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On Saturday night the Hawks beat the Heat, a win that knocked the Knicks out of the playoffs. That set up a crazy stat: for the first time in league history the Lakers, Celtics, and Knicks all missed the playoffs. That stat doesn’t have much to do with anything, but it really does show how successful the Lakers have been over that time, since that stat really is on the strength of their playoff berths over the years — especially when you consider some of the down stretches the Knicks and Celtics have had.

The Lakers, of course, have known for some time that they wouldn’t be in the playoffs. They’ve become the team that has been trying to play spoiler for almost a month, attempting to drop teams down in the standings or knock them out of the race entirely. With the season almost over, their last chance to really do that is in tonight’s game when they face off with the Grizzlies.

As the Knicks were being eliminated, the Mavs were clinching their spot in the playoffs, leaving the Grizz and the Suns fighting for the final spot in the West field. Those two teams play each other on Monday, but the Lakers can do the Suns a big favor by knocking off the Grizz (or at least wearing them down on the first night of a back to back). As it stands right now, the Grizz have a half game lead on Phoenix, up a single game in the loss column. A Lakers’ win would even that up and give the Suns a chance to write their ticket into the playoffs with that win over the Grizz.

Of course, Memphis also understands this and should come out ready to play for their playoff lives in this game. They’ve won three of their last four games, including a big win over the Heat that has kept them in the race. A loss to the Lakers wouldn’t end their season, but it would put them in a bad spot with the Suns and the Mavs on the docket to close the year. The Grizz know that winning out gets them into the playoffs and gets them to the 7th seed. A let down against the Lakers — their easiest game left on the schedule — is something they cannot afford.

On the other end of the spectrum, and as it’s been lately, the Lakers are in a different kind of standings battle. A loss to the Grizzlies would tie the Lakers with the Celtics for the 5th worst record in the league and only a game behind the Jazz for the 4th worst record. The Celtics close against the 76ers and the Wizards while the Jazz close agains the Lakers and the Timberwolves. While the Lakers can’t control what the Celtics do, if the C’s get one more win while the Lakers lose out, there is a chance that the Lakers not only seal the 5th worst record but get all the way to the 4th spot in the lottery. We’re getting ahead of ourselves, but it will be interesting to see how these final games go and how all three of these teams approach these final games that will determine the lottery odds.

In a way, it’s funny that this is what the season has come down to. Watching the scoreboard and wondering what other teams are doing, not because of how it affects the race for the playoffs or seeding, but how it affects the lottery. A year ago at this time the Lakers were closing the season on a nice run and played a meaningful game on the last night of the year that got them to the 7th seed in the playoffs. This year, on the 2nd to last game of the season we will see them play the Jazz in a game where the winner may negatively impact their draft position. Funny how much can change in 365 days.

As for the game against the Grizzlies, I will be watching two match ups. The first is when Jordan Farmar plays against Mike Conley. Conley is one of the more underrated point guards in the league and has been playing well to close the year as the Grizz have made their push to get into the playoffs. Farmar, when healthy, has actually had a very good year, shooting the ball well and showing he could be a decent creator in the P&R. Watching how he deals with Conley’s quickness offensively and his ability to be a pest defensively will be one of the better games within the game.

The 2nd match up will be watching how Jordan Hill matches up with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in the middle. I still really enjoy Hill’s game and think he can be a solid contributor on a good team. But what has become more clear as he’s had to man the middle with Pau and Kaman out is that he has a hard time matching up with good, starting big men who aren’t easily out hustled or out muscled by him on the glass. Hill is a very good 3rd big man who can beat up on opposing second units and have some quality good minutes against some starters. But as a full time starter matching up with opposing starters for 30 minutes, he’s not going to be as productive. Against the Grizz he’ll face one of the better big man duos in the league and I will be watching closely to see if he can still make an impact with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph on the other end of the floor.

Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Wednesday Storylines

Darius Soriano —  April 9, 2014 — 68 Comments

It is almost over now. This season of injuries, losses, records of the wrong kind being broken, and, mostly, failure. That can sound harsh, but it isn’t meant to be.

This season started under the guise of hopes just to make the playoffs. Internally and in issuing sound bites, key figures spoke in the same grand terms they typically have — “contention” and “championship” were words tossed out as the goal, but we all really did know better. This team was built with cast-offs and rentals and asked to be a team. And for the first part of the season, they were that. But then it started to fall apart similar to the bodies of the players. Nerve roots and knee caps, hamstrings and groins, strains and fractures.

