Lakers Squander a Big Lead Again, but Hold on to Silence Jazz, Win Series 4-1Kobe Bryant scored 31 points, passed for four assists and had four steals as the L.A. Lakers defeated the Utah Jazz 107-96 to win their first round series four games to one. Bryant averaged 27.4 ppg, 5.6 apg, 5.0 rpg and 2.4 spg versus the Jazz while shooting .466 from the field, .353 from three point range and .897 from the free throw line; his field goal percentage took a hit after his 5-24 outing in game three but that was an inexplicable aberration and it seems likely that by the time the Lakers emerge as the Western Conference champions he will push his scoring average closer to 30 ppg and elevate his field goal percentage to near the .500 mark: the Lakers' loss in last year's Finals overshadowed how remarkably productive and efficient Bryant had been versus a very competitive Western Conference playoff field, scoring well over 30 ppg while shooting better than .500 from the field, incredible numbers for any player, let alone a shooting guard.
Lamar Odom added 26 points, 15 rebounds and four assists, capping off a strong series in which he averaged 17.8 ppg and 11.0 rpg while shooting .627 from the field. Pau Gasol contributed 17 points, 11 rebounds and four assists; he also had a good series (18.4 ppg, 9.0 rpg, .586 field goal shooting). Trevor Ariza overcame the effects of an ankle injury that he suffered during a pregame celebration ritual (!) earlier in the series to finish with 12 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots. Paul Millsap led the Jazz with 16 points, Deron Williams had 14 points and six assists and Andrei Kirilenko also scored 14 points. Carlos Boozer--who scored at least 20 points in each of the first four games of the series--was a non-factor with 10 points and nine rebounds. Ronnie Price's boxscore numbers do not pop out--eight points on 3-9 shooting in 14:02--but Utah Coach Jerry Sloan rightly credited Price's spirited play with sparking a fourth quarter rally that cut the Lakers' lead from 22 to six; Sloan noted that Price not only made some big baskets and dished off for five assists but he also set several solid screens that helped his teammates get wide open, a role that John Stockton used to relish. Sloan wryly noted that the NBA "outlawed" some of the screens that Stockton liked to set but that overall "there is no rule against" setting screens and that doing so is a big part of playing winning basketball--a not so subtle message to the other Utah players.
It took the Lakers six games to eliminate the Jazz in the second round last year but this Utah team is clearly not as strong as last year's team; a more apt comparison is that last year's Lakers cruised to a first round sweep over Denver, while this year's Lakers dropped one game versus Utah by blowing a double digit lead and even in the games that the Lakers won they repeatedly allowed the Jazz to come back from huge deficits. The Lakers' problem with blowing leads dates back to last season, with the most notable--and devastating--example being the 24 point lead that they squandered in game four of the 2008 NBA Finals. The Lakers blow leads because they lose their focus defensively and on the glass and because at times they permit their opponents to push them around; in the wake of the 2008 Finals, those weaknesses became points of emphasis for the Lakers entering this season and they vowed to clean up those areas, secure home court advantage throughout the playoffs and win the championship--but even though they had an excellent season, the reality is that they made little if any progress in terms of addressing those issues and they failed to secure home court advanatage throughout the playoffs. Yes, the Lakers did win road games versus the Cavs and Celtics in the regular season but those "statement" games will be long forgotten by the time the Finals roll around.
Game five versus Utah is a microcosm of the Lakers' season--but the Lakers can get away with things versus the Jazz that they will not get away with versus elite teams; that is why after their game one victory, Coach Phil Jackson wrote on the locker room whiteboard "15? Not like that," making it very clear to the team that they cannot win a championship the way that they are currently playing.
The score was tied at 26 after the first quarter but Odom and Bryant each hit three pointers to open the second quarter and by halftime the Lakers were up 56-43. Odom's tip-in gave the Lakers an 80-58 lead with 2:21 remaining in the third quarter but their bench once again proved to be incapable of maintaining a sizeable advantage. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson prefers to rest Bryant at the start of the fourth quarter but during the season the bench gave away so many leads that at times Jackson decided he had to leave Bryant in with the reserves in order to provide some stability; in this game even that did not prove to be sufficient, as a unit consisting of Bryant plus bench players Andrew Bynum, Sasha Vujacic, Shannon Brown and Josh Powell allowed the Jazz to close to within 93-80 by the 6:42 mark of the fourth quarter. Realizing that Bryant--who would play a game-high 42:30--needed some rest in order to be fresh for the final minutes, Jackson took him out with 6:15 left, trying to take advantage of the impending TV timeout to maximize Bryant's break while minimizing the actual game action that he would miss. Bryant only sat out 1:03 but in that time the Jazz went on a 4-0 run to make the score 93-84 and then after Bryant returned a Ronnie Brewer dunk cut the margin to 93-86, making the Staples Center crowd understandably nervous. Bryant nailed a turnaround jumper with 4:25 remaining to end Utah's 13-0 scoring streak and the Jazz never got closer than six points the rest of the way.
After the game, TNT's Craig Sager asked Bryant what caused the Lakers to lose most of their 22 point lead and Bryant offered a very candid response: "We brought in that second unit and we stopped playing defense, stopped hustling, stopped getting back in transition, gave up too many layups and got them back in the game." The right side of Bryant's face was all bruised and cut up, an indication of how Utah literally scratched and clawed to try to avoid being eliminated, but Bryant dismissed those battle scars by saying, "That's playoff basketball...It's part of the game." Sager asked Bryant if the Jazz "exposed" a Lakers' weakness considering that L.A. blew big leads in every game of the series and Bryant thought for a beat before laughing uncomfortably and answering, "Probably. Probably. It's just going to be on us to try to correct some mistakes and, like I said, keep hustling. You can't stop playing hard because you have a big lead. You still have to play fundamentally sound, get back on defense and do the necessary things that got you that lead."
