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Tuesday night’s game against the Suns really was a fun contest. The Lakers, as they did against the Jazz a couple of nights earlier, made a very nice push in the 2nd half to seize the lead. They looked as though they would even pull out the win. But then Wes Johnson missed two free throws, the Lakers couldn’t secure an offensive rebound, Isaiah Thomas hit a shot to send the game into overtime, and a loss ensued.

Even with that loss, though, there were some good things on display. Jeremy Lin made his return and was a key contributor to that second half run that turned a deficit into a lead. At one point he scored seven straight points and remained aggressive for the entirety of his stint, looking confident and effective throughout.

And then, of course, there was Kobe.

After starting out slowly, Kobe caught fire in the 2nd half and, along with Lin, was a key player in the turnaround and a monster in the closing minutes. Kobe hit tying and go ahead shots down the stretch, each more difficult than the last. He showed a nice bounce to his step and good lift on his shot even though he was approaching and surpassing the 30 minute mark on the evening. When he subbed out with a couple of minutes remaining in the overtime, he still looked fresh enough to close out the game, but that wasn’t in the coach’s plans.

All in all, then, not a bad showing for a loss. After the game Byron Scott told his players and the assembled media that they “are close” to being the team he wants, with only a need to cut out some of the little mistakes they are making to get even better. While Scott is right — this team is playing better — we must also remember that these performances have come against team’s resting players down the stretch and in preseason games where game plans are simplified. You could counter that the Lakers are down players too and you’d be right. The overall point remains, though. The Lakers are making strides but other teams are still out ahead of them. No shame in that; this team is competing.

Which brings us to tonight. The Blazers are on the docket and bring with them an up and coming team who is gearing to build on last season’s success. Those Blazers surprised the masses by coming out of the gate on fire and then countering a (slight) second half fade to knock off the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs.

Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge anchor this team, but Nic Batum and Wes Matthews also bring strong production to help buoy their all-star duo. With Robin Lopez anchoring the the defensive paint, Thomas Robinson, Will Barton, and CJ McCollum bringing youth and energy, and former Lakers Chris Kaman and Steve Blake bringing some veteran reinforcements this team may have a deep run in them.

In other words, they will be a load for the Lakers tonight. Especially a Lakers’ team with tired legs playing in their first back to back this preseason. In saying that, here are a few things I will be interested in:

*How does Kobe do against Wes Matthews and Nic Batum? Matthews is a stout defender who does particularly well against post up guards. Batum is long, quick, and has good instincts and does well against nearly everyone. Kobe will have his hands full facing either of these two and it will be interesting to see if he can carry over his strong 2nd half versus the Suns to this game.

*How many minutes will Lin play? After the game, Byron Scott had some interesting comments to say about Lin’s playing time — notably that part of the reason he played so much down the stretch was to “give Ronnie (Price)” some rest while also stating that it would not be a given that Lin will close games. Tonight, Lin will once again start the game as the reserve point guard in favor of Price. At some point you’d have to imagine that Scott will play the better guy more minutes and actually let him start and finish games. Hopefully that point comes soon.

*More Beebop and Rocksteady, please. If you didn’t know, this is my nickname for the Randle/Davis frontcourt pairing. While it’s a small sample, these two seem to complement each other quite well on both sides of the floor. I also do not think it’s a coincidence that the team is making their 2nd half runs when this duo is on the court. I’d like to see them play more than they are. Tonight, against a very good front line would be a nice time to see if they can hold their own as the competition improves.

Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

With the real games coming in a week, the Lakers only have 3 games left in this preseason. This final stretch will bring shifts in the game plan and a start of some normalcy with the lineups and players getting back to the lineup. It begins tonight with Jeremy Lin returning from his sprained ankle and Kobe likely to see a bump in his minutes to something approximating a regular season load.

Tonight’s opponent is the Suns, a team the Lakers should be looking at closely as a model of sorts. Last year the Suns were targeted by nearly every analyst to be a bottom feeder in the West only to play well above that mark, barely missing the playoffs in the final week of the season. Their success in the face of dreary predictions shows how analysis can go awry, even when it is as informed as the Vegas oddsmakers or experts at one of the established networks.