And through all that there was a coach searching for…something. A lineup that worked. A power forward to stretch the floor. A big man who played well on both sides of the ball. Rotations changed. One day you were in, the next you were out, and a week later you were back in.

It’s been 78 games of this, but it is almost over now.

Where the team goes is the question on everyone’s mind. Kobe has his contract extension, but has no team to surround him at this point. The Lakers will have some dough to spend, but last I checked cap space has never grabbed a rebound or hit the open man in stride for an easy bucket. That money must be used wisely and, probably not all on one player. After all, the Lakers aren’t one guy away. After all, even a prime Kobe and Shaq needed other dudes to help them get those rings.

Speaking of building a team, Mitch Kupchak is pretty good at that. In fact, he’s been so good and is so trusted the Lakers extended his contract. Next season was to Mitch’s last under his current deal, but the Lakers rectified that last night.

Last night Mitch, maybe after signing that deal, sat down with USA Today’s Sam Amick and spoke openly and honestly about the path ahead. He didn’t “give away his plan” but acknowledged the team has a lot of work to do and said he is not sure if it will be one, two, or even three years to get to where they want to be. He also said many other insightful things, so click away on the link.

One of the questions he answered was about Mike D’Antoni’s status for next season. Kupchak stated that no decision has been made to this point. However, Dave McMenamin is reporting that the Lakers are “leaning” towards not retaining their embattled head coach. This only a week after Kevin Ding said the opposite. If all of this makes your head spin, well, welcome to the club.

If the Lakers do make a change at coach, one writer thinks they should target UCONN head coach Kevin Ollie — and he thought that even before the Final Four.

Is Pau Gasol done for the year? It sounds like it. Is Steve Nash? It sounds like it too.

Another player who is out for the year is Kent Bazemore. The 2nd year pro tore a tendon in his foot and will soon have surgery. This, though, is just one more obstacle for him to overcome in what has been quite the journey to get to the NBA.

Much like Bazemore’s journey, the Lakers have an arduous path ahead. Building a winner takes time, it takes talent, and it takes a fair amount of luck. It takes a coach and a front office all on the same page. And even when all those things happen, a team still might not win it all. For all that the Thunder have done to build their contender, they still have yet to actually win it all. Their accomplishments have been many and should not be diminished in any way. But this is your gentle reminder that winning is hard and even the most prepared team with a boatload of talent may not break through.

The Lakers, actually, know this better than most. Because while fans love to talk about the 16 banners and the hall of famers, there are also the 15 defeats in the Finals. They have been oh-so-close more times than most teams could ever dream of and have felt the heartbreak that comes with it too. In a way, then, it’s good to remember the feeling you have now watching this team lose 50+ games. Because just as the team has broken through before, when you have been down in the dumps feeling awful, the turnaround is that much sweeter. Even if it does take years.

Fast Break Thoughts

Darius Soriano —  April 7, 2014 — 32 Comments

Some random thoughts on the goings on around the league, including our beloved Lakers…

  • All year Mike D’Antoni has said that the team’s most consistent performer is Jodie Meeks. Hard to argue there as the man has had his best year as a pro and made some big strides in several areas of his game from last year to this year. One stat that stood out to me most about Meeks’ season is that this year he is shooting 63.3% in the restricted area this year. Last year, Meeks only shot 51.3% in the restricted area.
  • Commenter Mid-Wilshire has noticed that Jordan Hill is having a pretty nice close to the season:

In the last nine games, these have been Hill’s numbers (pts., rebounds, and blocks):

Clippers — 22 pts., 9 rebounds, 0 blocks
Dallas — 14 pts., 10 rebounds, 2 blocks
Sacramento — 18 pts., 15 rebounds, 4 blocks
Phoenix — 6 pts., 3 rebounds, 1 block
Minnesota — 10 pts., 7 rebounds, 0 blocks
Milwaukee — 28 pts., 16 rebounds, 0 blocks
New York — 9 pts., 5 rebounds, 4 blocks
Orlando — 28 pts., 13 rebounds, 1 block
Washington — 9 pts., 14 rebounds, 4 blocks

According to my calculations, that results in averages of 16.8 pts., 10.2 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game.

