"Fortuitous" Murphy Tip-In Lifts Pacers Over LakersTroy Murphy's left handed tip-in as time expired enabled the Indiana Pacers to defeat the L.A. Lakers 118-117 at Conseco Fieldhouse; the Lakers, who still own the best record in the Western Conference (14-2) and are tied with the 17-2 Boston Celtics for fewest losses in the NBA, squandered a 16 point fourth quarter lead. Murphy finished with 16 points and a game-high 17 rebounds as the Pacers controlled the boards, outrebounding the Lakers 50-41, including a 19-8 advantage on the offensive glass. Danny Granger scored a game-high 32 points but he shot just 10-27 from the field. T.J. Ford added 21 points, eight assists and three steals while committing just one turnover; his dribble penetration repeatedly broke down the Lakers' defense, leading to open shots (and offensive rebounding opportunities even if the initial shot did not go in, because the Lakers had to scramble and rotate). Rasho Nesterovic scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, essentially playing Andrew Bynum (17 points, nine rebounds) to a standstill in a matchup that the Lakers surely expected to dominate. Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 28 points on 10-21 field goal shooting, while Pau Gasol had 20 points and nine rebounds. All five starters for both teams scored in double figures; the Lakers' Trevor Ariza was the only bench player to reach double figures, contributing 13 points, five rebounds, three steals and a blocked shot but he also had four turnovers in just under 25 minutes, a high total for a player who is not a primary ballhandler.
One of the biggest stories in the NBA this season has been the Lakers' improved defense but you wouldn't believe that if this was the only Lakers' game you've seen; during Laker Coach Phil Jackson's postgame standup, someone asked him what he did not like about the Lakers' defense versus Indiana and Jackson replied, "Everything."
Indiana jumped out to a 9-4 lead less than three minutes into the game. Right from the start it was clear that the Lakers were not playing the way that they did in most of their previous games, as the Pacers repeatedly drained wide open shots. In many games this season Bryant has not looked for his shot early and then contributed whatever scoring was needed later on but against Indiana he attempted three shots in the first 49 seconds, making a midrange jumper and missing a short jumper and a three pointer. Nesterovic scored eight points on 4-4 field goal shooting in the first quarter, with three of his makes coming on long jumpers. A knowledgeable courtside observer said to me after the first quarter that at first Bynum gave Nesterovic--a proven jump shooter who has no offensive moves when closely guarded--too much room in order to defend the lane against cutters but after Coach Jackson berated Bynum the young center ended up in no man's land "guarding air," positioning himself too far away from Nesterovic to bother his shot but not close enough to the hoop to deter cutters. That is the type of information that boxscore data does not reveal but that plays a role in how coaches design game plans and react during games; the numbers tell you part of the story of what Nesterovic and Bynum did while they were on the court but only by watching the game with understanding can you determine how their actions not only affected their individual matchup but also impacted other players (cutters to the hoop in this instance) and thereby the overall course of the game. One numerical hint in the boxscore is that Nesterovic had a +2 plus/minus rating, while Bynum had a -6 plus/minus rating but without watching the game you cannot possibly know why that was the case.
Eventually, the Lakers found a useful mismatch that they could exploit: Pau Gasol versus Murphy. Gasol scored 10 first quarter points and the Lakers led 30-28 after the first 12 minutes. Still, this was hardly a satisfactory performance from their standpoint: they committed five turnovers and allowed the Pacers to shoot .542 from the field.
Bryant took his usual rest with 41 seconds remaining in the first quarter and the Lakers ahead, 28-26. When he returned at the 6:57 mark of the second quarter, the Pacers led 42-40. I have not seen every single Lakers' game this year and I know that they have one of the highest scoring second units in the league but it still seems to me that--just like last year--the Lakers' bench players perform better when Bryant is in the game with them than when they are on their own or paired with a starter other than Bryant. People always focus on the last play or final minutes of a game but what happens in the "hidden" minutes is just as important, so we should not dismiss the significance of a four point swing in a game that was ultimately decided by a last second shot--particularly since the bench players were also involved in another negative point swing later in the game.
