Archives For Andrew Bynum

Welcome To The Big Show

Darius Soriano —  February 26, 2012

Making the all-star team is quite an honor. It may not be the same as making an all-NBA team (a distinction that shows a player is one of the best 15 or so players in the league), but making the mid-season classic is something to be proud of nonetheless. As Lakers fans, we’ve become quite used to seeing one (or more) of our guys suit up for the west squad. Kobe’s made the team 14 consecutive years as a starter. Way back in 1998 he made his first appearance and has been a mainstay ever since. For him, it’s become as much of a right as a privilege with fans voting him in for the better part of a decade and a half. This, though, isn’t the norm. Some players live on the cusp of making this team but never do.

I bring all this up because while we celebrate Kobe and his accomplishments it’s kind of easy to forget that another Laker was voted into the west’s starting lineup this year. Andrew Bynum is making his debut as the Center of choice later today and for him, it’s been a long time coming.

Long considered one of the up and coming big men in the league, the only thing that’s held big Drew back are injuries. Back in his break out year of 2008, Bynum was a surefire candidate to make this team before that horrid January night in Memphis that ended his season. The next year, the acquisition of Pau Gasol and another injury kept him from consideration. Last year his longer than anticipated recovery from off-season knee surgery kept him out of too many games and rustiness upon his return kept this honor out of his grasp.

Basically, Bynum has been the all-star big man that wasn’t an all-star. Everyone knew of his potential to reach this game and his production when healthy would have warranted a selection in several other seasons. The fact that it had not happened until this year was surely frustrating for him but also (likely) served as motivation for him to play well and stay healthy enough to show his worth.

Today, though, the goal will be reached. Bynum will jump tip against Dwight Howard in a game that features the guys the fans want to see flash their skills and the coaches believe to be the best players in the game. Today, the talk of Bynum being “an all-star caliber big man” goes from being a comment about what he could be to what he actually is. And for that, Lakers fans should be proud. Proud for Drew reaching his goal, but also for the fact that once again the Lakers have a young and up and coming behemoth manning the pivot for the team that represents the best the western conference has to offer.

And while this may be the first all-star game Drew plays in, it certainly won’t be the last. Because even though the age of the back to the basket big man is nearing its end, Bynum’s power game endures and will have staying power. Most of today’s bigs may flash games that stretch to 20 feet with face up moves off the dribble replacing the power back downs of a generation ago, but Bynum’s throwback style remains as effective today as it would have been in any other era. And with that style, he too should be a mainstay in this game (even if not  at the same frequency of his more celebrated Laker teammate).

So, take some time to appreciate how far Bynum has come. Seven years ago he was a pudgy out of high school kid that the Lakers’ brass took a chance on. The foundation of tools was there but needed molding before reaching this level. After countless hours of hard work and fighting through setbacks, he’s finally here. And, likely, here to stay.

Records: Lakers 20-13 (5th in West), Thunder 26-7 (1st in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.3 (15th in NBA), Thunder 108.9 (2nd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.7 (11th in NBA), Thunder 102.4 (14th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Thunder: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Daequan Cook
Injuries: Lakers: none; Thunder: Nick Collison (questionable), Thabo Sefolosha (out), Eric Maynor (out for the season)

The Lakers Coming In: As Darius pointed out yesterday, on the floor the Lakers have fared pretty well of late, and will be looking to kick off All Star Weekend with what would be their biggest victory of the season.

Not coincidentally, the bigs are in great form, with Andrew Bynum averaging 16.1 (on 56.3%), 13.9 rebounds, 2.3 blocked shots and just two personal fouls per game in February, while Pau Gasol has averaged 17.9 and 13.1, while connecting on 47% of his field goal attempts. Kobe continues to be Kobe, delivering roughly 26- 5- 4 this month, though he’s struggled with his shot, as evidenced by field goal and free throw percentages of just 40.6% and 79% (compared with his season averages of 43.9% and 82.5%, respectively). And the bench – deservedly much-maligned all season – has been not-atrocious (small victories, people), led by Matt Barnes (8.5 points, 5.8 rebounds in his last 8 games) and Steve Blake, who’s recorded 3+ assists in 6 of his last 7, the lone exception being his 5-triple, 17-point outburst against Portland Monday night.

However, as Darius also pointed out yesterday, the Lakers’ recent run of solid form is not the main story swirling around this team. If it’s not one with this team, it’s sure to be another. Between The Veto, the charitable contribution of Lamar Odom to the Dallas Mavericks Repeat Fund, incessant Dwight chatter, Kobe’s divorce and Metta’s media squabbling with Mike Brown, there’s arguably been more to monitor off the floor with these guys than there has on it. And now we have the latest episode of The Adventures of Team Turmoil.

An ugly, remnant of December’s near-acquisition of Chris Paul (y’know, other than the lack of a point guard worthy of NBA starter status), the Lakers’ desire (or lack thereof) to part ways with Pau Gasol – and everyone’s thoughts on the matter –are the hot topic du jour. However, as speculation about the Lakers’ need (and preparedness) to make a major move have ramped up, a more troubling issue seems to be simmering just beneath the surface – the Lakers’ front office, once the NBA’s paragon of stability and leadership, has begun to more closely resemble Gob Bluth’s gaming ship, anchored to past greatness only by an increasingly embattled Mitch Kupchak.

We know for a fact that the Lakers are willing to surrender Pau Gasol in exchange for a young franchise cornerstone. We also know that Pau, one of the league’s top 15 players and arguably its most skilled big man, always the consummate professional, is at least slightly (I’d wager more) upset by this. Finally, Pau Gasol remains a Laker, and a damn good one at that. That’s about it.

Meanwhile, however, this episode has greased the tracks for Kobe, who – in both a show of support for Pau and a desire to maximize his chances at Ring #6 – has hinted at his growing frustration with the organization’s new regime. Since, we’ve gotten a “you do your job and let me do mine” rebuttal from Kupchak and a players-only meeting (usually good for a short-term boost), but nothing to suggest that calmer waters are imminent.

