Archives For NBA Playoffs

Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

The Lakers enter game three as desperate as they could be. Wednesday’s game two offered a roadmap to victory but the Lakers veered of course before their destination, driving off a cliff to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Tonight they’ll need to be better for longer or risk having the final nail put in their coffin by going down 3-0.

As stated though, the roadmap does exist. The Lakers found some promising defensive adjustments in game 2 that they should be able to refine and carry forward this evening. They’ll need to continue to play the P&R higher to better cut off driving lanes and contest pull up jumpers. They’ll also need to continue to play off ball actions better by clogging the paint to encourage the Thunder to kick the ball out or be forced to shoot over a helping defender. Kobe will also need to be as effective as a roamer as he was in game 2 when he consistently left Sefolosha to dig down in the paint and help on Durant and Westbrook when they came close to the paint. This tactic muddied up the FT line area that the Thunder were so effective in attacking in game 1 while also forcing some bad passes.

That said, the Lakers can’t rest on their laurels and simply go out and do the same things defensively with impression the Thunder won’t make some adjustments of their own. In game 2 the Thunder bigs (especially Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed) overpassed and didn’t look for their shots immediately even when wide open. These are the players the Lakers respect least on defense (along with Sefolosha), but I can imagine Scott Brooks letting them know that they’ll be open and that they should attack when given room. The Lakers must also be aware of back door actions and quick counters to the overplays that were successful. The Thunder can use slip screen actions, weak side cuts, and quick ball movement to disable a defense that jumps at their main scorers, so being prepared for those counters is imperative.

What’s also imperative is the Lakers finding some reliable offense. When we look at game two, we’ve mostly focused on how the Lakers held the Thunder to only 77 points but the Lakers only scored 75 of their own. Unless this team finds more reliable offense, they’ll continue to be in games where the Thunder’s superior scoring efficiency comes back to bite them. They must create a larger cushion and/or find ways to get good looks when OKC’s defense tightens.

First and foremost, this means getting Kobe on track. He’s shooting 37.2% so far this series, mostly on highly contested jumpers that are easily challenged. He must find ways to crack the code of Sefolosha’s defense and I think there are a couple of ways it can happen. First is that if Kobe’s going to do a lot of work in isolation, he needs to compact his game. What I mean is that he needs to make his moves quicker and avoid using so many fakes to try and get his man out of position. In game 2 he had a fair amount of success taking one or two dribbles and elevating quickly to shoot his jumper or taking an extra dribble to get all the way to the rim. But when he had to make his catch on the dribble and try to shake his man or if he went into a headfake clinic to try and get his man in the air, neither Thabo nor Harden were taking the bait. Kobe needs to refine his game while also getting more help from his teammates in the form of better screens and quicker passes when he breaks open on his cuts.

The bigs must also continue to grind away. Andrew Bynum has proven he can beat single coverage consistently and needs to continue to do so. If he can work to get moderately deep post position he should be able to get off his lefty jumphook and then counter off that with his step through where he goes under the rim to finish on the other side of the basket. In game 2 he showed how effective this arsenal could be as long as he could beat the fronting D to establish the block. Gasol can also work in the post but will need to continue to show variety. He worked well driving to his left hand and finishing with that sweeping lefty hook. If he can continue to make that move he can work in counters to that where he pivots and then finishes strong with his right hand as well. He’ll also need to continue to hit his jumper so that his man has to play him close enough to open up that drive.

Tonight’s also a game where the Lakers role players need to find their stride. Playing at home should help some, but they must be active and assertive in order to seize a strong performance. Barnes and Blake must look to maximize their strengths by hitting spot up jumpers (Blake) and slashing to the rim and getting out in the open court (Barnes). Jordan Hill must also continue his fine work on the glass while also getting some garbage baskets when his big man partner draws attention. He was great at that in game 2, he must carry it over.

And, finally, Ramon Sessions must find a way to make a difference. I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you that his play has been disappointing and while I’d attribute a lot of his shortcomings to the style of game he’s being asked to play and the general offensive scheme in place, there are ways he can be better. He must shoot when he’s open and do so with confidence. He must also take more command off possessions and run more actions that get him in position to hurt the defense. Primary sets may be for Kobe and the bigs but there’s a stretch in every 2nd and 4th quarter where he shares the floor with Pau as the only offensive threat but he’s still not aggressive enough. When they share the floor he can call more P&R’s and isolations for himself and no one would be mad. Also, whenever he’s being guarded by a player besides Westbrook, he should look to attack first and create something positive. That doesn’t have to be a shot for himself – a drive and kick to a shooter or draw and dish to a big can do wonders for this offense.

