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Friday, May 15, 2009

Rockets Lead Wire to Wire, Blast Lakers 95-80

Luis Scola, not Pau Gasol, looked like an All-NBA forward as the Houston Rockets defeated the L.A. Lakers 95-80, forcing a game seven and improbably putting the Western Conference's number one seed on the brink of elimination. Scola scored 24 points on 10-17 field goal shooting and had 12 rebounds, thoroughly abusing any and all Laker frontcourt players who tried to guard him: Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom all ended up looking like David Robinson being taken apart by Hakeem Olajuwon a decade and a half ago. Scola is a very good player but ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy lambasted the Lakers' horrible post defense, calling it "inexcusable (lack of) attention to detail" because Gasol, Bynum and Odom repeatedly let Scola catch the ball deep in the paint and turn to shoot over his left shoulder. The defense was so bad that Van Gundy offered a radical solution, suggesting that the Lakers put 6-6 shooting guard Kobe Bryant on the 6-9, 245 pound power forward Scola: "I want someone who wants to compete with him right now and I don't see any competitive spirit in the post defensively." Bryant has made the All-Defensive First Team seven times--including this year--but if the Lakers have to resort to guarding a power forward with their shooting guard then they are in pretty big trouble. Bryant was visibly displeased with the performance of several of his teammates, including Gasol, who Bryant spoke to very animatedly during a timeout early in the game--and you know what that means: we are all about to be subjected to yet another batch of articles by sportswriters posing as psychiatrists providing detailed commentary about every facial expression Bryant made and every harsh word that he uttered.

The Rockets knocked out the Lakers with a three punch offensive combination: Scola softened them up with low post jabs--especially in the first quarter, when he had 14 points on 6-9 shooting--then Carl Landry came off the bench to hit them with body blows (15 points on 6-6 field goal shooting, nine rebounds) and Aaron Brooks used his speed and deft shooting (26 points on 8-13 marksmanship) to put the Lakers down for the count. The Lakers' pick and roll defense is in shambles and their big men are so reluctant to protect the hoop you'd think that the basket is radioactive; a typical "defensive" sequence for the Lakers begins with Gasol showing up softly in a halfhearted attempt to trap Brooks on a screen/roll play and ends with Brooks lofting an easy shot over Odom or Bynum.

Scola, Brooks and Landry were so productive that the Rockets survived Ron Artest's awful shot selection; Artest scored 14 points on 6-17 field goal shooting, often breaking off plays to simply dribble around aimlessly before firing up low percentage bricks. The problem with Artest is not merely his shooting percentage but the quality and timing of the shots he takes, because when you take bad shots your team has little chance to get offensive rebounds or even properly balance the court in transition defensively.

The Rockets outscored the Lakers 15-1 to start the game, with Scola pouring in eight of those points. The Lakers did not score a field goal until Bryant made a layup at the 6:21 mark of the first quarter and by that time they trailed 17-3. Scola made the score 19-3 by drilling a jump hook in Gasol's eye and Van Gundy said, "He's coming back to his left shoulder. The catch is too easy, the jump hook is too easy." In other words, Gasol provided no resistance either prior to Scola catching the ball or after Scola received the ball in the paint. That is simply unacceptable. After the game, Gasol said, "I have faith in our team. I think we're going to respond to this loss. We're going to be mentally ready." That just begs the question of why they--and specifically he--were not mentally ready for this game. Gasol is a skillful player but it is clear that it is not an accident that he had an 0-12 record in playoff games prior to joining forces with Bryant last season.

Near the end of the first quarter, Van Gundy declared, "They (the Rockets) are just dominating the paint and again it comes back to frontcourt toughness. If you have people who want to protect the basket you have a chance. If you don't you have no chance." Van Gundy is a great game analyst but I don't know what kind of future he has at ESPN if he continues to tell the truth and does not adhere to the journalistic convention of blaming Bryant for everything that goes wrong with the Lakers.

