Lakers Jump on Pacers Early, Cruise to 109-94 WinThe Lakers threw a powerful one-two punch to knock out the Indiana Pacers 109-94 in front of a sellout crowd of 18,165 fans in Conseco Fieldhouse: Pau Gasol landed the first blow with 21 first half points (avenging his poor performance in the Lakers' previous meeting with the Pacers this season) and then Kobe Bryant delivered the second blow with 25 second half points. Bryant finished with a game-high 31 points on 11-18 field goal shooting (including 4-8 from three point range) and he tied for game-high honors with six assists while grabbing three rebounds and not committing a turnover in 34 minutes; Gasol tallied 28 points on 10-17 field goal shooting, adding eight rebounds and four assists. Lamar Odom had a strong game (13 points, game-high 17 rebounds) and Ron Artest contributed 13 points on 6-8 field goal shooting. After the game, Bryant noted that he simply played within the flow, serving as a distributor in the first half when the defense was focused on him and then taking open shots when the defense shifted a bit in the second half. Darren Collison led the Pacers with 17 points and six assists and his backcourt partner Brandon Rush scored 16 points.
The Lakers led 5-0 less than a minute and a half into the game and after they pushed that margin to 15-4 at the 8:30 mark of the first quarter they led by double digits the rest of the way. The Lakers led 36-22 after the first quarter, shooting .737 from the field (14-19) and outrebounding the Pacers 13-3; by halftime, those numbers were 59-37, .610 (25-41) and 27-10, turning much of the second half into what Marv Albert likes to call "extensive gar-bage time." After a solid start to the season the Pacers have lost three in a row, four of their last five and six of their last eight, though they did face some very tough competition during that stretch--including road losses at Utah, Phoenix, Atlanta and Chicago prior to this home defeat at the hands of the two-time defending NBA champions.
Indiana Coach Jim O'Brien was very disappointed with his team's effort: "I'm not happy with the way we competed, in all candor. You've got to bring a certain ethic to the games and, frankly, we haven't. You compete against 29 teams and if you don't bring it, you can lose the game." Collison agreed with O'Brien's assessment, adding, "I still feel like our effort wasn't there all the way. Coach had a good game plan. It's nobody's fault but the players...If we can play a little harder, we should be fine."
Though the Lakers won easily, after the game Bryant praised the Pacers (though his reference to them playing hard is likely a general assessment and not a description of this game): "I like them. I think they play extremely well together. They play hard. They're well coached, they execute well and I'll be very surprised if they are not in the playoffs."
It seemed like Bryant would probably get the fourth quarter off since the Lakers appeared to be in total control but Lakers Coach Phil Jackson put Bryant back in the game at the 5:56 mark of the final stanza with the Lakers leading 98-79. Coach Jackson explained, "I thought that it was a good time for Kobe to get back and stabilize the game. We didn't want them to score 100 points after only giving up 37 points in the (first) half." I mentioned to Bryant that in each of the past couple years he was banged up for almost the entire season and I asked if this is the healthiest that he has been in quite some time; he replied, "Yeah. I feel really, really good right now. Hopefully it will continue."
Much like TNT's Kenny Smith does not show his "pictures" during the halftime show when a game is a blowout, I am disinclined to provide in depth analysis of this kind of rout: the Lakers are the more talented team and they were highly motivated/focused because the Pacers beat them earlier this season, while the Pacers came out flat and never matched the Lakers' intensity.
However, even though the game's story is not particularly interesting I do have an interesting story from the game, namely my conversation with a veteran NBA scout who offered some very candid and insightful comments on a wide variety of subjects. He stated without equivocation that Bryant is the best player in the NBA, declaring, "LeBron's interested in his brand. Kobe is interested in championships." The scout added, with admiration, that Bryant is a killer on the court, in the mold of "#23 (Michael Jordan) and that guy sitting near the baseline wearing a suit (Pacers President Larry Bird)."
