Lakers Retake Initiative With 108-94 Win Over RocketsKobe Bryant had 33 points, six rebounds, three assists, three blocked shots, two steals and no turnovers as the L.A. Lakers defeated the Houston Rockets 108-94 to take a 2-1 series lead and regain control of home court advantage. Bryant moved past Larry Bird into sixth place on the NBA's all-time career playoff scoring list. Bryant shot just 11-28 from the field but, as the great Bill Russell used to say during his days as a color commentator for CBS, it is not always how many shots you hit but when you hit them that matters; Bryant made five of his first six shots and scored 11 quick points as the Lakers took an early 24-18 lead, he drilled a tough three pointer near the end of the third quarter to put the Lakers up 74-62 and he slammed the door on any possible Houston comeback with another three pointer at the 2:21 mark of the fourth quarter to give the Lakers a 95-84 advantage. The three pointer to close out the third quarter was a real masterpiece. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson had just brought Bryant to the bench to rest about a minute earlier--and the Rockets shaved four points off of the Lakers' lead in that brief time--but when the Lakers gained possession with 7.2 seconds left Jackson put Bryant in for the final possession. Obviously, everyone in the arena knew that Bryant would be the first option on the inbounds play. ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy explained that in such situations the Lakers like to use a bunch formation, with Bryant popping out to receive the pass near the top of the key. Before the ball was inbounded, Van Gundy noted, "Artest is perfectly positioned." Indeed, Ron Artest did such a good job that Bryant had to go well past the three point line just to get free and he caught the ball facing the midcourt line, not his own hoop; Bryant promptly turned around, used a dribble move to back Artest up a little bit and then drained a three point shot from several feet beyond the arc. That not only gave the Lakers a double digit lead but it was a demoralizing play for the Rockets.
All five Laker starters scored in double figures, including Jordan Farmar (12 points, seven assists, five rebounds, two steals), who started in place of the suspended Derek Fisher. Lamar Odom played an efficient game (16 points, 13 rebounds, 7-11 field goal shooting), Trevor Ariza (13 points, five rebounds, four steals) was very active and Pau Gasol (13 points, six rebounds, three assists) did not shoot well (4-11) but set some effective screens.
Artest led the Rockets with 25 points on 10-23 field goal shooting; he padded those numbers with a couple late jumpers before he was ejected for allegedly committing a flagrant foul against Gasol--Bryant said after the game that he did not think Artest should have been ejected--but Artest's shot selection during most of the game was highly questionable. Perhaps a "stat guru" may be foolish enough to say that Artest played a more "efficient" game than Bryant in terms of shooting percentage but ESPN's Mark Jackson understands the game much deeper than that and at one point he declared, "There are times as a point guard that you have to keep the ball away from certain guys. Ron Artest is in that zone right now. You have to keep the ball away from him and get it in the hands of Yao."
Yao Ming had 19 points and 14 rebounds while shooting 6-14 from the field but he only scored five points in the second half and was limping severely down the stretch; he has a huge bruise on his right knee from colliding with Bryant in game one and he also apparently has a balky left ankle. Luis Scola and Carl Landry (10 points each) were the only other Rockets who scored in double figures.
Bryant's early scoring outburst set the tone for this game and, most likely, the remainder of the series as well. During the first quarter, Van Gundy made a couple very interesting observations. He said that Bryant does not have "the same trust in his teammates that he had earlier in the year and rightfully so." I think that the "trust" formulation is overused, because the onus should be on role players to earn that trust and not on star players to simply blindly "trust" players who are not getting the job done, but Van Gundy is quite correct that Bryant cannot afford to start out games as a passer and expect that his teammates will be able to carry the scoring load. When Bryant scores right out of the gate it gives his team confidence and forces the opposing team to commit more and more players to defending him, which then leaves Bryant's teammates wide open. It really is easy to play with Bryant if you have any kind of game, because all the perimeter players have to do is spot up and make open jumpers, while the bigs can simply roll to the hoop and feast on layups either off of feeds or by hitting the offensive boards after the opposing bigs slide over to contest Bryant's shot. More significant than Bryant's individual field goal percentage is the fact that the Lakers shot 11-20 (.550) from three point range. Van Gundy stressed throughout the game that the NBA is a "make or miss" league, explaining, "They (the Rockets) are going to commit off of the corner to stop Bryant's penetration and that is why it is critical for guys like Luke Walton and Odom to make the three point corner shot."
People who only look at Bryant's field goal percentage or how many jumpers he takes or how many free throws he attempts simply do not understand the kinds of defenses that he is facing or what he is doing to try to break down those defenses; elite defensive teams build a wall around the rim in the half court set, so if Bryant simply drives pell mell all the way to the hoop on every possession then he will make himself vulnerable to committing offensive fouls and turnovers. That is why Bryant takes what the defense gives him, namely midrange jumpers and/or passes to open teammates who then must make shots. Bryant is playing aggressively but he is also playing smartly and efficiently: in three games versus Houston, he is averaging 35.0 ppg while shooting .477 from the field and .438 from three point range and only committing 1.33 turnovers per game in 42.7 mpg. For comparsion purposes, it is worth noting that in two regular season games versus Houston, LeBron James averaged 24.0 ppg, shot .409 from the field and .250 from three point range and averaged 5.0 turnovers per game in 36 mpg, numbers that mirror his struggles against elite defenses in the 2007 NBA Finals and 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals. Bryant's statistics against Houston so far are off the charts good but this just continues the regular season trend, when he led the Lakers to a 4-0 sweep of the Rockets while scoring 28.3 ppg, shooting .530 from the field and .533 from three point range and committing 3.3 turnovers per game.
