Archives For May 2012

The turnaround time for the Lakers has been short. Just the day before yesterday they left everything they had on the floor in defeating the Denver Nuggets for the chance to play tonight. Meanwhile, the Thunder have been waiting patiently – and likely enjoying watching whoever they’d face go through the grinder of a full 7 game slate.

And while we’ve talked offense and defense, tonight’s contest may come down to some of those other variables. Are the Lakers too fatigued? Have the Thunder been resting too long? Will Ron’s elbow be on the mind or Harden or Ron and affect either of their games? It will surely be on the mind of the crowd who usually don’t need anything extra to whip them into a frenzy but will have it anyways.

One thing is for sure, tonight will be as much about strategy and execution as it will be about harnessing the energy in the building while maintaining composure. Whichever team can win both sides of that equation will likely win this all important first game.

And make no mistake, tonight is important. Many only give the Lakers a chance to take this series should tonight’s contest tilt in their favor. The longer they go without a win in this series the fewer games they have to win four times, this is just simple math. And when facing a team as good as the Thunder, creating a more margin for error in chances that are already slim is imperative. For the Thunder, home court advantage is often the difference between winning and losing a series. Even though everyone sees them as the superior team, everyone thought the same thing about the Lakers the last series and we all saw how valuable playing the final game of that series at home meant to them.

So, tonight it begins. The boos for the visiting Lakers will be deafening. The Thunder’s skill and readiness will be on full display. The Lakers, though, have some experience and fortitude on their side as well. The time for talking about it is pretty much over, however. Ready or not, this thing gets going tonight and the players will decide who’s ready.

So, as we sit back and watch the game from our couches or desks, listen to it on the radio, or just follow the self updating boxscore, try to enjoy yourself. The Lakers are the underdog – as it should be. Enjoy that freedom from expectations and dig in. Also enjoy this series preview from Meir 21. If you weren’t ready before, you’ll surely be after this:

We took an extensive look at defending the Thunder a bit earlier, but if the Lakers are going to compete in this series they’ll need to find a way to score. During the regular season the Lakers shot a shade under 40% over their three match ups, a success rate they’ll need to go up over this series if the Lakers want to hang tough.

Achieving this will not be easy, however. The Thunder have assembled a group of defensive minded players that match up very well with their Laker counterparts. Perkins, Ibaka, and Sefolosha are all plus-defenders that just happen to play the same positions as the Lakers big three. When you add in Westbrook and Durant, the Thunder have the size, length, and athleticism to slow down any offensive attack.

All that said, the Lakers – especially after the Sessions trade – were one of the elite offensive teams in the league. And regardless of any individual defensive prowess of the players they’re facing, the Lakers have elite skill players that can create shots for themselves and their teammates when utilized correctly.

Here’s some keys to making sure it can happen…

*Take advantage of single coverage
The Thunder aren’t a team that wants to commit the second defender. As I mentioned, they have strong individual defenders at the key positions (wing and both big men spots) to slow any team’s attack. So, the Lakers will need to beat single coverage when they see it, or at least compromise it enough where the help instincts of the Thunder defenders take hold.

This starts with the Lakers post players. Kendrick Perkins is a fantastic one on one post defender. His low center of gravity, natural strength, and long arms make him a challenge to move and an obstacle to shoot over. Andrew Bynum, however, is a monstrously massive man. Bynum may not be able to bury Perkins under the rim, but he will be able to get the ball 10 feet and in and then use a couple of power dribbles to get into the range where his jump hook becomes a viable weapon. If the Thunder are intent on letting Perkins operate on an island against ‘Drew, these moves must be dusted off the shelf (Bynum hasn’t seen single coverage since stretches of game 2 vs. Denver) and put to work. Bynum will need to park himself at the left block, use a rhythm dribble or two, and then preferably use his left hand hook shot after drop stepping baseline. This shot allows him to turn away from any help coming from the middle (which is where Ibaka will be planted) but also allows him to use his softer touch from that side (while also setting himself up for his favored step through move along the baseline).

Pau must also get aggressive with Ibaka but will need to use a varied attack. Ibaka isn’t nearly the one on one defender that Perkins is, but his shot blocking ability and timing to contest shots is extraordinary. So, Pau will need to use all his tricks and craft to get Ibaka into positions on the floor where he uses his want to challenge shots against. Pau can work the elbow in the Lakers’ horns sets and shoot his jumper but must also use his first step to try and attack Ibaka off the dribble to close the distance between the two and then go his post moves. If Pau dribbles hard to his right and and then slows to set up a back to the basket move, he will find good looks. Pau can also use straight post up actions to set up his own jump hook and turnaround jumper, but must use some fakes to get Ibaka second guessing on when and how the shot is going up. Lastly, Pau must take advantage of Ibaka’s desire to be a help defender. On many possessions Ibaka will leave Pau to help on a player threatening the rim and it’s these moments that Pau can dash into open space to either get off a jumper, dive for a shot at the basket, or hit the offensive glass when a shot goes up. Pau can’t be a bystander when he’s helped off of, he must be assertive.

