Lakers Edge Mavs, Improve to 6-0Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 27 points--including nine in a key 2:38 stretch of the fourth quarter--as the Lakers overcame a sluggish start to improve to 6-0 with a 106-99 win in Dallas. Bryant shot 10-20 from the field and 7-8 from the free throw line. Pau Gasol added 22 points and 11 rebounds and Trevor Ariza provided a huge lift off of the bench with 13 points, six rebounds, three steals and a big blocked shot late in the game. Gasol is very gifted and it is a lot of fun to watch him play. His defense against Dirk Nowitzki (14 points on 5-17 field goal shooting, eight rebounds, four turnovers) was outstanding. That said, Gasol is in a perfect situation now because as long as Bryant is in the game Gasol usually gets to play one on one, as opposed to facing the constant double teams that he encountered in Memphis. Jason Terry led the Mavericks with 21 points, while Jason Kidd had his 101st triple double (16 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists). Jerry Stackhouse added 17 points off of the bench. The Mavericks were without the services of Josh Howard, who has an injured wrist; Gerald Green started in his place and scored 17 points.
The Lakers took a 10-4 lead before Bryant even attempted a shot but the Mavericks answered with a 17-0 run and did not trail again unti the fourth quarter. Gasol and Andrew Bynum (11 points, 10 rebounds, 5-12 field goal shooting) missed several point blank shots and then the Lakers' poor transition defense enabled the Mavericks to retaliate with quick scores; that stretch almost looked like a replay of what happened to the Lakers in the Finals versus the Celtics. As Hubie Brown often says, when you miss a layup in the NBA the other team will generally score within a few seconds. With Dallas leading 21-10, Bryant clearly realized that the time for "facilitating" was over; in a 19 second span, he nailed a jumper off of a down screen by Lamar Odom (12 points, five rebounds, one assist, four turnovers, 5-12 field goal shooting) and converted a three point play. Shortly after that, Bryant drove to the hoop and earned two free throw attempts, sinking both to cut Dallas' lead to 23-17. The Lakers pulled to within two points soon after that and only trailed by three after Gasol fed Bryant a nice lob pass for a layup but squandered a chance to get even closer when Gasol missed a weak scoop shot after setting a screen for Bryant, rolling to the hoop and receiving a good feed from Bryant. Then Gasol and Odom committed turnovers on consecutive possessions and Bryant missed a reverse layup, helping Dallas to push the lead to 35-26 by the end of the first quarter.
The Lakers have been playing excellent defense so far this season, so giving up 35 first quarter points is a sure sign that they were not playing up to their usual standards. That is what makes this win impressive: you have to be a very good team to grind out a road win when you are not playing your very best. As a side note, I have been amused to read some of the commentary/"analysis" about the Lakers' defense this season. Do people not realize that Phil Jackson is a defensive minded coach, that his six championship teams in Chicago were terrific defensively and that the first time he joined the Lakers the biggest change he implemented was helping the team improve in one season from the bottom of the league to first in defensive field goal percentage, a key element in the Lakers winning the 2000 championship? There is a misconception that the Lakers were a bad defensive team last year but the reality--as Bryant has mentioned in several interviews--is that they were a good but inconsistent defensive team and that their defense was not up to the same standard as Boston's. It is easy to understand why the Lakers were inconsistent defensively; they actually had to play three seasons in one or, more precisely, they had three different teams during the course of the season: their first team had a Bryant-Odom-Bynum nucleus, the second team was held together by Bryant after Bynum suffered a season-ending injury and their third team had a Bryant-Gasol-Odom nucleus. Throughout the year, key players moved in and out of the lineup, which made it difficult to sustain the five men on string cohesion that is vital to playing great defense. Also, the Lakers missed Bynum's shot blocking and were not able to fully utilize the athleticism of newly acquired wing defender Trevor Ariza, who was injured for most of the season. This season, the Lakers are at full strength and the newcomers (Gasol and Ariza) had the benefit of their first full training camp under Jackson. It should be no surprise that the Lakers have improved tremendously on defense. The difference is not so much that they are using some revolutionary scheme but rather that Jackson has had the opportunity to fully utilize the individual and collective strengths of the entire roster.
