In only his second game back from injury, it’s difficult to avoid making almost every bit of analysis Kobe-centric. So, win or lose, the focus will shift his way and the tone of the conversation will shift away from the what the team did well (or not) to what Kobe did well or not. On that note, let’s look at Kobe first…
Number 24 looked much better tonight than he did on Sunday, showing better decisiveness in nearly everything he did and making sharper decisions in the process. His pass/shot decisions were worlds better than what they were against the Raptors and that showed up clearly in the box score where he tallied 20 points on 6-11 shooting handing out 3 assists to (only) 3 turnovers (compared to the 8 he had against the Raptors). Kobe’s movement in the full court wasn’t much better than what he showed on Sunday (more on this later), but he was much more crisp in how he moved in the half court, making sharp cuts to the ball and in backdoor plays on several occasions and showing good change of direction on more than a handful of possessions.
These are the positives that come from this game; the easily identifiable progress he made from his first game back to his second. But just as some of these improvements were clear, so was the fact that integrating Kobe back into the lineup has (and will continue to) provide hiccups that translate to adjustments from the way the team was playing before.
I tweeted that after the game and while some may interpret that as a dig at Kobe, it’s really not meant that way at all. Throughout the game what became quite evident is that Kobe is playing a style that mostly suits what he’s most comfortable doing and those aren’t really things that fit snugly into the style the team was playing before he came back. Kobe wants the ball in the mid post or the shallow wing. He wants to post up and play out of the triple threat. He wants to work in isolation, survey the floor and either create a good look for himself or draw the defense and kick the ball to an open teammate. We saw all of this on full display against the Suns.
These aren’t bad things. In fact, in many ways they are extremely effective ways to play this game. Kobe knows this because he’s played this way for the majority of his career and has had a lot of success doing it. It’s just not the way the team was playing before he rejoined them in the lineup.
Before Kobe came back, the team relied heavily on dribble penetration from the point guard out of the P&R or hand-off sequences at the top of the key and hard dives from their big men after they’d set screens in either one of these actions. When the ball was penetrated via the dribble or a pass to the diving big man, either shots were put up in the paint or passes were made out to perimeter players who either took shots in rhythm or swung the ball to the open man against a rotating defense (which then led to an open or semi-open shot before a close out fully arrived). Against the Suns, this wasn’t happening as often. You only need to see the box score and notice that the team only took 18 three point attempts (making only 5, which is as much of a problem as the low attempts) to see that the offense isn’t producing the same shots it has in the past.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it is a thing. And that means an adjustment by players who have played one way for the first part of the season and now will need to start to play a different way. This will take time and while that time is passing, things won’t always look as good as you (or I) would like.
All that said, this game wasn’t lost because of the offense (at least not totally). Another quick glance at the box score reveals that the Suns made nearly 52% of their baskets while scoring 21 fastbreak points and 56 points in the paint. In other words, the Lakers’ defense mostly stunk. They couldn’t contain Goran Dragic or Eric Bledsoe all night and that duo combined to score 39 points while dishing out 14 assists. Add in Marcus Morris’ 22 points off the bench and the fact that the Lakers did not get enough stops is pretty obvious.
A lot of what the Suns did offensively was play at a tempo that bothered the Lakers. When Kobe and Pau shared the floor the team was at a clear speed deficiency. But it wasn’t just that the Suns outran the Lakers, it was that they out-quicked them too. In other words, the Lakers had severe issues transitioning from offense to defense (Kobe was a culprit in this, but so was Pau and several other Lakers who chased offensive rebounds but did not snare them) and that allowed the Suns to generate early offense. But, the Suns also used very good tempo within their half court offense to generate looks by attacking quickly and directly via penetration out of the P&R and off ball reversals when the Lakers closed out on shooters. These quick movements to the paint really bothered the Lakers’ defense and created a feeling that the team was often playing flatfooted against superior athletes.
This is another area where Kobe, in his current state of not yet having his full game legs, will need to make adjustments. Much like Gasol needs to (but still too often doesn’t), Kobe will need to position himself better defensively so that he can be in the right place at the right time to compensate for not having the burst he’d like to have. Over the past couple of seasons Kobe has lost more defensively than he has offensively, but coming off this injury he needs to compensate even more rather than just trying to gamble and hope it pays off. Because, while in the past those gambles may have worked and given him a sense that he could continue to try that style, as long as he’s a half beat (or more) behind those gambles will not work now.
This isn’t to rag on Kobe or blame the team’s defensive woes on him. An opponent doesn’t shoot 52% because of one guy. No one was particularly good on defense tonight and singling out Kobe would not be fair. I comment on him because he’s new and evaluating him is fresh, but the same trends of Nick Young and Wes Johnson committing bad fouls, Pau not helping well enough at the rim, and people not helping the helper when Hill leaves his man to block shots were on full display against the Suns and those errors cost the team many baskets.
All in all, then, this was a fairly bad loss even though it can be rationalized through the prism of adjusting to Kobe’s return and the Suns actually showing a lot of early season promise. There were certainly positives of Kobe playing better than he did on Sunday and the team finding good looks with him as a centerpiece shot creator. But there is still growth to be made and, much like in games before he came back, the team needs to play better defense consistently and can’t let bad offensive stretches define their effort level. These are things that already needed improvement but now that Kobe is back and the expectations for the team to play better are real, they really need to be better at them. Hopefully we start to see more consistency in these areas soon, especially since the adjustments that need to be made in other areas are very real.
*I didn’t mention this earlier in the recap, but this team misses Jordan Farmar something awful. Farmar was playing his best ball of the season when he got hurt and that makes it doubly worse, but just the simple fact that Blake is now the team’s only real PG makes finding suitable rotations quite challenging. One potential solution is to stagger Kobe and Blake more, but even that requires putting the ball in Kobe’s hands more off the dribble and the Suns game showed he’s probably most comfortable as an off the ball worker in the mid post and at the elbows. Ultimately, I am not sure where the team can go to get that creator and driver of the 2nd unit, but Farmar’s quickness on both ends of the floor is something that needs replacing but seemingly doesn’t have anyone to fill in. In other words, heal up quick Jordan. The team really misses what you bring.