Kobe will also see a lot of single coverage and the Lakers must utilize his ability to work off the ball to take advantage of it. Sefolosha does a good job of guarding Kobe in isolation from the top of the key and the wing, but can be taken advantage of in sets similar to the ones the Lakers used against Denver to knock Afflalo off his scent. Pin downs, cross screens, and stagger options can all be used to get Kobe going towards the basket or curling into position to shoot mid-range jumpers in rhythm. Kobe will obviously still have to isolate a fair amount, but if he’s finding a rhythm in these alternate sets he can build some momentum in his game to work from a standstill.

Another way to get Kobe going is in forcing switches so he can work against smaller defenders. In part one of our series preview, I mentioned that Kobe should guard Westbrook on D. Well, one of the benefits of that is the potential to force cross matches in early offense. If Kobe can make Westbrook stick to him in transition defense, offensive sets where Kobe gets to the low and mid post to isolate become that much more effective. Give me Kobe backing down the smaller (though still strong and athletic) Westbrook over the bigger, longer Sefolosha all game and I’ll take my chances with him getting looks at the basket.

*Get Sessions going to the rim.
Over the course of his short tenure with the Lakers, we’ve seen that Sessions can be an impactful player. However, if he’s relegated to shooting jumpers and can not find daylight to attack off the dribble his utility diminishes. The Thunder are likely to take a cue from the Nuggets and sag off Sessions to make him prove he can hit jumpers. And, while I want him taking some of those shots in rhythm and without hesitation, I also want him to force the issue a bit more. When he comes off picks he needs to use his speed look to turn the corner more decisively. When he’s in the open court he needs to threaten the defense a bit more and probe to see in an opening is there.

By no means am I saying he needs to compromise the Lakers desires to control the tempo, but he does need to test the limits of what the defense is giving him and what he can force upon them using his natural ability. Again, the Thunder are not likely to devote more than a single defender against any single Laker. Sessions should see opportunities to attack off the dribble and use his in-bewteen game to get off shots in the paint or create looks for teammates when the Thunder rotate. If the Lakers are to get the points they need, Sessions will need to make an imprint on some of these games. And while his job may be the hardest – balancing the team’s needs to control the flow while also being aggressive looking for his own shot is not easy – he has the ability to excel if he’s dialed in. At the end of the Nuggets series he wasn’t there. He’ll need to be now.

*Get creative on screen actions.
Sessions/Kobe pick and rolls; Pau/Bynum pick and rolls; cross-screens for big men coming to the ball side post; pin downs for Gasol to free him coming to the elbow; Ron/Gasol pick and rolls….I can on and on but you get where I’m going. All of these actions have been used throughout the season to help generate offense but the Lakers haven’t incorporated all of them into single game plans yet these playoffs.

I don’t expect to see all these varied actions in a game one. They may not even all be used in any single game period. But, the Lakers have these sets in their back pockets and they mustn’t lose sight of the fact that some variety in how they use on and off-ball screen actions will greatly aid them getting the points they need. Again, the Thunder bigs are willing helpers and actions like the ones listed will put them in compromising positions where they’ll either have to make a choice. Any split second of hesitation can be the difference between an open shot or the need to move the ball on to a teammate, especially on a team with the athletes OKC possesses.

*Miscellaneous notes

  • The Lakers must punish small lineups and/or weak defenders. When Durant is playing PF and he’s guarding Gasol, the Lakers need to feature him in the post. If he’s guarding Jordan Hill, he must be bullied under the hoop and forced to rebound his position. When Derek Fisher is in the game, he must be attacked in isolation (hopefully it’s Sessions doing the attacking). The same can be said of Cook. The Thunder will try to maximize their offensive output by tilting lineups towards their skill and shooting. The Lakers must counter by going more rugged and making these guys work on their less preferred end of the floor.
  • Nick Collison is a second unit defender to watch out for. He’s great at fronting the post and is willing charge taker. When he’s matched up with Gasol, the Lakers must recognize quickly that the front is coming and look to exploit it with high-low actions between the bigs. If Hill is at the FT line, he need only throw the ball to the square and let Pau use his length to go get the ball. Also, because Collison will look to take charges, the Lakers must be willing passers when the penetrate the lane. Collison is looking for contact and must leave his man a beat early to position himself. Drop off passes and little lobs will be open when he’s helping.
  • It’s been implied, but here it is implicitly: ball security matters a great deal in this series. The Thunder are long athletes that will challenge passing lanes. They’ll try to block shots at the rim. They’ll pressure ball handlers to try and force errant passes. The Lakers must not get turnover happy because those miscues will turn into points going the other way. Few teams change ends like the Thunder and if the Lakers don’t take care of the ball, they’ll see that fact for themselves first hand.
  • It seems so obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: the Lakers must make some three point shots this series. Steve Blake was hot in game 7. Ron hit a couple of deep threes as well. Barnes will need to join them and Sessions will need to show that he too can hit the open jumper. While the Lakers offensive plan is to work for good looks and exploit OKC from 18 feet and in, hitting shots from 22 feet and out will help create the spacing needed to execute that plan.


