Archives For Pacific Division

Records: Lakers: 30-18 (3rd in West), Grizzlies: 25-21 (6th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers: 104.7 (15th in NBA), Grizzlies: 102.8 (21st in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers: 101.8 (10th in NBA), Grizzlies: 101.5 (8th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Grizzlies: Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol
Injuries: Lakers: none; Grizzlies: Darrell Arthur (out)
The Lakers Coming In: Euphoric. A team that was already experiencing more success than the eyeball test would have suggested has addressed its most glaring deficiency and now looks not only like a lock for a top-3 playoff seed, but a legitimately nightmare matchup once the playoffs begin. As we’ll see momentarily, the Lakers have played some solid ball all season, but it’s rather quickly become obvious just how hamstrung this squad was by woeful point guard play in the season’s first three months. Thanks to wins in 16 of their last 22 games, including 7 of the last 10, the Lakers have bypassed the Clippers (loser of 10 of 17 since the All-Star break) for the top spot in the Pacific (now leading by 3 games) and tonight’s opponent as well (the resurgent Memphis Grizzlies), who now trail Kobe & Co. by 4 games.

Now, it would be crazy to suggest that Ramon Sessions will maintain the incredible 58%-shooting, 50%-from-3, near-26-PER form we’ve seen in his first five games as a Laker, but what fans are justified in banking on are the skills he’s brought to this team – namely top-shelf foot speed and quickness, along with an ability to pose a multi-dimensional threat coming off of a screen. It’s a bit early to get too deeply analytical about the long term impact of Sessions on these Lakers – extrapolating off this small sample might lead to a slightly premature Hall of Fame induction and the aggressive tempering of expectations is just no fun – so, as we’ve done in recent days, let’s revel in the fact that we’ve now got a lead guard, and enjoy our own irrational, Linsanity-esque ride for as long as it lasts, knowing full well that if the Ramon Sessions we get in the long haul is even 60% of this Ramon Sessions, the coming weeks are going to be a blast.

The Grizzlies Coming In: The Grizzlies, like the Lakers, had been playing some excellent ball of late. Since a 10-point home loss to the Jazz on February 12 dropped them to 14-14, the Grizz have prevailed in 11 of 18 and, until this week, appeared to be cementing their place in the middle of the West’s playoff seedings.

However, while Memphis, now back at full strength following the return of Zach Randolph, is still a safe bet to finish among the conference’s top eight, losses in each of their last three, including a convincing defeat at the hands of Clippers yesterday, has dropped them into the dogfight at the bottom half of the West bracket. Though currently sixth and just a game behind the Clippers and Mavericks for #’s 4 and 5, the Grizzlies are in a virtual tie with the hard-charging Jazz and and a half game up on the Nuggets in the final three playoff spots, with the Rockets and invigorated Suns breathing down their necks.

As can reasonably be said of many teams in similar situations, the Grizzlies simply cannot afford to allow this current slump to extend much further. The Lakers will need to approach this contest with a bit of caution, as evidenced by the absences of Rudy Gay for the entirety of the fourth quarter and Mike Conley for the final 19 minutes against the Clippers, rather than exhausting all of their resources in what likely would have been a futile comeback attempt, the team is likely to see the very best the Grizzlies have to offer.

Grizzlies Blogs: 3 Shades of Blue and Straight Outta Vancouver do an excellent job of covering the Grizz. Give these guys a read.

Keys to the Game: This game is a treasure trove of fascinating matchups. For starters, Ramon Sessions will face the toughest head-to-head matchup of his Laker tenure, when he squares off against a rested Mike Conley. On the wings, each squad’s top perimeter scorer will lock horns with the opponent’s top perimeter defender, as Tony Allen will check Kobe Bryant, while Matt Barnes/MWP attempt to keep Rudy Gay quiet. However, the determining factor in this one is likely to be the battle in the trenches.

While the Grizzlies limited (to some extent) Z-Bo’s minutes following his return from injury, he saw the floor for nearly 38 minutes against the Clippers. With the exception of his 25-minute, 25-point outburst off the bench in his first game back, Randolph’s game has yet to reach its max potential. With that said, he is beginning to look like his old self and is likely not far from a vintage, ground-bound Z-Bo 25-18. It will be vital that Pau Gasol check him aggressively and carry that aggression to the offensive end to make Randolph work on D, preferably out of prime rebounding position.

