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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lakers Pound Pacers in Paint, Roll to 118-96 Win

Andrew Bynum had a strong double double (27 points on 12-14 field goal shooting plus 12 rebounds) and Kobe Bryant authored one of his best all-around performances of this season (29 points on 10-15 field goal shooting, nine rebounds, a game-high tying seven assists and just one turnover) as the visiting L.A. Lakers routed the Indiana Pacers, 118-96. Two other Lakers also had double doubles--Pau Gasol contributed 21 points and 13 rebounds, while Lamar Odom added 12 points and a game-high 14 rebounds off of the bench--as the Lakers clobbered the Pacers 62-42 on the boards and outscored them 54-32 in the paint. Second string center Roy Hibbert led the outmatched Pacers with 21 points, while starting center Troy Murphy had a solid 18 points and five rebounds, but the Lakers overwhelmed the Pacers not with a 1-2 punch but with a 1-2-3-4 punch: their three bigs landed crushing body blows, while Bryant's all-purpose, inside-outside excellence delivered the knockout.

The Pacers had some success recently with a small lineup and Coach Jim O'Brien apparently felt that it would be futile to try to match up man for man with the Lakers so O'Brien opened the game with four perimeter players flanking center Troy Murphy; Danny Granger--normally a small forward--guarded power forward/center Pau Gasol, while Murphy tangled with Bynum. Granger, a first-time All-Star in 2009, recently returned to action after being injured, and he finished with just 14 points, five assists and three rebounds. After the game, Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson said that Granger seemed to be "limited physically," a quite apt description. Jackson seemed genuinely puzzled by O'Brien's starting five, noting that Murphy is several inches shorter and at least 30 pounds lighter than Bynum; Jackson said--without a hint of the sarcasm that sometimes flavors his comments--"I don't know if Jim was baiting us by starting Murphy at center."

The Lakers raced to an 18-8 lead less than five minutes into the game, with Bynum scoring 10 of those points from close range and Bryant adding six points on one drive and two jump shots. Murphy countered with three straight field goals--including a three pointer--and the Pacers valiantly battled back to pull within 31-29 by the end of the opening stanza. Bryant and Bynum each shot 5-5 from the field in the first quarter but Gasol shot just 2-8.

The Lakers' bench has not been a strength this season and, true to form, the L.A. reserves allowed the Pacers to briefly build a four point lead early in the second quarter, though the Lakers rallied to tie the game at 46 before Bryant returned to the fray at the 5:06 mark; overall, that is not a bad stint for the second stringers, because the game did not get out of hand while Bryant rested for nearly half of the quarter--that is still not as good as extending the lead, which one would hope that the reserves could do against a sub-.500 team, but just keeping things manageable is at least worth something, particularly in the second game of a back to back in the midst of an eight game road trip. After entering the game, Bryant promptly fed Gasol for an easy shot and the Lakers never trailed again, though the Pacers did tie the score a few more times. Odom broke the last tie with a buzzer-beating three pointer at the end of the half, giving the Lakers a 59-56 intermission edge. Bynum already had 22 points on 10-12 shooting, while Bryant's halftime line read 10 points, four rebounds and three assists.

After Bynum softened up the Pacers in the first half, Bryant hit them with combinations in the third quarter, leading both teams in scoring (13 points), rebounds (five) and assists (three). That one man assault forged a 92-78 lead for the Lakers but for good measure Jackson left Bryant in the game to start the fourth quarter. The Pacers chipped away a bit and Jackson decided to give Bryant a quick mid-quarter rest to keep him fresh for the stretch run. After Bryant came back in he drew a foul on Dahntay Jones--who guarded Bryant in last year's Western Conference Finals as a member of the Denver Nuggets--and when Bryant went to the free throw line the Indiana crowd serenaded him with "MVP" chants, which had to be a grating sound to Pacers President Larry Bird as he sat in his usual baseline perch. Apparently embarrassed by such overt displays of love for a visiting player, some Indiana fans responded by booing Bryant but, at best, the boos and "MVP" chants turned out to be roughly equal in volume during Bryant's second free throw attempt. Bryant split the pair to put the Lakers up 105-89 and he quickly removed any remaining doubts about the game's outcome by draining a three pointer and then lobbing an outlet pass to Gasol for a layup that turned into a three point play after a foul by Luther Head. Bryant concluded his night with a resounding left handed block of a Hibbert layup attempt; Bryant left the game during the ensuing stoppage of play and received a resounding standing ovation from the Indiana fans. Officially, the attendance for this game was listed as a sellout crowd of 18,165, but if all of the tickets were sold they certainly were not all used because there were plenty of empty seats.