When Lakers Coach Phil Jackson was interviewed after the first quarter with his team trailing 27-15, he said, "Pau is playing a lackluster kind of game. We have to get him going."

Some people talk about how talented this Lakers team supposedly is and how offensively explosive they can be but the reality is that this team is mentally soft and the reason that they can be offensively explosive is that Bryant constantly attracts multiple defenders; without Bryant, this team would struggle to win 40 games, particularly in the West: can anyone really say with a straight face that a Bryant-less Lakers team would be as good as the Nash-Shaq-Richardson Suns that won 46 games and did not even make the playoffs this year?

Bryant led the Lakers with a game-high 32 points but he shot 11-27 from the field as the Rockets did a good job of sending multiple defenders at him; one of his misses was a half court heave just before the halftime buzzer but there is no denying that the Rockets--spearheaded by Shane Battier--made Bryant work for everything that he got. So much has been made of Houston's plan to force Bryant to shoot contested two point jumpers but Bryant managed to get to the hoop often enough to shoot 9-10 from the free throw line; he also missed several shots in the lane that could not accurately be described as long jumpers, so depending on your perspective he either missed some makeable shots or the Rockets defended him well on those attempts or Bryant was fatigued due to having to carry such a heavy load. However you look at it, the bottom line is that he is averaging 29.7 ppg on .463 field goal shooting while committing just 1.7 turnovers per game this series so it cannot objectively be said that the Rockets have uncovered some magic formula for stopping Bryant: they are alternating two All-Defensive Team members on him plus sending multiple help defenders and he is still exceeding his regular season scoring average while matching his regular season field goal percentage and cutting down his turnover rate.

One situation with Bryant that bears watching--assuming that the Lakers win game seven--is that at the 2:03 mark of the second quarter he picked up his fifth technical foul of the playoffs; by NBA rule, any player receiving seven technical fouls in the playoffs is automatically suspended for one game. Van Gundy immediately said of Bryant's technical foul, "That's a joke" and Mark Jackson chimed in, "That's an awful call, no question about it--a missed call." What happened was Artest committed a loose ball foul against Bryant--which the officials called--and then Artest jumped backwards as if Bryant had unloaded a massive blow to his face. Artest's theatrics completely fooled the officials, who whistled Bryant for a technical foul. Moments later, Artest and Bryant were standing next to each other calmly talking during a stoppage of play and Van Gundy narrated what viewers could see by reading Bryant's lips: "Kobe just told him he flopped and that's exactly what happened." The league office has the authority to rescind technical fouls and since there is absolutely no question that this particular technical foul was bogus look for the NBA to issue yet another apology and wipe that call out of the record books.

Gasol finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds, which simply is not good enough considering that he is being guarded by players who are much smaller and less skilled than he is. Odom had a game-high 14 rebounds but scored just eight points; he is hindered by the back injury that he suffered in game four but it's not like the Lakers can consistently depend on him to be productive even when he is fully healthy. Bynum scored zero points and had seven rebounds in 19 minutes; I have a vivid imagination but I cannot picture a scenario in which he either would have made a difference in last year's Finals versus Kevin Garnett/Kendrick Perkins/Leon Powe or in which he will make a difference in this year's Finals versus Cleveland's versatile and deep frontcourt--assuming that the Lakers make it to the Finals.

Let's not forget that vaunted Lakers bench. Bynum was the nominal starter, though Odom played more minutes than Bynum did; as for the other guys, Jordan Farmar played very well (13 points on 5-10 field goal shooting) but Luke Walton (zero points on 0-5 field goal shooting), Sasha Vujacic (two points on 1-3 field goal shooting) and Shannon Brown (two points on 0-3 field goal shooting) contributed nothing. The Rockets are now missing two All-Star players--Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, who has been out of the lineup for months--which means by definition that their bench has been depleted because two reserves have been converted into starters but they got an outstanding performance from Landry and a couple timely shots from Von Wafer (five points on 2-3 field goal shooting in five minutes). Kyle Lowry did not shoot well but he had four assists in 15 minutes, twice as many as the five Lakers' reserves produced in 88 combined minutes.