Meanwhile, the best big man battle in the Western Conference will be waged on the other side of the paint, as Andrew Bynum and Pau’s “little” brother, Marc (one of the only bigs in the NBA capable of matching Drew’s strength) square off. Again, aggression will be the order of the day, as Bynum, in what should be an excellent challenge, will be called on to bring max effort both at the defensive end and on the boards, while controlling his aggression to avoid foul trouble, as he will have to give the Lakers at least 20-12, and no fewer than 35 minutes.

On the heels of a potentially epic Heat-Thunder clash, this ought to be another must-watch. At the end of the day, the Lakers will probably have too much length up front and enough backcourt firepower to prevail, though a blowout would come as something of a surprise. 

Where you can watch: 7:30 PM start time on ESPN. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Records: Lakers: 26-16 (3rd in West), Hornets: 10-32 (15th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers: 104.1 (14th in NBA), Hornets: 99.1 (29th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers: 101.4 (9th in NBA), Hornets: 104.9 (17th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Hornets: Jarrett Jack, Marco Belinelli, Al-Farouq Aminu, Gustavo Ayon, Chris Kaman
Injuries: Lakers: none; Hornets: Eric Gordon (out), Emeka Okafor (out), Carl Landry (questionable)

The Lakers Coming In: On the eve of a trade deadline that is looks to be less eventful than originally expected, I imagine one question more than any other is ricocheting inside the heads of much of Laker Nation… how the hell is this season going so well?

Amid an unrelenting barrage of speculation and innuendo, the Lakers, on the heels of the season’s most impressive road victory, cruise into the Crescent City winners of three straight and seven of ten, two games clear of the Clippers for the Pacific Division’s top spot and two behind the Spurs for #2 in the West. Behind a monstrous effort from Andrew Bynum (37 points, on 15-of-18 from the field, and 16 rebounds), a strong showing by Steve Blake (9-5-5, with three 3-pointers) a 34-9-5 from Kobe Bryant, the Lakers successfully kicked off a vital 20-day stretch –12 games, all against Western Conference opposition, eight featuring opponents currently less than three games out of a playoff spot. This is one of the gimmes.

Unfortunately, Laker teams of the past (like, last week) have assembled an impressive legacy of stumbling in games exactly like this one…

The Hornets Coming In: On this night, however, the Lakers encounter an opponent with interests perfectly aligned with their own.

From the moment in December that Chris Paul was Western-bound, the Hornets sights were set squarely on the lottery. A seemingly foolproof plan to secure two of the first 10 selections in June’s draft fizzling further with each Timberwolves win, it is now more important than ever for these Hornet to maintain their focus and probe as deep into the standing as possible. Winners of less than a quarter of their 42 games, the Hornets – despite the best efforts of Jarrett Jack, surprise rookie Gustavo Ayon and, when allowed, Chris Kaman – ensconced in the Western Conference cellar, will have their sights set on the lofty depths currently inhabited by the Washington Wizards and Charlotte Bobcats, who, respectively, trail the Nola by one and four games.

Apologies for the flippancy, but there is precious little drama to be found in the story of a team whose primary objective over the next 20 hours will be to jettison a pair of NBA-caliber (good, even!) centers in exchange for as little as possible.

Hornets Blogs: Both At The Hive and Hornets247 do an excellent job covering the Hornets. Give these guys a read.

Keys to the Game: Show up. Sorry, there I go again.

The Hornets’ three biggest strengths – an immense body in the middle capable of making Andrew Bynum works for his touches, a physical point guard and a long and athletic wing defender – do happen to coincide with the to-do list for defeating the Lakers. Additionally, Wednesday night represents the trio’s final opportunity to showcase their respective abilities to potential saviors, err, acquirers, prior to the deadline.

But seriously, provided the Lakers are mentally present and focused on Wednesday night, there is no reason to expect anything other than an uneventful, businesslike victory.