Van Gundy also opined that the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play is very effective: "They need to exploit that more." The Lakers cruised through the Western Conference playoffs last year largely on the strength of that action: after Gasol sets the screen, Bryant attracts two or even three defenders, creating scoring opportunities for other players; Gasol sets good screens and he can catch and finish by either scoring in the paint or draining outside shots but if Gasol is not open Bryant can either pass to Odom flashing to the high post or reverse the ball to a three point shooter camped out on the weak side. The play only breaks down if Gasol is tentative in terms of how he sets the screen, not shooting when he is open or missing easy shots from close range; of course, another way that the play can break down is if the Lakers' three point shooters do not connect at a high enough percentage to keep the defense honest.
Van Gundy diagrammed a Bryant-Gasol screen/roll that resulted in a dunk for Odom; after Gasol set a screen for Bryant, three defenders converged on Bryant, who swung the ball to the weak side. The Rockets had to scramble to rotate and after another pass to Farmar in the corner Farmar fed a wide open Odom in the paint. Bryant receives no credit in the boxscore for any of this but the defensive coverage he attracted created the play. A casual fan watching this play thinks to himself, "Why don't the Lakers utilize Odom more often?" A "stat guru" watching this play thinks to himself, "The Lakers are a deep team that gets contributions from Odom and Farmar; Kobe must be overrated." Someone watching this play who understands basketball realizes that Odom likely would not have scored--and thus Farmar would not have gotten an assist--without Bryant forcing Houston's defense to break down. If the Lakers had to consistently create scoring opportunities for themselves over the course of the season without Bryant I don't think that this team would even make the playoffs--and Coach Phil Jackson sees exactly the same thing, which is why Bryant played 44 minutes in this game and is averaging 41.5 mpg in this year's playoffs.
Van Gundy had a lot to say about the Lakers' bench and he is not singing the tired refrains about the Lakers being the deepest team in the NBA; he knows better than that. Van Gundy noted that the Lakers' depth has been compromised by losing Ronny Turiaf and Vladimir Radmanovic, both of whom departed for what Van Gundy termed "fiscal" (i.e., cost saving) reasons. Injuries to Farmar and Andrew Bynum have limited both players' minutes and effectiveness this season. Van Gundy's overall verdict on the Lakers' bench this season: "Their bench has played very poorly." Van Gundy and Mark Jackson talked a lot about Bynum, who finished with four points, five rebounds and three fouls in 12 minutes. Near the end of the regular season, Bynum returned from a knee injury but Bynum has candidly admitted that his recent poor play is because of mental reasons, not any lingering physical effects of the injury. Van Gundy and Mark Jackson both emphasized that this is unacceptable. As Van Gundy put it, "He's cashing the checks," so there is no excuse for not being mentally prepared. Van Gundy agreed with Mark Jackson's description of what Bynum's role should be: defend, rebound and play hard. Bynum is not a focal point of the offense and his scoring opportunities come about when other players make plays for him, so there really is nothing for Bynum to be struggling about mentally: all he has to do is play hard.
Gasol struggles a bit to defend Yao on the block; this is where Bynum could be valuable in this series if only he were focused and could stay out of foul trouble. With Bynum only making cameo appearances, it is up to the lean Gasol to do his best to keep Yao out of the paint. Bryant provided a helping hand in game three by flying in from the weak side to block a couple of Yao's point blank shots during the third quarter. After one of those plays, Van Gundy said, "That's an all-world defensive play." The much ballyhooed "chase down" blocks of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are largely a product of hustle, athleticism and timing (that is not a criticism of either player, merely an observation); Bryant's blocks on Yao--a player who is a foot taller and possibly 100 pounds heavier than he is--came in the half court set as a result of Bryant correctly executing defensive rotations. While Bryant obviously had to utilize some athletic skill to make those blocks it is important to understand that the reason he was in position to do so is that he knows where he is supposed to be on defense. Unfortunately for the Lakers, many of their players are still struggling with understanding and executing proper defensive rotations; in fact, those limitations are the reason that the Lakers' coaching staff has tried to explicitly codify who should rotate where and when, because Bryant is one of the few players on the roster who can correctly diagnose such situations on the fly.
Kevin Pelton made a big deal early in the season about the Lakers' allegedly revolutionary defensive scheme but when I spoke with Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons he told me, "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." In a subsequent interview, Cleamons explained to me, "Anyone who watches film and is a student of the game would see that we don't play with the same intensity day in and day out, game in and game out. If you are going to be a championship caliber team, your defense is the one area that doesn't waver. We aren't good enough on a game by game basis to do what we need to do to say that we are going to be accountable in the end. Then, our rotations are not always what I like to call 'on point.' Sometimes, they are nonexistent, sometimes they are a little bit slow. If you are a good defensive team, then you play better on the defensive end than you do on the offensive end, because that (defense) is where you are really linked together; (in that case) the team has a feeling of when they have to help and a sense and a presence of how they need to get there so that when the ball moves and flows your defense is not always reacting. You are kind of ahead or you arrive right on the catch so the offense knows that you are there and there are no gaps in your rotations."
The Lakers actually played better defense in this game than they have played recently but they still leaked some serious oil in the fourth quarter, giving up 32 points after a masterful third quarter in which they held the Rockets to just 14 points. During the fourth quarter, Van Gundy said, "There has been a lessening of defense and rebounding intensity by the Lakers in this quarter, which is inexcusable if you are trying to regain home court advantage." The Lakers struggled to get stops down the stretch and after scoring late in the quarter the Rockets smartly denied inbounds passes to Bryant on several occasions and instead fouled other players, who repeatedly could only manage to split their pairs of free throws, thus leaving the door at least somewhat open for a comeback.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:30 AM