I don't mean to make it sound like the Lakers are a terrible team. They won 65 games this season and in most years that would be good enough to make them the clear favorites to capture the NBA title--but this is the only time in NBA history that two teams have won at least 65 games in the same season and the 66-16 Cleveland Cavaliers own three trumps over the Lakers: home court advantage if they face each other in the Finals, much more consistent defense and a deeper roster. The Lakers cannot do anything about the home court advantage situation and they cannot improve their roster during the playoffs, so in the next month or so they need to do everything they can to shore up their leaky defense. The Lakers are not a bad defensive team per se but they are extremely inconsistent in both their execution and their effort at that end of the court; while the Cavs are a defensive-minded team night in and night out, the Lakers rely on being able to score easily and their defense fluctuates from very good to very poor, often in the course of a single game.
The popular perception is that the Lakers are the deepest team in the NBA but, like many popular perceptions, that is not accurate and there are a lot of ways to demonstrate this:
1) The Cavs have at least 12 players who are fully capable of competently playing at least 15 minutes; their 12th man (in terms of minutes played in the first round sweep of Detroit) is Sasha Pavlovic, who started for the Cavs in the 2007 NBA Finals; the Lakers did not even use 12 players in the first round but their 11th man (Jordan Farmar) has been very inconsistent this season, their 10th man (Josh Powell) is a career journeyman, their ninth man (Luke Walton) may miss the rest of the playoffs due to a foot injury, their eighth man (Andrew Bynum) is struggling to regain his form after coming back from a knee injury and their seventh man (Sasha Vujacic) shot .207 from the field (that is not a misprint) versus Utah. Yes, that's right, the so-called deepest team in the NBA is actually about six deep at the moment.
2) The story gets even better when you look at who is the Lakers' sixth man, at least in terms of minutes played in the first round versus Utah: Shannon Brown, who the Cavs traded away last year and who only played one minute for the 2007 Cleveland team that made it to the Finals, a team that was not nearly as deep as the current Cavs are. So, the supposedly deepest team in the NBA is employing a sixth man who was barely the 12th man for a 2007 Cavs team that clearly was not nearly as deep as the 2009 Cavs team.
3) The Cavs' frontcourt is incredibly versatile and deep, featuring two former All-Star centers (Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace, who also won four Defensive Player of the Year awards) plus a top notch defender who sets tremendous screens (Anderson Varejao), a former number one overall pick who can shoot, rebound and defend (Joe Smith) and two young players who provide energy and hustle (J.J. Hickson--who played in 62 regular season games but did not see any action versus Detroit--and Darnell Jackson).
4) While Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom certainly comprise a good starting center/power forward tandem, the Lakers do not have any dependable bigs coming off of the bench. Andrew Bynum--who only recently came back from a knee injury--shot .391 from the field versus Utah and had more fouls (16) than rebounds (15); Josh Powell (2.0 ppg in 4.5 mpg) is the only other big who played for the Lakers in the first round. D.J. Mbenga (2.7 ppg in 23 regular season games) is their only other available big. Gasol and Odom averaged 38.8 mpg and 36.6 mpg respectively in the first round, while the four main Cleveland bigs (Ilgauskas, Varejao, Wallace, Smith) averaged between 11.3 and 33.3 mpg. Gasol is obviously the most skilled big man on either team but the Cavs' frontcourt is much deeper and provides consistent defense in every game, while the Lakers' bigs are inconsistent defensively and the Lakers have no margin for error if Gasol or Odom suffer an injury or get in foul trouble.
5) Other than Ben Wallace--who has been hobbled by leg injuries, though he is still able to play limited minutes--the Cavs are fully healthy. In contrast, the Lakers--who have less depth than the Cavs even at full strength--are dealing with injuries to Bynum, Walton and Ariza (sprained ankle, though he seemed unaffected in game five versus Utah). Although Bryant has not missed any games in two seasons and has been playing basketball nonstop for nearly a year and a half (thanks to the Lakers making the 2008 Finals plus his Team USA commitment), it is also worth mentioning at least in passing that he is playing with an avulsion fracture to the pinkie on his right (shooting) hand and a dislocated ring finger on the same hand; he suffered the former injury last season and has yet to have surgery for it, while the latter injury happened this season.
The Lakers are a very potent offensive team because of Bryant's incredible scoring prowess, which forces opposing teams to trap him, creating wide open shots for his teammates (whether or not Bryant makes the pass that is recorded officially as an assist). Gasol is perfectly suited to be the second option and Odom is comfortable as a third (or fourth) option but those players are performing so well in those secondary (and tertiary) roles that it is easy to get things twisted and make assumptions about how the Lakers would do without Bryant; if Gasol were the primary offensive option and Odom were relied upon to consistently score (the Lakers went 7-1 this season when he scored three or fewer points and 23-8 when he scored fewer than 10 points) then the Lakers would have struggled to make the playoffs in the West. Look at the eighth seeded, 48 win Utah team that the Lakers just beat: without Bryant scoring 27.4 ppg while drawing double teams there is no way that the Lakers could have scored enough to offset Utah's six double figure scorers--and that does not even take into account Mehmet Okur's absence for most of the series or the fact that without Bryant the Lakers' defense would be markedly worse.
The Lakers will probably not be pushed past six games in either of the next two series but they have a lot of work to do--and not much time to do it--if they plan on beating Cleveland in the Finals.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:09 AM