Archives For NBA Playoffs

The loss of Kobe Bryant for the season has created a myriad of issues for the Lakers to sort out.

As their top scorer and chief creator of offense, the team has struggled to generate sustained offense since his absence. Spacing has been mucked up and opposing teams are treating every perimeter player as a non-threat from the wing — even Steve Nash, though his injury has something to do with that for sure. And, while Kobe has had his issues defensively this season, as one of the few guards with good size, his unavailability has left the Lakers scrambling to find good match ups defensively, often cross-matching to try to create a workable scheme.

The biggest issue, however, may simply be that Kobe was a high minute player who found himself in nearly every one of the most used lineup the Lakers have deployed this season. Of the Lakers’ 12 most frequently used groupings, Kobe appeared in 11 of them as either the shooting guard, small forward, or pseudo point guard. Missing that versatility is one thing, but missing his presence — regardless of position played — is the most damning thing of all. It sounds simple and is obvious to say that out loud, but it’s really the most true thing that could be said about his injury.

Because whether Kobe was playing brilliantly or struggling, he was on the floor. Now that he’s not, the Lakers are in search mode to fill the minutes gap as much as they are trying to fill the void in production.

How the Lakers go about mixing and matching their personnel against the Spurs is one of the key story lines that needs to be figured out as the series advances. There are some obvious and not so obvious things to consider when figuring out who should play and how much. A few observations after game one:

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Sunday’s loss to the Spurs showed great effort by the Lakers, but also a severe lack of outside shooting. The Lakers only made 10 of their 43 shots outside the paint, struggling to generate any sort of offensive momentum against a defense set on crowding the paint like a Best Buy on black Friday.

The Spurs understand that with Kobe Bryant tweeting from his couch and Steve Nash admittedly ailing physically, the Lakers’ offense is going to be a post heavy attack. Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol are the team’s best scorers and feeding them the ball to let them create makable shots is the one advantage the Lakers have in this series, even if the Spurs possess two very good post defenders in Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. It simply makes too much sense, then, for the Spurs to crowd the paint and make the Lakers’ bigs earn any basket that comes from a direct post-up while simultaneously trying to force them to pass the ball out to shooters who simply aren’t as dangerous.

For a better idea of what Dwight and Pau are facing on every touch, we go to the eye in the sky. Here’s a fourth quarter post touch for Dwight Howard right after the ball has been entered into the post:

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The reality of this series is apparent after the first game. The Lakers have a ton of fight in them and are willing to make the effort play in order to keep the game close. However, without Kobe Bryant and with a less than 100% Steve Nash, the team may struggle to score enough points for all those effort plays to matter.

The Lakers tried to feature the same post heavy attack that led them to victory over the Spurs just a week ago, but were less effective this time in making it work. The Spurs fronted, half fronted, and sagged off the wings to make post entries difficult. When the ball did go into the post, the Spurs showed the Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol the second defender almost instantly via dig-downs from the same side wing and from the top of the key. When the Lakers’ bigs put the ball on the floor, help would also come from the weak side. This all combined to gum up the Lakers’ offensive sets and leave the team searching for help from the perimeter in the form of made shots.

Help that, sadly, never consistently materialized. Here is the Lakers’ shot chart from the game:

Game 1 shot chart

As you can see, the Lakers were able to effectively score in the restricted area when they got the chance, making 68% of their shots at the rim. They were even able to hit a few shots from right around the FT line area (though still in the paint) when they got pushed back out to the dotted line.

But what they couldn’t do was hit the long jumpers that the Spurs were more than happy to surrender to them. Be it out of the P&R when the Spurs’ bigs would sag down to deny the roll man or simple jumpers off kick-out passes from the post, the Lakers couldn’t make the shots they needed to loosen up the defense. The result was a crowded lane that not only limited post up chances, but also erased the cutting lanes that the Lakers typically want to exploit when they feature their big men on the block.

It’s a shame the Lakers were so poor on offense because their defense was actually quite good for most of the game. Yes the Spurs were able to break the game open late by knocking down some three pointers after making the smart extra pass, but for the rest of day they struggled to penetrate the Lakers’ D and were left clanking the same mid-range jumpers the Lakers couldn’t knock down.