This is the series the Lakers aren’t supposed to win. The Thunder are younger and more athletic. They have star power at the top of their roster and a deep bench to compliment them. They’re hungry, determined, and a team that’s been on the cusp for long enough that they’re now primed for a deep run. If you’re a betting man, the Thunder is the way to go; they’re the chalk in this equation.

So, the Lakers should just forfeit right?

Since we know that’s not happening…

The Lakers aren’t supposed to win, but they surely can. It will take several things working in their favor – even more so than in other series based off OKC’s stature as one of the elite teams – but we’ve known that since the last few weeks of the regular season where we all started looking ahead to playoff match ups. The fact remains, however, that while there are several factors in this match up that distinctly favor the Thunder, the Lakers have some things going for themselves as well.

In that vain, here’s our roadmap for what the Lakers can do on both ends to try and take this series or in the very least, make it as competitive as possible. Our first part deals with the Thunder’s offense…

* Tempo, tempo, tempo.
Just like the Nuggets series, much of the Lakers success will depend on keeping the Thunder out of transition situations where their superior athleticism can shine through for easy baskets. In the Thunder’s two regular season wins they scored 21 and 25 fast break points, while in their lone loss they only scored 18 (and that was in a double OT game). The Lakers must change ends well, build a wall on defense, and keep the Westbrook/Durant/Harden trio from getting shots at the rim against a defense that isn’t yet set. Much of this will depend on a patient offensive approach by L.A., but even more so about keeping floor balance and maintaining discipline as the Thunder look to break out. The Thunder want to play fast (5th fastest pace in the league  this year), but they won’t always force the issue the way the Nuggets did; they won’t just fire up shots in transition to avoid playing half court basketball. If the Lakers can make them set up and run their O, they can experience some success.

That said, guarding this team in the half court will not be easy. In their starting lineup, Durant and Westbrook offer individual challenges for whoever guards them.

*The three headed perimeter monster.
The assumption is that Ron will guard Durant whenever they share the floor and, as in year’s past, the formula remains the same for dealing with the league’s leading scorer. Ron must body him off the ball to make his catches as difficult as possible. Outright ball denials will be nearly impossible, but making him catch the ball at a standstill or when going away from the basket should be the ultimate goal. KD is brilliant curling off screens and getting into positions where he’s an immediate threat so Ron will not only need to try to knock him off his preferred path, but will need help from his teammates to obstruct passing angles until he can recover.

But KD will get the ball and once he does is when the next effort begins. Durant is such a skilled scorer because his jumper must be respected well beyond the three point line. He’s more than capable of knocking down the deep jumper both off catch and shoots and off pull ups, so Ron will need to crowd him off the catch and respect his pull up while also not getting beat off the bounce with KD’s improved handle. Preferably, as a guideline, I’d like to see Ron force KD left and play him for the pull up jumper when going in that direction while playing him to drive all the way to the rim when going right. Of course KD’s attack is more varied than this but this is a good place to start. Ron will need to use his quick hands to bother Durant’s handle and then his length to contest shots off the dribble.

As for Westbrook, it remains to be seen if Kobe gets full time defensive duty but I’d hope that he does. Westbrook has a speed advantage over every potential Laker defender but will not have a size and strength advantage over Kobe like he will over Sessions or Blake. And it’s those latter two qualities that allow him to turn drives that could be 15 feet pull up jumpers into shots in the paint that compromise a defense. This can’t be stressed enough: the Lakers lose this series easily if Westbrook is an efficient scorer and he’s most efficient when playing at the rim. During the regular season Russ didn’t shoot well (overall) against the Lakers in any area of the floor but he shot his best percentage at the basket and was at 40% or lower from every incremental distance farther from the hoop. The Lakers must turn him into a jump shooter and the best way to do that is to put size on him, go under screens, and then recover back to challenge his pull up J. The deeper the jumper the better but his disrupting his rhythm is the most important factor here. As he showed in the 2nd match up vs. the Lakers, he can get hot from any spot on the floor once he starts to feel it so the real key is to not let him find that groove.

