Clippers Squeak by Kobe-less Lakers, 91-90The L.A. Clippers defeated the L.A. Lakers 91-90 in the first round of the preseason Laker Shootout Tournament at Staples Center as TNT kicked off its 2006-07 NBA preseason coverage; in an earlier game that was not shown on TNT, the Golden State Warriors beat the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets 112-103, so the Clippers will face the Warriors in Friday's championship game while the Lakers will play the Hornets in a consolation matchup. Cuttino Mobley led the Clippers with 26 points, Elton Brand scored 20 and Corey Maggette contributed 14. Sam Cassell and Chris Kaman did not play due to injuries. Second year center Andrew Bynum scored 15 points for the Lakers and Smush Parker added 13. Rookie guard Jordan Farmar had 14 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter. Kobe Bryant is still recovering from knee surgery and has yet to play in the preseason, although he has done some light practicing and says that he feels good and that his rehabilitation is going according to schedule. Lamar Odom had a subpar game--9 points, 6 rebounds, 7 turnovers, 2-8 shooting from the field. The Clippers are now 3-1 in the preseason, while the Lakers fall to 2-3.
The list of injuries for the Lakers is truly daunting: Kobe Bryant is of course the foremost name, but Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm, Vladimir Radmanovic, Shammond Williams, Aaron McKie and Von Wafer are all nursing various ailments--plus Phil Jackson just had hip replacement surgery, so Kurt Rambis is coaching the team during the preseason, although Jackson has been present at some of the practices and expects to return to the bench in time for the regular season.
This game had a disjointed rhythm, which is not surprising considering how many players from both teams' regular rotations sat out or played fewer minutes than usual. The teams combined for 59 fouls, 45 turnovers and only 56 field goals made; the Clippers shot 28-66 from the field (.424), while the Lakers shot 28-72 (.389). NCAA basketball fans won't like this comparison, but what the game reminded me of most was last year's last year's NCAA Tournament. The good news is that this was just an exhibition game (even though the NBA and NFL hate that term and prefer "preseason") and when the regular season starts in less than two weeks the quality of play will be a lot higher. TNT's Steve Kerr said that the "intensity goes up 80%" in regular season games compared to preseason games and that this is the biggest adjustment that rookies have to make. He and fellow analyst Reggie Miller agreed that the game might seem easy to young players during summer league or the preseason but then they get a rude awakening when the real games start.
Much like when Al Michaels and John Madden broadcast the preseason NFL Hall of Fame Game, Kerr, Miller and play by play announcer Marv Albert spent at least as much time talking about general league issues as they did specific plays. One interesting discussion centered around Kobe Bryant. Albert mentioned that in 2005-06 the Lakers were 18-9 when Kobe Bryant scored at least 40 points, seemingly refuting the notion that it is a bad thing for his team when Bryant shoots/scores a lot; Albert asked Kerr and Miller for their thoughts about that statistic and Kobe's style of play in general. Kerr replied that Kobe must find a balance to his game the same way that Michael Jordan eventually did and that Kobe seemed to make a lot of progress toward that end last season and particularly in the playoffs. Miller said that he likes it when Kobe puts up a lot of shots because Kobe is the only player on the team who has a killer instinct and that there are not a lot of other credible late game scoring options on the team. My take on this is that Kobe Bryant is a fierce competitor whose foremost objective is to win; if the best way for his team to win is for him to shoot a lot, then he will drop 81 points, as he did in a come from behind victory against Toronto--and if the best way to win is to pound the ball inside to Kwame Brown and Lamar Odom to exploit mismatches, as the Lakers did against Phoenix in the playoffs, then he will do that as well. Kobe still averaged 27.9 ppg (and a playoff career high .497 field goal percentage) in that series, including a 50 point game, so he showed that he can "defer" and still hit crucial baskets. One thing is certain, Albert, Kerr and Miller agreed: if the Lakers don't win, Kobe will be blamed whether he shoots a lot or a little.
Mobley scored 19 of his points in the first half but the Lakers had a 53-51 lead. Sideline reporter Cheryl Miller asked Odom how the Lakers had managed this and he replied, "Teamwork; team effort running our Triangle; staying disciplined." He also cited the efforts of coaches Jackson, Kurt Rambis, Brian Shaw, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Craig Hodges, concluding, "We're well prepared."