The most fascinating part of our conversation concerned what it means to be an MVP level player and some of the fallacies concerning how "stat gurus" evaluate the NBA game. When I told the scout the way that Coach Jackson answered my question about what it means to be an MVP level player (see Courtside Notes) he agreed completely, noting that there is a big difference between being a team's main option and being a team's second option: an MVP level player "performs under duress" (Jackson's phrase) in terms of overcoming nagging injuries, fighting through fatigue, dealing with physical play/double teaming defenses and still finding a way to lead his team to victories; a second option player is able to perform at a high level at times--particularly when the defense is tilted toward the first option--but he cannot sustain quite the same level as the first option can nor can the second option overcome quite as much "duress."
I mentioned that many "stat gurus" contend that Gasol is actually more valuable than Bryant and the scout immediately retorted, "That just shows their stupidity. You watch this game and it is very clear who the best player is, the way they defer to him--and they should." I noted that the "stat gurus" simply look at Gasol's high field goal percentage and his rebounding numbers without examining why he is producing those statistics: Gasol's field goal percentage and offensive rebounding increased after he joined the Lakers largely because of the extra defensive attention that Bryant draws. Few All-Star players get to play one on one very often, but Gasol has that luxury whenever he and Bryant are on the court at the same time, particularly if they are involved in a screen/roll action together.
Gasol averaged over 20 ppg for the first few weeks of this season and suddenly many observers touted him as not only the Lakers' best player but a legitimate candidate for league MVP--but then his performance declined significantly, with fatigue being cited as the major reason. It is legitimate to wonder how Gasol could possibly be so fatigued this early in the season after resting up this summer by not playing for Spain in the FIBA World Championship; asked about this after the Lakers' 103-89 victory over the Wizards on Tuesday night, Coach Jackson candidly admitted that he too is surprised by how worn down Gasol is, blunting stating that Gasol has played "poorly" recently and "really faltered" after his excellent start.
Gasol's performance this season is an excellent illustration of the limitations of "advanced basketball statistics" and validates what I have been saying about Gasol for the past several seasons: Gasol is an excellent player but he is hardly an MVP level player. In contrast, Bryant has been carrying an MVP level workload for the better part of a decade, making the All-NBA First Team eight times while averaging at least 24.0 ppg every season since 2000-01. Bryant is regularly double teamed and is always the primary focus of the opposing team's defensive game plan, yet he is consistently productive at a very high level, often playing through injuries that would sideline most other players (it is no secret that Bryant and Jackson were not pleased with how long it took Gasol to recover from his hamstring injury last season).
I told the scout that I thought that teaming up with Bryant transformed Gasol from a one-time All-Star into a likely future Hall of Famer not because Gasol's skill set has fundamentally changed but rather because Gasol is now in a perfect role as the second option on a championship team, as opposed to being the first option for the first six seasons of his career when he could not lead the Memphis Grizzlies to a single playoff victory.
The scout agreed with my analysis and told me his own story of "stat guru" follies: a "stat guru" had said to him that the scout's NBA team should start the players with the five highest field goal percentages because field goal percentage is such an important statistic. The scout chuckled and shook his head, incredulous that the "stat guru" did not understand/would not accept that high field goal percentages can be an artifact of a player's role on the team and that a well balanced starting five must include ballhandlers, shooters and big men: "What are we supposed to do, start five centers if those guys have the five highest shooting percentages?"
Although the scout agrees with my take on Bryant and Gasol, he disagrees with me a bit concerning the Miami Heat. The scout thinks that the Miami Heat are best served with Dwyane Wade as the leading scorer and LeBron James as the de facto point guard, though he said that they really are essentially co-number one options; I expressed my belief that--all things being equal--size matters in the NBA and that since Wade is essentially a smaller James in terms of skill set strengths and weaknesses it seems to me that James is the Heat's best player and should be the primary option. The scout countered by asking rhetorically if I think that Gasol is better than Bryant merely because Gasol is bigger and I replied that Bryant has a more complete skill set and competes better under "duress" so the analogy of James-Wade to Bryant-Gasol is not valid; the scout conceded that point but maintained that even though he agrees with me in general that size matters in the NBA he still thinks that the Heat are best served with Wade as the primary option.
What I am most interested to see this season is what happens if/when the Heat play the Celtics in the playoffs and a game is up for grabs down the stretch: who controls the ball for the Heat and what does the other guy say in the heat of the moment (no pun intended) after the game if the Heat lose? James and Wade are both used to monopolizing the ball down the stretch, so someone is not going to be very happy if he does not have the ball and the team loses.