Of course, if slowing Westbrook and Durant was all you had to do to beat the Thunder the Lakers wouldn’t be in such a tough spot. James Harden probably offers the most difficult challenge defensively because his game is the most unorthodox and his effectiveness comes in a variety of ways. He’s a tremendous P&R ball handler, will look to set up his teammates when he’s over played, can score off the jumper or going to the rim, plus is a lefty that always finds a way to get to his dominant hand with crafty Euro-steps and crossovers. Harden is OKC’s most natural playmaker and will be the focal point of their second unit. Who the Lakers put on him is just as important as how the Lakers defend his myriad of offensive moves and, as of now at least, I’ve no clue who the best option is.

Kobe has shown that he struggles when Harden goes to a P&R heavy attack because of the way he uses angles when coming off the pick. Kobe often switches these screens because Harden is great at using an angled dribble to get to a spot on the floor where recovering is more difficult. Barnes is similar to Kobe in this regard. The best option then, becomes Ron but he can’t guard Harden and Durant at the same time. How this plays out is one of the bigger keys to the series because if Harden becomes pedestrian, the Thunder become overly dependent on the the Russ/KD duo. This isn’t a *bad* problem for most teams but I’ve long thought that as great as those two are – and they are GREAT – they’re also the types of players that thrive doing what they do best and start to struggle when those things are taken away. The fact they can get those things going so often is one of the reasons they are so great but I digress. Harden, though, does many things well and can show a defender 10 different looks on 10 different possessions, each one a part of a wide-net arsenal. While KD and Russ will get the accolades, this series could turn on how effective Harden is.

*Miscellaneous factors:

  • While most of what the Thunder do is based off the above players, we mustn’t forget the little things that make this team successful. The Lakers must be aware of Ibaka on pick and pops. He’s the guy that can score 16 points on 12 shots, all of them open jumpers/dives to the rim as the defense scrambles around the perimeter trying to slow the big name threats. Serge’s range is good to 18 feet and his athleticism aids him in attacking the paint and scoring off O-Rebs and simple cuts.
  • Kendrick Perkins must also be accounted for, but in a different way. He’s going to set bone crushing screens (sometimes illegal ones) to try and free his guys up. He’s a key cog in that players don’t get open without him knocking defenders away. The Lakers bigs must help on these picks by hedging well (when they’re on ball) and by giving space for guys to fight through (when they’re off the ball). The bigs must also position themselves where they can be helpers on passes when guys want to curl into the paint or flash into open space off these screens.
  • Thunder wings not yet named (besides Thabo) are in the game to shoot open three pointers. Fisher, Cook, and Ivey can all hit the three ball. They’ll camp weak side, wait for attention to go to their more heralded teammates and then stab you in the liver with a dagger three pointer. The Lakers must make all of these guys put the ball on the floor and finish off the dribble. As Lakers’ fans we’re all quite familiar with Fisher’s ability to hit playoff three pointers. He and his pals must be turned into two point shooters that finish while being harassed.
  • The Thunder will go small. Durant will play some PF and the Lakers will need to guard him with a capable defender when this happens. Rather than counter with a small lineup, I’ll be interested in seeing if the Lakers simply put one of their big men (Hill, Gasol) on one of the aforementioned wings and hope that their superior length can be enough to close and contest.

The Nuggets hangover can last for a few hours longer, but not much more than that. Round two awaits and with that our focus shifts. We’ll have an extended series preview coming a bit later but for now, a few thoughts, questions, and observations heading into the second round versus the Oklahoma City Thunder…