With Bryant back on the floor, the Lakers kicked into high gear: Bryant got a steal and orchestrated a slick fast break, passing to Lamar Odom, who fed Ariza for a layup. Ariza got fouled and made the free throw to convert the three point play to put the Lakers up 43-42. The Pacers fought back to take a 48-44 lead but then Bryant scored 11 points and had one assist in the last 3:45 of the half: he hauled in Odom's errant lob pass, landed and made a reverse layup, fed Gasol for a jumper, made a driving left handed layup, spun away from a double team on the baseline for a reverse layup, tossed the ball to himself off of the backboard in traffic in order to escape a trap and make another layup (!) and then crossed over multiple defenders, made a layup, drew a foul and converted the three point play. The self-pass--reminiscent of a maneuver that Tracy McGrady has pulled off in the All-Star Game, except that McGrady dunked the ball (albeit against much less defensive resistance--was as stunning as it was unexpected and would probably have been remembered as the play of the game if not for Murphy's game winner. The Lakers led 66-61 at halftime after Bryant's scoring outburst.
At the start of the third quarter, Bryant picked up right where he had left off, scoring seven points in the first 3:09, but the Lakers were not able to pull away because the Pacers answered in kind, largely as a result of opportunities created by Ford, who made a three pointer and had three assists in the first 4:20 of the third quarter. I have often talked about Bryant being the most fundamentally sound player in the league. What does that mean? It refers to a lot of things about his game, including the overall completeness of his skill set and a lot of "little" things that he does that casual observers might not notice but that those who understand basketball see and appreciate. In my Slam Online article about Bryant and LeBron James I noted Bryant's savvy as a free throw line offensive rebounder. One third quarter play demonstrated a different kind of awareness; after Bryant missed a three pointer, Gasol snared the offensive rebound. Instead of simply watching the action, Bryant immediately cut hard to the hoop and made eye contact with Gasol (who is also a very savvy player). Gasol passed to Bryant, who banked in a short jump shot. That scoring opportunity was created not by great athletic ability but by moving without the ball and knowing how to find the soft spot in a defense. Is Bryant the only NBA player who does something like that? Of course not; this is just a specific example of the type of thing that I mean when I talk about fundamentals and complete skill sets and I make comparisons that are not purely based on raw numbers.
Another example of Bryant's court savvy did not result in any tangible box score numbers; with the score tied at 84 late in the third quarter, Bryant and Bynum ran a screen roll action on the left wing. When both defenders attack the ballhandler--Bryant in this case--their goal is to either trap him completely or at the very least force a pass away from the hoop to a player who is not in scoring position but Bryant accepted the trap, split the two defenders and delivered a beautiful feed to a cutting Bynum, who was fouled by a rotating defender; it takes a combination of mental skills (reading the defenders in a split second) and physical skills (ballhandling, agility, speed) for Bryant to make that play. Bynum did not make the shot, so Bryant obviously did not get an assist--and after Bynum missed both free throws that possession essentially became the equivalent of a turnover. Again, Bryant is not the only player in the NBA who reads and splits traps--but if you are wondering what I mean when I talk about skill sets and about unselfish, playmaking actions that are not recorded in the boxscore as assists, that is a good example to consider in both regards; it is worth noting that even if Bynum had made both free throws Bryant would not have received any boxscore credit for a scoring opportunity that was created by his ability to draw double teams and then beat the trap.
I can't write about the third quarter without mentioning Ariza, who reminds me of Inspector Gadget because of the way he uses his long arms to poke the ball free for steals; you could almost hear him saying "Go, go Gadget arms" as he repeatedly pilfered the ball and headed downcourt to either dunk the ball or get fouled. At times, Ariza's disruptive defense is reminiscent of the way that Scottie Pippen played defense, though Pippen could sustain that impact for a longer period of time and against a greater variety of positions, guarding anyone from point guards to power forwards (Pippen also had a much more complete offensive game than Ariza).
The Lakers led 88-86 when Bryant went to the bench with 2:07 remaining in the quarter. This time, the bench players performed well without him: Jordan Farmar scored on a drive to the hoop, then penetrated to the hoop and delivered a behind the back feed to Bynum for a dunk. Inspector Gadget--I mean Ariza--got a steal and a slam, Sasha Vujacic drilled a three pointer and Bynum scored a reverse dunk on an alley oop feed from Odom. After Bynum hit a pair of free throws the Lakers enjoyed a 101-86 lead heading into the final 12 minutes.