With all of that said, the Lakers have now won 6 of their last 8 outings (including 4 of the last 5), including wins over the Blazers and Mavericks in their last two, and at 20-13, sit a single game behind the greatest Clipper team ever for the West’s #3 seed. It’s conceivable (if not likely) that given the torrent of frustration and distraction that continually washes over this team, moments spent on the court are among their least stressful these days. With the All-Star break (and a few days to refuel) imminent, look for the Lakers, win or lose, to put forth maximum effort against the class of Western Conference.

The Thunder Coming In: I feel like there is an inordinate amount of chatter these days centered on the Thunder’s flaws and the “wide openness” of the West come playoff time.

It’s true. This is by no means a perfect team – they are turnover-prone (a league-high 15.9% of the time), mediocre on the boards (15th in Offensive Rebound Rate and 24th in Defensive Rebound Rate), lack a traditional low post scorer and have seen their second unit hamstrung by injury, but make no mistake, these guys are good. Really, really good.

For starters, only the Miami Heat are more efficient offensively (by one point/100 possessions) and boasts a higher True Shooting Percentage (57%, v. 56.9%) than the Thunder.

Next, and I feel like we are beginning to take this a bit for granted, OKC’s 1-2 punch is nothing short of devastating. In Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (or, in the interest of staying neutral, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant), OKC features a top-two duo that is an absolute nightmare for perimeter defenders, getting to the rim at will (11.8 attempts per game), finishing once they get there (66.1%) and delivering from distance (47.4% on long 2s; Durant is 36.7% from 3).

Once you’ve got your brain wrapped around that pair of potential 40-pointers, it’s time to deal with the NBA’s best bench player, (I cannot remember where I saw this comp – apologies to whomever I am stealing this from) this era’s Manu Ginobili, James Harden. In addition an extremely impressive stat line (16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game, 47/37/86 from FG/3-pt/FT and 21.1 PER), Harden is the ultimate glue guy, as Royce Young describes:

It’s really hard to explain to people how important Harden is to the team. He’s not just a great sixth man. He’s like the mediator between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. What he provides is just so necessary to the flow of the team. It’s like he’s a pressure-release valve so that Durant and Westbrook don’t have to do everything. He scores, passes and operates a terrific two-man game with Nick Collison. He plays well with Durant and Westbrook and plays really well running the Thunder’s second unit by himself. It’s hard to say he’s more valuable than Durant or Westbrook, but it’s closer than you think.

And finally, while OKC does not rank among the NBA’s elite at the defensive end, the shortcomings of a susceptible perimeter defense (27.4 FGA at the rim – 2nd worst in the NBA) are masked effectively by Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and (when healthy) Nick Collison, a last line of defense that effectively defends the rim (7th lowest FG% allowed at the rim; #1 Block Rate) and does not give away points at the free throw line (a league-average .215 FT Rate allowed).

Flawed? Yes. But warts and all, this is the best team in the West.

Thunder Blogs: Daily Thunder consistently cranks out some really excellent work (check out some of Royce Young’s thoughts on tonight’s matchup here), as does Welcome To Loud City on SB Nation.

Keys to the game: It’s impossible (well, maybe not impossible, but pretty tough) to predict what the Lakers’ roster will look like following the trade deadline. What we do know, however, is that Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are here now, while Dwight Howard, Deron Williams and Gilbert Arenas are not. All BS aside, let’s see where this Laker team is at. For all of the gaping holes on the roster and turmoil surrounding this team, the Lakers have managed to win more than 60% of their games thus far and remain well-positioned to finish in the top half of the West playoff picture.

OKC represents a brutal matchup for, well, anyone. While it would be silly to expect Thursday night to deviate much from that script, there are a couple of factors that could play out in the Lakers favor.

First and foremost, the Lakers must rely on their interior defense and rebounding, particularly at the offensive end, to control the tempo of the game (at 93.8 possessions per game, OKC plays at the third-highest pace in the league; at 89.9, the Lakers are 21st) and keep the West’s most potent offensive attack under control. This entails keeping Gasol and Bynum, both of whom are rebounding at an elite level and are playing excellent defensive ball this season, out of harm’s way, with harm in this represented by OKC’s pair of whistle-drawing projectiles.

To this end, the perimeter D will be called upon to challenge OKC’s perimeter scorers. In addition to providing the clamored-for offensive spark that too-often has been missing, this is an area in which the Laker bench, namely Matt Barnes (and, though not a bench player, MWP), must provide value. If MWP still possesses any of the elite defensive skill he exhibited in the 2010 playoffs against Durant, this would be an opportune time to conjure it up. Another defensive matchup that could loom large is Barnes on Westbrook, as RW’s speed, power and perpetual motion are too much for Kobe to deal with while also trying to offset OKC’s firepower at the offensive end, and Derek Fisher and Steve Blake… HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!

Sorry. Moving on…

Provided the Lakers are able to keep Bynum and Gasol on the floor for big minutes, the massive duo in the middle will be vital to the team’s success on the offensive end as well. Bynum has a decided size advantage over any front line defense the Thunder can put forth, and the Lakers will do well to feed the beast in an attempt to control tempo, collect some easy buckets and use the aggressiveness of OKC’s bigs (particularly Ibaka) against them to lure them into foul trouble. This become double important with Nick Collison banged up – he will be limited by a biceps injury if he plays at all, as with AS break looming, and no worse than 26-8 in the bank, this may be a good opportunity to get him an extended period of rest.

In spite of all that’s gone (and continues to go) wrong, the Lakers still rank among the NBA’s better teams. These trying times, rather than tearing the team apart, appear to be having something of a galvanizing effect on this crew. Even so, it is admittedly a tall order ask any team to roll into OKC and down the Thunder. However, I would not put it past this frustrating, but talent, but oh so exasperatingly frustrating team to notch a signature road wins against a legitimately elite opponent when no one expects them to do so.

Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TNT and KCAL.

Records: Lakers 15-11 (5th in West), Knicks 11-15 (9th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.5 (14th in NBA), Knicks 101.2 (22nd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 101.1 (11th in NBA), Knicks 100.6 (9th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Knick:s Jeremy Lin, Landry Fields, Bill Walker, Jared Jeffries, Tyson Chadler
Injuries: Lakers: None (!!); Knicks: Carmelo Anthony (out), Amar’e Stoudemire (out), Josh Harrellson (out), Baron Davis (out)

The Lakers coming in: Two-thirds of the Grammy Trip is in the books, and thanks to last night’s nip-tuck overtime victory over the Celtics – just the Lakers’ fourth in 13 road games and their first in five tries away from Staples against an Eastern foe – the Lakers still have a shot (with a tonight at MSG and on Sunday in Toronto) at returning to Los Angeles from the six-game journey with a winning record.

From a Lakers perspective, the big story coming out of Boston is Pau Gasol. In just under 41 minutes of action, Gasol scored 25 (on 12-20 FG), grabbed 14 rebounds and made a variety of brilliant plays at both ends of the floor that helped to both force overtime and secure the win.

And now, having already bested the Knicks in Los Angeles, the Lakers take Manhattan, victorious in their last four visits to Madison Square Garden. With the Knicks short-handed on the front due to injury (Carmelo Anthony) and tragedy (Amar’e Stoudemire) and the Lakers at full strength for one of the first times all season, look for them to emerge victorious from Gotham for the fifth straight year.

The Knicks coming in: Linsanity. Lincredible. Lingenius. Linovative. Lincandescent. The Linferno.

Sorry.

In case you’ve not yet heard, the Knicks are back, and a Harvard man – one sporting Adidas rather than Hermes – is the toast of the town. As recently as a week ago, the Knicks (mainly Carmelo Anthony) had alienated a chunk of the fan base by not only losing (they dropped 11 of 13 between January 12 and February 3), sapping the fun out of the game in the process (Meloball). Both the team, seemingly in disarray and in danger of being engulfed by toxicity, and the fans, increasingly fearful of an unexpected Isiah-esque debacle, were in desperate need of fresh air.

Enter the ShaoLin. (Last one. I promise.)

The Jeremy Lin phenomenon has gained support more quickly and comprehensively than any that’s swept through Manhattan in the last seven years. Between the novelty of his background (an undrafted Chinese Ivy Leaguer), his circuitous route to the Big Apple (waived after ~17 months with the Golden State Warriors and 12 days with the Houston Rockets) and (my favorite, by far) his current living arrangement (he’s been crashing with either his brother or Landry Fields, though it’s rumored that he will be living in David Lee’s old apartment), Lin has brought a likeability and relatability to the Knicks that’s been sorely lacking.

The fact is, however, in addition to emerging as the season’s feel-good story, this guy can really play. An emotional catalyst to be sure, Lin has provided the Knicks with much more over the past week, averaging 25.3 points (on 58% FG), 8.3 assists and 1.7 steals and leading the Knicks to three straight wins. Beyond the numbers, Lin has an NBA build (6’3”-200), is seldom (if ever) out of control, and is an extremely intelligent player, particularly when using a screen to set up a defender. Far be it for me to predict that Jeremy Lin will sustain his All-Star-caliber play in the long run, but he is more than a mere novelty.

Knicks blogs: There are a number of excellent Knicks blogs on the web. The head of this class includes Posting and Toasting (where Seth Rosenthal does some fantastic work), Knickerblogger and The LoHud Knicks Blog. Additionally, if you are on Twitter and will be in arms reach of a computer while taking this one in, give Twitter superstar @netw3rk and Charlie Zegers (of MSG.com and and About.com) a follow.

Keys to the game: Let’s quickly get a Lin-related prediction out of the way. On the defensive end, look for Mike Brown to task Kobe Bryant with slowing down Lin, as a) it’ll probably work (I’d expect an inefficient ~15-6) and b) doing so will take much of the life out of the MSG crowd and consequently deflate the Knicks, regardless of whatever havoc Landry Fields wreaks against Derek Fisher.

As we exchanged emails earlier in the afternoon, Darius touched on another (and perhaps the most important) effect that Lin has had on the floor – the elevation of Tyson Chandler’s offensive game, primarily in the pick-and-roll. As I previously mentioned, Lin is an intelligent playmaker, and in the pick-and-roll has shown an ability to both get to the rim and score and connect with Chandler (who’s done a great job slipping the screens) on the lob. The Lakers’ weak side big (I’m guessing Gasol) must be aware of this and provide help in order to slow Chandler’s roll to the hoop. As Darius suggested (and I agree), it would not be surprising to see the Lakers play Lin similarly to the way they play Rondo – going under some screens and cutting off his angles, both on the drive or when looking to hit a cutter.

As one of the league’s better defensive squads – and one looking to close out this road trip on a positive note and build momentum as the season’s halfway point approaches – it will be interesting to see if the Lakers make the adjustments necessary to slow down the Knicks’ primary offensive set, while exploiting an obvious advantage in the paint when on offense.

The bottom line is this: in the season’s opening week, the Bynum-less Lakers blew out a Knicks team that boasted its full complement of talent. Lin or no Lin, should anything different go down with the Lakers’ massive (and massively talented) front line intact and healthy and the Knicks without Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Josh Harrellson, with only Jared Jeffries to offer support to Tyson Chandler against Gasol and Bynum, it will be a huge surprise.

Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time on ESPN. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Box Score: Lakers 88, Celtics 87
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 91.9, Celtics 90.4
True Shooting %: Lakers 44.1%, Celtics 43.9%

The Good:
First and foremost, any win on the Parquet is sweet. That the Lakers, coming off a tough loss in Philadelphia, have now won four straight regular season contests in Boston, this one on the heels of yet another crushing Patriots’ Super Bowl defeat… brings a little extra something to the table, no?

As far as the actual game is concerned, the most praiseworthy performance, on either side, was turned in Pau Gasol. Consistent throughout, Gasol connected on 12 of his 20 (!!) field goal attempts (3 in the first quarter, 3 in the second, 4 in the third and two in the fourth), 10 times converting from inside the lane, en route to 25 points. Additionally, he was a force on the glass, collecting 14 rebounds, four on the offensive end (more on this in a minute), handed out three assists, blocked a pair of shots (more on this in a minute) and made every play the team needed from him down the stretch.

A mere 13 seconds after reentering the game in the fourth quarter (at the 7:13 mark) Pau hit a 17-footer to put the Lakers up by two points. A quiet six minutes later, with the Lakers down a bucket, on a play in which Steve Blake’s hustling offensive rebound netted the Lakers a second shot, Pau followed up a 10-foot jumper from Kobe, tipping in the rebound to tie the game at 82. It was his fantastic closeout on a beyond-the-arc Ray Allen that derailed the ensuing Celtics possession, forcing overtime. In OT, despite missing his only field goal attempt, Pau continued to make his presence felt, grabbing four defensive rebounds and, most important of all, swatted away a point blank, potentially game-winning put-back attempt by Ray Allen to secure the Lakers’ 15th win of the season.

Tonight, Pau eats first.

Deserving of an honorable mention here is the effort of the entire Laker team on the boards. In addition to Gasol’s 14 rebounds, Andrew Bynum was a monster on the glass, with 17 of his own, including a massive seven offensive rebounds. Also deserving a shout are Troy Murphy (9 in 24 minutes), Matt Barnes (4, 3 ORB, in 17), Kobe Bryant (5) and Steve Blake (3), all of whom helped the Lakers to a 55-45 rebounding edge on the night.

The Bad:
As this is the first Laker victory I have recapped for FB&G, I’d like to keep the negativity to a minimum.

With that said, I would remiss if I didn’t mention the Lakers’ work from downtown on Thursday, which I will generously describe as “putrid,” only because a sincere assessment might result in Darius amnestying me from the site. I realize that at this stage of the season, having gotten to know our personnel and watched them fight tooth and nail to barely escape the 3-point shooting cellar (at a blistering 29.4%, just edging out Utah, at 28.9%), having any expectation of a potent attack from the perimeter is an invitation to disappointment, but seriously guys? 1-for-15? 1-for-f*$^ing-15?? That’s 6.7%.

For those of you keeping score at home, Metta World Peace has now made nine of his 53 3-point attempts on the season (17%), Derek Fisher is 11-for-41 (26.7%), Matt Barnes is 8-for-37 (21.6%) and Kobe Bryant, raising the team’s percentage, is 38-of-129 (29.5%). Ugh.

The Lakers’ stalwarts on the perimeter are Steve Blake (18-52; 34.6%), Andrew Goudelock (12-30; 40%) and Troy Murphy (13-32; 40.6%), all of whom are hitting at rates ranging from “respectable” to “pretty good,” but do not yet inspire confidence in crunch time.

The Ugly:
By and large, Kobe Bryant enjoyed an efficient and productive game on Thursday night – 27 points, on 11-24 FG and 5-5 FT, five rebounds and four assists. At halftime he’d attempted just six shots, making four, and had 11 points. He added another 10 points in the third (on 4-of-9 FG, plus a pair of free throws) in third, including an extremely contested fadeaway – a harbinger of things to come. After making one of three in the fourth quarter, we moved to overtime, where Bean produced a pair of possessions, one actually successful, that are best described as “cringe-worthy.”

A minute and a half into OT, Kobe received the ball on the left wing with ~15 (don’t remember exactly) seconds remaining on the shot clock. At this point he proceeded to pound a dead spot into this Garden floor, attempting a couple of times to probe the defense, before (in a move I deemed “aggressive Usage”) letting go of a contested 20-footer… which found the bottom of the net.

Net result? Good. Process? Not so much.

Three minutes later, after an Andrew Bynum putback had given the Lakers an 88-87 lead, Kobe brought the ball up the floor, and with a four-second difference between shot and game clock, had an opportunity to time his attempt in such a way that the Celtics would be lucky to gain possession with more than three seconds remaining. Rather than doing this, however, Kobe began to back down his man on the left wing with about seven second left on the shot clock and, in a move diametrically opposed to the off-the-charts basketball IQ we’ve come to expect from him, launched a 17-foot turnaround that was off the mark, and recovered by the Celtics with six seconds remaining. Now, all’s well that ends well, but…

I love Kobe Bryant. With the exception of Magic Johnson, no player has meant more to my basketball life. Having Kobe as a member of the Lakers for 15+ years, and having the opportunity to watch 75%+ of his career games has been nothing short of a gift.

However, this season, and seemingly increasingly with the passage of time, Kobe has stretched the role that he’s defined for himself – “I eat first” – to obscene lengths. That he’s earned his free rein on the floor is, in my mind, beyond question, but there is something a problem festering. What is at times troubling is not the fact that Kobe is clearly unwilling to subjugate his role on the team, but the fact that he is becoming increasingly brazen in reminding the world, and I mean the world – fans opponents, his teammates, coach Mike Brown – of this fact.

Play of the Game:
In Andrew Bynum’s beautiful, hard-nosed and-1 just before halftime – in which he recovered a loose offensive rebound and flipped the ball back over his head (and in!) while getting hacked – and Pau Gasol’s game saving blocked shot at the end of overtime we have a couple of extremely deserving honorable mentions. However, a play in the dying moments of regulation combined hustle, excellent fundamentals, equisite skill and grace under pressure.