The Lakers shaded Tony Parker expertly on the P&R and funneled him towards help, leaving only the kick out pass to Duncan when he popped to the top of the key. Give Steve Blake a ton of credit in this match up as he did an excellent job of sticking on Parker’s hip and chasing him from behind so he could still contest his pull up jumper. With Parker somewhat under wraps, that left Duncan, Leonard, Green, and Neal left to carry the load — but from the mid-range and deep two part of the floor. These are the shots the Lakers don’t mind surrendering. In fact, their scheme of having Pau guard Duncan and Dwight be the first helper behind the hedge man was a great tactical move that ensured the Spurs would have trouble penetrating the paint, thus leaving them with only outside jumpers to sustain their offense.

The only problem was, Manu Ginobili found his rhythm within this defensive approach and was able to score efficiently and give the Spurs the cushion they needed. Manu’s 18 points on 13 shots (including 3 of 5 from downtown) punished the Lakers in an otherwise defensive stalemate. Without those baskets, who knows how well the Spurs manage this game. But, the fact is, Manu hit them and that’s that.

Heading into game two there are adjustments to be made, but the biggest one isn’t really tactical. The Lakers simply need to start to hit the open shots that are available to them. The Spurs are going to continue to try to take away the post, regardless if those shots fall or not. But if the shots do fall, the Lakers will find themselves ahead (or at least putting up the points they’ll need to not be down by double digits); they will find themselves forcing the Spurs to rethink their defensive strategy.

Of course the Spurs will likely go home thinking the same thing. If they only hit some of those open jumpers, they likely win this game by 20 rather than only 12. And, they have the luxury of looking at those missed shots with a 1-0 lead in the series. Ultimately though, this is why this series was always going to be hard. The Spurs have the wing talent to hit more of those shots than the Lakers do and that proved true in game one. If the Lakers are to even up the series on Wednesday, they’ll need to prove that even with the lesser talent, they can make those shots too.

We’ve covered a fair amount of ground in the lead up to game one, from the regular season trends to what to look for on offense and defense to some potential X-factors to look for over the course of the series. The analysis we can provide before the games begin is done, now it’s about what happens on the floor moving forward.

What we know is that Steve Nash will try to influence that as he plans to play in game one. How long Nash can go and how effective he can be are open questions. His presence should aid the team’s offense, but it remains to be seen how much and if there are negatives we haven’t yet accounted for. How Nash performs on defense will also be key, the Spurs will surely test him on that end of the floor to see how he holds up physically. They don’t have to do anything out of the ordinary to do so, they simply must run him off some screens and attack him in isolation a few times to see how he performs.

Beyond Nash, however, there aren’t many new wrinkles to explore — though the Lakers certainly have the potential to mix things up more due to missing Kobe and how that affects style of play and rotations. These teams are what they are heading in to this contest and much of what we see today will be about execution and energy. The team that does the former better and brings more of the latter will be the one that has a better chance of claiming the all important first game. The Spurs are favored to win this contest and the series, and with good reason. They’re the better team by any metric we have available to us to measure such things.

In a way, however, that underdog status can be used to fuel the Lakers. For the first time in what seems like an eternity, the Lakers can truly adopt the “us against the world” mindset and use that as an extra bit of motivation. Many expect the Lakers to compete, but few (if anyone) expects them to win. This shouldn’t matter to a team who has confidence that they can win anyway (as the Lakers claim they are), but it would be silly to think it won’t play a part in their approach to the series. When no one believes in you, there can be hardening of your core that can help move you forward. We’ll see if this holds true for the Lakers.

Lastly, and I say this every year, for the fans, it’s time to sit back and try to enjoy this ride the best we can. The regular season offered many ups and downs. The playoffs will offer more of them. But now that the team has made the post-season, they have the opportunity to do something special. Whether they do or not will depend on a myriad of factors, none of which we can control. So, enjoy this extended journey for as long as it lasts. We may just be surprised when it’s all over.

We’ve looked at the regular season series and have also explored some of the key themes to look for on offense and defense. However, while history, talent, and execution all play a vital role in who wins a playoff series they are also decided by other variables. Sometimes, it’s the non-star player who can make his mark (think Trevor Ariza in the Lakers run to the 2009 championship) or a strategy shift (like Rick Carlisle inserting J.J. Barrea into the starting lineup in the 2011 Finals) or some other key match up that turns the tide.

