Soft Lakers Crumble Versus Yao-less RocketsIt is not surprising that the Houston Rockets played with great energy and heart on Sunday, beating the L.A. Lakers 99-87 despite being without All-Star center Yao Ming, who will miss the rest of the playoffs due to a broken foot--but the Lakers should be ashamed of a soft, listless performance in which the Rockets outscored them 9-0 at the start, never trailed and led by as many as 29 points. Aaron Brooks completely abused the Lakers, scoring a career-high 34 points on 12-20 field goal shooting. Shane Battier shot 5-10 from three point range and contributed a playoff career-high 23 points, feasting on open opportunities in transition and when the Lakers' defense collapsed due to dribble penetration by Brooks and others. Kyle Lowry added 12 points off of the bench, while Luis Scola had 11 points and a game-high 14 rebounds, thoroughly outplaying Lamar Odom. Ron Artest scored just eight points and exercised horrible judgment with his shot selection (4-19 from the field, including 0-6 from three point range) but he had 10 rebounds and six assists.
Pau Gasol led the Lakers with 30 points and nine rebounds in what was, without question, the worst, least effective 30 point game I have ever watched in my life; he was so soft for most of the game that you could have cut him to ribbons with tissue paper. It must be emphasized that he scored 18 points in the fourth quarter, which began with the Lakers trailing 83-56. Can you say "extensive garbage time"? ABC's Jeff Van Gundy offered the perfect take on Gasol's numbers: "These are all fake stats for the Lakers. This is fake. They got run out of here. You got some big numbers put up by some guys in a meaningless quarter." I can hardly wait for the Wages of Wins post explaining how this game "proved" that Gasol is clearly the best player on the Lakers, which will of course be picked up by True Hoop and probably placed right next to another gossip page report spewing rumors about Bryant that have already been refuted by the concerned parties; I still have not figured out why ESPN's basketball blog tried to cast aspersions on a Spike Lee documentary that the network will be airing commercial free next Saturday but the best part of True Hoop's National Enquirer-inspired "journalism" in this case is the "update" that does not in any way indicate that the original True Hoop post left out the fact Lee had immediately contradicted the anti-Bryant report (the comments section to the anti-Bryant True Hoop offering is an interesting indicator that more and more people are realizing that the emperor of the basketball blogosphere is wearing no clothes).
The Lakers' bench also padded their numbers in garbage time but Van Gundy--whose commentary during this game was as on point as the Rockets' play--spoke the truth about a team that some people falsely call the deepest in the league. Van Gundy said that the Lakers need to get "consistent performance" from Andrew Bynum and Jordan Farmar because "If you don't have at least two guys off of your bench every night who you can trust to play effectively then you are really going to struggle." Bynum had no points and two rebounds in 12 minutes, while Farmar scored seven points on 2-7 shooting in 21 minutes. Odom, who has taken Bynum's spot in the starting lineup, sleepwalked to two points and six rebounds in 25 minutes before charging into Battier and taking a nasty fall that induced back spasms that sidelined Odom for the rest of the game; Odom's status is unknown for game five on Tuesday but what is known is that after playing well versus Utah in the first round Odom has once again pulled a disappearing act, scoring in double figures just once in four games against the Rockets despite playing at least 25 minutes in each outing. The Lakers' vaunted frontcourt depth may really be on full display for a national TV audience on Tuesday because if Odom cannot play and Bynum continues his Invisible Man routine then Josh Powell and D.J. Mbenga will receive significant minutes. Lakers' fans, debate and discuss amongst yourselves which is the more frightening scenario: Odom is healthy but puts up another "triple-single" or Odom is not healthy and your season rises or falls based on Powell or Mbenga making a positive contribution in 15-20 minutes of action.
Van Gundy declared that the Lakers "need frontcourt toughness. Their toughness is all in the backcourt." That weakness is the primary reason that the Lakers lost this game, combined with the fact that none of the Lakers' point guards could stay in front of Brooks--but even that problem could have been at least somewhat mitigated if the Lakers' bigs had rotated correctly and effectively to cut of dribble penetration. Mark Jackson illustrated this point perfectly with two film clips: one showed the Rockets driving to the hoop with abandon as no Lakers rotated to protect the rim, while the other showed Battier sliding into Odom's path to take a charge on the play when Odom got hurt.
Of course, the player whose performance will be (incorrectly) dissected shot by shot, possession by possession and who will be cast as the scapegoat is none other than Kobe Bryant, who scored 15 points on 7-17 field goal shooting and had five assists, four steals, two rebounds and no turnovers in 35 minutes. Since many people will no doubt try to convince you that Bryant played terribly, let's take an objective look at exactly what he did and did not do during this Lakers debacle. The Lakers began the game with Trevor Ariza throwing a lazy pass that Artest intercepted and converted into an easy fastbreak layup. The Rockets led 9-0 before Bryant put the Lakers on the board by making a jumper at the 8:31 mark of the first quarter. With 4:52 remaining in the quarter, the Rockets led 22-7; Bryant had scored all seven Lakers' points on 3-5 shooting, while Gasol was 0-3 from the field and Odom was 0-2 with a turnover. At the 4:33 mark, Derek Fisher nailed a jumper to become the first Laker not named Bryant to score a point. The Lakers trailed 29-16 at the end of the first quarter, with Bryant scoring nine of the 16 points on 4-8 shooting; Bryant had shouldered more than half of the offensive load with efficient scoring but the Lakers had already dug themselves a deep hole.
