’s and cleared out sides for isolations for starters. But by committing more to Sessions would they be taking away possessions from their big three? Would a change in style that suits Ramon better stand in opposition to what Gasol and Bynum inherently prefer?

The answers to these questions aren’t straight forward. What is, however, is the fact that the Lakers must find a better balance in style that helps Sessions find his game. Because right now he’s not the upgrade the Lakers traded for; he’s not the same player he was in those first weeks of his Laker career. And to beat the Thunder – or just make this series closer than it has been so far – that’s the player they need.

Well, that went about as bad as it could have, huh?

The Lakers were out-everythinged by the Thunder in the opening contest of round two, having their hats handed to them in a 29 point drubbing with final count 119-90.

There’s really not much to say here so I’ll keep it brief.

The Thunder, outside of a handful of plays that didn’t work out that you might expect, got everything going their way tonight. And while they deserve all the credit in the world for playing as well as they did, for being prepared to play after an extended lay off, and for executing their game plan, I also look at a lot of the little mistakes the Lakers made and wonder if this game could have been different had they made any of a myriad of adjustments in game. Not necessarily if the Lakers could have won this game, but rather if they wouldn’t have looked so bad in losing.

In my series previews, I rattled off a bunch of keys that would need to go the Lakers way if they were to win. Imagine them as a checklist:

  • Don’t let Westbrook find a rhythm as a shooter.
  • Ball security is a must, as OKC will turn turnovers into the easy points in transition.
  • Find a way to slow Harden as he’s the key to their second unit and their most natural playmaker. Who guards him is an open question, but whoever does must be effective.
  • Mark the wings not named KD/Russ/Harden. They’re only in the game to shoot the open three pointers that their big three create for them.
  • Get creative on offense by using screen actions – especially for Kobe.
  • Try to utilize Sessions going to the basket and let him loose more to help him find a rhythm.
  • Make three point shots to loosen up the D

There were more variables, but this is a good place to end because none of these things went the Lakers way:

  • Westbrook found open space coming off screens, got into a groove on his mid-range jumper, and punished the Lakers with shots that you may want him taking but when he gets hot he’s more than capable of burying. Bynum and the other Lakers’ bigs played below the screen or allowed Russ to split the double off the pick and that set him free to take shots in a flow.
  • In the 1st half the Lakers had 8 turnovers which the Thunder converted into 16 points. For the game they had 21 points off 15 Lakers’ TO’s.
  • Harden, though only shooting 4-11 from the floor was still able to score 17 points mostly off the strength of getting to the FT line 10 times (making 9). When he first checked into the game he was flanked by both Westbrook and KD and that led to Mike Brown assigning Steve Blake to guard Harden. That led to Harden going into full attack mode, working the P&R and in isolation to get to the basket and compromise the Laker D. His final numbers don’t pop, but when he came into the game his impact was definitely felt.
  • Daeqan Cook was the main OKC wing player that saw early minutes and he hit 3 quick shots (including a buzzer beater at the end of the 1st quarter) to score 8 points. Those would be the only 8 points he scored but that’s besides the point. His early game production sparked his team and helped them go on the run that gave the Thunder their first cushion.
  • The last three bullet points all reference the Lakers offensive attack and none of those things went the way the Lakers would have hoped. Kobe worked in isolation most of the night, never able to shake free from Sefolosha’s defense. Too often Kobe worked from 20 feet and out and tried to create his own offense off the dribble against one of the elite wing defenders in the league. As for Sessions, he still hasn’t been able to escape the funk he’s been in. He’s being asked to run a slow down offensive game to the benefit of his teammates but in the process his own production is suffering. Sure, he was able to attack off the dribble a handful of times but it’s obvious his rhythm is non-existent. He only hit one of his seven attempts from the floor, didn’t go to the foul line, and was mostly a spectator. Also, while the Lakers hit 7 of their 15 three point attempts, none really came into play as difference making shots. Yes, Ron’s early bombs kept the Lakers afloat but over the course of the game, those shots meant little as the Thunder D ground the Lakers down in other ways to make their overall offense sputter.

And that was basically the game. The Thunder showed their class, the Lakers looked a bit tired but also lost focus as the game progressed and were never able to recapture that early aggressiveness that kept them in the game. Bynum did show he could score well on Perkins and Pau showed that he could be an impact on the offensive glass but those positives were outweighed by the Thunder’s ability to impose their will on the Lakers and run away with the game.

At this point, the Lakers can tweak some things but the original game plan is still one that needs to be executed to give them their best shot. In a way, tonight’s game reminds me of game 1 from the first round but from the Nuggets’ perspective. If you recall, in that game George Karl told his team that they needed to go out and execute the plan because he had no clue if it could work or not because they weren’t doing it. Tonight, the same could be said of the Lakers. They didn’t show hard on P&R’s, didn’t screen well or get Kobe open, and were too careless with the ball. These are execution issues that need to be resolved. Even if these things are done better the Thunder may still win the game, but until they are we can’t know for sure.

Hopefully in game two, we see better.