Bynum is certainly playing an important role in the Lakers' success but he is not nearly as valuable as some people assert nor is he close to being a finished product as a post player. He is averaging 9.5 ppg, 9.0 rpg and 2.8 bpg while shooting .429 from the field. I expect his field goal percentage to markedly improve as he gets his legs fully back to game form after missing more than half of a season but the rest of his stat line will not likely change too much, other than a slight scoring increase to correspond with a better shooting percentage. Bynum's size and length are significant assets for the Lakers, particularly on defense, but he also benefits by being surrounded by good players--and a great player in Kobe Bryant. If Bynum were the best player on a lesser team then he would struggle, particularly on offense, but having Bryant on the court ensures that he will rarely face double teams in the post and will often receive passes for uncontested layups and dunks. Case in point: midway through the second quarter, Bynum set a screen for Bryant and then rolled to the hoop. Bynum's defender stayed midway between the hoop and Bryant to discourage Bryant from driving, so Bryant jumped in the air as if he was going to shoot but instead fired a bullet pass to Bynum for an easy dunk. It is foolish to speak of Bryant being a better facilitator now than in previous seasons without noting that in previous seasons if Bryant threw that pass it would have either decapitated Kwame Brown or bounced off of his hands and gone out of bounds (by the way, those of you who don't think that Bryant was the MVP in 2006 and 2007 while carrying starting center Brown and starting point guard Smush Parker to the playoffs may be interested to note that Brown is averaging 3.3 ppg for Detroit this season while Parker is not even in the league--how far do you imagine that Bryant might have taken a team with, say, Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa and Raja Bell?).
The Lakers' bench played with a lot of energy at the start of the second quarter and then Bryant, Gasol and Bynum carried the scoring load down the stretch as the Lakers pulled to within 60-54 by halftime. However, the momentum the Lakers seemed to have built did not carry over to the third quarter, as the Mavericks soon pushed their lead to 72-61. Just when it looked like Dallas might really pull away, the Lakers closed the quarter with an 11-4 run thanks to baskets by Sasha Vujacic, Bynum, Odom and Farmar and capped off by an Odom three pointer with two seconds left to make the score 79-76 Dallas.
Less than two minutes into the fourth quarter, the Lakers took the lead after Vujacic hit a three pointer, Odom drove to the hoop and Ariza ran down an offensive rebound in the corner, drove to the hoop and threw down a two handed dunk. That play fired up the whole Lakers' team and caused Dallas Coach Rick Carlisle to immediately call a timeout. A minute later, Bryant returned to action after sitting out the tail end of the third quarter and the early moments of the final stanza. Bryant promptly scored nine points in less than three minutes to extend the Lakers' lead to 94-86. There are stats floating around that purportedly measure "clutch" performance, which is usually defined by what happens in the last two minutes of a game in which the lead is five points or less but I think that runs like the one that Bryant led in the middle of the fourth quarter could be called "hidden clutch": before Bryant went to work that game was a tossup and the Mavericks had actually outplayed the Lakers for most of the time prior to that point; since there are so many stats being tracked now I wonder what the value--in terms of increasing the probability of winning the game--is of pushing the lead from 85-81 at the 8:46 mark of the fourth quarter to 94-86 at the 6:08 mark of the fourth quarter. Someone out there should have enough "game state" data to answer that question. My hypothesis is that the ability to exert that kind of impact on a nightly basis is more valuable than hitting one or two dramatic shots in the last few minutes of a few games over the course of a season; last second shots are often low percentage, desperation heaves. Put it this way: as great as Brandon Roy's recent 30 foot game winning shot was, is that really a more valuable "skill" over the course of a season than the ability to take over a key several minute stretch of a game that was previously up for grabs? That is not to say that Bryant cannot make desperation shots--we know that he has--or that Roy cannot take over a game for a significant stretch; what I am questioning is how some "stats gurus" attempt to quantify exactly what "clutch" is. Frankly, their definition has a lot more to do with what ends up on the highlight shows than what really wins games on a nightly basis.
After Bryant's scoring burst, the Lakers made some curious--which is to say, poor--decisions. Odom missed a long jumper with plenty of time on the shot clock and then Gasol missed a short jumper. When the best player on the team really has it going it would seem to be a good idea to put the ball in his hands at least once during these late game possessions; if nothing else, that would force Dallas to double team Bryant and thus create easier shots for other players. After Dallas rebounded Gasol's miss, Kidd went coast to coast with Odom riding his hip and then Kidd scored a layup as Odom fouled him. Needless to say, Coach Jackson was less than thrilled with Odom after that sequence and he took him out of the game during the next timeout. Kidd's three point play cut the Lakers' lead to 94-89.