  • The Thunder are sort of a hulked-up version of the Nuggets. They have the same speed and athleticism, but also offer the star power that the Nuggets lacked. At pretty much every position (at least in the starting lineup and in their 6th man), the Thunder offer a more quality alternative to the Nugget team the Lakers just needed 7 games to defeat. Be it Westbrook/Lawson, Gallo/Durant, Faried/Ibaka, or even Mozgov/Perkins the Thunder bring an upgrade.
  • Will the Thunder employ the same double-teaming strategy the Nuggets did on the Lakers’ big men? They have the horses in Perkins and Ibaka to single cover Bynum and Pau and during the regular season they rarely doubled L.A.’s bigs. Will that trend hold?
  • James Harden is going to be a problem for a variety of reasons. Who guards him when he shares the court with both Westbrook and Durant is one of the major concerns going into this series. I mean, if Kobe is going to guard Westbrook (which seems like the best strategy to slow him) and Ron guards KD (ditto), does that mean Sessions guards Harden? Blake? Do the Lakers go to an unconventional lineup just for defensive purposes?
  • Last night, on twitter, Nate Jones (@JonesOnTheNBA) said “This Thunder series will be where the Lakers really regret dumping Lamar.” After that Andrew Ungvari (@drewunga) replied to him “Just as long as it’s not one where they really regret dumping Fisher.” I agree on both counts, though I’m not going to stress over things that can’t be undone. Both players are gone – though we’ll get to see plenty of Fisher starting on Monday.
  • Has Devin Ebanks played himself out of the rotation? With his last couple of performances, I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case.
  • Will Matt Barnes find more creases in the defense to slash to the rim? He’ll need them because being relegated to a spot up shooter diminishes a fair amount of his utility on offense.
  • Earlier I spoke of the Thunder’s starting bigs but they also have two very good reserve big men in Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed. Jordan Hill will need to continue his solid play to ensure that Gasol and Bynum don’t get worn out dealing with a foursome of bigs that will come in waves while always being fresh.
  • That said, just because they have the bigs doesn’t mean that OKC won’t go small. KD at the 4 will offer an interesting dilemma for the Lakers in terms of matching up. Asking Pau or Hill to cover Durant is asking for trouble. However, the hope would also be to make KD work on defense, trying to punish him in the post and make him work on the glass so he can’t run out as easily. So, going small to match up might not be the best solution. This will be one of the many games within the game that will occur in this series.

These are just some of the things that are on my mind this morning. There are countless other variables, though. What’s on your mind; what are the things you’re looking forward to? Let me know in the comments.

Box Score: Lakers 96, Nuggets 87
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 112.9, Nuggets 102.4
True Shooting %: Lakers 51.0%, Nuggets 47.2%

Say it with me, everybody.


As a basketball fan, it was one hell of a game. As a Laker fan, it was like taking the test for your driver’s license. Yes, there were some rolling stops on the way. Yes, there were times when the game was going too fast or too slow. But in the end, they passed. The Lakers are going on to the second round.

There are a lot of “who would’ve ever thought” moments in this game. And for the Lakers, they were good moments. First off, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol finally got on Team Bring it and had monster games. Pau had 23 points, 17 boards, 6 assists, and 4 blocks. He was phenomenal. HE WASN’T SOFT TONIGHT. Bynum brought the pain (but don’t do it literally on other players, please) with 16 points, 18 rebounds, and 6 blocks. Pau and Bynum combined for 20 offensive rebounds although they were killing a lot of bunnies out there tonight. Bynum could’ve shot better (4 for 15), sure, but all we asked from him was effort and he brought it. Pau shot a decent 9 for 19 and made some clutch freethrows. Well done, big men.

Steve Blake! He brought his Daniel Bryan self and came up huge with 19 points off the bench (YES! YES! YES!). He was NOT hesitant like he was most of the year and shot 5 for 6 behind the arc. That’s how you handle the pressure cooker, Ramon Sessions. Hopefully, Sessions knows better in the next pressure-packed game.

The return of Metta World Peace was huge. He played fantastic defense everywhere (Danilo Gallinari was 1/9, Andre Miller was 1/10, Corey Brewer was 2/9) and provided timely perimeter jumpers. MWP had 15 points, 5 rebounds, 4 steals, and 2 blocks. Just in time, Ron. Just in time.

Kobe Bryant played like a classic point guard (17 points and 8 assists). He didn’t shoot extremely well (7 for 16) but he did his best to get everybody involved. It was a pleasant surprise since I thought he would come out gunning. But his presence got open shots for his teammates. And in the end, he put in a 3-point fatality to put the Lakers up 8 with 48 seconds left. We just all love it when Kobe drives stick-shift because you know he can handle the clutch.

Denver wasn’t going to go away easily. Ty Lawson is one hell of a player. He finished with a 24-5-6 line and took over the 3rd quarter. As much as we start punching walls (I hope you guys don’t punch glass) when the Lakers lose big leads (Lakers were up as many as 16 points), we gotta give credit to Denver’s resolve. Our favorite Ninja Turtle, Leonardo, er, Al Harrington scored 24 points was big for the Nuggets also. Good thing, he turned to Michaelangelo in the 4th quarter because he started chucking early in the clock in hopes of recapturing the lead.

Denver and Lakers both shot 35 for 89 (39.3 percent). That’s how close the game was. But again, we gotta give credit to Denver. That’s a pretty damn good team… and I admit to have underestimated them. Watch out for them in the next few seasons.