The Lakers, of course, have a long way to go when trying to duplicate what the Suns did as their roster construction is not anywhere near what the Suns have on deck. And, in a way, this serves as the perfect lead-in to tonight’s game.

The Suns are a team on the rise, possessing several young quality players and veterans coming into their own. Their already vaunted back court of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe only got stronger with the addition of former King Isaiah Thomas. Those three will form a wonderfully talented three guard rotation who can play in any combination imaginable (don’t discount all of them playing together, either) to wreak havoc on defenses. Add to them the Morris twins, Gerald Green, and Miles Plumlee and the Suns have a nice group of skilled athletes who will push the pace, shoot threes, and get up in you defensively.

This is stark contrast to what the Lakers will try to do, which makes this game an interesting contrast in styles. The Lakers will try to slow down the pace and keep those explosive guards under wraps while trying to pummel the Suns inside with Kobe post ups, Hill and Davis board work, and Randle bully drives to the rim. With Lin back in the lineup, the Lakers can (hopefully) get more dribble penetration and open the floor up for more shots behind the arc and slashers cutting in the wake of the ball handler to get easy baskets from dump-off passes or offensive rebounds.

Of course, all this is easier said than done. The Suns use a combination of “pace and space” and standard pick and roll on offense, and dare teams to leave shooters behind the rim while helping on dribble penetration. The Suns losing Channing Frye to the Magic will hurt them some in this approach, but they hope a combo of the Morris twins and Anthony Tolliver can make up for that. The Lakers, then, must try to control the dribbler and recover back to the arc to not give up open threes. Against the Warriors they were not successful at this. We will see if they do any better against the Suns. Maybe the 2nd half of the most recent Jazz game will give them some confidence on that side of the ball.

Where you can watch: 7pm start time on TWC Sportsnet.

After winning their preseason opener against the Nuggets, the Lakers have dropped their last three games by a total of 89 points. That’s not a misprint. The Warriors followed up a 15 point win with a 41 point drubbing and then the Jazz piled on with a 33 point win of their own this past Thursday.

Injuries have played a key role in the losses as the Lakers have had six players — Nash, Lin, Young, Henry, Kelly, and Clarkson — miss at least two games each. Four of those players would be key parts of the opening night rotation were they healthy while the other two (Clarkson and Kelly) would scrap for minutes as well. Needless to say, with this much talent out the Lakers are not in a position to compete even with Kobe showing good health and an ability to score relatively efficiently.

This trend of having players out will not get any better in this game, though. All six players mentioned will miss this game as well, leaving the coach (and Kobe) frustrated as the team hasn’t had a lot of time to jell on the court or find the chemistry and combinations can be effective over the course of the game. All of this matters, especially for a team that would be considered an overachiever should they even compete for the 8th seed.

Even in saying that, however, the Lakers have not looked like a particularly engaging team. Their offense has lacked creativity while also showing several layers of complexity that some of the guys simply are not catching onto. On several possessions Carlos Boozer has looked especially lost, often standing completely still while cutters move into his area to effectively gum up any spacing the team would hope to generate. The team is also running a lot of post isolations and pin down screens to bring guards to the shallow wing to set up mid-range jumpers. This has led to, expectedly, low efficient shooting and struggles to score enough points to stay competitive.

That last point, of course, is predicated on this team’s defense not being very good. They have struggled on the perimeter to contain shooters while also not doing a good job of bottling up dribble penetration. They often over help into the paint when teams move the ball and that leads to either late closeouts against capable shooters or frantic rushes to the perimeter that lead to blow-by’s which threaten the rim. Without a true shot blocker defending the paint to challenge and deter shots inside, the Lakers are giving up easy shots inside all too often.

If counting at home, then, this team hasn’t been good at defending jump shooters, dribble penetration, or shots in the paint. And it’s not like their post defense has been anything to write home about either. Combine this with how misses from long two pointers generate open court chances for the opposition and this team isn’t doing anything well enough on D.

This is how you lose games by an average of 30 points over the last week.