So, that flurry proves that I have underrated the Lakers' bench, right? Sorry, I have to go Lee Corso here and say, "Not so fast, my friend." Or, if you prefer, Ray Lewis' line--"The same thing that will make you laugh will make you cry"--will also suffice. Coach Jackson kept Bynum on the court with four reserves--Odom, Farmar, Vujacic and Ariza--to start the fourth quarter and that group missed two out of three shots and committed four turnovers as the Pacers sliced the margin to 104-96 in less than three minutes, forcing Jackson to call a timeout and bring in the other four starters to play alongside Bynum. Jackson later said, "I didn't like at all the way that we started the fourth quarter. They came out and fiddled it away. You can't do that on the road. That gives momentum to the home team."
It is easy to say that the Lakers were still ahead at that point so the starters should have been able to finish the game but that discounts the intangible basketball reality of momentum--you may not be able to quantify momentum in a boxscore but that does not mean it does not exist. Players who are out of the game can lose rhythm and the team that is making a comeback gains confidence, energy and enthusiasm, so it is not always possible to stop a run simply by taking out players who were performing poorly. In his great book "Those Who Love the Game," Doc Rivers described how it would frustrate him when he would lock down an opposing player defensively, head to the bench for a brief rest and then have to deal with a raging inferno after the man he was guarding got hot--and gained confidence--against whoever had subbed in for Rivers.
There have been several times this season that Bryant rode in to rescue the Lakers after the bench was not able to maintain a comfortable lead--here is a recap that I wrote about one such game--but against the Pacers he was not quite able to do so. Bryant missed the first two shots he took after coming back into the game and then he split a pair of free throws, putting the Lakers up 105-98 with 6:47 left. Granger scored all 10 of his fourth quarter points in the final 5:32, including a big three pointer at the 1:42 mark to pull the Pacers to within 115-114. After Gasol missed a jumper and committed a loose ball foul, Marquis Daniels sank two free throws to give the Pacers their first lead of the final stanza. Bryant answered with a cold blooded jumper that momentarily silenced the crowd and then the teams traded misses: a Ford jumper blocked by Odom and a Bryant jumper that could have put the Lakers up by three with :14 left. That set the stage for a wild closing sequence after an Indiana timeout. Daniels drove to the hoop but his flailing reverse layup completely missed the mark. As the clock approached triple zeroes, several players scrambled for the rebound and Murphy reached it first, stabbing at the ball with his left hand. Time seemed to freeze as the ball massaged every part of the rim before sinking through as time expired. The home crowd erupted and the Lakers stood around with dazed looks on their faces as the officials completed the obligatory video review. The call stood, the basket was good and the Pacers had earned a hard fought win.
The "go figure" stat of the night is that two of the Pacers' seven wins have come against last year's NBA Finalists; the Pacers won their home opener 95-79 against the Boston Celtics. The Lakers swept the season series against the Pacers 2-0 last year and own a 51-19 advantage in the all-time series but they have not had much success at Conseco Fieldhouse, falling to 3-7 in that building. You may recall that two seasons ago the Lakers blew a nine point third quarter lead at Indiana in a 95-84 loss that Coach Jackson, tongue planted firmly in cheek, called "sad," saying, "They just got 'sad' tonight--'s-a-d,' you know what that is, right? It's sunlight deprivation--when you get out here, it's all gray and the California boys get depressed and they can't take it. They were very 'sad' tonight."
This time around, Jackson offered a more serious explanation for his team's struggles: "I'm always worried when we travel across three time zones. We just don't seem to function right. I was a little bit aggressive with the team tonight because I didn't think they functioned right. They didn't react well defensively. As a result, Indiana hung around and found a way to win it."
Jackson called Murphy's tip-in "fortuitous"--not in the sense that it was a lucky play but that the ball rolled around for so long that time expired, preventing the Lakers from having an opportunity to go for a last second shot. Bryant echoed that sentiment: "I knew it was going in by the way that it was bouncing, so I was hoping that the (shot) would drop in the basket so that we would have one second at least. It stayed up there forever and the clock ran out."
I asked Bryant, "What did you think was the difference defensively tonight versus the other games? It seemed like right from the start you guys gave up more points and a higher field goal percentage than usual."
Bryant answered, "Their penetration hurt us a lot. They kept the middle spread. The penetration, particularly by their guards, getting in the paint and creating opportunities--and the opportunities that they missed, they got second and third chances."
I asked if the dribble penetration put the Lakers in a scramble mode that enabled the Pacers to get more offensive rebounds. Bryant said,"Sometimes it's just the way the ball bounces and guys going after it. They ran down a lot of balls."
