The Lakers are looking better by the game even if the wins aren’t coming with the improved performance. So while it’d be a lot easier to say that this team is right on track if the results were better this pre-season (the Lakers are now 1-3), I’m still pretty pleased with how the team is progressing and am confident that by the time next Tuesday rolls around that we’ll be seeing a Lakers team that we recognize in both execution, style, and most importantly – results. A few thoughts on both the good and the bad from last night’s 99-94 defeat at the hands of the Jazz:
*Call it tired legs, disinterest, or just plain old bad play, but the Lakers didn’t come out ready or engaged in this contest. Though only trailing by two at the end of the first quarter and five at halftime, the Lakers needed offensive bursts to close the gap at the end of each quarter to make the game as close as it was. The team wasn’t necessarily sloppy early (though they’d prove more mistake prone as the game advanced) but rather, they just couldn’t make a shot. A lot of misfiring was the result of suspect execution and too much one on one play, but even the shots created by diligently running the Triangle were off target or just rimming out. For example, on one particular play the Lakers moved the ball beautifully from the perimeter to a slashing Odom who then touch passed a ball to Gasol, only to have Pau miss a bunny as he slid underneath the backboard. Sometimes, that’s the way the ball bounces and early on it was that way for the Lakers.
*Not all the Lakers were missing shots in the early going, however. I’ve been quiet on this topic for most of the pre-season but Ron Artest has been looking good on offense and last night the trend continued. Ron kept the Lakers in the game last night by making jumpers, cutting hard on both strong and weak side actions, and either finishing around the hoop or earning trips to the foul line. Artest had 17 points on 13 shots and hit two of his four 3 point attempts. I’m not ready to proclaim Ron as a fully functional member of the offense quite yet, but he looks much improved from last season in both comfort level and confidence (which should lead to better results over the long haul). For example on specific play, Ron was on the extended wing in a two man game with Gasol (who was in the post). Ron threw the entry pass into Pau and then cut hard going to the baseline side. However, halfway through his cut Ron changed directions and instead of cutting baseline went over the top of Pau to the middle (using Pau as a screener on AK47 in the process), received a nice hand off pass and finished in the lane for a lay up. This is a pretty simple play and one that many of the Lakers wings have used over the years, but I’m highlighting it here because of the nuance involved and how Ron used the basic premise of the offense (post entry, clear the side) to get himself a quality look right at the rim. This isn’t to say that Ron didn’t do some of these things last year, but he’s quicker to make the correct reads so far this pre-season and that split second difference is getting him open. (On a side note, Ron’s improved conditioning and lighter frame carried over from last season is noticeable and it’s also making a difference. On the play described, Ron showed a quicker first step and a great change of direction that wasn’t there at this same time last year due to his heavier weight. Right now he looks fit, quick, and it’s making a difference in how he moves in the half court.)
*While Ron was hot early, Kobe got hot in the 3rd quarter. And by hot, I mean he looked like classic Kobe from the Phoenix and Utah series last playoffs. Kobe rattled off 19 points in the quarter and did it on an array of jumpers, quick drives, and trips to the foul line that showed how far he’s come in his knee rehab over the past couple of weeks. On one sequence he nailed three straight 3 pointers (though one was waived off due to a travel call), hit a turn around jumper along the right baseline, and then drove left from the extended left wing, elevated, hung, and then just missed a 16 foot bank shot while drawing the foul. Needless to say, he may have looked shaky in the first quarter (0-4), but in the third quarter all that was forgotten as #24 looked fresh, active, and like his time shooting in the gym was paying off. I’m not saying he’s 100% just yet (he looks to be about 85%) but he’s looking better and better which is a great thing for the Lakers.
*If Ron was good early and Kobe was good in the third, the Laker that was good for the entire game was Gasol. After the Denver game on Saturday I mentioned that Pau looked to finally have his timing and rhythm back. Well, he carried that over into Sunday’s game against the Jazz. The big Spaniard had 28 points on 15 shots and also cleaned up his FT woes that have been plaguing him in LA’s exhibition games (12-14 FT’s on Sunday). He added 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 blocks, and 2 steals in his 37 minutes of game action. If I have one area of concern on Pau it’s that he’s taking a few too many fading jumpers when driving middle, but that’s a minor complaint in an otherwise great couple of games over the weekend. Plus, after seeing Gasol for several seasons now, this specific shot could easily be another weapon that he’s adding to his repertoire of jump hooks, drop steps, and face up jumpers. Either way, it’s not like his couple of misses with this shot affected his efficiency.
*Normally if Kobe, Pau, Artest, and Odom (8 pts, 15 rebs) play well the Lakers cruise. So what happened in this game? The bench didn’t play well. At all. On offense the only bench player to make more than one shot was Shannon and he needed 10 FGA’s to hit his 3 shots. Including his attempts from the field, the Lakers bench shot a combined 5-26 from the field for a total of 20 points. The biggest culprit in missing shots was Steve Blake who missed all 7 of his attempts from the floor, many of them wide open looks from the corner or from straight away. However, I give Blake a bit of a pass here as 1). These are shots he’s been making this pre-season; shots I’m confident he’ll make pretty consistently this year and 2). He’s been fighting an upper respiratory infection the last few days that likely affected his wind and endurance.
*Defensively the Lakers as a whole weren’t very good and the bench was especially poor in its run. In the preview to the game I mentioned that I was interested in watching Jazz rookie Gordon Hayward play and he didn’t disappoint in his 33 minutes of floor time. The baby faced Hayward had 26 points on 10(!) shots and showed a well rounded polish on both the perimeter and the interior that displayed during his college career at Butler. Hayward looked especially comfortable in Utah’s flex sets as he moved well off the ball and made good, smart reads on his cuts in order to make catches in position to be effective. Overall, I was very impressed with the rook – especially on a couple of up and under moves he put on both Shannon and Ebanks during the contest.
As I mentioned earlier, despite the losses I’m quite happy with where the Lakers are right now. There are a couple of injuries that need to be sorted out (besides Bynum and Walton’s ongoing issues, Sasha didn’t play due to his concussion and Caracter also sat out with back spasms) but other than those issues the Lakers are coming along nicely and the progress made by both Kobe and Gasol with their respective issues are now becoming non-concerns. Really, if the Lakers were focussed on winning these games they’d play some of their guys longer minutes and Phil would also not be resting Kobe as much when he’s obviously feeling better. So, based off what I’m seeing from the coaches in how they’re handling the minutes and rotations, I can only conclude that they’re feeling just as good as I am. The Lakers will get their chance at a rematch on Tuesday, and at that point we’ll hopefully see Deron Williams (one of my favorite non-Lakers) and also see if Kobe gets a longer leash and some extended burn.