What about Battier getting loose for 12 first quarter points? Isn't that Bryant's fault? Yes and no. For most of the series, Bryant has been playing off of Battier in order to help out defensively in other areas--and the Lakers need all of the help that they can get, as will be documented throughout this article. Battier is a good three point shooter who is often reluctant to shoot but with Yao out Battier decided to become more aggressive; he got some of his baskets because Bryant was sagging off of him but some of his opportunities came in transition when the Lakers were cross-matched; when Bryant picks up a cutter or drops into the lane to stop a driver then someone else should close out on Battier.
Here is Van Gundy's assessment of the first quarter: "The Lakers are not playing hard enough." Jackson added that while the Lakers "certainly" are capable of winning a championship, right now they are performing like the third best team in this year's playoffs, behind Cleveland and Denver. Van Gundy responded to Jackson's statement by saying, "Denver is a more committed team defensively than L.A. at this point in time but L.A. has much more offensive talent." I wholeheartedly agree with his first point but the second point is debatable; the Lakers have Kobe Bryant, who is obviously better than any single Denver player, but the Nuggets have a prime wing scoring threat in Carmelo Anthony, a point guard whose postseason play this year has been off the charts in Chauncey Billups, a deadly (if sometimes erratic) sixth man in J.R. Smith and a solid postup threat in Nene. The Nuggets have five double figure scorers, while the Lakers have four; Derek Fisher is averaging just shy of 10 ppg but Odom may be out of action and the Lakers are getting nothing from their bench, so the comparison is closer than Van Gundy suggests even with Bryant in the mix and it would be a landslide in Denver's favor without Bryant.
Bryant sat out the first 4:46 of the second quarter and the Rockets extended their lead to 41-22. After Bryant returned to action the Lakers cut the margin to 47-35 but by halftime the Rockets had forged a 54-36 advantage. Bryant had 13 first half points on 6-12 field goal shooting. Van Gundy said that the recipe for success in the NBA is "skill, unselfishness and effort. Where is the effort for the Lakers?"
One sequence from late in the first half epitomized how the Lakers were playing: Bryant drove into the lane and drew three defenders--with a fourth defender poised to come over if necessary--and he dished the ball perfectly to a wide open Gasol on the baseline. Gasol could have taken the midrange jumper but instead he drove tentatively and got fouled; I say that his move was tentative because he hesitated after he caught the pass--instead of shooting with confidence--and then when he got in the lane he went up with one hand instead of trying a power move with two hands. Gasol nearly airballed the first free throw and then made the second free throw. This looked like a replay of the 2008 Finals: the opposing team swarms Bryant with three and four defenders, fully realizing that no other Laker is willing or able to make a play. Gasol is a talented player who has a good shooting touch, so the correct play for him when Bryant drives and kicks is to take that open jump shot; driving into the teeth of the defense is just as likely to lead to a turnover or an offensive foul as it is to lead to a score and what Gasol did was simply drive right into the area where all the defenders had congregated around Bryant. During the past year and a half, Gasol has feasted off of the open shots that Bryant has created for him--that is why Gasol's field goal percentage has soared to career-high levels as a Laker--but against physical teams like the Celtics in the 2008 Finals or the Rockets in this series Gasol becomes strangely tentative at times.
During the halftime report, ABC's Magic Johnson--who owns a minority stake in the Lakers--minced no words: "This is an embarrassing effort by the Lakers...We see them standing around hoping and wishing that Kobe will bail them out."
On the opening play of the second half, Brooks drove straight down the lane for an uncontested layup. The Lakers made one field goal in the first 6:28 of the quarter, a drive by Bryant. Bryant tried several times to get to the hoop but since none of his teammates represented viable threats the Rockets simply created a wall in front of the rim and blocked his path without fouling him. Bryant shot 1-5 from the field, Ariza had a point blank shot blocked after a slick feed from Bryant and Gasol missed a pair of free throws as the Rockets pulled away. When Lakers Coach Phil Jackson took Bryant out at the 2:16 mark for his customary rest, Houston led 77-50. Van Gundy asked, "Are the Lakers a together, tough-minded team? Because if not, you can't win it all." Mark Jackson added, "Defense is not a some time thing. It's an all the time thing." All season long, this Lakers team has been inconsistent defensively, which is something that I have emphasized. The Lakers have also had a tendency to play down to the level of their competition--or the level that they perceive their competition to be at, because this game should disabuse the Lakers of any notions about their own greatness.
The third quarter concluded with a mind boggling defensive lapse by the Lakers: Artest inbounded the ball from half court with .7 seconds remaining, throwing a perfect lob to Brooks, who caught the pass and made an uncontested layup. How bad is a defense that concedes a 50 foot alley oop to a 6-0 point guard? Pretty bad.
Bryant spent most of the fourth quarter on the bench as Gasol padded his statistics. Although the Lakers cut the lead to 10 points with :23 remaining that was just window dressing, as Van Gundy rightly noted.
The Lakers bounced back from losing game one of this series at home to win two straight games and retake home court advantage; they still should be considered the favorites to win this series but the concentration lapses that they have repeatedly had during the playoffs do not bode well for the Lakers in terms of their goal of winning a championship.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:10 AM