The Lakers are in a deep hole. Tonight they either start to climb out or get buried alive. Game 2 offered a moral victory but those count even less in the playoffs than they do in the regular season. Tangible success in the form of a victory needs to come for this team and it must start tonight. It won’t be easy as the Thunder offer the stiffest challenge of any opponent since the 2008 Celtics but that doesn’t mean the Lakers can’t continue to fight. If they need inspiration, they only need to look back a round at the team they vanquished. This series reminds me of that one in that after getting blown out in game 1, the Nuggets fought back in game 2 but still came up short. When they got home, they carried over that success to win the next two games game and two of the next three. The Lakers can do the same thing, but they must believe and then go do it. It starts tonight.

Friday Forum

Dave Murphy —  May 18, 2012

There’s something of a lull before the storm when it comes to the Lakers and the media right now, especially the national media. The team’s in a tough spot but it’s too risky to write them off. A win tonight will tilt articles toward redemption possibilities, and a loss will bring out the doomsday scenarios. A game will be played tonight and the focus will shift away (perhaps momentarily) from the last shot of Wednesday night’s game.

The Kamenetzky brothers at ESPN’s Land O’Lakers, IM about tonight’s game with Royce Young of the Daily Thunder.

The Great Mambino at Silver Screen and Roll, writes about the Lakers optimism, despite history not being on their side.

Mark Medina at the L.A. Times reports on Steve Blake dealing with the shot that didn’t go in, and the resulting twitter hate received by his wife Kristen. This one’s beyond the pale.

Kevin Ding at the OC Register shares the news of Pau Gasol being named citizen of the year by the NBA.

Ben Golliver at CBS Sports Eye On Basketball breaks down tonight’s Lakers/Thunder match.

Tom Spousta at the NY Times writes about Kobe Bryant’s recent difficulty closing out games.

Elizabeth Benson at Lakers Nation about lessons learned from the game two loss.

***

There’s a very old Jack London short story entitled A Piece of Steak. It chronicles an aging boxer’s last stand, against a fighter in the bloom of youth. It’s about shelf-life and inevitability, and shares a commonality with many other stories before and since. We know that OKC is younger, faster, and deeper. For now, we wait for the game, hoping that our veteran team can come away with a win, and a bit of extra meat on the bone.

- Dave Murphy

Last night’s loss still stings and will for some time, I imagine. When the team you root for collapses down the stretch, the ‘what ifs’ and ‘should have dones’ live in the front of your mind and sit there, sourly marinating. But that rotting feeling is really about the final two minutes of turnovers, poor transition defense, and poor half court execution. Durant’s steal, Kobe’s three pointer when the offense broke down, Harden’s baskets against a retreating defense were what lost the game.

What did not lose the game was the last inbounds play where Steve Blake got a good shot off, only to miss it just long. That play was designed to get Kobe a shot flaring to the opposite corner. The Lakers have actually used this play at least once this year, against the Hornets (h/t to Sebastian Pruiti for the clip):

As you can see in this clip, Kobe comes off a double down screen from Pau and Bynum looking to get a shot at the top of the key. However, that action is really a misdirection to force the defense to overplay. When the defense rushes to try and deny that option, Kobe then flares to the weak side off a back screen from Bynum to receive a pass and take the shot. While Kobe missed this shot against the Hornets, this is a well designed play (though with a difficult pass) and falls in line with the type of misdirection screen actions that the Lakers have used before this season to try and get a good shot against a defense that is primed to slow the initial flash to the ball.

Last night, however, the Thunder seemed ready to defend this type of action. When the play initially starts, the Thunder are in the type of defensive position that you’d expect. Because they’re only up by a point and a two pointer beats them, their bigs are in position to protect the rim from the Lakers’ bigs diving hard. Kobe’s man is on his inside shoulder to try and stay in between him and the ball. But, once the action starts, everyone clamps down even harder. Perkins bodies Bynum so he doesn’t get a clean pick on Sefalosha who also does a good job of fighting through the screen. Kobe then releases just a hair early in flaring to the corner and Ibaka does a good job of being below the screen so he can cover Kobe as he peels off Pau’s back pick. When you add this to Durant’s long arms disrupting Ron’s view, it’s easy to see why this action got bottled up (h/t to DJ ReMark for the video clip):

Ultimately, Blake got a good shot. Out of all the options coming out of that play – Kobe’s jumper from the deep corner, Pau making a catch at the top of the key and then working to get his own shot, or Blake shooting a wide open corner three – I’m perfectly happy with the look the Lakers’ got. Ron made the right read by passing to Blake, Blake got his feet set and took a shot he’s very capable of hitting, and the Lakers still had a chance to get an offensive rebound because the shot was taken immediately.