The fully loaded Celtics--with a healthy Kevin Garnett, plus James Posey and P.J. Brown coming off of the bench--were pushed to seventh games twice last season and still won a championship. NBA history shows--and we have already seen in this series--that momentum does not carry over from game to game, particularly when there is a shift in venue. The likelihood is that the Lakers will win on Sunday, quite possibly by double digits, but the way that the Lakers are playing does not bode well for their championship ambitions, even if they do eliminate the Rockets and move on to face the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:41 AM

19 comments

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19 Comments:

At Friday, May 15, 2009 8:08:00 AM, Anonymous yogi said...

It's unbelievable how bad the Lakers can play. When was the last time so much talent showed so little effort?
It's like they don't give a damn, except for Kobe.

I bet Phil Jackson is going crazy. I know i am. I'm beginning to really hate this Laker team.

 
At Friday, May 15, 2009 9:27:00 AM, Anonymous Jack Bauer said...

David,
I seriously thought that Kobe had smacked Pau Gasol upside the head during that timeout. But when i look again, i realized it was a hard pat on the head i think was intended to fire him up. If Pau is having that much problem with Scola and Hayes, then Kenyon Martin and Nene will run through him. They are much tougher and physical than Scola and Hayes.

On kobe: When is he going to realize that Lakers aren't going to win if he is not aggressive from the start. Lakers can't afford Kobe trying to include them in the beginning of the game. His teammates aren't mentally tough enough to handle the responsibility.

On Phil jackson: Why is he so dead set on putting Fisher on Brooks? Fisher has been horrible this series and outplayed by both Houstno point guards. Farmar was having a great game yesterday but some inexplicable reason he was benched in favor of Fisher who was havin another horrible game. Mark Jackson noted this, he said: "If I am Jordan Farmar, I dont know what I should do anymore, I come out, do everything my coaches asked of me, and play well and I am still on the bench..." or something like that.

It was amazing that Odom grabbed more rebounds than Pau Gasol with a bruised back still. Who knows, Mbenga is a much better post defender than Gasol or Bynum who seemed so tentative and scared out there.

 
At Friday, May 15, 2009 2:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"However you look at it, the bottom line is that he is averaging 29.7 ppg on .463 field goal shooting while committing just 1.7 turnovers per game this series so it cannot objectively be said that the Rockets have uncovered some magic formula for stopping Bryant:"

By my calculations (by hand), Kobe has taken 149 shots, 36 fts, and has scored 178 points for a ts% of 54%. So I would say, pretty accurate assessment actually. That's just a little below what he offered in the regular season.

His rebounding and assist numbers are down from his season numbers slightly. 30 rebounds in 242 minutes (4.46 per 36) and 21 assists (3.12 per 36.) So there has been a drop off there.

That of course is a drop of less than one rebound per 36. Just two boards in each of the last two losses though.

But I would agree Kobe playing worse than in the regular season isn't the issue. The real problem for the Lakers of course is that he just isn't that dominating a player to begin with.

Owen

 
At Friday, May 15, 2009 4:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Yogi:

I have been saying for two years that the overall "talent" of this team has been somewhat overstated but, that said, the lack of effort and intensity displayed by this team--the frontcourt players in particular--is very frustrating to watch.

 
At Friday, May 15, 2009 4:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack Bauer:

The Lakers handled the Nuggets convincingly last season in the playoffs, so if the Lakers beat Houston it will be interesting to see how much of a difference newcomers Billups and Andersen make; K Mart played 29.5 mpg in the Lakers' four game sweep, though it is true that Nene was limited to 10 mpg in last year's playoffs.

I suspect that if the Lakers win game seven they will actually have an easier time with Denver than they have had with Houston.