With that in mind, here are a few X-factors that may come into play and make the ultimate difference in this series…

Mike D’Antoni
Coming in, there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind who the superior coach is. Greg Popovich has tasted championship glory four times and always seems to have his team well prepared and ready to compete at the highest level. There’s literally no bad words to say about the man and I won’t attempt to try and discredit him in any way. If he wins the coaching battle, it won’t be a surprise. In fact, it’s expected.

That said, Mike D’Antoni, even with all the hits he’s taken this year, is no slouch with the whiteboard and in diagramming a workable plan. D’Antoni is also no stranger to facing the Spurs in the post-season, with epic battles in his past that shaped the narrative of his career. D’Antoni will need to call on some of that experience against his old foe on the opposing sideline to try and create some advantages for his team over the course of the series.

Maybe that means deploying a seldom used lineup or going deeper into his bench. Their are already whispers that Steve Blake will join Steve Nash in the starting lineup (should Nash be available). The Blake/Nash backcourt duo hasn’t been the best defensive pairing this season but if Blake can hold his own against Tony Parker (a big if), Nash can slide over to defend Danny Green (who’s mostly just a spot up player) and it not be a huge risk. That approach may not end up working out (if it’s even explored at all), but it’s these types of moves that can make a difference and D’Antoni will need to come up with more of them to guide his team to victory in this series.

Antawn Jamison
Jamison has been the Lakers most consistent bench player all season. So, it wouldn’t necessarily surprise if he had a solid series whether the Lakers are able to upset the Spurs or not. That said, Jamison offers a unique versatility offensively that can be a major weapon against this version of the Spurs. Remember, Boris Diaw is unlikely to play in this series. That leaves the Spurs — who also waived Stephen Jackson — surprisingly thin in the front court behind Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, especially in regards to players who actually match up with Jamison well.

When Jamison comes in at PF, he’ll likely either be matched up with Matt Bonner or DeJuan Blair. Both aren’t used to defending on the perimeter or a player who offers the inside-outside game of Jamison. Jamison can be especially effective as a pick and roll/pick and pop player if defended by either of these players and if he can effectively knock down his jumper it only makes him more dangerous when slashing or attacking off the dribble against a closing out defender. And, if the Spurs decide to defend Jamison with a smaller player, he can try to work the offensive glass or get into the post on weak side duck-ins. Obviously depending too much on Jamison to be a difference maker can be problematic. And if he’s asked to carry the team in any given game the Lakers are in trouble. But as a change of pace player who comes in for Pau, he may be able to exploit the Spurs’ reserve big men.

Manu Ginobili
It’s funny to describe a mainstay of the Spurs’ success and a key performer who has real name recognition as an X-factor, but it’s true. Ginobili hasn’t had the best season — 11.4 points per game in a little over 23 minutes a night — and is coming off a hamstring injury that kept him out of the lineup for 9 of the Spurs final 10 games (he played 12 minutes and scored 2 points in the season finale).

Is Ginobili fully healthy? Is he ready to be the heavy minute contributor that the Spurs will need to make a big run in these playoffs? I’m sure the sense is that the Spurs have enough talent on the wing to beat the Lakers even if Manu isn’t 100%. And that’s likely true. But if Parker struggles (remember he’s had his own injury issues of late as well), the Spurs are suddenly lacking in another off the dribble creator that can hurt the defense in a variety of ways. Typically that player is Ginobili. If he’s ready to go, he can be the hammer off the bench that the Lakers don’t have an answer for. But if he’s limited, the Spurs may struggle to create the dribble penetration that their offense thrives off of.

There are several other keys that I think will be important: will Meeks hit his open shots? If Nash returns, will D’Antoni still play Morris as a defensive substitute against Parker? Can Earl Clark play with enough energy and activity (while hitting some of his shots) to make a difference? The answers to these questions — especially if they go in the Lakers’ favor — could all impact the series positively for the Lakers. Of course, if any of the Spurs’ shooters are hitting shots or Blair is getting after the offensive glass or Splitter has a strong defensive game against Dwight and/or Pau, the Spurs can easily find themselves in the driver’s seat.

That’s the beauty of these things, you never know who will step up, you just know someone will and it will make a big difference.