Suns Wear Down Lakers in Fourth QuarterThe L.A. Lakers nearly kept pace with the Phoenix Suns for three quarters but Phoenix stepped on the gas to produce a 41 point fourth quarter and emerge with a 115-107 win. Steve Nash had 25 points, 11 assists and five rebounds, Leandro Barbosa provided his customary spark off of the bench with 23 points and Raja Bell scored 22 points, including 6-6 shooting from three point range. Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 34 points and seven assists. He shot 14-25 from the field (.560) despite facing tough defense from Bell and frequent double teams. Lamar Odom had 10 points, 14 rebounds and five assists but shot just 4-13 from the field and 1-4 from the free throw line. Even in the best of times, Odom's scoring production tends to fluctuate; now that he is clearly limited by the torn labrum in his left (shooting) shoulder this is even more true. Ronny Turiaf gave the Lakers a huge boost off of the bench with 19 points and 15 rebounds.
In many ways, though, this game was all about Smush Parker. He had 25 points and six assists, including a team-high 17 first half points. Parker has publicly complained recently about being benched in the fourth quarters of games; Coach Phil Jackson has explained that he replaced Parker at those times because of Parker's lackluster defense. Naturally, as a young player, Parker responded to this situation by pouting some more and trying to prove how much of an offensive threat he can be. Despite Parker's first half scoring, the Lakers trailed by six at halftime, as Nash or Barbosa penetrated to the hoop at will, breaking down the Lakers' defense. The Lakers trimmed the Suns' lead to 74-73 by the end of the third quarter. Parker sat out the last part of the third quarter, returning to the game with 11:07 left in the fourth quarter and the Lakers trailing 78-73. He promptly nailed a jumper--and let Nash drive right by him for an uncontested layup. Then, on a three on two break Parker whirled the ball around his back and committed a charging foul. Parker somewhat atoned for this by scoring over Nash in the post a couple possessions later--but then let Nash shoot a wide open three pointer. Sense a pattern here? Parker finished one point shy of his season-high in points but he was leaking points on the other end even faster than he was scoring them. His role is to pressure the opposing point guard, not score a lot of points--the Lakers cannot beat good teams if Parker simply tries to outduel his counterpart as opposed to playing good defense against him. By the 4:58 mark Phoenix had a 92-83 lead, which soon expanded to double digits. Was that all Parker's fault? Of course not, but a lot of the blame certainly falls on him and his lack of enthusiasm for playing the kind of pressure defense that got him to the NBA in the first place.
What about Bell's three point shooting barrage? Doesn't that prove that Bryant's defense is poor? Not exactly. Most of Bell's three pointers either came in transition or after penetration by Nash or Barbosa broke down the Lakers' defense; the team collapsed on Nash or Barbosa, Bryant rotated to cover the first open man and Bell popped open. There was one first half play when Bell came off of a baseline screen, Bryant shot the gap to try to steal the pass but missed and Bell got an open corner three, which he nailed; perhaps that was a needless gamble on Bryant's part but that one play hardly proves that he is a bad defender. The problem for the Lakers, as it has been most of the season, is defending the pick and roll play correctly and limiting penetration by opposing point guards (hello, Smush Parker). Now, if Bryant was supposed to stay home on Bell at all costs and let other players score layups after the initial defense broke down, then he should be blamed--but the fact that the opposing shooting guard made six three pointers does not prove that Bryant played poor defense. The Lakers' defense as a whole was not great, particularly in the fourth quarter. Any team that cannot control penetration by opposing point guards is always going to struggle to consistently get stops. If Bryant were truly trying to "conserve energy" then why wouldn't he simply plant himself next to Bell in the corner? By leaving Bell to contest other shooters and then trying to get back to Bell he is expending more energy, not less. Whether or not he is "supposed" to be doing this in the Lakers' overall defensive scheme is a different question, which can only be properly answered by Phil Jackson. What I see is a guy who is trying to cover up for his teammates' mistakes by forcing the other team to make one extra pass; by flying at the guy who has the ball and forcing him to pass, Bryant at least buys some time for someone to rotate over to Bell. That extra pass might get deflected or fumbled. In general, it is better to force the offense to throw one more pass, unless a certain player has been designated as the guy who should be left open. Another factor to consider is that, although Bell is normally a good three point shooter, he shot 0-10 from three point range in his previous game. Perhaps this factored into the Lakers' thinking. What I don't understand--not just about the Lakers, but about many teams--is why three or four guys converge on Nash when he drives. Nash wants to pass, not shoot. If he beats his initial defender, someone should step in his path to slow him down and then return to the man he was originally guarding. That is how Jason Williams baited LeBron James into a turnover in a recent Cleveland-Miami game; Williams faked a double-team, James jumped to pass and Williams was perfectly placed to steal the ball. Teams should defend Nash in a similar fashion. If that results in Nash taking 20-25 shots, so be it, even if he scores 30-plus points; the Suns thrive on their teamwork and balance and having Nash score a lot of points puts everybody into different, unaccustomed roles. It has not been proven that Nash is willing or able to sustain that kind of a scoring burden. Forcing him to do that combined with attacking him at the defensive end of the court would be a good strategy for any team that has the personnel and discipline to stick with those objectives (the natural tendency is to double-team a penetrating guard, so it would have to be drilled into players to not do this with Nash).
