Archives For May 2012

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.

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: