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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Lakers Slip Past Energetic Knicks

The L.A. Lakers overcame a sluggish start and a 15 point halftime deficit to defeat the New York Knicks, 116-114. Kobe Bryant scored 28 points on 12-22 field goal shooting and added seven rebounds and six assists; he had nine points and two assists in the last 7:33 of the fourth quarter. Pau Gasol did not play due to strep throat, so Lamar Odom received his first start of the season. Despite being slowed by an upper respiratory infection, Odom contributed four assists and had season-highs in scoring (17 points) and rebounds (12). Derek Fisher scored 15 points and had a team-high seven assists. Andrew Bynum had 13 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots but also committed several defensive lapses on screen/roll plays, an ongoing problem for the Lakers and most likely one of the reasons that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson sometimes benches Bynum down the stretch of close games.

Nate Robinson led the Knicks with a season-high 33 points, making all 12 of his free throws. David Lee and Quentin Richardson scored 18 points each, while Chris Duhon added 12 points and 11 assists. The Knicks shot 13-31 from three point range (.419) but were only 2-8 from behind the arc in the second half.

The Lakers, who struggled mightily on defense for most of the game, trailed 37-26 after the first quarter. Early in the season, some commentators breathlessly raved about the Lakers' "new" defensive scheme but when I recently spoke with Lakers commentator Stu Lantz and Lakers assistant coaches Frank Hamblen and Jim Cleamons about the Lakers' defense they made several important observations:

1) Lantz said, "I really do like the Celtics’ defense because the Celtic defense is consistent for 48 minutes; regardless of the score, it is consistent for 48 minutes...I think that they (the Lakers) have a step to go to get to the Celtics’ level because of the consistency with which they play."

2) Hamblen observed that the Bulls' championship teams for which he was an assistant coach had several "lock down" defenders who could handle their assignments without help but that this Lakers team does not have as many "lock down" defenders so it is vital to incorporate help schemes into their overall defensive game plan to compensate for that and prevent their big men from getting into foul trouble.

3) Cleamons echoed Hamblen's point, saying, "That (Chicago) team had a certain chemistry in that they knew how to help. That’s why we have gone to the scheme we are using this year: guys don’t know how to help—when to come over, when to get out. If these guys understood that schematic then we wouldn’t have to change up. We would have just gotten better at what we did."

Cleamons dismissed the idea that the Lakers are using a "new" scheme: "The only thing we’re doing is what a lot of teams have decided to do: basically, playing a man to man defense that is actually a zone; we’re sending an extra defender over in situations that we feel threatened. There’s no big secret about it; that’s what we’re trying to do: give more help when we can and we’ve been fortunate thus far."

Speaking in general terms about how the Lakers compare to great teams that he has played on (1972 Lakers) and coached (assistant to Phil Jackson with seven different championship teams), Cleamons frankly admitted, "We’ve got a lot of growing to do. This team is talented, no doubt about it, but both those teams were on a mission. That’s not to say that we’re not on a mission but this team does not have that maturity at this point in time. Hopefully, we will get to that stage, but sitting here in December we’re not that mature. We haven’t seen too many tough teams yet and the one tough team we saw (Detroit) handed our hat back to us."

The bottom line is that the Lakers do not play defense with the same intensity as the Celtics do and the coaching staff has not so much devised a "new" scheme as it has tried to come up with a plan to help the non-"lock down" defenders understand when and how to give help. The Lakers are also not nearly as physical a team as the Celtics are; that is something that will not likely change, so the Lakers have to find ways to be effective on defense by taking advantage of their length and quickness to make up for the reality that they are not going to wear teams down by pounding on them the way that the Celtics do.

What exactly went wrong defensively in the first quarter when the Lakers gave up 37 points? I could probably write a book about that but let's just look at two instructive examples:

1) At the 4:29 mark of the first quarter, Robinson received a pass outside of the three point line on the left baseline. Fisher shaded him to the baseline, denying him a drive to the middle. If you watched closely, you could see and hear Bryant pointing to the baseline and instructing Bynum to be ready to help. However, Bynum was not paying attention and thus Robinson drove in for an uncontested layup. Someone who does not understand NBA basketball might ask, "Why did Fisher just give up the baseline and let Robinson drive right by him?" In high school, you may have been taught to play defense with your foot on the baseline and to force everything to the middle but that is not the case in the NBA (and often even in college, as Cavs assistant coach Hank Egan told me a couple years ago), because the players are too good and have too many options if you let them get to the middle of the floor with a live dribble. In the NBA, good defensive teams generally "shrink the floor," force the driver to the baseline and then bring over a help defender, while the other three defenders rotate to cut off the passing angles. Generally, it is the center's job to see the whole floor and call out defensive signals, because perimeter players cannot see what is going on behind them but on the Lakers it is usually Bryant who is the defensive signal caller because he is such a great defender (and obviously is much more experienced than Bynum). Of course, even if Bryant "calls" a perfect defensive game it won't matter if his teammates don't do what they are supposed to do--and then uninformed people who only rely on stats and/or their lack of understanding of NBA basketball will be at a loss to correctly assign blame for defensive breakdowns. For instance, when you look at the supposedly objective individual "defensive ratings" keep in mind that a play like Robinson's drive will be "blamed" on Fisher even though he did his job and Bynum missed an assignment.

2) A different kind of defensive breakdown happened at the 2:04 mark of the first quarter. Jordan Farmar let Robinson beat him into the middle while cutting without the ball, Duhon fed Robinson and Robinson scored an easy layup while Farmar fouled him for a three point play. That lapse is Farmar's fault, because he let Robinson move into a prime scoring area, instead of playing good ball denial defense and forcing Robinson away from the middle of the court.

In addition to those two specific plays, the Lakers committed many bad defensive rotations that resulted in wide open three point shots. As Bryant said after the game, during halftime the Lakers talked about needing to not only play harder but also to execute better and stop missing so many assignments.

Although Odom made a very solid contribution overall, he still had some frustrating--and all too typical--lapses, such as blown layups and silly turnovers. If you're a Lakers' fan, you'd almost prefer to see Bryant shoot over two defenders at key moments than pass the ball to Odom, who wavers wildly between being too tentative and too aggressive. One time Bryant fed him for what should have been an easy layup but Odom jumped up and passed the ball to Fisher for a three point shot (that missed). Another time Bryant spoonfed Odom under the hoop but Odom stepped out of bounds--which even the Lakers' announcers noticed and mentioned but the referees somehow missed--and then threw the ball away. In the background, an unidentified voice screamed, "Get tough!"

Speaking of Odom, I wonder what his field goal percentage is on coast to coast drives. That is supposed to be a strength of his but he sure seems to miss a lot of them. On the plus side, Odom is a very good rebounder, defends well (when he avoids silly fouls) and can be a good passer (when he does not commit sloppy turnovers). As a scorer, Odom is at his best when he posts up a smaller defender or when he cuts baseline off of the ball and receives a pass, which last year usually came from Bryant or Gasol.

The Lakers used an 11-2 run to shave the halftime deficit to 67-61 but could not make much more progress than that and still trailed 88-84 at the end of the third quarter. The Lakers' bench players shot 11-28 from the field, though of course the reserve corps was weakened due to Gasol's absence moving Odom into the starting lineup. The deficit increased from four to seven while Bryant rested during the first few minutes of the fourth quarter.

Bryant returned at the 8:31 mark with the Lakers trailing 97-90 and he immediately went to work: first he used impeccable footwork to free himself for a pullup jumper, then he drew a double team and passed to a cutting Odom, who was fouled and made both free throws. A Bryant steal and fast break dunk trimmed New York's advantage to 99-98 less than two minutes after he had entered the game.

After Odom made a bad gamble, giving Al Harrington a free lane for a driving dunk, Bryant answered with a deep three pointer from the left wing to tie the score at 101. Earlier in the game, Bryant went for a steal against Duhon behind the three point line but whiffed and Duhon got into the lane and drew a foul--but there are some important differences between Bryant's gamble and Odom's gamble:

1) Bryant went for the steal behind the three point line. If he got the ball, it would be a sure fast break score (or a foul resulting in two free throws); even if he missed (which he did), there should be time for other defenders to rotate and cut Duhon off. There is no way that a player should be able to drive from behind the three point line deep into the paint before meeting any resistance. Bobby Jones is one of the greatest defenders of all-time and he played on a Sixers' team that went for a lot of steals; he told me, "In the type of defense that we played, if one person gambled it was kind of like a spider web type of thing--the web stretches. If one guy goes, the other four sort of cheat and leave their men a little bit to help out in case the ball moves and a guy becomes open. You just keep rotating around. I don’t think it (going for steals or blocks) is selfish at all. I think that it’s good. You have to put pressure on the offense because shooters are so good. The offense has such an advantage because it can initiate what takes place, so as a defender you have got to try to instigate something to throw them off and make them do something they don’t want to do. The old term, 'pressure will bust the pipe,' is very true. It will make people change what they want to do." So, criticism of Bryant's "gambling" has to be taken in context of the game situation (time, score, the place on the court where Bryant makes the gamble).

2) In contrast, Odom was guarding Harrington just outside of the paint; when Odom whiffed on the steal attempt, he all but guaranteed that Harrington would score. That was a high risk, low reward play, because even if Odom got the steal there probably would not have been a fast break opportunity--he would have obtained possession in about the same area of the floor where he would have gotten a rebound if he simply played good position defense and forced Harrington to miss a jump shot.