Good thing that the Lakers won or I would’ve been the most upset ever since Zack and Kelly broke up in Saved By The Bell. So I guess Mike Brown won’t be fired tomorrow, right (I never really believed he was going to get axed, anyway)? Anyway, we can enjoy our Saturday nights; there’s still time to go clubbing for us West Coasters.

NOW we can all focus on Oklahoma City. But in the meantime, I’m just going to go have a few more beverages. Cheers, everybody.

By the way, Siri, did the Lakers win?

“Yes, they did.”

Four the Hard Way

Dave Murphy —  May 12, 2012

Where did it go wrong? Or, how did it go so wrong, so quickly? It seemed to happen within the course of a game – an extended, senseless slide, like a nightmare car accident, or a real accident – the ones that seem to last an eternity. It wasn’t any one game, of course. They say you can’t go home again. It has been interpreted in many ways, a space in time, a memory, or the idea that you cannot return home without being deemed a failure. The Lakers return home tonight for a game seven that never should have happened.

Or so we think. That’s the easiest narrative. That it never should have happened. But sometimes history repeats itself in ways that we would rather not admit, in ways that make us uncomfortable. In ways that rob us of our pleasure in the moment, or our goals in life. As Lakers fans, we’re not so used to that, at least not in recent history. There have been tough losses and bad years, but numbers and patterns don’t lie – we have enjoyed championships and finals and deep playoff runs. We don’t really know the pain of teams that have never climbed the mountain. We don’t know the pain of long suffering fans.

The signs for disaster were there from the end of last season, all the way to the beginning of this new, truncated one. Our longtime coach left once again, this time for good. The entire support structure was gutted, from assistant coaches to scouts to an equipment manager who had been with the organization since the Showtime era. All wiped off the board with an impatient, careless swipe.

Fortunately, we still had Kobe, and we had Andrew and Pau and Lamar and Metta and Derek Fisher, an old guard whose game had lessened, but who was still a captain, and still held his teammates’ respect. And one by one, they too dropped away. Lamar was traded at the beginning of the season and Derek was traded midway through. And there were bumps in the road under Coach Mike Brown as he learned it on the fly. Yet the team regrouped, it adopted its newcomers, it began to find its way, and it won the Pacific division title.

Metta was suspended for seven games, beginning with the final outing of the regular season. And still, the team won game one of the first round Denver series by 15 points. They were deemed a sure thing. They won game two by only four points. They lost game three by 15. Do you sense a downward trend here? They managed to rebound, winning game four by four points. And lost games five and six.

Thursday night was not an aberration for Pau in this series. He’s been fading since the start. He had a solid regular season, despite the threat of being traded, averaging 17 points and 10 boards per game. In game one against the Nuggets, he had 13 points, four off his season average. By the time he ghost-walked through game six, he’d hit rock bottom with three points and three rebounds. That is not a typo. He actually put up better numbers during last year’s Dallas sweep, generally regarded as the nadir of his career.

We’ve reached the classic game seven scenario, with implications that go far beyond. The Kobe narrative has long been about hero ball, about the need to share and to trust. This year’s model was the humblest Kobe Bryant that you will ever see. He supported his new coach and he talked about Andrew Bynum’s growth and hunger. And when Pau was besieged by daily trade rumors, Kobe addressed the media and the message sailed straight into management’s inner sanctum. “It’s important for him to know we support him. I support him especially. I just want him to go out there and play hard and do what he does best for us.”

For those who talk about the winds of change, know this – Kobe Bryant is still the franchise. He puts celebrity face time into pricey courtside seats. He drives ad revenue in the Los Angeles mega-market, and nationally, and around the world. And as Jim Buss recently noted, his shelf life goes well beyond his remaining years on the court. In other words, Kobe is a brand, and he is here to stay. And he wants to win.

Gasol and Bynum were our dominant front court presence this year. As one went, so did the other. And so it has been in the playoffs. They have regressed together, the sympathy pain of giants. This is where we found ourselves in Denver, just two nights ago. For all intent and purposes, down to one lone hope – Kobe Bryant, suffering from stomach flu. He took a couple IV bags before the game and a couple more at halftime. He looked ashen and miserable, and he led his team in scoring. But if he couldn’t rescue them in game five, he certainly wouldn’t be rescuing them in Denver without the last remaining vestiges of a championship roster – there, but not really there.

What ails the most feared front court in the NBA? They aren’t saying and if they did, it wouldn’t matter. They’ve played a pedestrian series at best, and Denver doesn’t fear them. George Karl’s Nuggets are coming back to Staples for all the marbles. They’re going to let it fly, one more time. The Lakers are essentially trying to draw to an inside straight. They have one card, and it’s a true wild card. Metta World Peace, the player once known as Tru Warier, coming off a seven game suspension for elbowing James Harden in the head. He may play well or not play well, but make no mistake, he will want this. And for the first time in this series, Kobe Bryant will have a partner.