Notes From Courtside:
During Coach Jackson's pregame standup I had the opportunity to ask him several questions:
Friedman: "How would you compare the performance of your bench this year with the addition of (Steve) Blake and (Matt) Barnes to the performance you got out of your bench last season?"
Jackson: "There were (good) moments last year but we weren't consistent. We had a bench that played relatively well two years ago until Jordan Farmar got hurt in late December and was out for a month. So our bench has not been consistent (since December 2008) and this is the year that we were kind of really bent on getting a consistent performance from our bench. Last night they played well, although they were outscored by the Washington bench; Shannon (Brown) scored, Blake and Barnes did not score (much) but they played a good floor game and I thought that they carried the duration of the game when it was important in the second quarter."
Friedman: "Early in the season, Pau was mentioned as an MVP candidate but lately he seems to be struggling with playing so many minutes. You have coached several players who won regular season NBA MVPs. How important is it for an MVP level player to be able to sustain playing 35-40 minutes per game for a whole season, not just for a two to three week stretch and then start to wear down?
Jackson: "Yeah, I really think that it is performance under duress that counts for MVPs. It is a guy who picks his team up and carries the team and helps you win ball games that are important ball games when it seems like the team is going to lose; whether it is a guy playing 34-36 minutes or 38-42 minutes doesn't really matter. It's that critical moment. Pau has not performed well down the stretch for us in the last few games and I think that is a point that we like to emphasize (to Pau) about why people are given those kinds of credentials, like MVP credentials."
Friedman: "What memories stand out for you from coaching in Indiana? This might be your last trip here, if this is your last season."
Jackson: "I was telling our staff that we had a really hard time winning in this building in the early going. Indiana had some great teams and we would come here on a Sunday and Shaq would still be rubbing his eyes and just waking up from his sleep and we'd be out there sleepwalking and getting our butts kicked by an Indiana team--and we had really good basketball teams at the time. So, that is what stands out about this arena. In the old arena, it's got to be the Bulls-Indiana series in--what was that, 1998?"
Friedman: "Right, 1998 Eastern Conference Finals."
Jackson (with a mischievous twinkle in his eye): "We got cheated out of a couple games here--"
Friedman: "The (Reggie) Miller push (to get open for a game-winning shot)?"
Jackson: "Yeah and then Larry Bird went on the air and said that Pippen was fouling Mark Jackson all the time, so Pippen could not guard him (as relentlessly) the next two games here--he had foul trouble just like that. It just got kind of messed up in that series but we won in seven games--but that was a hard fought series and one that I think that people remember."
Friedman: "Was the way that that game seven was a grind in 1998 similar in any way to the game seven of the NBA Finals this year? Both games had low shooting percentages and a lot of offensive rebounding."
Jackson: "Yes, it was--and I have seen a number of game sevens that have been like that, where it takes one quarter to break the game open or to make a winner out of a team. It is just a grind all the way through because everybody knows everybody else's moves and you're just going at it physically."
I think that when some people look at game seven of the 2010 NBA Finals they focus far too much on shooting percentages and asserting that players choked, thus betraying their failure to understand the nature of such contests as eloquently described by Coach Jackson. The Lakers claimed the championship with an 83-79 game seven victory by capturing the pivotal fourth quarter 30-22 as Bryant scored 10 fourth quarter points "under duress" (to borrow Coach Jackson's phrase), finishing with a game-high 23 points and a remarkable 15 rebounds from the shooting guard position. I love Coach Jackson's comment after that game: "It was not well done, but it was done."
Here are links to my articles about the Lakers' previous four visits to Indiana:
Lakers Pound Pacers in Paint, Roll to 118-96 Win (January 28, 2010)
"Fortuitous" Murphy Tip-In Lifts Pacers Over Lakers (December 3, 2008)
Basketball Clinic: Kobe Mentors Bynum, Lakers School Pacers (November 21, 2007)
A "Sad" Performance for the Lakers at Indiana (February 3, 2007)
posted by David Friedman @ 8:05 AM