I do understand that we can criticize the play design (as Tim Legler did in the clip) as it’s primary option is running to the opposite corner some 45+ feet from the inbounder. That’s a risky pass in any scenario and with the athletes OKC had on the floor plus the recovery time that type of a pass allows, a lot of bad things could have happened had Ron made that pass (including Ibaka shadowing Kobe as Legler implied). Also, the play is seemingly setting up a very difficult shot from Kobe – one where he’d be fading from the basket and likely very close to the three point line and the baseline out of bounds.

All that said, the real criticism still lies in the Lakers’ play down the stretch and how the play preceding the inbound play by Ron unfolded. In that set Kobe started with 18 seconds on the shot clock but dribbled down the clock even though the Thunder had a foul to give. Watching it live, I was wondering when Kobe was going to initiate his move but it was obvious he was eying the right short corner for his final shot. That’s a jumper he’s hit countless times before and is the epitome of a muscle memory play for him. The fact that he’d want to take that shot isn’t a shock but the way the play unfolded certainly could have been handled better.

In the end, though, none of it went right. And today we all must live with it. Tomorrow offers another chance, one I can only hope offers as good an opportunity to get a win.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Game one was a disaster for the Lakers that us fans would just as soon forget. But for the players, there’s a fair amount to glean from that blowout loss. Because with every missed rotation, bad coverage, and offensive miscue the Lakers can take note and do better. To win tonight, they must.

In a vacuum, that shouldn’t be that difficult. Outside of the first 10 minutes of the game, the Lakers didn’t do much right. And while the Thunder deserve credit for capitalizing on those mistakes, the Lakers can turn tonight’s contest into a much closer affair should they simply avoid being so giving on both sides of the ball.

With that said, here are a handful of things to improve on tonight that can lead to the Lakers evening up the series…

*Play the pick and roll and all other screen actions better. In game one, the Lakers did just about everything wrong in covering the P&R. Guards got caught on screens, big men sagged too low against ball handlers turning the corner, and wings over helped trying to compensate. This led to the Thunder getting clean looks at the hoop and the Lakers hanging their heads as the points piled up. In other types of screen actions the Lakers took the same approach and were burned in the same manner. When Durant curled off picks, his man got clipped without recovering quickly enough while big men sagged below the action waiting to be attacked. If you recall Durant’s first quarter dunk over Bynum, that play was set up because Ron was a step slow in recovering and KD used two long strides to elevate while Bynum hung back.

Adjustments here are easy in principle, but will require effort and discipline in executing them. First and foremost, guards must get through screens quicker. Whether chasing over the top or darting underneath, the guard must recover and do so quickly. Second, the big men must play the screen higher. Whether they hedge hard or play it more flat doesn’t necessarily matter as long as they’re higher in the action and ready to defend when the ball comes at them. Hanging back and inviting pull up jumpers in rhythm can lead to the type of onslaught seen on Monday. Third, the defenders not directly involved in the play must be alert and ready to help the helper. When the bigs commit, teammates must have their backs. Wings must drop down to help defend the paint and everybody must gang rebound.

*Cut out the live ball turnovers. The Lakers first possession was a bad pass that was stolen and dunked going the other way. In the first half they’d commit 7 more turnovers that OKC turned into 16 total points. The Thunder posted the 2nd best offensive efficiency in the league during the regular season and hung a 133 rating on the Lakers on Monday. Giving a team with that level of potency extra possessions – especially ones that lead to the easiest types of baskets – is a recipe for disaster. The Lakers must be more careful, but also act with more purpose on offense. Too many Laker turnovers seemed to be the result of over thinking an action or trying too hard for the primary option instead of looking to counters that were more open. The Lakers need to play smart, but loose. If something isn’t there, go away from it and attack another way. The Thunder are a smart defensive team but the Lakers made them look even smarter by not swinging the ball, not attacking off the dribble, and not using a varied attack. That must change tonight.

*Get Kobe moving into attack positions more often, preferably below the foul line. Whether on or off the ball, Kobe was spending too much of his time working 18 feet and out. At that distance his game becomes overly dependent on making jumpers and as the old saying goes – you live by the jumper, you die by the jumper. Kobe must instead work closer to the rim to find his rhythm. I’d love to see some of the cross-screen actions out of their “horns” actions to get Kobe flashing into the post or curling into the paint. I’d love to see him work more stagger screens that bring him to the short corner or get him on the move where he can make his catch at the pinch post with a live dribble. I’d also like to see him operate in the P&R more, especially with Gasol. It’s been a while since the Lakers utilized their Kobe/Pau P&R on a cleared side that forces the rotations that ultimately lead to Bynum being free under the rim. Dusting that action off would be a sight for sore eyes.