Trailing by two with roughly 15 remaining, Steve Blake, from the left wing, attempted to feed Andrew Bynum in low post. Bynum had the “chair pulled” on him, resulting in a loose ball along the baseline. Rather than a potentially game-sealing turnover, however, the Lakers retained possession, thanks to some fantastic hustle by Steve Blake. At this point, Kobe Bryant made a beautiful cut toward the basket along the left edge of the key. Seeing Kobe, Blake, now on the baseline about 15 feet from the rim, made a slick pass of no more than five feet to Kobe, who elevated for a 10-foot jumper, which rimmed out.

HOWEVAH…

In keeping with the play’s heady/hustle theme, Pau Gasol attacked the offensive glass, skying over a pair of Celtics that had inside position and, avoiding a loose ball foul, tied the game (ultimately forcing overtime) with a left handed tip-in.

If ever a reminder is necessary of Gasol’s sublime combination of grace, body control, otherworldly length and basketball IQ, this is it.

Box Score: Lakers 90, 76ers 95
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 106.1, 76ers 112.5
True Shooting %: Lakers 50.1%, 76ers 53.7%

The Good:
It’d be criminal to simply gloss over Andrew Bynum’s performance. ‘Drew was, for the most part (the five turnovers are a bit ugly), sensational on Monday night, posting the second 20-20 game of his NBA career, and generally dominating the paint at both ends of the floor. ‘Drew poured in an efficient 20 points (8-of-13 FG, 4-of-6 FT) and absolutely owned the offensive glass, tallying as many offensive rebounds (8) as the entire Sixers team. He added three assists – including a beauty to Pau Gasol (who had an impressive 16 and 11, with 6 offensive boards of his own) early in the third quarter for a dunk – and swatted three shots at the defensive end. Like I said, criminal.

Well, here’s hoping it’s a misdemeanor, because as they tend to, this evening belonged to Kobe Bryant.

Needing just 23 points to surpass former running mate Shaquille O’Neal on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, it stood to reason that Monday would mark the last time (for several years, at least) that Kobe would rank outside the top-five in career scoring. That he quickly and aggressively set about amassing those 24 points should also come as no surprise. The manner in which he did it however, while hardly foreign, never ceases to be the rarest of treats for Laker basketball fans the world over.

The numbers (24 points on 8-of-14 FG and 4-of-6 from beyond the arc), while impressive, simply do not do justice to the deadly precision with which Kobe Bryant struck in the opening half of Monday night’s contest. With arguably the world’s best perimeter defender draped all over him, Kobe was, as he always is, undeterred. This was his night, in his hometown, with his continuing march toward immortality front and center, and Kobe came out throwing haymakers.

Call it what you will – Kobe doin’ work, going Mamba, going nova, one of those Kobe games – Kobe Bryant’s first half in Philly on Monday night perfectly encapsulated everything we’ve come to expect from the Lakers’ superstar – an unabashed, almost delusional sense of self-confidence made to appear sane by the brilliance of one Kobe Bean Bryant. No matter how many such performances we see – and we have been privy to a great many – it’s debatable whether we will ever truly understand the heights to which we have consistently seen the game elevated.

Congratulations, Kobe. And thanks.

The Bad:
Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before: the Lakers turned the ball over too frequently, failed to force turnovers and did not receive nearly enough help from the second unit.

Despite boasting the league’s top mark for defensive efficiency (by a considerable margin), when it comes to forcing turnovers, the Sixers are completely average, equaling the league average by forcing 14.3 turnovers every 100 possessions. Not to worry. Regardless of opposition, there is not a team that these Lakers, in a careless and lackadaisical manner that is all their own, cannot elevate to upper reaches of ball-hawkery on any given night. In this case, the Lakers turned the ball over 16 times, a majority coming in the second half, while managing a pathetic four takeaways at the defensive end, and losing the “points off of turnovers” battle by a 20-6 count.

A bad pass by Troy Murphy. An ill-advised jump pass from Kobe. Andrew Bynum’s third quarter entry into the “laziest post-up ever” sweepstakes. Each of these, along with any of 13 other giveaways, represents an opportunity missed. This is a team that has neither the depth nor the firepower to justify cavalierly frittering away a half-dozen or more possessions, game in, game out. The margin of error is simply not there.

Speaking of which, Monday night is yet another in a long line of subpar performances by the second unit. On a relative basis, Monday’s performance by the four Laker reserves that took the floor (Troy Murphy, Andrew Goudelock, Matt Barnes and Jason Kapono) was actually not that bad. What’s sad, however, is that what constitutes “not that bad” ‘round these parts lately is a 71-minute, 7-of-15, 16-point, 11-rebound, 6-assists outing. Throw in sadly characteristic 1-of-6 for four points from Metta Wrold Peace and a six-point, six-rebound outburst from Derek Fisher, and… sigh.

The Ugly:
After playing an excellent first 43:30, for the second time in three nights, the Lakers were done in by lackluster late-game execution. On the heels of his sublime first half performance, Kobe Bryant took the floor in the second half in “facilitator” mode – running the pick and roll beautifully, looking not for his own shot, but for the proper pass. This was vital in helping the team find a rhythm on the offensive end and seemingly take control of the game with 4:37 left, when Kobe found Bynum with a beautiful lob pass that the All-Star big man hammered down to stretch the advantage to seven points.

At this point, although turnover differential and hot 3-point shooting by the Sixers had prevented the Lakers from capitalizing on their best stretches of play and opening up a sizeable gap, the Lakers still appeared to be the superior team. From that point forward, however, all semblance of rhythm was taken out of the Lakers’ offense, as Kobe Bryant grew weary of his facilitator role and opted to attempt to recapture the magic of the first half – without success – slamming the brakes on the team-oriented ball with which they’d built the lead in favor of attempting seven shots in the final 4:37, of which he made just one, and putting the finishing touches on a 2-of-12 second half shooting display that undermined the near-perfect game he’d played until that point, and will be remembered for being as fruitless as his first half was brilliant.

