Archives For Western Conference

Well, that was fun.

A year after a playoff home opener in which they were brutally craved up by Chris Paul and after a(nother) regular season in which a double-digit leads made frequent cameos but were often unable to carry a show, on Sunday the Lakers physically dominated an overmatched foe in a manner that was expected, but conspicuously absent for much of the campaign. In what can only be called an ideal playoff opener, the Lakers, powered by an aggressive defense and some timely outside shooting, opened up an early double digit lead and – with the exception of a couple of barely perceptible blips – cruised to a 103-88 Game 1 victory over the Nuggets.

The Lakers were sparked by an glorious (or terrifying, depending our your perspective) defensive performance from Andrew Bynum (an NBA playoff record 10 blocked shots and the Lakers’ first postseason triple-double since Magic in 1991), sustained by a trio of outstanding postseason debuts and some timely long-range strike form Steve Blake, and capped by a blinding barrage from Kobe Bryant (9-of-14 after halftime, including 14 straight Laker points in 4:31 of the fourth quarter). Lest you forget, Pau Gasol was in attendance as well, looking every bit the part of “world’s most skilled big,” with 13 points (including a 3-pointer), 8 rebounds, 8 assists and a pair of blocked shots of his own. It was an all-around solid playoff opener, setting the tone for what should be a fairly businesslike – if more competitive – series.

This is not to say that ‘Drew will swat 11% (!!) of Denver’s shot attempts from the sky, Jordan hill double-doubles (10 and 10, with 4 offensive boards) are the new norm, nor that Devin Ebanks ought to be blindly penciled in for an ultra-efficient 12 (5-of-6 FG, 2-of-2 FT) each night (incidentally, the Lakers’ third playoff debutante, Ramon Sessions, turned in a completely replicable 14, on 6-of-11, and 5 assists). It would also be foolish to ignore the fact that, while Bynum impromptu block party dramatically dented the Nuggets’ composure in the paint (per Hoopdata, just 48.8% on shots at the rim and 13.4% from 3-9 feet out), the Lakers’ perimeter defenders did an atrocious job of keeping Denver out of the paint. The Nuggets attempted a whopping 54 shots from within nine feet, 39 of those from point blank range, more than half those by non-bigs Danilo Gallinari (5-of-8 at the rim), Andre Miller (4-of-8) and Al Harrington (0-of-4). If the Lakers are unable to prevent penetration into the lane – and remember, strong, speedy Ty Lawson was a non-factor on Sunday – in addition to probably making more than half of their shots at the rim, it’s possible that the Nuggets will be aided by a bit of gamesmanship from coach George Karl, whose postgame comments included a barb about Bynum’s “illegal” defense. Don’t be surprised if ‘Drew is clipped early with a Defensive 3 Seconds call, and forced to slightly alter his approach.

Additionally, as Karl himself suggested in the huddle – and as anyone that watched Sunday’s game will attest – the Nuggets entered Game 1 neither properly engaged mentally nor committed to pushing the breakneck pace that has been their calling card all season. A stronger showing from the starting backcourt (Lawson and Arron Afflalo shot a combined 6-of-22 and missed all five of their 3-point attempts), Al Harrington and Andre Miller (who actually had a great all-around game off the bench, with 12 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists) combined to hit more than a third of their shots and continued efficiency and activity from the starting frontcourt of Gallinari (7-of-14, 19 points) and the Manimal, Kenneth Faried (4-of-8, 10 points, 8 rebounds and so. much. energy.) ought to make Game 2 a more competitive affair.

With all of that said, however, the blueprint with which the Lakers can look to exploit their advantages over an undersized opponent remain very much in place. With a commitment to pounding the ball inside to Bynum, Gasol and Kobe, controlling the tempo and turning the Nuggets into a halfcourt team on offense and limiting turnovers (a season-long bugaboo; they had just 11 in Game 1), Game 2, while more competitive, should mirror Game 1 in its result. Prior to the playoffs I’d predicted a six-game Lakers victory in this series. I now have a tough time seeing the Nuggets pushing this matchup past five games.

Records: Lakers: 40-23 (3rd in the West), Thunder: 46-17 (2nd in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers: 106.1 (11th in the NBA), Thunder: 109.8 (2nd in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers: 104.3 (13th in the NBA), Thunder: 102.9 (9th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Thunder: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha
Injuries: Lakers: none; Thunder: none

The Lakers Coming In: With 96 minutes of ball remaining in a breakneck regular season, and just one day between the end of Game 66 and the beginning of the postseason, veteran playoff-bound squads – particularly those with a nicked-up superstar – are likely engaging in some late-stage R&R. Not in Lakerland, where the Purple and Gold – full complement of talent now in tow – are hustling to get back up to speed while locked in a tooth-and-nail, cross-hallway battle for playoff position and a division title.