Lakers/Suns Statistical Nuggets
*** The Lakers are 6-7 this year against the West's top four teams (1-3 against Dallas, 1-2 against Phoenix, 2-1 against San Antonio and 2-1 against Utah), while Phoenix is 3-7 against the West's top three (they can't play against themselves...) teams (2-2 against Dallas, 1-2 against San Antonio and 0-3 against Utah). What does that mean? It might not mean much, depending on which teams were playing their fourth game in five nights and which teams may have been missing key personnel during those contests but two things do come to mind: (1) Kobe Bryant's ability to completely take over a game makes the Lakers a dangerous team on any given night; (2) the Suns' run and gun style works better against overmatched teams than it does against teams that have the personnel, coaching and discipline necessary to slow the game down.
*** Not including Sunday's game (which wouldn't change this stat much, anyway), Bryant is averaging 37.2 ppg since the All-Star break. That is merely the highest post-All-Star break scoring average in the last 43 years. That must mean that he is not rebounding or passing, right? No; he is averaging 5.8 rpg and 5.2 apg in those games. That rebounding average would rank fifth among shooting guards in the NBA this season (based on the positional designations at ESPN.com) and is actually slightly higher than his pre-All-Star break average. That assists average would rank sixth among NBA shooting guards this season and is just slightly worse than his pre-All-Star break average. Only one shooting guard has higher seasonal averages in both categories than Bryant has posted since the All-Star break--Andre Iguodala, whose numbers in each area are marginally better than Bryant's. So, Bryant is putting up Wilt Chamberlain-level scoring numbers for the second half of the season while still ranking among the best rebounders and passers at the shooting guard position.
*** Several times on Sunday, ABC ran a "crawl" that stated that the Lakers are 11-3 this year when Bryant scores 40-plus points. Apparently, nobody at ABC has read the Lakers' game notes or the game logs at NBA.com; the Lakers are in fact 12-4 this year when Bryant scores 40-plus points and have a 58-25 record during his career in such games. Here is the complete list of Bryant's 2006-07 40 point games (I placed those dots in the chart in order to create better spacing, which will hopefully make the chart easier to read):
11/21 vs. LAC...W..105-101...12-23...1-1...15-18....40....5.....5....1-0
11/30 vs. UTA...W...132-102...19-26...2-3..12-15....52....4.....3....2-0
12/15 vs. HOU...W...112-101...17-38...5-8..14-16....53...10.....8....3-0
12/17 vs. Was...L...147-141...15-24..7-11...8-10....45....8....10....3-1
12/29 at Char...L...133-124...22-45..4-11...10-12...58....5.....4....3-2
1/4 at Sac....W...132-128...11-21..3-5....17-20...42...10.....9....4-2
1/22 vs. GSW...W...108-103...11-22..4-7....16-19...42....8.....1....5-2
1/31 at Bos....W...111-98....13-25..7-9....10-13...43....8.....8....6-2
3/6 at Minn....L...117-107...13-30..3-10...11-13...40...13.....8....6-3
3/16 vs. Por...W...116-111...23-39..8-12...11-12...65....7.....3....7-3
3/18 vs. Minn..W...109-102...17-35..4-9....12-14...50....6.....3....8-3
3/22 at Mem....W...121-119...20-37..3-7....17-18...60....5.....4....9-3
3/23 at NO/OK..W...111-105...16-29..2-5....16-16...50....7.....1...10-3
3/25 at GSW....W...115-113...15-33..4-11....9-11...43....9.....0...11-3
3/30 vs. Hou...L...107-104...19-44..3-9....12-14...53....2.....2...11-4
4/6 at Sea.....W...112-109...13-27..1-4....19-24...46....5.....6...12-4
..............(.514)...(.500)..(.853)..(48.9 ppg)..(7.0 rpg)..(4.7 apg)
No, those are not typos--Kobe Bryant has averaged 48.9 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 4.7 apg in his 16 40-point games this year. The Lakers are 12-4 in those games and he has shot .514 from the field, .500 from three point range and .853 from the free throw line. That works out to a .575 adjusted field goal percentage (calculated by subtracting free throws made from points scored, dividing that number by field goals attempted and then dividing again by two), which is simply mind boggling. His shooting percentages, rebounding numbers and assist totals--and the Lakers' record, markedly better than their overall record--all refute suggestions that Bryant is forcing shots, neglecting other aspects of the game or cares more about scoring than winning. The reality is that the Lakers need his scoring--and his rebounding and assists, which are better than the numbers put up by most other shooting guards--in order to win.
posted by David Friedman @ 10:44 PM