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Fast Break Thoughts

Darius Soriano —  November 6, 2014 — 63 Comments

The Lakers are at the beginning of a nice — and needed — break. They opened the season playing five games in seven nights (including four in the season’s first five nights) and have gone winless in the process. They do not play again until Sunday and can use this time off to rest their bodies and their minds, get a bit healthy, and fine tune what they are doing on both ends of the floor to try and get better results on the floor.

Though the team still hasn’t won, they are getting closer. The most recent game against the Suns was fairly close throughout and if not for some missed FT’s (fixable) and some defensive lapses (not as much) the team could have stolen that game. It’s these little mistakes that need correcting, especially for a team with absolutely no margin for error. They simply cannot afford to miss a dozen FT’s or be careless with the ball or not box out or any other number of small things and win game.

So, it’s simply on this group to start to get these little things right more often. Now, on to other thoughts…

*Though the Lakers are winless (and maybe because they are), Kobe truly is playing quite hard. In the Suns game he jumped over the first row of fans sitting courtside while logging 44 minutes on the night. Baxter Holmes of ESPN LA discussed this relentlessness.

*Sticking with this topic, an interesting twist to these media-generated Kobe talking points is how they can be interpreted by his teammates. This is a variable some might not often think of when playing with Kobe.

*Kobe says he heard the rumblings that he/the team should explore trade options. He pretty much squashed that idea in this column by Marc Spears.

*Detailing the Lakers mismatched roster. This is a topic I also explored some when I previewed this season.

*If the Lakers do not win their next game on Sunday, their difficult schedule could see them go without a win through Thanksgiving. Welp.

*Just because I like watching it:

*While the finish got all the pub, the set up got me just as excited. This is a move that Kobe has made so often and one that is one of his trademarked attacks that I will remember for ever. When he makes the catch, he turns and faces and then sets up the triple threat. With his back foot anchored, he swings the ball through to his right hand and then simultaneously puts his down his dribble while stepping through with his pivot foot. This allows him to avoid the traveling call and get even — and the by — his defender. Once he has that step, it’s curtains. There’s an old saying in basketball that “baseline is death”, but Kobe has made a career out of navigating that sliver of real estate and making his defender pay time after time. And he’s still doing it in year 19.

*When a team is bad, it is natural to look ahead to the future for hope of improvement rather than focusing on the present and getting more depressed. In saying that, expect there to be a lot of articles/columns/blog posts about what the Lakers may do next summer to improve the team. For example, an article saying they may go hard after Rajon Rondo. Expect more just like this one over the course of this year.

For the second time in the team’s first five games the Lakers face the Suns tonight in a battle of Pacific Division foes. The Lakers will look to avenge their 20 point loss on the season’s second night while the Suns will look to join the division’s other teams by inking their third win on the year. As an aside, the Lakers are currently the Western Conference’s only winless team and join the the Pistons, Magic, and 76ers as the only teams in the league who have yet to earn their first W. They are also the only Pacific Division team who is currently under .500. I could do this for a while, so I will move on to other things.

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Coming into the season it was pretty much a given the Lakers would struggle defensively. Sure, Byron Scott would talk up having a defensive mentality and playing a physical brand of basketball that would make life difficult on opponents, but so far that has really just been talk. Instead what we have seen to start the season has been a team playing a particularly bad brand of defense that when looking at the numbers has been downright scary.

Before we dig into those, however, let’s put the caveats out there. In the team’s first four games of the season none of their opponents were ranked lower than 12th in offensive efficiency last season:

  • Clippers: 109.4, 1st in 2013-14
  • Rockets: 108.6, 4th in 2013-14
  • Suns: 107.1, 8th in 2013-14
  • Warriors: 105.3, 12th in 2013-14

In other words, the Lakers have faced a gauntlet of strong offensive teams to open their season. Further, they have played these teams in the season’s first five nights while playing shorthanded. These are not the circumstances you want to play any games under, but especially not teams who have a lot of offensive firepower who can take advantage of the team’s defensive weaknesses.

In saying those things, however, the defensive numbers over those first four games are downright awful. A sampling:

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The season is only five days old, but tonight the Lakers will play their fourth game and their second back to back. Through the first three contests the team has yet to win a game, though Friday night’s effort against the Clippers was a very good showing that the team could not close out down the stretch. Depending on how you view things, then, there may be reasons to be encouraged as the team finally started to show some positive strides offensively — they took 20 three pointers! — while stringing together some solid defensive possessions. They still have a long way to go, however, even if Byron Scott and Kobe Bryant were feeling good after the game.

The hope entering tonight is that the Lakers can build on some of what they showed against the Clippers. That game featured some solid offensive execution, built mostly on the back of nice floor games from Kobe and Jeremy Lin. Both guards found a good balance between attacking for their own shot and hitting open teammates for open looks. That balance kept the defense guessing and allowed other guys to find a nice flow offensively — Jordan Hill chief among them.

