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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Rockets Stun Lakers, 100-92

Yao Ming (28 points on 9-17 shooting, 10 rebounds) outscored Pau Gasol (14 points, 13 rebounds) and Andrew Bynum (10 points, three rebounds) combined as the Houston Rockets beat the L.A. Lakers 100-92 to seize home court advantage in the Western Conference semifinals. Ron Artest scored 21 points, dished off for a game-high seven assists and shot an uncharacteristically efficient 8-15 from the field. The quickness of Aaron Brooks proved to be a real X factor, as the diminutive Houston point guard scored 19 points on 7-14 shooting as no Laker defender could stay in front of him; Brooks created scoring opportunities for himself or for his teammates on several occasions when the shot clock was running down.

Kobe Bryant had 32 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals, tying Gasol by playing a game-high 44 minutes. The Lakers trailed for the vast majority of the game, so Bryant played all 24 minutes in the second half; Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson would normally rest Bryant from the last few minutes of the third quarter through the first few minutes of the fourth quarter but Jackson found out the hard way during this season that if he follows that type of substitution pattern when the other Lakers are floundering then the Lakers will lose--but the flip side of that is when the Lakers depend on Bryant to carry the bulk of the scoring load while also grabbing the second most rebounds and tying for the team lead in assists there is a danger that he will become run down. Bryant shot 6-9 from the field in the third quarter and 4-10 in the fourth quarter, finishing 14-31. The Rockets will surely receive a lot of praise for "containing" Bryant but I only agree partially with that assessment; Bryant's .452 field goal percentage in this game is right around his career average so the Rockets did not really force him to miss shots at an unusual rate but they did a very good job of limiting him to just five free throw attempts. Shane Battier guarded Bryant early in the game, while Artest generally handled the assignment in the fourth quarter--but the real adjustment that the Rockets made down the stretch is that they started sending more and more help defenders toward Bryant as it became increasingly apparent that no other Lakers were able to consistently make open shots; that is much like the defensive scheme that the Boston Celtics used versus the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals. The Lakers shot 2-18 from three point range and while Bryant contributed to that poor number with his errant 1-7 long distance shooting the other Lakers shot 1-11 and many of those misses were wide open looks that Bryant created either with dribble penetration or by simply attracting help defenders.

Think about the standard that Bryant has set: 32 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals while shooting better than .450 is basically an "average" game for him--and some people will surely spin this into being a "bad" game. Yet, Bryant's 32 points are more than Dwyane Wade scored in five of his seven playoff games this year and that field goal percentage--against a team that plays much better defense than the Atlanta Hawks do--is better than Wade's performance in three of seven games and only slightly worse (a difference of one missed field goal) than Wade's shooting in three of the other four playoff games. Paul Pierce has shot worse than .452 in six of his eight playoff games this year and he has yet to score more than 29 points. So, when the "stat gurus" and the media sheep who follow them start talking about how the Rockets "shut down" Bryant in game one, keep the above numbers in mind: the Rockets' needed two All-Defensive Team players plus a 7-6 center and a wall of help defenders in order to "hold" Bryant to 32 points and his normal shooting percentage.

Although Bryant did not play poorly in game one, the likelihood is that he will play even better in game two--and the Lakers will need that kind of performance from him, because game two is a must win for the Lakers, who cannot depend on receiving solid production from their much vaunted "deep" roster. Pau Gasol had a good rebounding game, though some of his board work consisted of collecting his own misses; overall, he was not strong with the ball (four turnovers) and he missed a number of wide open shots, connecting on just six of 14 attempts: considering the fact that his shots are either open jumpers or shots in the paint--often against just one defender--his shooting percentage is a bigger concern for the Lakers than Bryant's. The Lakers can win with Bryant shooting around .450 but they need Gasol to be up around the .550 range that he has maintained since joining the team and benefiting from all of the defensive attention that Bryant receives.

Andrew Bynum scored 10 points in 15 minutes on 5-10 shooting but he shot a lot of jumpers, attempted no free throws, grabbed only three rebounds, committed three fouls in his short stint and missed several defensive assignments. Nothing that I have seen from Bynum convinces me that his presence would have made much difference in the 2008 Finals, nor am I convinced that he is the star in the making that so many people think that he is. What we have seen from Bynum in his brief career is that he can be productive for short stretches but that he is also injury prone and foul prone, two tendencies that make it difficult for him to stay on the court long enough to develop a good rhythm or have much of a consistent impact. If Bynum can stay healthy and if Bynum can stay out of foul trouble then maybe he will develop into a significant contributor but, as former Browns' Coach Sam Rutigiliano used to say, "If 'ifs and buts' were candy and nuts, it would be Christmas every day."