Where You Can Watch: 5pm start time on KCAL. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Records: Lakers 4-4 (6th in West), Warriors 2-4 (10th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 104.2 (12th in NBA), Warriors 98.9 (26th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.9 (12th in NBA), Warriors 106.5 (22nd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Matt Barnes, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Warriors: Monta Ellis, Ishmael Smith (Klay Thompson and Brandon Rush are also possible replacements for the injured Stephen Curry), Dorell Wright, David Lee, Andris Biedrins
Injuries: Lakers: Derrick Caracter (out), Josh McRoberts (questionable); Warriors: Stephen Curry (out)

The Lakers Coming In: To observe these Lakers through the prism of conventional wisdom is an exercise in futility. That they’ve lost half of their first eight games, with one true howler in the bunch, is somewhat disappointing, but the stylistic inconsistency they’ve exhibited in arriving at this point is nothing short of infuriating.

The Lakers return home following- stop me if you’ve heard this before- a come-from-ahead loss in the Rose Garden. In and of itself, the 107-96 defeat is hardly a shock- the Lakers have dropped an incredible 24 of 30 regular season games in Portland during the Kobe Bryant era. What is maddening, however, is this team’s ongoing refusal to play to its greatest strength.

It stands to reason that on the heels of a red-hot first half, with Andrew Bynum a perfect 7-for-7 from the field, against a front line that features a defensively average (at best) LaMarcus Aldridge and the two-headed fossil that is Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas, a team would exhaust every avenue to ensure that its star big man saw as much of the ball as possible going forward. The Lakers (namely Kobe Bryant) however, rather than continuing to pound the paint at all costs and allow Bynum to continue his evisceration of the Blazers’ bigs, were content to allow the game’s final 23 minutes to elapse with a mere eight field goal attempts from their MVP candidate* – with catastrophic results.

To lay the entirely (or even the majority) of the blame for Thursday’s defeat at Kobe’s doorstep would be totally irresponsible. The Lakers’ supporting cast- those players not named Bynum, Bryant or Gasol- combined to connect on just eight of 29 shots (27.6%) and missed all seven of their 3-point attempts. Gasol, meanwhile, turned in a performance that is becoming frustratingly commonplace. While he made seven of his 10 shots from the field for 19 points, Pau was essentially a non-factor down the stretch, both offensively (he made three of four in the second half, but c’mon! FOUR attempts??) and on the glass, where he did not manage his sixth rebound until the final two minutes of the fourth quarter, when the game had already been decided.

No, Kobe Bryant, who made 13 of 24 shots (he missed four 3-pointers of his own, however) en route to 30 points and grabbed eight rebounds, is not the primary culprit of this defeat. However, with each passing game (actually just the losses), it becomes increasingly evident that Kobe Bean’s career has come full circle, but in a bizarre manner in which he finds himself once again diverting his attention from the game’s best offensive big man (to the tune of a whopping 38.85 Usage Rate), only this time someone else is the superstar on the ascent.

This is neither a call for Kobe Bryant to surrender his superstar status, nor to resign himself to spending his twilight as a role player. This is, however, an appeal to Kobe to recognize that in order for this team, his team, to legitimately compete for a championship, he must do what Shaq never could- give an inch.

* Yeah, I went there.

The Warriors Coming In: These are not your daddy’s Warriors. These aren’t even your Warriors.

Gone are the fun-and-gun days of Nellyball, when the defensively challenged Dubs would roll into town, pedal to the floor and fight tooth and nail to outscore you, succeeding roughly a third of the time. Oh, they still struggle on defense (22nd in the NBA) and after winning two of three to start the season, they still only win about a third of the time. They just do it more slowly now.

For the second time in six years, the Warriors are not among the NBA’s two most uptempo teams. Thing is, unlike last season, when they played the same style of ball and merely rounded out the top five, this season’s 91.4 possessions per game represent a paradigm shift. A high-IQ floor general in his playing days, rookie head coach Mark Jackson’s first order of business upon sweeping into town this offseason was to seek out the brake pedal. While this new philosophy is likely to pay dividends in the long run, it will take time for Jackson to change the mindset (or the composition) of the roster he inherited. In the meantime, there will be growing pains on D, with fewer opportunities to put points on the board.

Entering the season- as tends to be the case with this team- the Warriors’ biggest strength was expected to be in the backcourt. One half of that unit, Monta Ellis- a man I’ve likened to Allen Iverson- not only ranks (once again) among the league’s hardest working (40 minutes per game), most productive backcourt scorers (23.8 points per game; 22.5 APER, per Hoopdata) and prolific penetrators (making 62.2% of 7.4 attempts per game inside of 9 feet, including 5.4 at the rim), but is enjoying his best season as a facilitator (8.2 assists per game and a career-high 23.78 Assist Rate) and is coming off of a spectacular 38-point performance against the Spurs Wednesday night.