– Dave Murphy

The Los Angeles Lakers will play Game 7 on Saturday night at Staples Center against the Denver Nuggets, in a series that many thought the purple and gold would be able to close out in five or six games.

George Karl has managed to get the best out of his players, getting them to play their game and at the pace that he wishes while it’s tough to say that Mike Brown has gotten his team to consistently execute their game plan.

Throughout the season, the word around the league has been that Kobe Bryant had no business leading the league in shot attempts when he had the two most skilled big men in the NBA playing on his team. Surely, a player of Bryant’s stature would understand that feeding his twin towers would go a long way towards determining the fate of his team and quite possibly his legacy; or so it was said.

This series against the Nuggets has shown something different to many of Kobe’s detractors.

Bryant is averaging an impressive 31.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game on 44.9 percent field goal shooting in six games against Denver. The Lakers superstar is also averaging 26 field goal attempts per game, which many would argue is too much.

Indeed, Andrew Bynum has voiced his displeasure about a lack of touches during the postseason and with good reason. A big man that is that dominant on the block needs to get a lot of looks at the basket especially when he gets deep post position. Mind you, the Lakers’ starting center has struggled in this series when faced with hard double teams. Instead of allowing the big man to dictate which post move he can use to score on the block, Denver has simply forced Bynum to think with the ball in his hands, and well so far that has proved to be beneficial to the Nuggets.

Pau Gasol on the other hand has struggled. His willingness to assert himself offensively comes and goes, and even at times when he has had the mindset to be an aggressive player, he has failed to produce with his scoring opportunities.

Which obviously brings everything back to Kobe.

If we take a quick look at his plus-minus ratings for the series when on the court and off the court, here’s what we will find:

On the court +/- rating: -3.2

Off the court +/- rating: +3.8

Clearly the problem is Bryant, and they should just bench him the rest of the way right? Not quite.

The Denver Nuggets have actually outscored the Los Angeles Lakers in this series, which means that a player averaging a heavy dose of minutes for the Lakers would surely see his plus-minus rating have negative figure — L.A. is minus-3.1 with Bynum on the court — and that’s the case for Kobe. The Black Mamba has played in 237 out of a possible 288 minutes. That means that Bryant is spending 8.5 minutes per game on the bench.

Hence, it’s not surprising that his plus-minus rating is “bad” per se.

Know what is surprising though? The Lakers may need Kobe to go iron man in Game 7.

The Los Angeles Lakers have been shaky at best when Bryant has gone to the bench in this series against Denver. According to’s advanced stats tool, in six games, the Lakers have converted 38.3 percent of their field goals and 20 percent of their 3-pointers when Bryant has been on the bench. To put that into perspective, the Charlotte Bobcats converted 41.4 percent of their field goals this season and 29.5 percent of their 3-point attempts. You know, the same Bobcats team that now holds the worst winning percentage in NBA history.

And it doesn’t stop there.

The Lakers commit more turnovers and generate less assists while Bryant rides the pine. tells us that if we project the Lakers’ numbers over 48 minutes without Kobe, the Lakers would be averaging 87.2 points per game in this series.

Indeed, with Gasol struggling from the field — he is only converting 41.4 percent of his shots — and Bynum’s production being limited with double teams, it sure seems as though the Lakers’ best option at this point is Kobe Bryant.

His playmaking and scoring is a great recipe for success; and given the adjustments made by the Nuggets, the onus may fall on his shoulders to bail the team out.

The wildcard in all this of course is Metta World Peace.

His defense, shooting and scoring on the block will give the Lakers a wrinkle they haven’t had throughout the course of the series, but then again how many possessions can one hope to run through World Peace?

For all the talk about Kobe relinquishing some of the scoring burden, isn’t it fascinating that Game 7 might come down to him having to score more than most anticipated?

Statistical support provided by

Yes. Yes, they are.

The way playoff series’ evolve is one of my favorite part of the second season. The way game plans get tweaked with adjustments countering adjustments and both sides playing chess on a 94′ x 50′ piece of hardwood captivates me as a fan. There are few things better than watching the players, in the moment and over the course of every successive contest, react and adjust as the game within the game shifts like the colors in a kaleidoscope.

And this series, while disappointing to me on countless fronts, has provided all the requisite twists to be an entertaining one. The Lakers have gone from clearly in control to the cusp of elimination in a free for all scheduled for Saturday night. How they’ve gotten there has a lot to do with the Nuggets, but the Lakers also have their issues to sort out that are mostly of their own making.

Mainly, the game has slowed too much.