In this game, then, I honestly don’t have much good to tell you. The only bright spots have been Kobe Bryant and Ed Davis with Jordan Hill doing enough Jordan Hill things to remind you that he is a good player. You would hope that Julius Randle would join this group, but he’s become somewhat of a whipping boy for head coach Byron Scott, typically being the only player mentioned by name after games for not doing something right or for what he could improve on. Randle seems to be taking all this in stride, but I’d be lying if I didn’t have my concerns about Randle being singled out when the entire team is playing poorly. After all, you don’t lose games by 30 points because Randle, in his short stints, isn’t in the condition the coach wants him to be in or that he “looked lost”. But I digress.

In any event, what this team really needs is to get some players back healthy who can help them. Especially point guard, Jeremy Lin. With Nash looking like he will have another season of frustrating health and Nick Young out for another month and a half, Lin is the only other perimeter player who can pose a threat to defenses and create offense for himself or others. This team desperately needs some playmaking and Lin can offer it. Hopefully Tuesday will be that day.

For now, then, we just wait and watch the team struggle. But hey, did I mention that Kobe is looking healthy? At least we have that.

The Lakers play their first of two games against the Jazz on Thursday, a team that many think the Lakers will be battling with for one of the 10 through 12 seeds in the West this year. The Jazz offer a team of young veterans, a team that inside their franchise, hopes takes a big step forward as their young talent matures and starts to learn how to win.

Part of that growth will surely be due to new head coach Quin Snyder, the former Lakers’ assistant on Mike Brown’s staff who spent the last two seasons as an assistant in Russia (under Ettore Messina) and Atlanta with the Hawks. Snyder is the type of young, energetic, and up and coming candidate I wish the Lakers would have looked to hire, but he instead brings his coaching acumen to the Jazz where he will look to grow with this developing roster and turn them into a playoff team in the stacked West. But I digress.

The Lakers come into this game banged up and offering little of substance besides Kobe on the wing. Steve Nash was ruled out of this game after reinjuring his back after lifting luggage while Lin (sprained ankle), Young (thumb), Xavier Henry (several ailments), and Ryan Kelly are all missing as well. This will leave Ronnie Price at point guard and Wes at small forward to deal with the assortment of Jazz wing-men. I am very interested in seeing how these guys match up with Gordan Hayward, Trey Burke, rookie Dante Exum, and third year pro Alec Burks. All four of these players are intriguing talents and offer nice skill sets.

Add to these players the Jazz bigs — Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and the emerging Rudy Gobert — and this Utah outfit should give the Lakers a good challenge a nice measuring stick of where they are at this stage of the preseason. Even with all the injuries the Lakers have, they have some size to match up with Utah’s front line while having Kobe on the wing to do battle against the Hayward, Burks, and Exum trio.

It’s Exum who I am particularly interested in seeing. While many (including me) were high on the Australian guard heading into the draft, a lot of that buzz has diminished after the youngster struggled in the Vegas Summer League and could not get off the bench for his native country in the World Championships. Tonight he will get to face off with Kobe in what is a fun match up, even if only in name at this point.

As for the Lakers in general, they are coming off a couple of really bad losses against a Warriors team that severely outclassed them. They face a lesser team than that in this game, but, as noted above, will still be challenged. My hope, however, is that the team continues to jell and show some growth, especially offensively where they have looked out of sync and over-reliant on inefficient shots to try and get buckets.

Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet and on NBA TV.

Sunday night’s game against the Warriors is barely worth discussing. If the first time these teams faced off last Thursday was a beat down, Sunday’s game was a massacre. Before I was even back from the kitchen with my Hansen’s mandarin-lime beverage, the Lakers trailed 14-2. At various points of the game they trailed by over 30 with the Warriors doubling up the Lakers’ point total. They ended up losing the game by 41.

The big theme of the night wasn’t just that the Warriors outclassed the Lakers on both ends, but how they went about doing it. As I noted on twitter, the Warriors and the Lakers really did not look like they were playing the same game:

The fact that the Lakers were struggling to produce good looks shouldn’t necessarily surprise. First of all, the Warriors are a very good defensive team. Klay Thompson is emerging as one of the better wing defenders in the league. While he did not start yesterday’s game, Andre Iguodala has long been a premier perimeter stopper. Those two are backed up by Andrew Bogut (a top flight defensive center) and flanked at any given time by Draymond Green (a versatile tweener forward who can guard stretch fours and wings with equal skill). Add in the other athletes on the roster and the Dubs are going to give offenses issues all season.