On the next possession, Bryant and Gasol ran the screen/roll action that has been so effective for the Lakers--except in the Finals against Boston--ever since Gasol joined the team in the middle of last season. This time, Bryant took advantage of the collapsing defense to pass to Trevor Ariza at the three point line. Ariza took one dribble, glided to the hoop with a long stride and sank a layup while drawing a foul on Nowitzki. It is very important to note that Bryant was not awarded an assist on this play, because his pass and Ariza's one dribble drive are very similar to several plays that I have seen in which Chris Paul has been awarded assists. For instance, at the 1:42 mark of the second quarter of New Orleans' 100-89 victory over Miami on Saturday, Paul passed to Morris Peterson behind the three point line. Peterson took two dribbles, possibly an extra hop and then scored a layup; he drove just as far as Ariza did--and with an extra dribble to boot--yet Paul was awarded an assist and Bryant was not despite the fact that the passer did exactly the same thing on both plays. Also, in game seven of New Orleans' playoff series versus San Antonio last season, Paul received two assists on these kinds of plays: his ninth assist came on a driving layup by Peterson at the :24 mark of the second quarter and his 12th assist came on a driving layup by Jannero Pargo at the 8:34 mark of the fourth quarter. I'm providing the exact times of these plays so that anyone who has access to tapes of these games can look up these sequences and make their own judgments. In my opinion, an assist should not have been awarded on any of the three Paul passes, nor on Bryant's pass to Ariza. However, Bryant's pass was "closest" to being a legitimate assist because Bryant created the shot by drawing a double team and Ariza only took one dribble.
All of this is important for several reasons. One, Bryant officially had one assist in this game, which leads some people to assume that he is not distributing the ball; in fact, he makes some of the same "assists" that Paul does but does not receive boxscore credit for doing so. Two, Paul is setting records left and right with assist totals that are inflated with dubious assists. Three, all of these "stat gurus" who are making allegedly definitive pronouncements and "objective" player ratings are relying on some numbers that are more fake than a three dollar bill. If there is no uniform standard for awarding assists, then this is also likely true of steals, blocked shots, turnovers and possibly other categories (rebounds can be fudged when it comes to balls that are tapped/tipped).
Again, it is amazing to me that the "stat gurus" profess to be practicing objective science and yet they apparently have absolutely no interest in the fact that the basic boxscore data that they are using is flawed; they are so quick to protest about the subjectivity and bias that they believe are inherent in the process of observing players and yet they are completely oblivious to the subjective factors involved in their basketball analysis.
Back to the game at hand, Stackhouse answered Ariza's three point play by draining a three pointer to cut the Lakers' lead to 97-92. Terry then made two free throws and Gasol countered with two free throws of his own. Stackhouse made a pair of free throws and Erick Dampier split a pair of free throws to bring Dallas to within 99-97. Bryant turned the ball over and then Ariza and Fisher missed open three pointers created when Dallas trapped Bryant but the Mavericks were not able to take advantage at the other end of the court as Stackhouse and Nowitzki each missed jumpers. Ariza made a nice defensive play by blocking a Stackhouse jumper with just one second left on the shot clock and after the ensuing inbounds pass Dallas committed a 24 second shot clock violation.
The Lakers got the ball back with :44 left in regulation. They tried to get the ball to Bryant but Stackhouse played great ball denial defense, so Fisher ended up forcing a jumper with the shot clock running down. Bryant cut to the hoop to get in offensive rebound position but Stackhouse shoved him in the back, pushing him out of bounds. No foul was called but meanwhile, Gasol slipped in unnoticed, grabbed Fisher's airball and put it in the hoop as Nowitzki committed his sixth foul. Gasol made the resulting free throw and then Fisher sealed the win in the final seconds by hitting four straight free throws.
After the game, NBA TV's Chris Webber asked Bryant if he thinks that he has matured or changed as a player as he's gotten older and, if so, in what way. Bryant answered, "The thing that I've changed to help us improve as a team is I've empowered my teammates to make decisions. What I mean by that is not try to score or make plays for everybody else all the time. You have to allow your teammates to grow, to make decisions and I think that is the biggest change I've made."
While this was a good early season test for the Lakers, they will face an even sterner challenge on Wednesday night: playing the Hornets in New Orleans in the second of back to back road games. The Lakers will need to demonstrate a lot of mental toughness and focus to beat a Hornets team that is quite eager to make a statement against last year's Western Conference champions.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:06 AM