After a seven-game absence, Kobe Bryant and his presumably less sore shin returned to action on Friday night in San Antonio. After a slow start in which he made just two of six shots, Kobe found his footing, finishing 7-of-12 from the field for 18 points in 30 minutes. Unfortunately, much of the remainder of the starting five – be it Pau Gasol (4-10 FG, 11 points in 30 minutes), Andrew Bynum (TWO rebounds, just days after grabbing 30 against the same squad) or Ramon Sessions (5 points on 2-of-9 in 24 minutes) – fell well short of the standards they’d set in the Mamba’s absence. With Tim Duncan and Tony Parker scoring an efficient 41 and Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Daniel Green and Gary Neal connecting on 80% (8-of-10) of their 3-point attempts, I’m not sure any team has the bullets in its gun to down the Spurs, but at this time of year, there’s really no excuse for putting forth that lackluster an effort on the boards and offering so little resistance in the midst of a third quarter blitz.

Looking forward, the Lakers welcome to Staples an OKC squad that’s given them fits in both meetings this season – running the Lakers ragged in a 15-point home win on February 23, then overcoming a brutal start in L.A. on March 29 and riding Russ Westbrook’s 36 to a nine-point win on the Lakers’ home floor.

The Thunder Coming In: The Thunder enter Sunday’s showdown in a situation similar to that of Lakers, trailing San Antonio by one-half game for the West’s top spot. Though they’ve won four of five, OKC is hardly firing on all cylinders. Since April 1, they’ve not only failed (in five opportunities) to notch a victory against playoff-bound opposition, but have fallen short of the 100-mark on each occasion and only once connected on better than 45% of their field goal (45.2% v. Memphis on 4/2) and 32% of their 3-point attempts (46.2% on 4/11 v. Clippers).

Rightfully, all eyes with be on OKC’s dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but it’s the remainder of the roster, and their ability to neutralize the Lakers trio of stars. In the paint, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins (averaging 17 points, 19.5 rebounds and 5 blocks in the previous two meetings), with glue guy extraordinaire Nick Collison off the bench, will lock horns with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, whom they’ve “held” to a combined 37 points and 20 rebounds per game.

Meanwhile, in the backcourt, Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden will look to extend Kobe’s struggles against the Thunder. In the two previous meetings, Kobe has managed a combined 47 points on an awful 14-of-49 (28.6%) from the field, due in large part to the length and athleticism of OKC’s defenders.

Thunder Blogs: For the latest news and insight on the crew from OKC, check out the excellent work done by Daily Thunder and Welcome To Loud City.

Keys to the Game: Win the battle of the bigs. It’s tough to imagine Kobe hitting the floor in full facilitator mode, but he will do well to work off of his elite duo of seven-footers on the inside. Conversely, I’d look for the Thunder to pack the middle in an effort to entice not just Kobe, but all of the Lakers perimeter players (I am including Gasol here) to abandon the inside-out approach in favor of a jump-shot heavy approach. Be it via strong entry passes or dribble penetration, a top priority for the Lakers on Sunday will be to knife into the paint and take advantage of the defensive aggressiveness of the OKC bigs to earn frequent trips to the foul line and frequent, foul-induced trips to the bench for Perk and Ibaka (especially Ibaka, with whom on the floor, the Lakers’ offensive efficiency drops to just 86.7, compared with 108.6 without; great stat from Matt Moore, via Twitter).

Additionally, and thanks to Darius for his great input here, there are two areas of great importance. First, the Lakers’ ability to deal with Westbrook in the pick and roll will be vital. In the teams’ last match up, Russ was dialed in from mid-range, which, combined with the Lakers’ bigs (namely Bynum) sagging below the screens proved deadly. It will be interesting to see if the Lakers maintain this approach on Sunday, or tweak their scheme by having the bigs play the screen a bit more aggressively. This is not to say that the bigs will must hedge hard, but by playing a bit higher on the screen, Westbrook will have to deal with a defender – one prepared to contest the mid-range J – earlier, and perhaps be forced into more rushed decisions.

Finally, and every bit as importantly, the Lakers must get back in transition. It is vital that the Lakers effectively “build a wall” against Westbrook’s penetration, while also staying with the Thunder players filling the lanes. The keys here will be better floor balance and the perimeter guys prioritizing transition D over crashing the offensive glass. With Pau and Bynum – two of the best in the biz – already attacking the offensive boards, MWP and Matt Barnes will be far better served in working to limit OKC’s easy buckets by limiting run out opportunities.