Kobe was aggressive from the start but he missed most of his shots in the first quarter. Kobe is not the problem. As I noted in the post, even if he shot an outrageous percentage in this game the Lakers still would have lost. Van Gundy said it best: if you have frontcourt players who defend the basket you have a chance and if you don't then you don't have a chance.

What Jackson has done with Fisher, much as I predicted a few days ago, is keep him in the starting lineup to avoid disrupting the rotation but slash his minutes. Fisher played 32 minutes in game one and 28 minutes in game two but in his next three games (remember he was suspended for one game) he has played between 17 and 21 minutes. One factor that people do not understand is that if a player played limited minutes all season--like Farmar or Brown--it is unlikely that he can suddenly play 30 or 40 mpg at the same level of efficiency that he has in limited minutes. Also, part of the problem with Brooks is the way that the Lakers' bigs are defending--or not defending--screen/roll plays. Ultimately, the Lakers' problems are mainly with their bigs: Gasol has been soft, Odom is hurt--and is always inconsistent--and Bynum has been a non-factor.

 
At Friday, May 15, 2009 4:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

I really could care less whether or not your numbers "confirm" my analysis; I watched the games and I know what I am talking about.

I have figured out--belatedly--that trying to reason with someone who thinks that Kobe is not a "dominant" player is like trying to reason with a member of the Flat Earth Society. I'm just not going to waste my time with such nonsense anymore. One quick thought, though: if Kobe is not "dominant" then why do teams like the Celtics and Rockets throw 2-3-4 or even five defenders at him?

 
At Friday, May 15, 2009 6:46:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps because they know he is going to take a lot of shots. I don't know.

At any rate, there is a lot of consensus on this in the statistical community. In fact,t here isn't one statistical metric that rated Bryant a First Team performer this year. So, it's not just Berri.

http://www.basketball-reference.com/blog/?p=2433

Owen

 
At Friday, May 15, 2009 7:28:00 PM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

Individual basketball "statistics", as commonly referenced today, are like astrology. You may as well be talking about someone's horoscope when you talk about their "wins produced", or "PER", that's how un-scientific they are.

 
At Friday, May 15, 2009 11:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Lakers are a very frustrating team to watch. Very talented but burdened with poor mental toughness and abysmal basketball IQ.

 
At Saturday, May 16, 2009 12:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

If Kobe is not "dominant" and not even worthy of being on the All-NBA First Team then why would the Rockets mind if they expect him to take a lot of shots. According to your warped way of thinking it would seem that an optimal strategy for the Rockets would be to single cover Bryant, deny Gasol any touches and hope that Bryant shoots 50 times.

I just love how the "stat community" that you reference claims to base their player evaluations on winning but your beloved First Teamers Wade and Paul have already departed from the playoffs. Kobe is facing a better defensive team this round than Wade or Paul faced yet he is being more productive offensively.

 
At Saturday, May 16, 2009 12:13:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow:

Some of the team-based metrics can be useful in certain situations but the individual player ratings are not particularly well refined.

 
At Saturday, May 16, 2009 12:33:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Ron Artest made an interesting statement earlier in this series; he claimed that, contrary to public belief, man to man the Rockets actually match up pretty well with the Lakers. He said--and I am paraphrasing slightly because I don't have the direct quote--that if all of the players from both teams were at the park and you were picking sides that you would not just pick all Lakers.

Other than perhaps the vaunted "stat community," I think that the rest of us can agree that Kobe is the best individual player on either team but if you go down the line where are the Lakers' other matchup advantages? The rebounding stats in the series are a virtual tie (254-253 in Houston's favor) and the Rockets' bigs have generally been more aggressive offensively and more in tune defensively than the Lakers' bigs have been. Aaron Brooks has been by far the best point guard on either team. Ron Artest has outplayed the Lakers' small forwards. Carl Landry and Von Wafer have been productive off of the bench, while the Lakers' reserves have been MIA. The only obvious matchup advantage that the Lakers have is Kobe versus Battier but Houston does not rely on Battier to score so all Battier has to do is chase around Kobe and send him toward the help defenders. If Kobe were not on the Lakers then Battier and Artest could zero in on someone else defensively and the Lakers would be hard pressed to score at all. This Lakers team would win about 40 games without Kobe and, if they somehow made it to the playoffs--which would not happen with 40 wins, but let's pretend--this physical, tough minded Rockets team would sweep them.