After a New York miss, Bryant drew two defenders as a result of a screen/roll with Odom, backed up to spread out New York's defense and then attacked the paint, collapsing the defense to him and opening up Derek Fisher at the three point line. Fisher pump faked as Robinson ran out at him and then hit a pullup jumper to give the Lakers a 103-101 lead. Two Robinson free throws tied the score and then the Lakers ran a screen/roll with Bryant and Bynum. Naturally, both defenders went to Bryant, who again stretched out the defense before passing to Odom, who drove to the hoop for a layup.

Trevor Ariza forced a turnover and received a nice return pass from Odom for a fast break layup that put the Lakers up, 107-103. The Knicks answered with jumpers by Wilson Chandler and David Lee sandwiched around a Lakers turnover. After a timeout, the Lakers ran another Bryant-Bynum screen/roll and Bynum was fouled after Bryant drew the double-team and fed him the ball in the paint. This was a non-shooting foul--though it did put New York into the penalty--and after the inbounds pass the Lakers went back to the Bryant-Bynum screen/roll. Bryant passed to Odom at the foul line but Bynum fumbled Odom's feed and the Knicks stole the ball. Fisher stole the ball from Robinson and drove coast to coast, drawing a foul. Fisher sank both free throws but Lee answered with a pair of free throws to tie the score.

The Lakers isolated Bryant at the top of the key and he again employed his footwork to get Chandler off balance before draining a pullup jumper. Robinson hit a three pointer over Bryant--who had switched on to him after a New York screen/roll had sent the Lakers into scramble mode--to put the Knicks up 112-111. Fisher's shot was swatted out of bounds and Ariza almost threw the inbounds pass away but this turned out to be in L.A.'s favor, because Odom caught the ball and Ariza ducked to the hoop just in time to receive a return pass from Odom for a layup. The Lakers got a stop and after a Bryant-Bynum screen/roll Bryant fed Ariza for an open three pointer that clanked off of the rim, giving the Knicks the opportunity to go for the win with 26 seconds left. Robinson missed a running shot in the lane and Ariza snared the rebound and passed to Bryant, who passed ahead to Fisher, who ran some precious seconds off of the clock before being fouled. Fisher, the second best free throw shooter in the NBA this season, calmly made both shots. After a timeout, Fisher fouled Robinson before he could go into his move or shoot a three pointer. Robinson made both free throws.

Ariza again struggled with the inbounds pass before making a dangerous throw into the backcourt to Fisher. Robinson almost stole the pass and then promptly fouled Fisher, who missed the first shot and made the second. The Knicks had no timeouts left and Duhon's three quarter court heave came up short at the buzzer. In the first half, the Lakers tried a lot of different things offensively but when it came down to winning time in the last seven minutes, Bryant was the focal point of the offense, either scoring on his own or creating scoring opportunities for his teammates, opportunities that they could not likely have created on their own.

During an NBA TV interview after the game, Bryant said, "It was a good game for us. We needed a game like this...We had to show a lot of patience, a lot of poise, not get flustered or anything like that." Chris Webber asked Bryant how he reacted to losing in the Finals and what his mindset was in the offseason heading into this campaign after suffering such a painful defeat to the Celtics. Bryant answered, "It's exciting." Webber and Gary Payton chuckled but Bryant said, "I'm being real with you. It's exciting. It's exciting, because we're there. We're close. It's not one of those things where you hang your head and you say, 'Man, if we only did this or we only did that.' The hell with that. That's over with. It's done with. We're right there, so let's turn it up another notch and let's get excited about this. We have a great opportunity, so let's go get it this year. We had a great opportunity, we went for it, it didn't happen and there are some things we can do better. So, now we have to understand that. We have to be realistic about it. Boston was a better defensive team. We have to make those adjustments and get better in those areas if we want to have that parade and it's as simple as that."

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:17 AM

16 comments

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16 Comments:

At Wednesday, December 17, 2008 9:08:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

I watched the NBATV with those guys, missed the game because I slept, and when i woke i see them talking to Bryant. I dont agree and I dont think he even believes its exciting that he lost the Finals and that they were close. Just by looking at his facial expressions you could tell that. I can agree with the part about working towards going back and that being exciting.

 
At Wednesday, December 17, 2008 9:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

I'm sure that he did not mean that losing is "exciting." Webber asked him what his mindset was going into the offseason and how he prepared for this season, so what Bryant is saying is that rather than be discouraged about a past that he cannot change he is excited about the opportunity that the Lakers could have to win a championship in the near future.

 
At Wednesday, December 17, 2008 10:20:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

His facial expressions were to indicate that the question was dumb. Indeed he wasnt excited about losing.