His running mate, however, is another story. The Warriors will be without Stephen Curry for at least two games, after their second-year maestro rolled his left ankle in San Antonio for the second time in the young season, in a rather frightening scene, as he walked the ball upcourt, with no one in his general vicinity. These Warriors aren’t exactly world-beaters with Steph in the lineup. In his absence, with the likes of Ishmael Smith, Klay Thompson or Nate Robinson trying to fill the void, the Dubs’ outlook is bleak.

Warriors Blogs: For the Warriors’ perspective on tonight’s tilt at Staples, check out the excellent Golden State of Mind, as well as Warriors World, one of the web’s best team sites and the domain of FB&G’s own J.M. Poulard.

For more on Stephen Curry’s injury, check out these excellent pieces from Warriors World’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss and Hardwood Paroxysm’s Danny Chau.

Key to the game: No brain surgery here. This is a game the Lakers should win with minimal fuss. Which not to say that a strong effort will not be necessary, but with sustained focus in one vital area:

Dominate the interior. Plain and simple. At the moment there is not a defender outside of Central Florida that can stop Andrew Bynum, who’s averaging 22.3 on just 15.3 field goal attempts per game and crashing the boards (15.8 per game; 37% Defensive Rebound Rate, 26% Total) at a higher rate than anyone in the league. The Lakers must feed their beast early and often, as the Warriors have little beyond former Laker Kwame Brown (a big body and decent defender) and Andris Biedrins (big body, not a decent defender) to throw at Bynum on the block.

Additionally, the rest of the Lakers’ Big Three will do well to follow the big man’s lead and head inside, as Pau Gasol will spend much of the evening dueling with David Lee – as bad an interior defender as there is in the NBA - who, should foul trouble or extreme abuse on the defensive end become an issue is back up Ekpe Udoh, potentially a good defender but a total non-factor on offense. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant is likely to be checked by some combination of Monta/Ish Smith/Klay/Nate Rob/Dorell Wright. ‘Nuff said there.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm local start time on Fox Sports West. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

The Suns Are 7-1? Seriously?

Kurt —  November 11, 2009

Heat vs. Suns
Thursday’s game is a showdown of Western Conference powers, as much as there can be a showdown in November (which is to say not much of one). But if before the season we’d said showdown of WC powers, you would have assumed it was the Lakers playing the Spurs, Nuggets or Blazers.

The Suns? I thought the Clippers might pass them this year. Turns out I was wrong, and I am not alone. So what is happening there? I asked Brett Pollakoff of Fanhouse — who lives in Phoenix and goes to the games as part of his NBA beat — to talk some Suns for us:

The Suns are the story eight games into this season, and with good reason. This is a team that traded Shaquille O’Neal for nothing more than cap relief, and even though they brought back aging stars Steve Nash and Grant Hill to play alongside Amar’e Stoudemire and Jason Richardson, that’s where the talent (on paper) was supposed to run out.

But it hasn’t. The team has been getting loads of production from starting center Channing Frye, who’s tied with Richardson for second in the league in made three-pointers with 22. And as a team, the Suns lead the league in three-point shooting percentage, hitting a blistering 47 percent of their shots from downtown.

That’s tough to deal with for most teams, especially when you have a rejuvenated Nash penetrating at will and getting the shooters around him wide-open looks. Nash leads the league in assists with almost 13 per game; there’s only one other player in the NBA that’s averaging over 10, and that’s Utah’s Deron Williams.

Phoenix’s weakness would appear to be their ability to get defensive rebounds, given their undersized front line. But Alvin Gentry has made this a point of emphasis in the early going, and the team has responded by being in the top eight in the league in this category, ahead of much bigger teams like the Celtics, the Jazz and the Clippers.

Kurt Rambis may have said it best, when his Timberwolves were in Phoenix on November 1: “During the regular season, they’re just extremely difficult to prepare for,” Rambis said. “Unless you have a team that’s used to playing them and understands who they are. But when the pace slows down, what are they going to do defensively? That’s what has been, and will continue to be their issue.”

So far, teams haven’t been able to slow things down, and that’s why the Suns are sitting at 7-1 at this early point in the season.