Just to be clear, Gasol is certainly a talented player but it is clear that he is best suited to being a second option and, even in that case, he can be pushed around and intimidated by lesser players. Odom is vastly overrated by most people; Odom's best skill is rebounding but the rest of his alleged "versatility" largely consists of going coast to coast to commit offensive fouls/turnovers, falling asleep on defensive rotations and making ill advised plays at inopportune times. His shooting touch from outside and from the free throw line is very erratic. Bynum may have potential but let's be honest: he has yet to actually accomplish anything; he has not even proven that he can stay healthy and be consistently productive for more than a handful of games in a row. Fisher is a wily vet but he seems to be on his last legs. Ariza is a nice role player but his "talent" is not so special--compare him to the starting small forwards on the other remaining playoff teams (LeBron, Melo, Lewis/Turkoglu, Pierce, Artest) and that is pretty obvious. Farmar and Vujacic's games seem to have been sucked down that black hole in the Star Trek movie. The Lakers' most consistent reserve in this year's playoffs, Shannon Brown, was the Cavs' 13th man (in playoff minutes played) two years ago; if he were still a Cav now he would not even be dressing for games but would be playing three on three beforehand with the assistant coaches and the other inactive players (the Cavs have some inactive guys, like Tarence Kinsey, who could actually get solid minutes with some of the remaining playoff teams).

So, the talk of the Lakers' talent is overstated.

 
At Saturday, May 16, 2009 4:49:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

Yet the problem remains that Lakers scored just 80 points. While it's true that they could not get a stop on Scola, Brooks or Landry to save their lives, why did they have two 15-point quarters? First and last, too, which would not be my ideal choices as worst quarters to have in a game. The Rockets scored 43 second-half points, which is not world-shattering. Bad defense was compounded by worse offense, as I can understand Lakers sleepwalking on defense but I have trouble coming to terms with the fact they scored 80 points with Kobe, Gasol and Odom. I mean, Farmar had 13. Scola and Brooks can score, but they can't stop a broom on defense.

The Rockets in general and Battier in particular ate Kobe up alive in game 6. He did not execute properly, and when those "forced" shots did not go in he was in deep trouble (those shots are not always forced because Kobe tends to put in quite a surprising percentage of them; but when that is not the case they become forced shots again). Kobe has played poorly all three games in Houston, and Battier has prevented him from taking over any of those three games.

As the only bona fide star left standing in the series, that's inexcusable.

 
At Saturday, May 16, 2009 4:59:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why do you even bother responding to anti-Kobe posts? They are clearly meant to goad you into sounding like a Kobe apologist.

 
At Saturday, May 16, 2009 10:05:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JN:

The Lakers' offensive problems can be traced back to their defensive problems. Other than Kobe (and Gasol, to some extent), many of the Lakers rely on getting out in transition to score (or else they need for Kobe to draw a double team to create an open shot). Since the Lakers did not get enough stops they could not get out in transition. Also, when Kobe drew multiple defenders his teammates did not make open shots, which is the reason that Kobe's assist totals are down in this series.

The Rockets did not eat "Kobe up alive" in game six. Scola, Brooks and Landry took apart the Lakers' interior defense. Kobe had a rough shooting first quarter but his teammates were even worse; after the first quarter, Kobe shot his normal field goal percentage. Van Gundy noticed that Kobe was the only Laker who was playing hard and that is why he suggested that the Lakers put Kobe on Scola--at least Kobe was actually competing.