Trevor Ariza played a solid game (10 points on 4-8 shooting, four rebounds, two steals). Usually his defense is a plus for the Lakers but Ariza really struggled to guard Artest due to Artest's significant strength advantage. Here is a thought exercise for you: look up the rosters of the other 15 playoff teams and figure out how many of those teams would play Ariza ahead of their current starting small forward. Don't get me wrong: I think that Ariza is wonderfully suited to be a James Posey-type of impact player off of the bench for a very good team.

Derek Fisher shot poorly (3-10) and might have gotten whiplash from all the times that Brooks blew past him.

In my series preview I noted that Lamar Odom played well in the first round versus Utah "but that most likely means that he is due to have a five point, two rebound disappearing act soon." He was not quite that bad but with Bynum's playing time limited due to foul trouble the Lakers needed more from Odom than nine points and five rebounds in 31 minutes. He also committed five fouls and the Lakers' bench as a whole contributed 18 points and 12 fouls, compared to 16 points versus four fouls for the Rockets' bench.

Shannon Brown--the Lakers' sixth man in minutes played versus Utah--scored two points in 13 minutes, Sasha Vujacic had two points in 14 minutes, while Jordan Farmar (three points in three minutes) and Josh Powell (two points in five minutes) made cameo appearances.

In contrast, the Rockets received good production from every member of the starting lineup--Battier's boxscore numbers are not much to look at but his job was to defend Bryant while keeping him off of the foul line and he did that task adequately. Bench players Carl Landry and Kyle Lowry, who combined to shoot 5-8 from the field, had a positive impact.

The Lakers swept the regular season series versus Houston 4-0 but they needed fourth quarter rallies spearheaded by Bryant to win each of those games. Bryant had nine fourth quarter points on 4-10 field goal shooting in game one but that was not enough to overcome the sluggish offense and sloppy defense played by the rest of the Lakers as the Rockets scored 30 fourth quarter points. As I've said throughout the regular season and during the Utah series, the Lakers are not consistent enough defensively, which is why I picked the Cavs to beat them in the NBA Finals; the Lakers said all of the right things in the wake of their loss to Boston last year but the Lakers had the same problems this season that they did during that series: defensive lapses, blown leads, lack of focus/concentration. That said, the Lakers did win 65 games this season and there is every reason to believe that they can not only win game two but also win at least one game in Houston to retake home court advantage.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:39 AM

17 comments

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17 Comments:

At Tuesday, May 05, 2009 12:38:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Field goal percentage is a stat that can be altered significantly by a few plays. If I remember correctly (I could be wrong), Kobe scored two easy baskets in "garbage time" in the 4th Quarter when the Rockets were up 10 and basically only guarding against three-pointers. So his percentage during the meat of the game was about 41% (12/29) which seems a lot worse than 45%.

Rather than focus on a specific percent (which can deviate wildly based on a few plays), I'd just say from watching that Kobe struggled a bit more than usual. Of course, he's a great player so he still played well. A bad game for Kobe is a very good game for most other players. But overall, the Rockets did a good job of containing Kobe without allowing the other Lakers to get a ton of easy points.

I think your consistent critique of the Laker bench is refreshing. They have become wildly overrated, and a lack of depth may be the undoing of the supposedly "deepest, most talented team in the league."

I think the Lakers will still survive against the Rockets because Houston will struggle to score enough in key situations. However, I'm definitely more impressed with Houston's defense than with LA's.

 
At Tuesday, May 05, 2009 1:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

"Garbage time" is in the eyes of the beholder in certain situations; when Kobe scored those two late baskets it was still a two possession game and if the Rockets had turned the ball over (which they almost did a couple times) or missed free throws then the Lakers might have come back. It is easy to say in retrospect that those baskets did not matter but they could have been important. That is one reason why I am not impressed by "clutch" stats because it is difficult to define precisely what "clutch" is. You could argue that Reggie Miller's first basket in his famous late game spurt versus the Knicks was in "garbage time" but then he kept scoring and the Pacers won.

