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Monday, May 11, 2009

Soft Lakers Crumble Versus Yao-less Rockets

It 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:10 AM

11 comments

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11 Comments:

At Monday, May 11, 2009 9:44:00 AM, Anonymous dmills said...

David,

Rarely will I blame any loss on a single player but yesterday was an example of a single player causing so many problems for his team that he has to be called out for it. Pau Gasol by refusing to show on screen and roll situations allowed a mediocre Houston back court nearly unfettered access to the rim. That was without question one of the softest performances I have ever had the mispleasure of watching.

Forget about a potential Lakers Cavs match up, The Lakers may not even come out of the west this year...

 
At Monday, May 11, 2009 10:38:00 AM, Anonymous Attract Prosperity said...

I guess that's why they play the game. The Lakers didn't show up and the Rockets played their hearts out. Battier set the tone early burying those treys. Phil Jackson's "no timeout no matter how much we're down by early" strategy backfired. The game got away from them for good.

I still feel it's Lakers/Denver vs the Cavs in the final but it just got a bit more interesting.

Ryan

 
At Monday, May 11, 2009 12:39:00 PM, Blogger Don said...

David,

I couldn't agree more that this was a stunningly bad effort on the part of the Lakers, and that Bryant -- while he didn't have a good game by his standards -- was not the culprit.

Here's my question: where does Phil Jackson fit into all this, in your opinion? Obviously it's the players that need to make plays, and Jackson's resume is beyond reproach. But this was an astonishing lapse, and the Lakers have seemed pretty soft for a long time now. Could/should Jackson be doing something different, or is he playing the hand he was dealt as best he can?

 
At Monday, May 11, 2009 3:06:00 PM, Anonymous Jack Bauer said...

David,
Only 2 people came to play for this game: Kobe Bryant and Shannon Brown. It still puzzles me why Phil Jackson decided to start Fisher and have him guard Brooks. And Brooks proceeded to destroy Fisher by the time Phil jackson decided to put Shannon and Farmar in it was already too late.
From the first Lazy pass by Ariza i already knew how the game was going to turn out. Pau Gasol repeatedly failed to rotate to Scola. When he decided to come out and guard the pick and roll it was already too late(3rd quarter). It wouldn't shock me if the rockets win this series. When your backcourt players are the toughest guy on your team, then they aint much for the opposing team to fear.
Like Van Gundy noted, I don't think Kobe trust his teammates anymore and with good reason too, everytime dude comes out of a game and tries to include them, they fail miserably.

 
At Monday, May 11, 2009 4:51:00 PM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

This is why people should pay attention to David's analysis, then they would understand why this game's outcome was not a "shocker" or and "embarassment" to the Lakers.

 
At Monday, May 11, 2009 7:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Dmills:

I agree with you about Gasol but I still expect the Lakers to win the West. The Lakers enjoy homecourt advantage and they have Kobe Bryant. It is unlikely that in game five the Rockets will continue to play as well as they did in game four, nor are the Lakers likely to play that badly when the scene shifts to Staples. That said, if the Lakers simply count on those factors being in their favor as opposed to doing the necessary work on the court then they could have a problem but I expect the Lakers to win the next two games.

 
At Monday, May 11, 2009 7:17:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Attract Prosperity:

Barring a serious injury suffered by either team, I still fully expect to see a Cavs-Lakers Finals.

Jackson does not coach for one moment or one game but rather for a marathon season. He strives to build a team comprised of players who have the ability and the confidence to solve problems on their own. If he calls a timeout just to intervene in that process then he is undermining his larger goal. Great coaches like Jackson and Wooden understand that they do their jobs behind closed doors in practice. By the way, that is why Red Auerbach used to light up a victory cigar: some coaches like to prance around on the sidelines and look important but the victory cigar was Auerbach's way of saying, "The game is over and I'm not going to fake like I am doing something important." Jackson warned his players before game four not to take the Rockets lightly and they clearly did not receive the message; reiterating the point in a timeout would not have done any good. When Odom got hurt and received a tech for complaining to the refs, you could hear Jackson telling him calmly, "This is a game where you take your lumps and move on" (or words to that effect, I may not have the exact quote).