Play(s) of the Game:
I’m guessing you don’t need to ask.

Kobe Bryant now has more regular season points than Shaquille O’Neal. This is how it came to be.

Box score: Lakers 87, Heat 98
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 97.7, Heat 110.2
True Shooting %: Lakers 49.4%, Heat 52.7%

The Good:
Pau Gasol was excellent in this game. He was aggressive early, scoring eight points (on 3-of-4 from the field) in the game’s opening five minutes, crashed the offensive glass (two early, four for the game) and for the second straight game recapped by yours truly, nailed a 3-points from the corner. In all, Pau logged 37 minutes, hitting on 11 of 19 shots (one miss was a desperation heave from 35 feet out) – eight of those from inside 10 feet – for his 26 points, grabbing eight boards (including the aforementioned four offensive rebounds) and turning the ball over just once. It’s tough to see in the moments immediately following such a fiery wreck, but Pau Gasol’s performance on Thursday night was legitimately a thing of beauty.

Let’s see, what else have we got to cling to in the aftermath of a loss that would have felt artificially close at double the 11-point margin? Well, Metta World Peace connected on a pair of jumpers from beyond the arc, doubling his season total for made 3-pointers and nearly doubling his hit rate from long range- to 12.9%. So, uh, yeah… there’s that.

Best of all though? I had “Bad” and “Ugly” pretty well sorted out by halftime. So… thanks, guys!

The Bad:
Where to begin…

In the Lakers’ defense (words that will not be bandied about frequently in the aftermath of this showing) a significant chunk of Miami’s 15-point half time lead was courtesy of an awesome 3-point barrage, in which the Heat drained an 61.5% of their 13 attempts from beyond the arc. Beyond that, however, the story on Thursday night was one of effort and execution, and at every turn the Lakers were found wanting.

The game was tight early, with the Lakers poised to exploit their superiority on the front line. With Pau Gasol storming out of the gate (see above) and Andrew Bynum aggressively hitting the glass in the opening minutes, it looked as though the NBA’s best big man tandem would set the tone. Sadly, however, just over six minutes into the first quarter, Chris Bosh disposed of Gasol with a pump fake and attacked the chest of Andrew Bynum, drawing the Laker big man’s first foul of the night while draining a twisting jumper from the middle of the key. Just 23 seconds later, with the Heat leading 12-10 in a nip-tuck start, Bynum was whistled for a second on his opposite number, Joel Anthony. This sent ‘Drew – and his three early rebounds and incredible wingspan around the rim – to the Lakers’ bench, prematurely. Given Miami’s hot shooting, the Lakers’ depressing lack of effort on defense (even Kobe, which is unconscionable) and abysmal execution on offense, it’s debatable whether an uninterrupted (he did end up playing a “full” game, 37 minutes) game for Bynum – who did manage 15 points and 12 rebounds (though only one on the offensive glass) – would have dramatically altered the outcome.

It’s tough to argue that Bynum’s presence wouldn’t have at least presented a flu-ridden LeBron James with a higher degree of difficulty as he dissected the Laker defense, but there was no stopping LeBron on Thursday. In the first half he made half of his eight shots (for 13 points), and added six rebounds and six assists – five of which were on 3-pointers. He was every bit as dominant after the break – though now more aggressive about looking for his own shot and helping tighten the defensive screws as Miami opened up a well-deserved 23-point lead. He finished the game having played 37 minutes, during which he made 12 of 27 field goals attempts, a shockingly pedestrian line in a virtuoso 31-8-8 (plus four steals and three blocks!) performance.

The Lakers, meanwhile, failed (miserably) to execute on offense, with horrible spacing in the half court, no fast break to speak of and Miami’s aggressive D not only neutralizing Kobe Bryant on the pick and roll, but relegating the Mamba to an evening of contested, long two-pointers (more on this in a sec). That this team lacks the depth and offensive firepower we’ve come to expect from the Lakers is a) hardly news and b) not insurmountable against most NBA squads. What is disconcerting, however, is the ease with which the Heat were able to totally discombobulate the Lakers, sapping their attack of any rhythm and cohesiveness.

Now, it is important to remember that this is merely one game out of a slate of 66 – just 1.5% of the regular season – and that the team administering the beating is arguably the best in NBA. HOWEVER, it is also worth noting that this opponent, administerer of said beatdown and arguably the NBA’s best… managed the feat with one of the best two-guards of all time in a suit.

The Ugly:
Engage any knowledgeable observer of basketball in a conversation about offensive efficiency and it’s unlikely that you’ll have to wait very long to have pointed out to you that offensively efficient teams a) take advantage of their opportunities in the paint and b) do not settle for long 2-point jump shots.

I submit, for your disapproval and dismay, the Lakers’ shot chart from January 19, 2012 in Miami:

 

Play of the Game:
The Lakers’ execution on offense on Thursday was appalling. Early foul trouble prevented their anchor in the middle from ever really finding his groove. And the best basketball player on Planet Earth laid waste to their defense. These things happen. Sometimes a better team just kicks your ass.

However, cliché though it may be, hustle should never slump. For every facet of the game in which the Heat bested the Lakers, the most maddening was in the area of effort. According to Kobe Bryant, the Heat simply “played harder” than the Lakers did on Thursday night. When asked if the Lakers fought back against their opponents, Andrew Bynum replied “not really.”

I get it. Long regular season. Off night. Condensed schedule. LeBron is really good. The emotional return of Eddy Curry. I get it. Ya can’t win ‘em all. But can we please, please covert our breakaway layups when spotted 30 feet and a head of steam?

