After winning two consecutive games, the Lakers were rudely brought back to reality by the Mavericks on Friday night. As we noted in our game preview, the Lakers could keep it close by playing well offensively, but at some point the odds were that tired legs and a juggernaut of a Mavericks’ offense would prevail. And, well, that’s exactly what happened. After the game Kobe spoke of not having his legs under him all night which was evident not only in his final shot numbers, but in the shots he decided to take. On one occasion, Kobe actually fired up a 35 footer with 6 seconds left on the shot clock, seemingly just because he did not want to work to try to get a better look against a defense geared up to slow him down. This shot attempt prompted one of the better photoshops I’ve ever seen (and a candidate for tweet of the year) from friend of the site J.D. Hastings:

Hey, if you can’t have a few laughs in a season like this one, I’ve no clue how you ever plan to make it through. I mean, we’re only 13 games in and the Lakers are showing to be one of the worst teams in the league. There will be some wins to pick you up, but I can’t recommend whiskey every time something goes wrong.

In any event, the Lakers are back in action tonight against a Nuggets team that is suddenly playing much better. After starting the season winning one of their first seven games, Denver has sunk four of their last five opponents. This includes a 20 point manhandling of the Pelicans on Friday night — the same Pelicans that the Lakers lost to last week. So, while a couple of weeks ago tonight’s game looked like it could be winnable, it is now much more in question. Even with the Lakers returning home after spending the last week on the road.

Key to this contest, though, is for the Lakers to find ways to get Kobe better looks — especially on cuts and off screen actions. It’s obvious to say, but the Lakers are a much more competitive team when Kobe is an efficient scorer rather than the under 40% version he’s been in almost all the games this year. And the way to boost his efficiency is get him more looks in single coverage and with a step on his man rather than asking him to create from the top of the key or the win against defenses who can show him a second and third defender quickly and easily. Run a few more curl actions and tighter pin downs (with better screens set and better angles) and let him catch the ball on the move rather than at a stop or when moving away from the hoop.

Also key is for Jeremy Lin to continue his aggressiveness from Friday. In that game Lin started out looking for his own shot, making quick and smart decisions in how he would attack. He got into the paint, created space on his mid-range jumper, and was very good in catch and shoot chances. He’ll need to do more of that tonight against Ty Lawson, making his smaller counterpart defend and, in the process, expend some energy to make him less effective offensively.

As for the other side of the ball, the Nuggets aren’t especially strong in any one area but are good enough in several places to give the Lakers real issues. They have firepower on the perimeter in Lawson, Aron Aflalo, Randy Foye, and Wilson Chandler who can all shoot the long ball effectively. Add to them Kenneth Faried’s work on the glass and activity both in transition and when diving hard out of the P&R and the Lakers will have to defend the entire floor. Doing so effectively has been a problem all year, especially since they have had so many issues defending the three point line while also taking away shots inside. The perimeter defenders will need to dig inside and then recover to the three point line well or they will get burned.

Overall, the Lakers should have a nice boost from playing at home. Getting Wayne Ellington back should also help their perimeter offense and allow them to play Kobe more at the 3 while reducing his minutes. This latter point is important as it should allow him to be fresher for longer and, hopefully, lead to better lift on his jumper with better results. But, unless this team starts to get some stops, none of it will matter. We’ll see if tonight is the night the Lakers can play a bit above their heads and allow their offense to put them over the top.

Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Break up the Lakers! Well, not really. But after two straight wins — on the road, no less — the Lakers are playing their best basketball of the season. You can qualify the wins as them coming against the Hawks and their bottom third defense and a Rockets’ team missing Dwight Howard, and you’d be well within your rights. These are real variables that matter and should be taken into account. On the other hand, the Lakers have been one of the worst teams in the league this year. Any win they get is one that, at the end of the year, opponents will probably want back.

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Friday Morning Reading

Darius Soriano —  November 21, 2014 — 9 Comments

The Lakers continue their road trip tonight, bouncing to their second Texas city in three days with a visit to Dallas to face the Mavs. We’ll have a preview up for you a bit later today, so in the meantime you can enjoy some reads from around the web on the suddenly streaking Lakers (hey, when you’ve won 2 in and only had a single win in 10 tries before that you are streaking).