It is amazing to me how Kobe Bryant is subjected to such shot by shot, possession by possession criticism. Look at the numbers put up this postseason by guys like Wade, Paul, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen--none of them are facing individual defenders like Battier/Artest or a team defense like Houston's (except for Joe Johnson versus Cleveland in round two), yet their performances are worse than Kobe's. The overall picture--with one very important game to go--is that Kobe has exceeded his MVP level regular season performance against a very good defense whose primary goal is to slow him down and he has accomplished this with virtually no help from his bigs.

 
At Saturday, May 16, 2009 10:07:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

That may be the most intelligent question ever asked here. I guess the answer is that at some level I still retain the belief that if I state something logically that people will understand it, despite much evidence that this belief is naively optimistic.

 
At Saturday, May 16, 2009 8:28:00 PM, Anonymous jn said...

In all three games played in Houston, Kobe has been far from his regular season MVP level. His shot selection is worse, his accuracy is down, even his rebounding is down. He has performed way better in the three games in LA so far, virtually in all aspects of the game. His shot selection is better, he puts more pressure on defense, he is in command during key stretches of games.

In Houston, Battier & Co have made him look... quite like McGrady in past playoffs, actually. Going through cold spells, never managing to take control of the game, making good plays here and there but never getting a good game as a whole.

Chris Paul and Dwight Howard have been criticized for their perceived shortcomings in these playoffs, and I don't think it is fair to give Kobe a free pass. It's not his fault that few teams are equipped to stop a quick penetrating guard like Brooks (even when his actual abilities are limited), nor the way Scola has been waltzing all over Gasol, nor the fact that Bynum is not recovered and Fisher is old. But his three games in Houston have been a dissapointment, and home court advantage should not be the only superiority of these Lakers over a Rockets team riddled with injuries.

 
At Sunday, May 17, 2009 1:56:00 AM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

You may be interested in what JVG had to say about Kobe and the Lakers on Bill Simmons' podcast, which was put on you tube at the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zohd0Q6J_Y

 
At Sunday, May 17, 2009 3:57:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow:

For anyone who did not listen to the interview, here are a few highlights:

Van Gundy said, among other things, "They wouldn't have a chance (to win a championship) if Bryant didn't have that incredible will and passion to win, elevating his teammates to care as much as he does."

Van Gundy also blasted the Lakers' frontcourt for being "soft."

Van Gundy admitted that although he had thought that the Lakers were a deep team he now realizes that is not the case--which, of course, is what I have been saying all along. I think that the Lakers' depth last year was overrated but--whether one agrees or disagrees with me about that--there is no question that the Lakers this year are not as deep as they were last year and, in fact, are not a "deep" team period compared to the likes of Cleveland and Denver or teams like Boston and Houston that have lost one or more All-Stars but still get production from their bench players even after one or more bench players became a starter.

Van Gundy said that Shannon Brown has been the only reliable bench player for the Lakers and that if Shannon Brown is your most reliable bench player then you don't have a deep team. Of course, I made the exact same point quite some time ago.

Van Gundy said that while the Cavs have surrounded LeBron with several good shooters the Lakers have not done likewise and thus it is harder for Kobe to get to the hoop than it is for LeBron to get to the hoop (Abbott and his True Hoop Network minions should rewind that section of the interview a few times until it sinks in for them).

Van Gundy declared that Bynum has played so poorly that if he were coaching the Lakers he would be tempted to give Bynum's minutes to Mbenga.

This interview would be very educational for someone like Dave Berri at Wages of Wins, except the problem is that Berri does not believe in the value of watching games and has convinced himself that he understands more about basketball than someone like Van Gundy, who actually coached in the NBA.

Am I the only person who thinks that it is odd that I independently come to many of the same conclusions about the Lakers that a veteran NBA coach does but websites like ESPN.com, Yahoo! and SlamOnline are essentially relying on college kids and biased fan bloggers to provide commentary and "analysis"? This is a strange, strange business...

 

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