Box score: Lakers 90, Jazz 87 (Overtime)
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 90.6, Jazz 86.1
True Shooting %: Lakers 49.8%, Jazz 43.5%

The Good:
Through three quarters not only was this not a contest, I was hard pressed to identify an honorable mention.

As he did last night against the Suns, Kobe Bryant set the tone early for the Lakers, hitting five of seven from the field in the first quarter, for 14 points.  While he was characteristically aggressive offensively, Kobe did an excellent job of operating within the offense, finding his own shot and creating a couple of easy buckets for Matt Barnes and Andrew Bynum. He continued his efficient assault in the second quarter, connecting on three of five to bring his halftime total to 21, on just 12 shots. By the halfway point of the third, sitting on 27 points on 16 field goal attempts (he had 31 on 11-19 FG after three quarters), it looked as though Kobe had not only picked up where he’d left off against Phoenix, but would actually manage to trump Tuesday’s brilliant showing.

That he finished the overtime tilt with 40 is somewhat disappointing (I know, right? We are spoiled), though not because he managed just nine points in the final two stanzas, but because of how he got there. The efficiency and team play of the first 36 minutes became a distant memory, as the offense stagnated while Kobe tried to singlehandedly put the Jazz away. He made just three of 12 shots after the third quarter, and took three less-than-stellar shots in the final 64 seconds (he was bailed out on two).

Make no mistake, the Lakers do not sniff this win without Kobe, but this game was sealed at the defensive end. After allowing the Jazz to rack up 30 points in the paint in the first half, the Lakers’ bigs staked their claim to the lane, allowing just 10 points inside in the second half, with Andrew Bynum racking up five blocked shots (more on this in a sec). The effort was not limited to the inside. The Jazz connected on less than 39% of their shot attempts (43.5% TS) for the game, and with the exception of the red-hot Paul Millsap, who scored 29 on 14-of-24 from the field, the Jazz hit just 22 of 69 shots  (32%). Additionally, while the Lakers continued to have difficulties protecting possession, turning the ball over 17 times, the stellar defensive effort prevented their carelessness from coming back to haunt them, as Utah managed just seven points off of those 17 takeaways.

One last thing… DARIUS MORRIS PLAYED! And he looked pretty good too! Sure he overdribbled a couple of times and forced a drive attempt that resulted in a turnover, but if his first 13 NBA minutes are any indication, this guy has a place in the NBA. His first meaningful touch came in the final seconds of the first quarter, when he led a perfect 2-on-1 break and found Metta World Peace for a dunk. He also made both of his field goal attempts and later found Steve Blake for a late-third quarter 3 that put the Lakers ahead by a bucket. Not saying this guy is the next Chris Paul, but given the (let’s be kind) suspect play turned in by Blake and Derek Fisher at the point, a young lead guard that adjusts nicely to the pace of the game and avoids mental errors in his pro debut is probably worth a look.

The Bad:
I had initially planned to call out a pair of “B’s” here, but the Laker Bigs, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, while lackluster offensively – a combined 10 of 27 from the field and 5-of-8 on free throws, for 26 points – and lit up by Paul Millsap, played hard in the paint and made a series of vital plays down the stretch (more on this in a second) without which the Lakers would not have registered the victory.

The other “B,” however, the Lakers’ Bench, a night after contributing to a nice home win, was virtually nonexistent. The bench logged a total of 72 minutes Wednesday, combining to score 11 points on 5-of-13 from the field (no free throw attempts), grab nine rebounds (none on the offensive glass) and hand out two assists. Pretty ugly. Pull out the contribution of the aforementioned Darius Morris and this crew was downright brutal, scored seven points (on 3-of-11 FG) and grabbing eight rebounds in 59 minutes. By comparison, in 34 minutes, Utah’s sixth man, ex-All-Star-turned-veteran-castoff Josh Howard, managed 18 points and four rebounds, while the rest of the Jazz backups combined for 17 points, 17 rebounds (five offensive) and five assists, and made up for a putrid 5-of-20 FG by earning 12 free throws and making nine.

The 2011-12 Lakers are a top-heavy team – we know this. With Matt Barnes healthy and seemingly carving out a valuable role with the starting unit, it may not be long before we can call the Lakers a “four deep” squad. However, looking beyond that quartet I am hard pressed to identify a single player capable to consistently contributing in crunch time. Hell, at this point I think I trust Darius Morris more than anyone else on the bench.

The Ugly:
The Lakers entered Wednesday’s game as the NBA’s second-worst 3-point shooting team, connecting on an unbelievable (and not in the good way) 23% of their attempts from beyond the arc. The collective 4-for-9 effort does technically represent an improvement, but within that number is perhaps the most disheartening statistic of the young season: with their combined 0-for-3 effort on Wednesday, Derek Fisher and Metta World Peace – two guys expected to create space for the bigs and receives the kicks following Kobe’s drives – have now combined to hit on just 10% (4-of-40) of their 3-point attempts this season.

The less said here, the better.

Play(s) of the Game:
Not a whole lot to choose from in the first 51 minutes of this one. Early candidates included Darius Morris finding Metta World Peace with 44 seconds remaining in the first quarter (0:52 mark) for his first career assist, Kobe Bryant’s picture perfect pump fake/pivot/step-through jumper (0:55) – also in the final seconds of the first, and Andrew Bynum stopping his massive frame on a dime and finding Matt Barnes to finish off a third quarter fast break (2:10).

Ultimately, however, the nod goes to the Lakers’ big men in the clutch. On most nights, the first runner-up- Pau Gasol’s nothing-but-net 3-pointer from the corner (3:09) in OT to cut a four-point deficit to one- would win going away.

HOWEVAH…

On a night when his shot was simply not falling, rather than allowing himself to become discouraged, Andrew Bynum focused his energy on denying Al Jefferson (one night removed from a 30-point performance) the post position he so covets and protecting the rim (five blocks!).