Also, as Ron Artest sagely noted (words that don't usually end up in the same sentence) several of Kobe's shots went in and out, so he could easily have shot 19-31. I'm not making excuses for Kobe--he doesn't need any and, frankly, he did not have a bad game no matter what anyone may say or think. He had an "average" game for an MVP level player. My point is that Kobe missed good, rhythm shots that went in and out, as opposed to being forced to shoot low percentage shots that are not in his repertoire; the Rockets played good defense within their scheme and Bryant made a decent amount of shots. This does not have to be an all or nothing thing like some people in the media try to make everything out to be. I give the Rockets credit for sticking with their plan and I give Kobe credit for still scoring 32 points when no one else on his team could do much.

I also still expect the Lakers to win this series and to ultimately make it to the Finals but I have not seen anything that changes my opinion that the Cavs will beat the Lakers in the Finals.

 
At Tuesday, May 05, 2009 3:24:00 PM, Anonymous Jack Bauer(real one) said...

@David
If lakers don't win this series then i know they were never going to beat the Cavs who play hard for 48 minutes.
Can somebody tell me why Fisher keeps driving to the basket when he's one of the worst drivers in the NBA?
I know you expect Lakers to win this series but i don't think they are mentally tough enough to pull it off.

 
At Tuesday, May 05, 2009 3:26:00 PM, Anonymous warsaw said...

The Lakers are not the deepest team in the league, but they are deeper than Houston.

The Lakers bench produced more points, assists, blocks and steals than the Rocket's bench (although you only mention points and fouls). They also had less turnovers.

 
At Tuesday, May 05, 2009 3:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I'm not making excuses for Kobe--he doesn't need any and, frankly, he did not have a bad game no matter what anyone may say or think. He had an "average" game for an MVP level player."

Really? Scoring 32 points on 33.5 possessions doesn't sound like an MVP level performance to me. Sounds more like a well below average scoring performance for an average shooting guard from an efficiency perspective. Kobe filled out the rest of boxscore pretty well, but overall this game was definitely below his usual standards. Why you don't think so also is kind of a mystery.

And once again, your use of fg% rather than ts% results in some rather bizarre analysis.

So far Kobe really hasn't played well these playoffs, posting a ts% of just 48.9% so far. That complete skill set of his hasn't seemed to help him score efficiently so far.

At least you no longer think he should have been the MVP...

Owen

 
At Tuesday, May 05, 2009 4:20:00 PM, Anonymous J said...

Good points, both in the post and in Vednam's comment and your reply.

After watching this game and the Utah series, I am feeling fairly down on the Lakers' chances of (a) beating the Rockets and (b) making the Finals, if Denver's defensive intensity continues. I recall in Feb that Denver clubbed the Lakers 90-79 at home -- that said, I couldn't watch that game and the Lakers were coming off a back-to-back (a 20+ thrashing of a shorthanded Phoenix at home, I think).

Certainly, I still see a sizable chance of the Lakers making the finals, but it is far, far lower than I would have placed it pre-Playoffs. The Lakers over these past 6 games look a much different team than the team that looked so great in sweeping Boston & Cleveland, and in playing well on that roadtrip after Bynum's injury. Ever since the last month or so of the season, when they let slip the league's best record to Cleveland, their level of play, defensive intensity and offensive execution have all declined. It will be interesting to see if they can claw it back up and advance.

 
At Wednesday, May 06, 2009 10:38:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I predicted that the lakers would struggle in the west conf playoff's this year and then destroy the east team in the finals. So far my assesment is right on track. West teams have adjusted to Gasol.

 
At Wednesday, May 06, 2009 11:13:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack Bauer:

The Rockets needed an unusually efficient offensive effort from Artest to win game one. Look for Artest to not shoot as well in game two and for the Lakers to square the series at 1-1. Don't forget that the Lakers did sweep the Rockets in the regular season; this is not a terrible matchup for the Lakers but they obviously have to play better than they did in game one.

 
At Wednesday, May 06, 2009 11:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Warsaw:

The Rockets' bench outperformed the Lakers' bench overall in game one. Phil Jackson understands the weakness of his bench and that is why he played Kobe and Gasol 44 minutes each, including all 24 second half minutes for Kobe. If Jackson trusted his bench then he would have rested Kobe briefly to try to keep him fresh down the stretch.

 
At Wednesday, May 06, 2009 11:16:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

J:

The Lakers had problems in the areas that you mentioned even last season but I agree that those problems became more pronounced in the past month or so.

 
At Wednesday, May 06, 2009 11:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

You nailed the part about struggling in the West; we'll see what happens the rest of the way.