Further, the Lakers are learning a new offense while also missing two of their better offensive players. Say what you want about Nick Young or Jeremy Lin, but both can find the holes in a defense and put up points in a hurry. Missing Lin was especially meaningful as he’s the lone player (besides Kobe in the Denver game or Julius Randle) who has shown any ability to get to the rim off the dribble and create a good shot for himself or a teammate this preseason. Combine all this with Nash only playing a quarter and the Lakers’ offense cannot be fully judged off its effectiveness in this particular game.

So lets move beyond this game and onto something that has been consistent over the team’s first three exhibition games: the Lakers are taking a lot of long two point jumpers. I mean A LOT of them. Here is their shot chart from the second warriors game:

Lakers Warriors 2

As you can see, a whopping 48 of the team’s 82 shots were mid to long two-point attempts. And only three of their shots were three pointers without a single shot from one of the corners. If you think this is just a single game thing, it’s not. In the Lakers first game against the Warriors, 38 of their 89 field goal attempts were mid/long range two pointers while they only took 11 threes (with only one coming from the corners). Against the Nuggets, 36 of their 87 shots were mid/long range two’s while they took only 10 threes (with only two coming from the corners).

Individual players can build an offensive attack off mid-range and long two point shot attempts. For years Dirk and Kobe have feasted on defenses while taking these shots at high volume. More recently LaMarcus Aldridge has become an all-star by becoming a master of the mid-range. Not every player is going to shoot this shot as well as those guys, however. And this is why entire teams cannot build an offense around taking this shot. Over the course of a game a team might get hot from this area of the floor and make a defense pay for continually surrendering this shot. But over the course of a season, the offense will lose this battle. There is a reason most coaches encourage opponents to take this shot over and over again.

Meanwhile the Lakers are seemingly running an offense that will have them take this shot more frequently. Further, they seem to be doing so at the expense of taking the three point shot. I’d argue this is just a random occurrence from the first few preseason games, but these quotes from the head coach imply otherwise:

“Our game plan is really to get to that basket,” said Scott after practice Tuesday.  “I like the fact that we only shot 10 threes.  If we shoot between 10 and 15, I think that’s a good mixture of getting to that basket and shooting threes.

“I don’t want us to be coming down, forcing up a bunch of threes.  I really want us to attack the basket.”

I can fully understand Scott’s stance about not wanting to “force” a bunch of threes. One of my chief complaints about the way last year’s team played offense was the players’ lack of discernment between what is a good shot or a bad one. While it could be argued the freedom the team operated with enabled more confidence and better results on those shots, the simple counter to that argument is that the misses and increased pace put the team at a disadvantage defensively far too often.

However, shooting the number of threes Scott says he would like to will put the team at a disadvantage offensively. Especially if that decline in the long ball is traded for long two point shots. And while Scott says that he would prefer his team “get to the basket” more, there seems to be a disconnect in how teams are actually able to get to the basket in today’s NBA. With zone defenses now legal and the onset of Tom Thibodeau inspired strong side schemes that clog the paint, driving lanes are produced via a spread floor. Players who like to attack the basket, now more than ever before, benefit from shooters spacing out the defense to created those creases to the rim. If the Lakers continue to be a team that eschews the three ball in favor of long two point shots, they will likely find a more crowded lane that limits drives to the rim and promotes…wait for it…more long two point shots.

That leaves me tweeting things like this:

Again, it’s important we put some caveats on all this. The Lakers have not had Nick Young, Xavier Henry, or Ryan Kelly available all preseason. Add to that Nash and Lin’s health issues that have kept them out of action and that’s five of the Lakers’ better offensive creators and outside threats. With the team also likely experiencing some heavy legs from Byron’s conditioning and defense heavy practices, the team is not only (probably) a little fatigued but also somewhat behind offensively. Over time, then, the hope is that some of these issues will lessen as the team gets healthier and guys get more comfortable in how they will operate in Scott’s system.

That said, it’s fair to be concerned. Scott’s own words and what the team has been doing on the floor come from a different era of basketball. Further, they reflect a style of play that does not necessarily optimize results for a team who will struggle to be even league average defensively. I mean, if the Lakers are not stopping teams defensively, they must find a way to keep up offensively. Making the long two point shot a staple of the offense will not allow the team to do so.