 
At Wednesday, December 17, 2008 12:04:00 PM, Blogger Big E said...

The Lakers need to ratchet up their defensive prowess or this will be another unfulfilled campaign.

 
At Wednesday, December 17, 2008 2:57:00 PM, Anonymous warsaw said...

Any news about Gasol's throat?

Pau won't make the defense better, but he's the only other Laker, besides Kobe, who can create a shot by himself or make a play for others (I think he has more assists than any other big man in the league).

 
At Wednesday, December 17, 2008 7:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice recap Dave

I would have liked to hear your thoughts on the Knicks side too though.

The Knicks built a lead from hot shooting. The other team almost always comes back from these types of leads more than any other, at least that's my impression.

D'Antoni used a ridiculous 7 man rotation, and that basically guarantees a fourth quarter collapse. Tired legs leads to late rotations and short shots.

I think he has done a good job, given the Knicks lack of talent and collective basketball IQ, but he is still making the same mistakes he did in Phoenix.

Z

 
At Wednesday, December 17, 2008 11:24:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

It's like we saw two different interviews. I thought that Kobe's facial expression reflected surprise that C Webb and Payton chuckled at his original answer. Kobe said that he is "excited" about the opportunity the Lakers have to win this year. He didn't say anything about being "excited" that the Lakers lost. He was strictly talking about his attitude regarding this season.

 
At Wednesday, December 17, 2008 11:31:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Big E:

I agree.

The game against Boston will be a very interesting measuring stick for both teams.

 
At Wednesday, December 17, 2008 11:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Warsaw:

As far as I know, Gasol will try to play on Friday. Apparently, several Lakers (including Odom) are a bit under the weather, something that goes with the territory during a long season in close quarters: one guy gets sick and then others get sick, too.

 
At Wednesday, December 17, 2008 11:37:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

At some point, there are issues of time and space to consider. These game recaps often run 3000 words or more, so even though I am trying to be as in depth as possible I obviously cannot cover the entire game with the depth that I devote to certain key plays. I try to single out particular sequences that I think have wider meaning/value than just this game. The Lakers' "new" defense, the concept of "gambling" and the assignment of "blame" for defensive breakdowns are larger issues than just this one game and by discussing them in this context I am able to weigh in on those larger issues.

D'Antoni has quickly turned the Knicks into Phoenix East: they run and gun and shoot a lot of three pointers. Duhon has become a poor man's Nash in terms of assists but he cannot make all of the passes that Nash can, nor is he as good of a shooter. D'Antoni tends to trust a small rotation and with the current talent level on the team he is hardly likely to start playing waves of reserves. He has a good recipe to make the team exciting and somewhat competitive but it will be interesting to see how far he can take the Knicks when/if the overall talent level is upgraded.

 
At Thursday, December 18, 2008 4:22:00 AM, Anonymous tp said...

Regarding defense, I recall an interview with Tyrone Hill back when he was one of the best defenders in the NBA. He spoke of his evolution, how he came from college thinking that nobody would score on him but was quickly taught otherwise, and how he would play defense differently when covering different players. One of the things he mentioned was that in college he was taught to deny the baseline, but in the NBA he found out that he could not simply stop his man from moving towards the hoop. Every star forward had the resources to find a way ahead, so he had to compromise. He chose the baseline, because then the opposition had fewer options hemmed between the baseline and the defender than in the middle of the lane. Made me realize that quite often defense does not mean stopping your man in one big play, but getting him to less favourable situations bit by bit until you can force him into a double team or a bad shot from a place he does not like.

There is not much of that in the Lakers right now.

 
At Thursday, December 18, 2008 5:30:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

TP:

That is a very good example.

Even when the Lakers ranked among the league leaders in certain defensive categories early in the season, I never agreed with people who asserted that they were employing some great new defensive scheme; they were simply using solid help and rotation principles. My interviews with Cleamons and Hamblen not only confirmed that my initial impression was correct but also that the Lakers are trying to compensate for their lack of "lock down" defenders and the poor defensive instincts of some of their players. That coaching staff faces an uphill battle to get the team to play championship level defense on a night in, night out basis.

 
At Thursday, December 18, 2008 7:12:00 AM, Anonymous tp said...

Thank Buddah for the SI Vault: http://vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1012085/index.htm

 
At Thursday, December 18, 2008 7:19:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

TP:

That is a very nice little article. Thanks for providing the link!

 
At Thursday, December 18, 2008 10:41:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Maybe we did. I noticed his expressions after the question was asked and he answered excited.

 
At Thursday, December 18, 2008 6:49:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

I thought that his expression changed when C Webb and Payton starting giggling; they apparently thought that Kobe was joking because of his deadpan delivery but he was being quite serious that he is excited about the opportunity that the Lakers have this season.

 

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