 
At Wednesday, May 06, 2009 11:46:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

Kobe exceeded his regular season and playoff scoring averages while nearly matching his normal field goal percentage--and he did this against a team that has two All-Defensive Team caliber performers. He certainly did not play badly but he can play better, so "average for an MVP level player" sounds about right. Compare Kobe's performance in this game to the playoff performances of other supposed MVP level players like Wade and Pierce and Kobe's performance was actually above average--for them.

Other than one bad shooting game, Kobe played very well against Utah, smoothly balancing scoring and playmaking. He also played excellent help defense by sagging off of Brewer. Based on your previous comments, you surely know enough about math to understand that Kobe's one bad shooting game skews his TS% in a small sample size. Kobe had one bad shooting game and five good to excellent ones, so the total number is deceptive.

Kobe was the best player in the NBA from 2006-08 and should have won three MVPs during that time. Last year, he was slightly better than LeBron, mainly because LeBron had skill set weaknesses on defense and with his free throw, midrange and three point shot. This year, Kobe is still an MVP level player but LeBron has wiped out all of the above weaknesses except for the midrange game, so LeBron has now moved slightly ahead of Kobe. I am applying the same standard that I applied all along. Anyone who pretended that I would always say that Kobe is the best player is delusional. Again, I indicated last year that Kobe was only slightly better than LeBron. I was never doing stupid fan posts saying stuff like "Kobe rules, LeBron is terrible" or whatever. I have always made it very clear that I respect both players.

 
At Wednesday, May 06, 2009 12:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm, yes, it's not deceptive. I goofed. Kobe's ts% is 55.1% this playoff season, not 48.9%. That's his efg. So apparently he is scoring well.

Wade was at 56.5% against Atlanta.

Owen

 
At Wednesday, May 06, 2009 3:26:00 PM, Anonymous dmills said...

Wow Owen,

Talk about obfuscation. I don't recall reading anywhere in this post that Kobe had an "MVP level performance". What I do recall reading was something along the lines of Kobe had an "average game for an MVP level player".

But I guess if you have to make it fit into an agenda...

 
At Wednesday, May 06, 2009 4:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

I did not check your original numbers in the first place because I have actually watched the games, so I know what Kobe has done and not done. As I said, he had one bad shooting game but his shooting has been at least OK in the rest of the games. It should not be overlooked that his floor game has been very good. Whatever his TS% or EFG is, those numbers would obviously be much higher without the one bad game; in a small sample size, one bad game can make it seem like a player is performing terribly overall, when in fact Kobe has played very well in the playoffs so far. By the same token, in a small sample size one very good game can mask the effects (to some degree) of several mediocre-bad games; Joe Johnson is an example of this, because his excellent game seven bumped up his shooting percentages across the board but he really struggled in the first six games versus Miami.

 
At Wednesday, May 06, 2009 5:45:00 PM, Blogger Don said...

David,

I didn't watch the game, and haven't seen the Lakers much this season. I was surprised when I read that Kobe only got to the line 5 times. But then I read this, from Bill Simmons:

"Kobe has attempted a total of 44 FTs in six playoff games (7.2 per game). Last spring, he attempted 194 FTs in 22 playoff games (8.8 per game). For the regular season, his FT attempts dropped from 10.2 (2005-06) to 10.0 ('06-07) to 9.0 ('07-08) to 6.9 ('08-09). So, no, Kobe doesn't go to the hole as much. Let the record show MJ averaged 10.6 FTA in the '98 playoffs and Wade averaged 10.9 FTA in the '06 playoffs."

In some ways, it's of course unsurprising that any player would change his style of play a bit as he gets older, limiting drives to limit wear and tear. Still, I was pretty surprised by the drop-off in free throws this year.

What do you think about this drop off? Is it a bad sign for Kobe and the Lakers? And is it potentially a sign of the beginning of a decline in his value as a player? Or is something else going on?

 
At Thursday, May 07, 2009 7:55:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Don:

Bill Simmons is not a basketball analyst. He is an entertainer (or at least he is trying to be entertaining). He is also a Celtics fan who admits that he hates the Lakers and Kobe Bryant. That is his right but I don't want to waste my time trying to refute his fevered anti-Kobe rantings. To just give you one example of how Simmons selectively chose his numbers to "prove" his point, Jordan averaged 7.4 FTA/game in the 1996 playoffs and 7.6 FTA/game in the 1998 playoffs. That 1997 total that Simmons breathlessly cited was skewed by one game in which MJ attempted 21 free throws--but MJ had two playoff games that year in which he attempted no free throws and in seven other games he attempted five or fewer free throws. If Simmons is a basketball expert then I am Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise.

 

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