Hibbert was pretty much the lone bright spot for Indiana in this game. Hibbert is averaging 11.1 ppg and 5.8 rpg this season, though he has shown occasional flashes of brilliance, including an Indiana victory over the Orlando Magic in which Hibbert completely outplayed Dwight Howard, scoring 26 points, grabbing eight rebounds and blocking four shots while Howard managed just 11 points on 2-6 field goal shooting, though Howard did snare 15 rebounds. After the game, I asked Jackson, "What were your impressions of Roy Hibbert?" Jackson answered, "He played hard. I thought that he played real hard in the post and he did a good job in the first half. Things didn't work out as well in the second but he had a good first half." I followed up by asking Jackson what adjustments the Lakers made regarding Hibbert in the second half and Jackson said, "We came back on him off of cutters a little bit to try to destroy his timing and not give him as much room." Hibbert actually shot 5-9 from the field in each half, so I am not sure if the Lakers' adjustments really affected Hibbert all that much, though Jackson can be forgiven for thinking otherwise just moments after such a blowout, especially because the freshest memory of Hibbert at that point was of Bryant swatting his shot out of bounds. Hibbert's game is eccentric: he has a big body and a soft shooting touch near the hoop but his moves are so mechanical and stilted that his lumbering gait reminds me of Anakin Skywalker taking his first halting steps after being entombed in the Darth Vader suit.

Overall, Jackson sees some chinks in his team's defensive armor. "Our middle is really soft. We're giving up a lot of penetration and whenever you give up that amount of penetration you are going to be hurt inside, outside and at the foul line." I asked him, "Does the problem in the middle of your defense have more to do with your guards giving up too much penetration by perimeter players or with how your big players are reacting?" Jackson replied, "It's a combination of both our guards keeping guys in front of them and our bigs reacting to help."

After Cleveland beat L.A. last Thursday, Bryant expressed concerns about the Lakers' hunger and their toughness. I asked Bryant if this kind of win could in any way address such questions but I barely got the words out of my mouth before he said, "No," and then nodded his head in agreement when I added that the real tests would come versus "higher level teams." Bryant concluded, "It's a step in the right direction. We have to continue to make strides, continue to improve, continue to get better, so that when the playoffs come around we're ready to go."

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

During Coach Jackson's pregame standup, I asked him, "After the New York game Kobe made a comment that Pau is so intelligent that sometimes it almost becomes a detriment--he is kind of thinking too much instead of just reacting. When you played you were considered a cerebral player. How did you balance that out when you played and how do you advise Pau in that regard about how to be an intelligent player but not to the point that he is thinking so much that he is not just reacting to the flow of the game?"

Jackson answered, "Well, there is a point to that, and I'll go back to (longtime assistant coach/Jackson confidant) Tex Winter again; he said that a lot of people comment about the Triangle Offense being a difficult offense to learn but that the players who probably had the most difficult time learning the offense when he coached in college were the guys who were studying chemical engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering--the science guys who were really the brainiacs who had to think things through instead of reacting, because basketball is really a reacting sport. So, there is something to that. I'm not going to throw that on top of (Kobe's) comment (about Pau) but he's an intelligent ball player and a lot of times reacting is probably the most important thing in basketball."

The "triangle" that is most fascinating to me about the Lakers--even more so than Winter's innovative offense, a framework that has helped Jackson to win 10 NBA championships and should have long since resulted in Winter being enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame--is the one consisting of Jackson-Bryant-Gasol. Jackson is a minister's son who has embraced Eastern Asian and Native American philosophies and combined those world views with the teachings he learned as an NBA player under the tutelage of Hall of Fame Coach Red Holzman. Jackson was a star player in college but a role player in the pros, so he understands both sides of that equation. Bryant is the son of an NBA journeyman and he learned the game overseas from his dad and other pros, only to be (re)introduced to the sport from an American perspective after his family returned to the United States. Bryant honed his skill set to near perfection due to his relentless work ethic. Like Bryant, Gasol learned basketball in Europe and he has a finely tuned skill set but he has a different psychological makeup; one gets the inescapable impression that if Bryant misses 10 shots he thinks that means his next 10 shots are sure to go in, whereas even if Gasol makes eight of his first 10 shots he still might hesitate to shoot the 11th if he is not positive that it would be the "correct" play to do so. I think that Jackson and Bryant respect Gasol's skill set so much that they are able to look past Gasol's occasional moments of hesitation/indecisiveness in certain situations, because they perceive such reticence as a product of Gasol's intelligence as opposed to signs of what the general public or the media might term "softness." Gasol is not "soft" so much as he is deliberate; he is willing to rebound, he is willing to fight for post position, he is willing to play defense but sometimes he has to be goaded into doing those things or reminded that not only is he capable of doing so but that the Lakers need him to contribute in those areas. Jackson and Bryant understand that even though Gasol may not have the "killer" mentality of a Bryant or a Michael Jordan he is still valuable because of his versatile skill set and because Gasol truly wants to maximize his potential. While it is true that it has been a blessing for Bryant to be paired with a skilled big man like Gasol it is just as true that it has been a blessing for Gasol to have a coach like Jackson and a teammate like Bryant to push Gasol to his limits without stifling or demeaning his intelligence.