It was this effort – roughly 50 seconds after Bynum hit the offensive glass to tip in a wild miss by Kobe (3:24) and return the Lakers to the lead – that ultimately wound up sealing the win. With the clock running down and the Jazz trailing by a point, Gordon Hayward drove the lane (3:30 mark), drawing two defenders to the rim, before dropping the ball off to Jefferson. One of the best inside scorers in the game, Jefferson gathered the ball and, at point blank range went to secure the win, but…

Full highlights – Lakers at Jazz, January 11, 2012

Since he’s returned from his 4 game suspension, Andrew Bynum’s play has been met with fierce, well deserved praise. He’s been a monster in the middle, controlling the glass, blocking shots and altering shots, and attacking the paint on offense in a manner the Lakers haven’t seen since Shaquille O’Neal manned the pivot. He’s running hard to the rim on both ends of the floor, punishing his man with his big body at every opportunity, and doing (seemingly) everything the coaches are asking of him on both sides of the ball.

Bynum’s work on the glass and defensive effectiveness aren’t that new, though. Last season the Lakers post all-star break tear had a lot to do with Bynum taking greater responsibility as a defender and rebounder. He showed an activity level and commitment to controlling the defensive paint that clearly impacted every game.

What is new, though, is his overall effectiveness on offense. Bynum has shown flashes of this level of play before. He’s always had a certain polish to his game and when that was combined with his sheer size and (still above average) athleticism, the makings of an offensive force were evident. But this season he’s putting it all together. He’s added a little lefty jump hook to his arsenal. He’s moving better off the ball to get in better position to make deep post catches. His moves are still a bit deliberate, but he’s using those straight forward attacks to work counters into his game that keep defenders guessing and off-balance. Bynum’s growth on offense is at the point that even Kobe recognizes that Bynum has become the Lakers 2nd option on offense:

“It seems like it’s changed a little bit,” Bryant said after the Lakers’ 97-90 win over the Golden State Warriors on Friday. “Andrew is thirsty to score and he can score. He has more of a scorer’s mentality [than Gasol], so we’ll take advantage of that.”

However, with that “hunger” comes more responsibility and with more responsibility, more growth is expected. This is where Bynum needs to take the next step. From Kevin Ding:

No doubt Bynum has plenty of moves, via both power and footwork, but what he lacks is the ability to handle double teams. He struggled when presented with that challenge late last season, and he will struggle again with it much of this season – probably more so than even Lakers coach Mike Brown suspects…The best players in the NBA command double teams almost all the time. Once Bynum tore up the Trail Blazers with 7-for-7 shooting in the first half, they went after him in the second half. He couldn’t handle it, shooting 2 of 9 from the field. Just as bad, he had no assists in 20 second-half minutes – indicative of his difficulty in finding open teammates while double-teamed.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Big men are notoriously slow in learning how to deal with double teams at the NBA level. Defensive schemes are complex and weak side rotations are executed by some of the best athletes in the world. Double teams can come from a variety of areas of the court and big men need to learn how to recognize them and adjust. There are differences in how to respond to a guard digging down from up high vs. a wing sneaking in from the baseline vs. a second big man coming with added pressure. Then, of course, there’s also soft doubles and second defenders feinting pressure only to recover quickly to their own man in order to disrupt passing angles.

In a lot of ways big men (or post players in general) – with their backs to the basket and often double teamed from their blind side – are like NFL quarterbacks executing a play action pass where they must turn their back on the defense for a moment and then turn back around and make a full field read to find their WR breaking open. Big men must take a snapshot of the floor, recognize where every defender is, then make the appropriate read based off where the defenders move. Offensive players are then supposed to move to other designated areas based off what their own man does in order to give their big man a passing angle. Learning these skills and getting comfortable with where your teammates will be takes time, even for big men that have extraordinary feel for the game.

What needs to be noted here is that Bynum was showing growth in these areas in season’s past but has regressed some this season. But, when you take a step back, there’s an obvious reason for that: the Lakers are no longer running the Triangle. Because it was the only offense he’d ever played in, Bynum – like every other long tenured Laker – had a comfort level with the famed triple post offense. He knew where his teammates would be AND (just as important) his teammates knew where to go on any given possession when a player was double teamed. Right now, every Laker off the ball looks a bit hesitant on where he should move when a double comes. This, in turn, makes the player actually getting doubled more hesitant on where the ball should go.

The Portland game that Ding mentioned is a perfect example of this. On one play in particular, Bynum caught the ball on the shallow right block and then faced the basket. The double team came and he held the ball high with two hands looking for an outlet. The two Lakers on the weak side stood for a moment and then both cut to the rim hoping to receive a pass from Drew. Drew made the right read but by the time the ball got there, the defense had recovered and the ball got deflected out of bounds.

A possession like the one above is commonplace for the Lakers right now and Bynum’s not the only one being affected. Kobe – the other Laker that frequently gets double teamed – is also struggling more than in past seasons in dealing with the second defender. He’s looking for his standard pressure release and that man isn’t there. He’s making passes to spots on the floor and the ball is going out of bounds or into the hands of a defender. Kobe’s not as indecisive as Bynum, but after dealing with double teams for the better part of a decade that’s only natural.

Ultimately, Bynum has a ways to go as a passer. Some players have a natural passing instinct and lead players open into space rather than waiting for them to break open before a pass is made. Bynum is the latter type but that doesn’t mean he can’t learn to be better at the former. Players like Shaq and Duncan began their careers much the way Bynum has but grew into the type of double team busters that can carry an offense. It will take time, of course, but all steps of growth do. Until then, though, I’m happy seeing him get deep post position and produce easy baskets. I’m happy watching him power through his own man to draw fouls and compromise the integrity of the opposotion’s D.

Though, I must admit, I’ll be happier when he’s hitting the right man out of the double and reading the game more than he’s reacting to it. Because when he’s doing that, you’ll know that his evolution as an offensive force is essentially complete.