We start off with some pieces on Nick Young’s return:

From Mark Medina of the LA Daily News: Amid all the Lakers’ gloomy circumstances, an important figure arrived to help the team temporarily stop worrying about their issues.

It started with Nick Young talking trash during his first morning shootaround since breaking his right thumb six weeks ago by proclaiming himself as the game’s best three-point shooter ever.

It continued with Young’s 17 points off the bench both securing a Lakers’ 114-109 victory Tuesday over the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena and ensured more offensive balance outside of Kobe Bryant.

It ended with Young taking nearly complete credit for the Lakers (2-9) ending a four-game losing streak and picking up their first road win of the 2014-15 season.

“It’s like my swag rubbed off on everybody,” Young said. “It’s unbelievable.”

But in a way, it actually is believable.

From Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report: Bryant and Young might never win a championship together either, but their relationship of one-plus years already works as a testimonial for how a big-grinning, fun-loving goofball can be a teammate Bryant adores.

Bryant sought out Young in particular for an extra high-five and hug before leaving the court Wednesday night. Before that, Young had already chest-bumped every other member of the Lakers organization he could find, his head held noticeably high.

“I’m very happy to have him back,” Bryant said.

The Lakers were 1-9 without Young, who tore a ligament in his right thumb trying to steal the ball from Bryant in practice (and good-naturedly absorbed Bryant’s ribbing that he shouldn’t have been reaching on defense or challenging a body that Bryant told him is “made of steel”).

With Young, the Lakers are 2-0.

“I leave a presence,” Young said. “I’m like Michael Jackson, Prince, all those other guys.”

From Brett Pollakoff of Pro Basketball Talk: Nick Young became the latest to receive a warning for flopping on Thursday, for a play that occurred in the Lakers’ Tuesday night win over the Hawks. Except this one, which can be seen in the video clip above, doesn’t feel like it’s all that worthy of the additional scrutinization.

Young falls down after attempting a three-pointer with Kyle Korver in the vicinity, but just because the referees blew the call and awarded Young three free throws doesn’t mean he intentionally fell down in an attempt to deceive them.

From Michael Colangelo of Fields of Green: Struggling teams usually don’t receive as much exposure as their more successful competitors, but the Lakers are proving their brand can overcome that hurdle. There are multiple reasons for this. The Lakers still draw a sizable audience on television, which is why the NBA has scheduled 28 nationally televised Lakers games this season. To put that in perspective, LeBron and the Cavs are scheduled for 29, Oklahoma City (pre-Durant and Wesbtrook injuries) for 32 and the defending champion Spurs for 25. The NBA knows fans still watch the Lakers, and the league wouldn’t schedule high-profile games if it feared low ratings. In contrast, the woeful Boston Celtics — a large east coast media market, 17 NBA championships and a recognizable name — are scheduled for only four nationally televised games.

From Baxter Holmes, Ramona Shelburne, and Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles:  Is Jeremy Lin right when he says communication and trust top his list for the Lakers’ problems?

Holmes: Absolutely. A large part of that stems from many new players playing in a new system, but it doesn’t help that Kobe has, up until their win at Atlanta, largely eschewed his teammates on offense. As Boozer said after the Hawks’ win, when they all touch the ball, they all feel involved and engaged, which leads to them playing more like a team on both ends but especially on defense. Scott has also noted that the bigs haven’t communicated well with the guards on defense, which he said has led to several lapses.

Shelburne: Yes, but not in the way that quote read. When Lin said “communication” and “trust” were the Lakers’ biggest issues, that was code for Bryant not keeping his teammates feeling involved in what the team is doing. He just didn’t want to say that out loud and cause a larger rift. Whether Lin is right is debatable. Bryant is a smart basketball player who knows how to win games. He also has heard he shoots too much for 19 years. It’s not as if he doesn’t recognize the drawbacks of that style of play. He’s playing that way because he didn’t have faith in his teammates to score. That’s the real trust issue. And it can only be corrected by guys like Lin and Boozer proving Bryant wrong and scoring the way they’re capable of.

Markazi: This team has a lot of problems, but if we start with the premise that the guys in the locker room are the guys that they will have all season and not worry about the future then yes, communication and trust are two big problems. The Lakers can worry about their more pressing problems for a legitimate point guard and center in the offseason. The only way the Lakers can improve their communication and trust is by moving the ball around and playing together, which, of course, hasn’t always been the case so far.