Whether it ultimately results in a victory remains to be seen, but with the Clippers nipping at their heels, a possible second round matchup looming and third career scoring title in the balance (27.9 per game, v. Durant’s 27.8; yeah, you’re right, Kobe probably doesn’t care at all about that), look for Kobe and the Lakers to ratchet up the intensity on Sunday afternoon.

Where you can watch: 12:30 PM start time on ABC. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Records: Lakers: 38-22 (3rd in the West), Mavericks: 34-26 (6th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers: 106.1 (8th in the NBA), Mavericks: 102.8 (23rd in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers: 103.6 (13th in the NBA), Mavericks: 101.4 (7th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Devin Ebanks, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Mavericks: Jason Kidd, Delonte West, Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood
Injuries: Lakers: Kobe Bryant (out), Jordan Hill (out); Mavericks: Rodrigue Beaubois (questionable)

The Lakers Coming In: The Lakers woke up Sunday winners of three straight (all sans Kobe Bryant, whose enflamed shin has sidelined him for the last four and will likely do so again on Sunday) and seven of their last ten, and in sole possession of the second best mark out West over that stretch. Sadly, however, the best mark (8-2) is shared by the team directly ahead of them in the standings (the Spurs) and the two (the Clippers and Grizzlies – 1 and 2.5 games behind, respectively) nipping at their heels.

On the plus side – setting aside concerns about the Lakers’ cyborg superstar (the dude that’s suited up, played and played well with virtually every manner of non-fatal ailment known to basketball-playing man) missing his fifth consecutive game in the midst of a playoff-positioning charge, because, well, y’know, the alternative is kinda freaky – the Lakers have received some outstanding play from the rest of the crew. As one would expect from the West’s most daunting frontcourt duo, Andrew Bynum (21.3 points, 16.3 rebounds and 2 blocks per game in the last three, including a silly 30-board explosion in San Antonio) and Pau Gasol (a tidy 20-10 and 2) have stepped up admirably in Kobe’s absence.

Additionally, however, the supporting cast has turned in a series of strong performances. In the starting lineup, while Ramon Sessions (11.3 and 5.7 assists) has remained steady and solid, Metta World Peace had brought nothing short of his A-game in the Lakers’ last two victories, netting a season-high 26 (including 5-of-8 3-pointers) against the Spurs, and following it up with 14 points, 8 rebounds and 5 steals Friday night against the Nuggets.

Meanwhile, Matt Barnes has provided a welcome spark to the second unit. Barnes has not only averaged 15.3 and 8 rebounds over his last three (including his best game as a Laker on Friday night – 24 and 10, including a perfect 4-of-4 on 3s), he’s locked in from the outside, making 8-of-13 (!!) from beyond the arc and is distributing the ball without turning it over, handing out 15 assists and committing just 7 turnovers in his last five games.

Assuming the extended absence is simply attributable to Kobe shelving the bulletproof act in the interest of peaking in the postseason, the past week will prove invaluable as this team moves forward. While sights would undoubtedly be set on a lower target were the Lakers to enter the postseason Kobeless, for the rest of the team to prove –to themselves and to the rest of the league – that they can win, sometimes comfortably, on the road, against playoff-caliber opposition without Kobe is a huge boost.

The Mavericks Coming in: The Mavericks take the floor at Staples in a situation similar to that of the Lakers. Like their Sunday hosts, the Mavs are firmly ensconced in their half of the West playoff bracket (unlike the Lakers, however, Dallas is in the bottom half), but not set in stone with regard to positioning. The Mavericks, currently the West’s #6 seed (and at the moment slated for a playoff rematch with the Lakers), trail the Grizzlies by a game and a half and lead the Nuggets and Rockets (who face one another tonight) by the same margin.

Currently 0-7 on the road against currently winning at a .600+ clip (great stat, via Arash Markazi on Twitter) and staring down the barrel of a 4-0 regular season sweep at the hands of the Lakers, the Mavericks will be beneficiaries of the opposing injury report (they were spared trying to stop LaMarcus Alridge on Friday) for the second straight game.