Admittedly, it is hard--no, impossible--to draw meaningful conclusions about either team from a game like this, but it is interesting to observe the development of some of the players who saw extensive action. First, the Lakers: Bynum looks bigger and his game is smoother and more confident. Don't get me wrong, he still has a long way to go, but he has a lot of tools and has clearly worked on his game; Ronny Turiaf provides a lot of energy and hustle and even displayed some nice postup moves; Farmar's physique resembles Mike Bibby's and, like Bibby, he showed that he can hit open shots and get in the lane and make plays despite not having blazing speed or dazzling jumping ability; Sasha Vujacic can hit open shots and is a "pesky" defender, as Kerr put it; Parker plays hard and is athletic but he shot only 3-11 from the field, and if he cannot hit open shots then he will lose playing time to Farmar, Vujacic and/or Shammond Williams. Some thoughts on the Clippers: Brand, like Phoenix' Shawn Marion, puts up "quiet" numbers. It doesn't always seem like he is doing a lot and then you look at the boxscore and he has 20 points, five rebounds and four steals. He seems to be coasting at times in the preseason but I'm sure that he will have another All-Star season; Maggette had 14 points in only 19 minutes and if he stays healthy he will really provide a good scoring punch either as a starter or a sixth man; Tim Thomas shot 1-11 from the field, his only make coming on a three pointer near the spot where he hit the dagger for Phoenix against the Lakers in game six of last year's playoffs. Miller made the point that Phoenix' system, with Nash driving and kicking to open shooters, was perfect for Thomas and that none of the Clippers' guards will be spoonfeeding Thomas for open shots in a similar manner. It will be interesting to see what kind of role Thomas plays for the Clippers this year; Livingston is clearly a talented player but he still makes a lot of mistakes and is not always on the same page as Coach Mike Dunleavy in terms of shot selection and decision making.
A funny moment happened at the start of the second half. The fans started booing, which seemed to disorient the players momentarily because nothing dramatic had happened on the court. Albert explained that the fans were upset because game seven of the National League Championship Series between St. Louis and New York was no longer being shown on the giant overhead screen. Kerr wondered why the fans didn't stay home and watch the baseball game if they were that interested in it but the Staples Center came up with a unique solution by utilizing picture in picture (!), something that I've never seen before on an arena's overhead screen; Miller had never seen it either but said that in Hollywood anything can happen.
The Lakers outscored the Clippers 23-17 in the fourth quarter and had the ball for the last possession with less than 20 seconds left and the Clippers clinging to a 91-90 lead. After a timeout, the Lakers inbounded the ball to Farmar, who did a lot of dribbling before Odom set a screen, forcing the Clippers to switch Tim Thomas on to Farmar. Farmar tried to drive past Thomas, but Thomas poked the ball away and time ran out before the Lakers could recover the loose ball and get off a shot. Suffice it to say that I don't think we will be seeing that play too often when Kobe is in the lineup. It's easy for guys to say that they want to take more shots when Kobe is doing all of the heavy lifting, but when Kobe is not around and everyone else can be guarded man to man it is not so easy to be a hero. Kobe's presence, even if he is used as a decoy, makes things easier for everyone; the defense would have been positioned a lot differently with Kobe on the court even if the Lakers still decided to run the Farmar/Odom screen and roll play. On a previous possession, Odom drove to the hoop and was also stripped. A lot of players say that they want the ball at the end of the game but few really do and even fewer can produce in that situation--but the good news for Lakers fans is that this team plays hard, seems to be coachable and is good enough to keep games close enough for Kobe to have a chance to make a difference at the end.
As for the Clippers, it has a been a long, strange preseason for them, starting with traveling to Europe for two games against Russian teams as part of the NBA Europe Live Tour. Then they came back to the United States and had a training camp in Santa Barbara. The issue of whether or not Kaman will sign a contract extension hangs over the team, as does the question of how minutes will be allocated between veteran point guard Cassell and point guard of the future Shaun Livingston. Albert, Kerr and Miller talked like it is a foregone conclusion that the Clippers will win 50-55 games and make a run at the Western Conference Finals but I am not convinced. For all the talk of how the Clippers have supplanted the Lakers in L.A., the Clippers only won two more games than the Lakers last year and the teams split the regular season series. Assuming that Bryant returns to health soon, there is just as much reason to believe that the Lakers--in the second year of Phil Jackson's new regime--can show improvement in their implementation of the Triangle Offense that will lead to more wins as there is to believe that the Clippers will be better.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:11 AM