 
At Monday, May 11, 2009 7:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Don:

I touched on this subject in my response to a previous comment. Jackson is trying to instill the correct mindset in his team but to an extent he has to "play the hand" he has been dealt, as you put it. Gasol is a skilled player but he does not have an alpha dog, dominating personality; his multiple skills make him a nice fit with Kobe on screen/roll plays and the fact that Gasol has no ambition to score the most points or take the most shots creates a better interpersonal dynamic with Kobe than the one that Shaq and Kobe had, because Shaq could not accept when Kobe's role began to equal or eclipse Shaq's role. On the other hand, Gasol does not react well to physical play, which interferes with his ability to apply his skills to the utmost.

Odom will always be a talented enigma who can never be fully counted on to be consistently productive. Fisher is a tough-minded veteran but he has lost some of his athletic ability due to age. The other Lakers are role players who have various strengths and weaknesses and Jackson is doing the best that he can to accentuate their strengths and hide their weaknesses.

 
At Monday, May 11, 2009 7:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack Bauer:

It will be interesting to see if Jackson continues to start Fisher. Coaches tend to not mess with their rotations if they can avoid doing so, because players are creatures of habit in terms of their playing time. I look for one of two things to happen: Jackson may decide to bring Fisher off of the bench or he may continue to start Fisher but have a quicker hook if Fisher cannot stay in front of Brooks--so Fisher may start but end up only playing 15 minutes.

I wonder how much the coaching staff holds Fisher responsible and how much blame they assign to the bigs for not rotating: Gasol, Odom and Bynum were non-existent defensively and the fact is that with today's rules in the NBA it is very tough for anyone to stay in front of quick point guards. The difference between how the Cavs' bigs defend (or how the Rockets' bigs defend) and how the Lakers' bigs defend is dramatic. I've been to three Cavs playoff games in person so far this season and it looks like they are playing six on five defensively because their rotations are so crisp.

 
At Monday, May 11, 2009 8:55:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Great analysis, David.

The Rockets seem to more consistently demonstrate the mindset of a championship team. The Lakers are lucky that they will probably get by this series on their superior talent.

Many players on the Lakers seem to be mentally fragile. Some guys, like Bynum, can't make any real contributions if they aren't hitting their shots and feeling it offensively. Compare that to a guy like Ron Artest who can have a horrible shooting night, but still work hard all night and play an excellent floor game. Many Laker players (Bynum, Odom, Farmar, etc.) seem to get happy after having one or a few good games and get complacent. There is a real lack of sustained focus and effort.

Some Lakers fans have been suggesting that the poor play isn't a glimpse of what will end the Lakers' championship hopes in a future round. They point to how the Celtics struggled in early rounds last year before finding their stride. What do you think of this comparison? I think it is flawed. If I remember right, the Celtics struggled last year, but they were always playing hard. Some guys (especially Ray Allen) were just slumping, but their defensive focus was consistent throughout.

 
At Tuesday, May 12, 2009 5:14:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

The Lakers will win this series because they have Kobe Bryant and the homecourt advantage. It is very predictable that they will look like a different team at home and that Bryant will do whatever they need in terms of scoring/playmaking.

I agree with your comments about Odom, Bynum and Farmar; how one plays offensively should never affect one's defense.

The comparison with the 2008 Celtics is flawed for a couple reasons. One, the Celtics always played hard on defense; their struggles came when they were missing shots. It is the opposite for the Lakers, who rely too much on being able to score easily. Two, the Celtics enjoyed homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs but the Lakers do not have that luxury.

Ray Allen's situation last season is interesting. I recently read an interview with a Cavs assistant coach who said that last year everyone was saying that Allen looked old but that what happened was the Cavs focused their defense on him and tried not to give him open looks off of screens. Allen certainly looked "younger" in the Finals versus Vujacic than he did versus the Cavs.

 

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