After a slow start, Dirk Nowitzki has rounded into form (maybe not the transcendent form of last spring, but definite All-Star form), with 51 points in his last two games on just 37 shot attempts, averaging 21.2 per game (on 46%/36%/88.5% from FG/3-pt/FT – how’s that for an off year?) after a month of March in which he hit nearly 45% of his 3-pointers and over 92% of his free throws en route to 25.2 per game. In the three previous meetings between these teams, Dirk is averaging 24 and 9.7 in just 35 minutes per game. Barring a cameo from the 2011 iteration, holding Dirk to these averages and focusing on shutting down the remainder of what is now an offensively challenged lot (Jason Terry is a threat, but Jason Kidd, a nicked up Roddy Beaubois, Shawn Marion, whatever is left of Vince Carter, Brandan Wright and Ian Mahinmi? Meh) should prove sufficient for a Laker victory.

Mavericks blogs: For the latest news and some great insight on the Mavs, check out the work done by The 2-Man Game and Mavs Moneyball.

Keys to the Game: FEED. THE. BEAST. It’s really awesome to see Brandan Wright’s career finally get rolling, Ian Mahinmi is a nice player and Brendan Haywood is, well, big, but Tyson Chalder ain’t walking through that door. The key to victory over these Mavs – as it would be with Kobe in the lineup, but particularly with him out – will be to dominate the paint through Andrew Bynum.

With Kobe in a suit, however, the Mavs will utilize their zone defense to pack the paint and force the Lakers to settle for the contested 3-point attempts that will be in far greater supply. This will ratchet up the pressure on the Lakers’ remaining wings (MWP, Barnes), along with Pau Gasol, to loosen that grip from the free throw line area, by both making mid-range jumpers to keep the defense honest and executing crisp, decisive entry passes to Bynum when the opportunity is present.

An additional challenge presented by Kobe’s absence is that Shawn Marion, the Mavs’ best defender (held Kobe to 29 points, on 10-of-37 in 2 games this season; Kobe scored 30 in the game Marion missed) and wing rebounder, will be afforded the opportunity to focus his effort on crashing the boards and shutting down the likes of MWP and Barnes, without fear of a Mamba strike. If he is allowed to dictate the terms under which he will be involved in this game, Marion will be a thorn in the Lakers’ side. It is vital that the Lakers a) keep Marion off the boards as best they can, while b) making him work as hard as possible on the defensive end, by running him off of screen, making him defend post-ups, run him off of screens.

Where you can watch: 12:30 PM start time on ABC. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Wednesday Storylines

Dave Murphy —  April 11, 2012

The Lakers arrive in San Antonio for the first of their three match-ups against the Spurs, luxuriously spread out over the final eight games. I have no idea if this was a logistic practicality from the league’s schedule makers, or if David Stern is enjoying some twisted joke. The comparisons between the teams are fascinating – a long history, with a few commonalities remaining. Kobe and Duncan are the lone remaining roster members from their earliest playoff battles. It looks like Kobe won’t be playing tonight.

Andy Kamenetsky at the Land O’Lakers, talks with Andrew McNeill from the excellent Spurs blog, 48 Minutes of Hell, about tonight’s game.

Andrew McNeill from 48 Minutes from Hell talks with our stalwart leader Darius – a fantastic 4-Down podcast.

Ed from Pounding the Rock, has the Spurs/Lakers preview up. This is another of my favorite blogs. Dig around, you never know what you might find.

Actuarially Sound at Silver Screen and Roll, examines a new identity, in his Lakers trend series.

Theshmoes at SS&R, has their ever excellent Credits linkage up.

Jonathan Garza at Lakers Nation looks at the Lakers match-up against the western conference leaders.

Mike Bresnahan at the L.A. Times writes about former coach Jackson’s lack of concern for his former center’s recent impetuousness.

Jared Dublin at Hardwood Paroxysm, broke down a great Metta World Pass against the Hornets in Monday night’s game.

The OC Register is carrying a very good AP piece, on Lamar Odom, and his parting of ways with Dallas.

Kevin Ding at the OC Register, writes about Kobe’s third game in a row, in a suit.

***

I’m okay with Kobe sitting, now. I wish he had been given a little more rest earlier in the season. He played through his torn-up wrist, he played through a broken nose, concussion, and soft tissue damage to the neck. He played brutal minutes, all season long. Coach Brown said he’d like to rest him, but didn’t have the luxury. Sometimes we overspend in life, and then don’t have what we need, when we truly need it.

Coach Popovich has an entirely different philosophy – he famously sits his starters, including late last year when the Spurs visited the Lakers, and just this past Monday, when Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili didn’t even make the trip to Utah. I have the feeling they won’t sit tonight, in front of their hometown crowd. Personally, I’d love it if Brown were to park Pau and Andrew tonight, alongside Kobe. Can you imagine the sour look on David Stern’s face? Then again, my logic can be elusive.

– Dave Murphy

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.