Against the Warriors, the Lakers will try to keep this going and a lot of it will depend on Lin. I expect Steph Curry to start the game on Lin, so the hope will be that Lin can use his superior size (Curry is not short, but he is more slight of build than Jeremy) to get position on drives and get into the paint. Once there, Lin will need to finish well in the paint and use the threat of his shot to draw defenders in and find open men. If Hill is able to slip into the creases of the defense while Andrew Bogut is forced to help, he can, like versus Jordan on Friday, get makable looks that he can convert.

As for Kobe, he’ll be facing off against a much better defender in this game than Matt Barnes. Klay Thompson has size, nice instincts when guarding in isolation, and quick enough feet to give Kobe issues. Kobe will likely try to counter this by going to the post, but he will have a rough go of things if he doesn’t make his moves quickly before the help defense can get set and disrupt his first move. I would like to see Kobe come off picks and look to catch and shoot to open up some of his isolation work later.

The Lakers will need their offense to do solid work considering the trouble their defense will be in. As we saw in the preseason, the Warriors are going to test all the weak spots of the Lakers’ team defense, spreading them out on the perimeter in order to bomb them with deep jumpers and then gash them with weak side movement from their forwards and big men.

Curry and Klay are the keys to this, so Lin and Wes Johnson (who is likely to cross match and guard Thompson) have their work cut out for them. Both Warriors have absolutely zero conscience when letting their jumper go and they must be marked well beyond the three point line lest you want to be embarrassed with a bucket within their range. This is especially true in transition where both will run diligently to the arc both with the ball, in front of the break, or as trailers.

They’re not the only threats, however. Even though David Lee has been ruled out, the Warriors have plenty of offense. While Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, and Andrey Bogut aren’t classic scorers, all can be threats within the construct of their roles. Green has worked hard to improve his three point range and his ability to camp behind the arc aids in the Warriors’ spacing based attack. Barnes can also hit that shot as a spot up man, but can be even more dangerous if he finds his groove in isolation or as a slasher working off Curry and Thompson. Bogut, meanwhile, will do all the dirty work, can still score some as a roll man in the P&R and will get the occassional post up bucket. Andre Iguodala is coming off the bench for this team and providing playmaking for the 2nd unit, which keeps continuity from group to group and allows the O to continue to work well.

In other words, the Lakers are in trouble tonight. As mentioned at the top, they have played a lot of games in a condensed period of time and have done so shorthanded. And while they showed some strides against the Clips, the Warriors will be playing at home and will be ready to put their foot on the necks of the Lakers should they be given the opportunity. Maybe the Lakers surprise in this game, but I wouldn’t count on it.

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

We knew that the Lakers would have a tough go of it this season, but the team’s first two games have served as the evidence that wasn’t fully formed off just the preseason and our analysis of the team’s offseason moves. The Lakers have been, for lack of a better word, awful to start the year.

Unfortunately for them, lopsided losses against the Rockets and the Suns are only the beginning as the team faces the Clippers tonight. Their Staples Center co-habitants haven’t exactly looked great either — they played a sloppy and close game against a very shorthanded Thunder team last night — but are clearly the superior squad entering this game. They are a team that in the spring will actually look to have a good chance to make good on their championship aspirations while the Lakers (who have stated to have the same goal) will look retain a top five protected lottery pick.

The match ups in this game aren’t even really worth discussing, to be honest. While it’s nice in the abstract to discuss how Jeremy Lin might perform against Chris Paul or how a combination of Jordan Hill and Ed Davis might fare against Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the reality is that the Clippers’ players should outperform their counterpart in nearly every matchup. The only advantage the Lakers look to have is with Kobe against a Clippers’ wing rotation that doesn’t offer a great defensive option (though Matt Barnes and JJ Redick will compete hard on that end and offer more than just token resistance). We’ll see if Kobe can carry over some of his effectiveness he showed in the Suns game (he did, after all, have 31 points in only 3 quarters of play), but also see if he can do so while his teammates join him with some reasonable production themselves.

From a larger strategy standpoint, this game actually mirrors some of what the Suns’ game did. While the types of players and match ups are different, the Clippers will play fast and look to exploit the Lakers’ transition defense. The Clips have multiple players who can turn a rebound into a fast break chance and the Lakers will need to find a way to get back effectively or give up the type of highlight plays that will be all over SportsCenter after the game.

In the half court the Clips will mix a lot of post ups for Griffin with pick and rolls between Paul and both big his big men. To counter, the Lakers’ bigs will need to have strong communication with their guards in order to effectively manage Paul at the point of attack while still covering the back line. One particular play to watch for is when the Clippers run a 1/4/5 pick and roll where Griffin screens for Paul and then, after diving, makes a catch with a quick lob to Jordan for the easy finish. This is a play the Lakers used to run often between Kobe, Pau, and Bynum several years ago and with that reminder I will now go weep in the corner.

Ultimately, this game is likely to end just like the Lakers’ previous games did. I wish I had better news for you, but again, it’s not like we didn’t see this coming. From a talent perspective, the Lakers just aren’t as good as the team they are playing. We will be saying that a lot this season, it seems.