The Lakers won only their 2nd game of the season (in 11 tries) last night, taking out the Hawks in Atlanta. The game itself offered a glimpse at what anyone who was (even somewhat) optimistic about the Lakers being better than advertised envisioned they could be. Kobe was the focal point of the team’s attack and handled himself efficiently in the process, but in support of his effort came strong play from multiple other players on the roster. Carlos Boozer was efficient offensively and contributed a very good scoring output. Jeremy Lin was both a solid scorer and a good set-up man for his teammates. Ed Davis and Jordan Hill provided very good interior play, working the glass well and scoring enough to keep defenses honest. And Nick Young came off the bench to provide an offensive spark, but also an injection of fun and enthusiasm that helped propel the team. All in all it was a real team effort and the best the Lakers have looked all season.

Normally, this would be the part of the story where I would typically point to all the factors that make this not sustainable and why you shouldn’t get your hopes up. I mean, good for the Lakers and all that, but the Hawks aren’t exactly one of the league’s better outfits and why fool ourselves. Not today, though. Today, I tell you simply enjoy the win. The Lakers are still a bad team. They still project to win 20 some odd games and while there will be other nights like the one against the Hawks throughout the year, they won’t be here often. And while all that makes for a depressing turn, this is why you should enjoy games like the one against that one even more. The Lakers won’t always look this good and they certainly won’t win a lot of road games against projected playoff teams (not even eastern conference ones). So why not live it up and enjoy yourself some? That’s what I’m doing.

One last note on last night’s game. Kobe Bryant became only the 4th player in NBA history to reach 32,000 points in his career with a turnaround jumper last night. He joins Kareem, Karl Malone, and Jordan on this list. Kobe’s  taken a lot of heat this year for how he’s played, mostly from analysts who are doing their best to use statistics and analytics to portray Kobe’s play as a blight the Lakers are suffering from. Some of this is rooted in truth, some of it overblown, but most of it is a simplification of one player’s role within the very complex nature of a group of players operating within a team sport against other professionals.

I say all this not to discredit anyone’s thoughts on Kobe — we’re all entitled to our opinions and to use whatever “facts” we feel are on our side to spread our own gospel — but to instead bring the focus back to the fact that Kobe, for all intents and purposes probably shouldn’t even be playing basketball. After rupturing his achilles tendon, many thought his career could be over. When he returned only to break a bone in his knee after playing six games last season, many probably thought his career should be over. But, here Kobe is, achieving milestones. He’s not the most efficient player and some of the tendencies he displays on the court will continue to rub some the wrong way. But, through it all, one of the greatest players ever is still out here making amazing shots and hearing fans chant his name in the opposition’s arena. If only all of us could be that washed up.

As for tonight’s game against the Rockets, the Lakers will be hard pressed to replicate the performance they had last night. For one, playing a second game in as many days is hard. Further, the Rockets are a much better team than the Hawks, boast the league’s stingiest defense, still have a couple of all-NBA level players on their side, and are playing at home. These are ingredients that make for a difficult night for any opponent, but for the 2-9 Lakers this is especially so.

If there are three keys to the Lakers remaining competitive in this game, however, they are simple and straight forward:

  • Get Dwight in foul trouble. Regardless of your view of Dwight (and I know some of you Lakers’ fans view him rather unflatteringly), he is still the Rockets’ best big man and a premier two way player in this league. Less of him on the floor is a good thing for the Lakers chances. It will be on Jordan Hill and Ed Davis to make him work defensively and to be crafty and smart enough to put him in positions where he commits silly fouls.
  • Keep James Harden off the FT line. Harden (37.2%) shoots a lower percentage from the field than Kobe (38.9%), but makes up for those misses by going to the line a ton. Harden has shot 110 free throws through 11 games, or a tidy 10 per contest. Harden’s ability to bait defenders into reaching in and then getting the line (where he hits 90% of his shots) props up his efficiency. Make him shoot contested jumpers and keep him from making up the difference at the line and the Lakers will be in business.
  • Make shots from behind the arc. On opening night the Lakers were outscored from behind the arc by 27 points in a game they lost by 18. I’m no mathematician, but I think that latter number was influenced by the former. The Lakers have upped their three point FGA’s as the season has progressed and Nick Young’s return will help even more. But the Rockets will bomb away tonight and the Lakers will have a better shot of keeping the game close if they can keep up somewhat. I’m not saying the Lakers need to shoot 25 threes, but shooting 18 or 20 would be nice. Making eight or more would be really nice.