  • Hill hasn’t been the most consistent player over that stretch and the Bucks and Magic games stand out both because of the level of production as well as the quality of opponent. That said, it’s good to see Hill is healthy (he had that knee issue that kept him out a couple of games before this stretch) and that he’s getting the minutes to perform on the court. I don’t know if Hill will be a Laker next year, but I still believe he can be a quality role player on a very good team.
  • One player I have liked much more than I thought I would this season: Nick Young. The guy can still be a gunner and take shots that would make a heat-checking Kobe Bryant blush, but Young has played hard and has done so with a smile on his face. In a season that has been mostly down in the dumps from a win/loss perspective, Young has brought some fun to the year.
  • Should Ryan Kelly make the All-Rookie team? On the surface, this may seem like a crazy question. But when you dig into the stats you’ll find that Kelly is 8th in PER for rookies, 5th in True Shooting %, joins Giannis Antetokounmpo as the only non-guard in the top 12 of assist ratio (while ranking 4th in turnover percentage), and has gotten better as the year has progressed. I don’t know if he’ll make it or not (I lean towards no — his games and minutes played aren’t comparable to some of the lottery picks), but to say Kelly has been anything but a very fine pick at #48 would be underselling him this year. Even with the holes in his game.
  • One more Kelly stat, per nba.com/stats: the Lakers are 6.5 points per 100 possessions better on offense when Kelly is on the floor versus when he sits. Of the players who are part of the rotation (sorry MarShon Brooks, you don’t count) that is the best number on the team (second is Nick Young at 5.5 points better per 100 possessions).
  • On a non-Lakers’ note, what is going on with the Pacers? I mean, look at this from Ed Kupfer:
  • At one point, Indy looked like a real threat to challenge the Heat and reach the Finals. Right now there’s a real question if they’ll make it out of the 2nd round.
  • No NBA games tonight, but there is this thing called the NCAA Title Game that some folks may want to watch. I’m horribly out of touch when it comes to the college game this year, so you can take my Kentucky pick with a whole pile of salt. What can I say, I like Julius Randle’s shoes.

The season has pretty much come full circle as the Lakers play the Clippers for the last time this season. On opening night — that seems like so, so long ago doesn’t it? — the Lakers upset the Clips in one of high points of the year. What followed was about 20 games of relatively inspired play by an upstart Lakers’ group.

Ultimately, though, those moments didn’t last and what has transpired is one of the worst seasons in franchise history. Meanwhile, the Clippers have had one of their best seasons in franchise history, charging hard for and reaching the 3rd seed in an ultra-competitive West. They will look to make a lot of noise in the playoffs and try to do what another Doc Rivers coached team did by grinding its way through the post-season in search of the ultimate prize.

Things couldn’t be more different between these two teams and, not just because of the time that’s passed, today’s game couldn’t feel any further removed from that upset in late October.

Today’s game matters mostly because of how it can impact the standings. As noted above, the Clippers are currently sitting in the 3rd seed, 3 games up on the Rockets. It is unlikely Houston — who has been playing without Dwight Howard lately — catches the Clippers, so falling down the standings doesn’t seem likely. However, the Clippers are only 2 games behind the Thunder for the 2nd seed in the conference and with a nice push to close the season and any sort of stumble from the Thunder, the Clips could find themselves moving up. To close the season, then, the Clippers will play as hard as they can to maximize their seeding and to try to fine tune their game heading into the playoffs.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Lakers are also looking at the standings and are seeing how their current string of losses (3 straight) have kept them in the 6th spot. Right above them are the Jazz who they face in the 2nd to last game of the season. If the Lakers lose out — which is quite possible considering their strength of opponents (minus the Jazz) — they may be able to get all the way to the 4th worst record in the league and hurdle both the Jazz and the Celtics in the process. That’s looking way ahead, of course, but down the stretch there really isn’t much to look forward too save for a nice performance from one of the individual players.

With the implications of this game set, I think it is safe to say that the outcome may be as well.

The Lakers will play without Pau, Xavier Henry (who has been ruled out for the year), and Steve Nash. Chris Kaman is questionable with his calf strain and Jordan Hill came out of Friday’s game gimpy with a sore ankle (as did Nick Young). In other words, the same old story for a team who just needs the season to end. The Clippers, on the other hand, are starting to get their players back even if they are still a bit banged up too. Jamal Crawford and Danny Granger are likely out of this game, but J.J. Redick is back in the lineup as a needed shooter to space the floor. Blake Griffin is also likely to play even though he’s been suffering from back spasms and turned an ankle in their loss to the Mavs on Thursday.