When this series started I was banging the “Lakers must control the tempo” drum as loud as any other person analyzing the match up. Making sure the Lakers played the game at their pace was as important, to me at least, as any statistical output you could name. And, after the first two games, the Lakers played exactly the way I would have wanted them to in that regard while cruising to two wins. They pounded the paint through post ups and offensive rebounding chances, got back in transition while making the Nuggets jump shooters, and worked patiently through most possessions in a precise, clinical manner. I felt validated.

However, as the series has progressed the Nuggets have turned the Lakers’ want to play a half court game against them.

By walking the ball up the court, the Lakers are using precious seconds of the shot clock to set up their half court offense. A half court offense that is increasingly more stagnant due to the Nuggets defensive approach of sagging off all shooters and treating the area inside the three point line like a safe zone from a nuclear blast. The Nuggets have become more than content to let the Lakers initiate their offense with 15 seconds left on the clock and look for post up chances that lead to nothing but a kick out pass after a hard double team or a swing of the ball around the perimeter as post entry angles are cut off. All those passes lead to are jumpers in the half court; jumpers that the Nuggets are more than happy to cede because they lead to run out chances of their own, igniting the open court attack they thrive on to produce points.

Plus, in the process of slowing the game down, Ramon Sessions’ game has been neutered. This walk it up style has turned him into a chained cheetah who only gets to let off the leash to run around in a caged in back yard. He’s relegated to walking the ball up and put into half court possessions 65 times a game where he can’t use his speed or quickness often enough. Sessions has been relegated into a spot up/pull up jump shooter and that’s never been the strength of his game. He’s still good enough to get some baskets at the rim, but can anyone honestly say he’s had an impact on this series?

But accommodating Sessions isn’t exactly the key to winning a series. That, of course, is getting sustained high level production out of the Lakers’ bigs. As mentioned earlier, though, that’s simply not happening right now. Bynum and Gasol no longer get easy baskets. On nearly every possession they’re surrounded by defenders who are looking to disrupt every move they hope to make. Sure, the Lakers can tweak their half court sets (please, please do this Mike Brown) by incorporating more screen actions. Plus, better and quicker ball movement can help get them the ball easier without passing angles being as easily disrupted. The bigs can also help themselves out by making their moves quicker after the catch rather than holding the ball and waiting for the second (and third) defender to interfere. But getting the ball via rim-runs and other quick hitting actions in early offensive sets can only aid them in getting on  track.

This is a point that can’t be stressed enough because Gasol and Bynum need to get on track. At this point it’s more than fair to say that they’ve both had long stretches where they’ve checked out mentally/stopped trying as hard as possible (and that’s putting it nicely). Last night Bynum showed some effort on the glass but close to none when protecting the paint in help situations (where he’s needed just as much as on the glass). Gasol was even worse in that not only did he not rebound well, he didn’t defend well either. When you combined with their “efforts” in transition defense, the Lakers bigs were actively hurting the team.

And while I’m not trying to excuse how they’ve played (re-read that again, please), I do understand that the way the series has evolved must be frustrating for Gasol and Bynum. Pau’s only clean looks come from jumpers and Bynum hasn’t had more than one or two in a single game  since game 2. And while I’m fully of the mind that neither should let their offensive frustrations bleed into the defensive responsibilities, I think we can all agree that it is. Neither are contesting shots the way they need to, rebounding with any sort of physicality (a lot of Bynum’s 16 were stand still rebounds), or running back on D with any sense of urgency.

As much as we’d like it to be, possessions aren’t compartmentalized in an NBA game. What happens on one side of the floor affects what happens the next time down on both sides of the ball. And at this point the Lakers bigs look they’ve been beaten down not just because the Nuggets are working hard and playing them physically, but because the strategy on how to get them going hasn’t really changed with the results, predictably, being the same as well. Again, I make no excuses for the Lakers bigs. But if the wings aren’t making shots and they keep facing the same hard doubles and shaded passing angles every possession for 3 straight games, something is going to give. And, with that frustration reaching a crescendo, it’s been their effort.

There are a lot of things wrong with the way the Lakers are playing right now. And it would be disingenuous for me to claim that one simple fix like speeding up the game is going to turn the series around. But, again, the pace is now too slow and it’s making what should have been a Lakers’ strength – their big man play – neutral at best. Adjustments will need to be made to their half court sets to partially off-set some of the double teaming. The Lakers wings making shots would help a great deal too. But, at this point, the Lakers must also start to take advantage of the Nuggets in the open court and get easier shots.

With only one game left, long term strategy to beat Denver is out the window. The result from this one game will be the difference between advancing and an even longer summer vacation. The Lakers must do everything they can to win. And, from where I sit, that means speeding up the game some.