*Push the ball more. The Lakers had 0 (yes, zero) fast break points in game one. Against a long team that has strong individual defenders in the half court, that’s something that needs to change tonight. I’m not asking for the Lakers to turn into the SSOL Suns, but they could do well to take a page from the Spurs handbook and push the ball into the front court and look to seize opportunities against a defense that isn’t set. Be it Sessions or Kobe or Ron, advance the ball and look for the cracks in the D. The Thunder are a middling transition D team that likes to crash the offensive boards. Their will be opportunities to run, the Lakers need to recognize them and pounce.

The Lakers can also look to throw the ball ahead to Barnes leaking out after he contests jumpers. Barnes is likely to see a lot of minutes against Harden and Durant who are both fond of taking long jumpers that he’ll be closing out on. When those shots miss, he can lead out. The same is true of Gasol when he contests Ibaka’s mid-range jumpers in pick and pop situations. Many of these actions end with Serge taking 16 foot jumpers from the elbow area, and if the Lakers are gang rebounding the way they’re supposed to be, Pau can afford to run out a few times a game.

Ultimately, Playing 90 possessions against a stout half-court defense will grind any offense down. The Lakers must do more to cash in on the open court chances that present themselves.

*More big to big passing/actions. After the game, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol sat on the bench together discussing strategy. They surely understand that despite having Kobe Bryant on their team, their play will have the largest impact on the Lakers’ chances  this series. With that being the case, they must find more ways to work together in order to take advantage of the aggressive play of OKC’s big men. Both Perkins and Ibaka want to get up the floor on defensive coverages. Both also want to be steady helpers at the rim to block and contest shots. This approach makes both vulnerable to smart cuts, quick duck-ins, high-low passes, and offensive rebounding chances. Ball rotations from the Lakers wings will aid in these actions but both Bynum and Gasol must be ready to take advantage when these opportunities present themselves. They can’t be caught standing and watching, nor can they get down on themselves should things not go their way early. They must continue to work and pound away because these openings will materialize.

*Get some bench production. The Lakers don’t possess a natural scorer off their bench. The reserves aren’t called upon to provide instant offense, their job is to support the starters their mixed with and to run the offense in manner that maximizes those players’ games. However, that doesn’t mean L.A.’s subs can play long stretches without looking for their own shots and knocking down the open looks they’re going to get.

I’ve already mentioned the need for Barnes to run out more and try to get some easy baskets in early offense. He’ll also need to rediscover some of his regular season success as a slasher who finishes at the rim after ball reversals. Steve Blake needs to be assertive with his shot and hit some of the open jumpers he’ll be afforded. He can’t have a repeat of game one where he only took a single shot, looking mostly passive in the process. Jordan Hill must also find a way to get some baskets either as a garbage man on offensive rebounds or by taking advantage of the attention drawn by his post partner by sneaking into the paint and getting good looks off quick passes. No one expects these guys to match Harden point for point but being outscored by the 6MOY as a unit (as this trio did in game 1) certainly won’t get it done.

———————

Yesterday the Pacers stole a game from the Heat in Miami in their game 2 match up. Yes the Heat were missing a key player but the lesson remains the same. These games are winnable should you execute well and go hard the entire contest. The Lakers are underdogs; they’re facing a better team. But they have the pieces that can win should they work their plan well. Tonight gives them another chance to do just that.

Wednesday Storylines

Dave Murphy —  May 16, 2012

The Lakers had a nice first quarter in Oklahoma City to kick of the second round. That the team faded badly coming off a grueling seven-game series should surprise nobody, and that’s taking nothing away from the Thunder. They were squarely on their game and Russell Westbrook would not be denied. The resulting chatter, much of it outside the Lakers’ cyber beltway, painted a more forgone conclusion. The reality however, is that we’re not quite there yet.

The Kamenetzky Brothers at ESPN’s Land O’Lakers have a confab with Royce Young from the True Hoop network’s Daily Thunder blog. That’s a whole lot of free advertising, right there, by the way.

This is a couple days old but still brilliant, Zach Harper at HoopSpeak on MWP’s mind games.

Kevin Ding at the OC Register asks if it’s time for another classic game from Kobe?

Actuarially Sound at Silver Screen and Roll, puts out the call for more effort.

Interesting story in Yahoo Sports courtesy of Jeff Latzke from the Associated Press, about Kobe’s philosophy on taking charges.

Mark Heisler at Sheridan Hoops takes a serpentine turn through L.A.’s two parts of the elite eight.

In other tangentially related news, Mark Medina from the L.A. Times reports that Devin Ebanks was fined $25,000 for taking his shirt off and Andrew Bynum was fined $15,000 for not talking to the media. Okay, you know what? The players shouldn’t have called off their lawsuit. They should have just cleaned out the league for every penny.

***

The Lakers are a team that much of the blogging intelligentsia loves to hate. There are facile reasons why, but I suspect the resentment and causal links run far deeper than my limited attention span allows. Still, I don’t mind taking pot shots. Let the best of six series begin.

- Dave Murphy