Forget the injuries, though, the Clippers are simply the better team. They have more talent and are coached in a manner that seeks to optimize that talent on both sides of the ball.

As the Lakers’ season mercifully comes to a close in a week, the Clippers’ will just be beginning. As noted at the top, things really have come full circle.

Where you can watch: 12:30pm start time on ABC. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

With the Lakers’ loss to the Kings on Wednesday night, they fell to 2nd to last in the West and boast the 6th worst record in the league. With only seven games left to play, the Lakers place in the standings is pretty much the only compelling storyline left.

Will they stay in 6th? Will they “climb” the standings and get to 5th or even 4th? A few games to watch as the season comes to a close are the Lakers game against the Jazz in the 2nd to last game of the year and the two games the Celtics play against the 76ers. Those three games may mean the difference between staying in 6th or moving up in the lottery. This is what the Lakers are fighting for now.

On the other end of the spectrum is Friday’s opponent, the Mavs. On Thursday night they held on to get a much needed win over the Clippers, advancing their cause to make the playoffs in the process. The Mavs’ magic number is now 6 and they control their own destiny to make the tournament.

Of course, playing a hard fought game against the Clippers isn’t exactly the best set of circumstances to be in when coming into Staples to play the Lakers. The Mavs have the Lakers outgunned from a talent perspective, but fatigue can be a great equalizer. Add in the fact that the Lakers can get hot from behind the arc and have been carrying the mantra of “player haters” who want to try and spoil playoff teams’ hopes and this creates an interesting scenario that bears watching.

All things being equal, the Mavs should win this game simply because they are the better team. Add in the fact that the Lakers remain banged up and shorthanded (my guess is that Pau and Nash both sit out again and that Xavier Henry may join them) and a full strength Mavs team looks even better on paper than they already did.

But the games aren’t played on paper (something people who watched last season’s Lakers know all too well) and if the Mavs come in tired, unfocused, or a combination of both and the Lakers have a chance to steal a game. (As an aside, I don’t know which fan base would be more upset if this actually occurred considering how much wins and losses mean to both franchises right now.)

As for the X’s and O’s of this game, there are a few match ups that I am interested in seeing. First, is the battle of the point guards where Jose Calderon and Kendall Marshall will face off. On most nights Marshall is outmatched physically and is relegated to either chasing a quicker player around or forced to play an opposing shooting guard or small forward (whichever is the lesser offensive player) in order to be hidden defensively. Calderon is neither a speedster nor an overwhelming physical talent, so Marshall will likely match up with him all night. What Calderon is, however, is crafty with his dribble and a strong pick and roll practitioner. Marshall will have his hands full trying to navigate screens and will have to choose wisely when deciding whether to go under picks and give up jumpers or chase over the top and allow Calderon an angle to penetrate.

The equation gets trickier when Dirk is setting the screen as the big German will either flare to the arc to spot up for a three pointer or dive to the FT line area where he can get into the middle of the defense and either shoot his jumper or try to work a mid-range post up that draws help defenders and opens up teammates. It will be interesting to see how Ryan Kelly (and Jordan Hill) do when defending the big German and whether they can effectively move him off his preferred spots to make him more of a passer than the efficient scorer he’s been all season (and all his career).

The other match up I am interested in seeing is Kent Bazemore getting some minutes on Monta Ellis. While I envision Meeks starting on Monta, I can also see Bazemore getting some chances on Ellis when Marion slides up to PF or when cross-matches occur. In recent games Bazemore has been more active in using his length to try and disrupt ball-handlers and has been pretty good about getting on ball steals. Monta has always been an attack player, but has really cut down on shooting threes this season in favor of trying to get into the teeth of the defense more. I am interested in seeing if Bazemore can keep Monta out of the paint and use his length to contest his jumper as well as force him into turnovers when he tries to create off the bounce.

Offensively, I am interested in seeing how much the Lakers can use tempo to their advantage to try and wear the Mavs down. As mentioned, Dallas should be a bit tired and the Lakers would love nothing more than try and increase the pace and make Dallas get into a chaotic game, increasing the chances for mistakes to be made. At the end of the Clippers game the Mavs showed cracks in how they handle defensive pressure and did a poor job of keeping their poise and playing smart. If the Lakers can recreate that environment in this game, Dallas will have issues.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.