Again, I don’t see the Lakers pulling this game out. But, unless you’re Philly, you can’t lose all your games.

Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet and ESPN nationally. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

After losing their first five games of the season and winning their next, the Lakers have again lost four straight games. This lands them with a 1-9 record, last in the West and only one win better than the awful 76ers. While pundits thought things could be this bad, to actually see the team struggle the way that they have has been is a punch to the gut. The losing — and how they’re going about it — is clearly starting to affect the players too.

After Sunday’s drubbing at the hands of the Warriors — a game that saw Kobe take a lot of shots en route to a 44 point night — both Carlos Booze and Jeremy Lin were vocal in the need for the team to strike the right balance offensively. Kobe Byrant commented on his shooting too, noting that he’d prefer not to shoot this much but acknowledging, in his own way, that he will fill the vacuum if that’s what it takes. Byron Scott also spoke on the matter, commenting that the team can function this way, but he is not sure if the team can function well.

Of all the comments, I think Scott’s are the most important. While the players can (and should) grumble if they think things should change (while also doing better to act out those changes on the floor), it’s the head coach who needs to be the one to set the tone on how he thinks the team should play. In his latest column, Kevin Ding writes that Scott needs to be better in setting that tone, especially in relation to Kobe. An excerpt:

There is a fundamental problem with the template.

You want to build the team around Bryant’s free rein on offense while he is encouraged to “rest”—Scott’s own word—on defense, yet every other guy is being held to fantastic standards that must be met for the team to overachieve?

How is anyone besides Kobe ever going to think that’s cool? Resentment is bound to build, especially when Bryant is so unabashed in competitive zeal that he described his view on his teammates’ passivity Sunday night thus: “Can’t just sit back and watch crime happen.”

It might work every once in a while, as Bryant’s shooting and scoring against single coverage has inspired his teams to compete harder and rally in games of the past—though certainly not Sunday night.

Boozer and Lin, two guys who believe deeply in Kobe, were left grumbling late Sunday night about the difficulty of finding offensive rhythm next to him.

It most definitely isn’t easy to learn to play with him. As such, Scott must make that process easier, not harder.

With all the perks that come with coaching the Lakers and Kobe Bryant, what Scott must manage now is clearly one of the hard aspects. Getting all the players on the same page and effectively building a cohesiveness from a roster that isn’t familiar with each other nor familiar with how Kobe responds in any given moment is difficult. Add a bunch of losing to the equation and things only get harder. But this is the job he signed up for. It’s time for him to put in the work or fail trying.

In terms of tonight, the Lakers are again on the road and facing a team who is much better than them. The Hawks aren’t some powerhouse, but they have Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, a good coach and a winning record on the year. If the Lakers hope to win, there are surely X’s and O’s things they can do — limit Korver’s 3 point attempts, keep Horford and Milsap off the glass, slow down Teague (and Dennis Schoeder) in transition — but mostly they just need to play harder and smarter.

There needs to be less loafing defensively. The help needs to be there quicker and with more purpose. They must cut out the turnovers, set better screens, and be more attentive on when and how to cut against defenses gearing up to slow down many of their pet actions. They also need to hit some shots. The return of Nick Young may help with the latter and it will be interesting to see how much burn the swaggy one gets in his first game back after tearing a thumb ligament in his shooting hand. The Lakers sorely need Young’s scoring punch as a bridge between their starting and bench units, so it’d be great if he could hit the ground running — even if we shouldn’t expect that.

The best way to cure frustrations from losing is to get a W. The Lakers, after dealing with defeat nine out of ten times to start the year, are clearly frustrated. Some adjustments from the coach, some better decisions from the players (including Kobe, who can give more defensively and cut out some of the over-shooting he’s done), and a few lucky bounces would go a long way in making that happen.

Where you can watch: 4:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.