Gasol said, "We could have done better out there. In the fourth quarter, one or two more defensive rebounds, one or two more actions on offense would have probably given us the victory. Those things, little plays at the end make a big difference."
I asked Gasol, "Even earlier in the game the Pacers were shooting a higher percentage than your oppponents usually have this year. What did you think was the difference for you guys defensively right from the start of the game?"
He replied, "They were running well. They were into the flow. They were hitting a lot of open jumpers. Our defense was not as intense as it could be in the first quarter and pretty much through the whole game. There was a stretch where we played the defense we are capable of playing but for most of the game we weren't active enough and we didn't communicate enough to make the appropriate rotations."
I then asked, "How does that happen? You've played so well as a team. What causes a team to not become active or not communicate?"
Gasol answered, "Coming out a little too flat is part of the reason. A little too confident, sometimes; it happens."
I also asked Odom why he thought that the Lakers' defense was so subpar right from the start of the game. He said, "We gave them too much space. They got hot from the outside. They did what they needed to do to win the game."
Naturally, Indiana Coach Jim O'Brien was thrilled by the victory: "What a great win for our team and our fans...That's special. It's a great, great feeling for everyone who is a Pacer. It feels great whenever you pull out a win against a great team. To see our players rewarded for their hard work makes me feel great."
Notes From Courtside:
Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons made the All-Defensive Team once during his nine year playing career, won a championship ring as a rookie with the 1972 Lakers and has won four championship rings as an assistant coach for Phil Jackson (1996 in Chicago, 2000-2002 in L.A.). I spoke with him before the game about a variety of subjects, focusing primarily on defense and on how this Lakers' team compares to some of the great championship teams that Cleamons was involved with as a player and as a coach. I will post the whole interview soon but I will relay one of his comments now because it was very prescient regarding this game and is worth keeping in mind as the season progresses:
When I asked him to compare this year's Lakers to the 1972 Lakers and the 1996 Bulls, Cleamons immediately had a wry smile and I hastily added that I fully realize that it is early in the season to make such a comparison but that I am interested to hear his perspective about how the current Lakers match up to those great teams and in which areas they fall short. Cleamons said that the current Lakers lack the "maturity" that the old Lakers and Bulls' teams had but that part of the objective this season is to develop that characteristic: "We haven't seen too many tough teams this year and the one tough team we saw (Detroit, the other team that beat the Lakers) handed our hat back to us. That's a learning process. Hopefully this team will grow and mature. We've got some tough games ahead of us before we finish out the year and we'll see where we are."
Go back and look at what Gasol said about this game: the Lakers came out flat and a little overconfident. The teams that won 65+ games and went on to win championships--the '67 Sixers, the '71 Bucks, the '72 Lakers, the '83 Sixers, the '86 Celtics, the '87 Lakers, the '92, '96 and '97 Bulls, the 2000 Lakers, the 2008 Celtics--had killer mentalities and were trying to bury their opponents every night. We all know that Bryant has that kind of mentality but it remains to be seen how many other Lakers--particularly the all important members of the frontcourt, the guys who the Celtics dominated in the NBA Finals and who were outrebounded by a smaller but hungrier Pacers team--share that mindset. The Lakers are going to win a ton of games and contend for a title but whether or not they complete the job will be decided by that factor, whether you call it "maturity" or a killer instinct.
During pregame warmups, Lakers' assistant coach Brian Shaw played post defense as several Lakers tried to score on him. Perhaps his efforts were an omen of how the Lakers would play in the paint: It can't be a good sign when a retired shooting guard blocks starting center Andrew Bynum's shot. Luke Walton, D.J. Mbenga and Sun Yue also went against Shaw, with varying degrees of success; Mbenga actually showcased an array of fakes and spin moves that I've never seen him use during real games.
The game was not a sellout, which is surprising because the Pacers have won back a lot of fans this season with their revamped roster and energetic play and because the Lakers are usually a very popular road draw.
Just like I did with LeBron James--and like I plan to do with each and every Team USA member who I encounter this season--I congratulated Kobe Bryant on winning the Olympic gold medal and thanked him for helping to bring that prize back to the United States. Bryant warmly accepted my congratulations with a big smile and when I told him how much I had enjoyed watching the team play he said, "We had a blast." A big part of the reason that Team USA won is that Bryant, James and the other team members not only put in the necessary work--both on the practice court and in the games--but that they filled that process with joy, so it is great that they created such a wonderful memory that will last a lifetime for themselves and for everyone who watched them play.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:38 AM