***

The 1992 U.S. Olympic Basketball Team--forever known as "The Dream Team"--won the gold medal in Gasol's hometown, Barcelona. After the game, I spoke with Gasol about that team and its impact on him.

Friedman: "Since there is talk about the Dream Team being inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame this year, I am interested to know what kind of effect the Dream Team had on your development as a basketball player?"

Gasol: "I was 12 years old at the time. The Dream Team caused a huge impact not only in Barcelona where the Olympics were played but I think all over the world. It was probably the greatest team ever put together, with great, great players. It was inspiring. It was inspiring for me as a kid because it was so much fun to watch. They dominated every single game against the best teams in Europe at the time--Lithuania and Croatia were very, very powerful but still they got beaten pretty badly."

Friedman: "Did that team give you the inspiration to become a professional basketball player? Did the thought come into your mind around that time or because of that?"

Gasol: "It didn't go that far but it just made me want to play more basketball. I had already played for a few years by that time, so it made me really want to play more and kind of imitate them because they were kind of like basketball gods for me and for lots of kids. It was inspiring--definitely inspiring."

I had planned to follow up that line of questioning by asking for Gasol's take about Bryant's comment regarding Gasol's intelligence but Lakers' Director of Public Relations John Black indicated that Gasol could not answer any more questions because Gasol needed to finish changing so that the Lakers could board their bus (Gasol was still wearing his uniform shorts, with his knees wrapped in ice and both ankles soaking in cold water); Gasol sheepishly shrugged regarding how long it takes him to do his postgame routine and said to me with a smile, "I'm getting old now."

***

In the early portion of this season, Bryant played some of the most efficient basketball of his entire career. With Gasol out of action due to a hamstring injury, Bryant camped out on the low block and for a while he led the league in points in the paint, showing off the array of post moves that he learned from Hakeem Olajuwon last summer. Bryant averaged 29.9 ppg on .506 field goal shooting in November and scored 31.3 ppg on .479 field goal shooting in December.

Bryant suffered an avulsion fracture (a specific kind of broken bone when a ligament or tendon is torn so violently that it rips a piece of bone away from the bone's surface, as opposed to a more conventional break that happens when a bone is cracked without ligament damage) to his right index finger during the Lakers' 104-92 win over Minnesota on December 11. Bryant scored just 16 points on 7-24 shooting (.292) in a 102-94 road loss versus Utah the day after injuring the finger but then he seemed to make some kind of adjustment and he shot .492 from the field in the remaining nine games in December.

Bryant has banged the injured finger several times and he has experimented with various types of wraps/protective devices, trying to find the right balance between bracing the mangled digit while also allowing for maximum functionality. While Bryant tried to figure out how to deal with that problem he faced an additional challenge in the form of back spasms. Bryant's efficiency has plummeted recently. Bryant averaged 23.6 ppg on .398 field goal shooting in the first 14 games in January (i.e., not including the game versus the Pacers). His rebounding and steals numbers have also declined dramatically--though he did snare a career-high 16 boards on January 24 versus Toronto--and his free throw shooting has dropped from over .850 in November/December to just .774 in January's first 14 games.

How significant are those numbers? The last time Bryant shot below .400 from the field in a month during which he played at least eight games is December 2004 (.391 in 12 games). The last time Bryant shot below .800 from the free throw line in a month during which he played at least eight games is December 2005 (.794 in 16 games). After the game, I asked Bryant about this:

Friedman: "During the past couple games you have shot well but this month you are shooting the worst percentage that you have shot in several years. Have you recently made some kind of adjustment with your finger or your grip on the ball? What are you doing differently the past couple games?"

Bryant: "I just got healthier. That's all."

Friedman: "Has the swelling gone down so that you have more mobility in the finger?"

Bryant: "My back feels great. I haven't gotten hit on the finger (recently), haven't had any major setbacks, so I just feel healthier."

Friedman: "Was the back affecting your shot even more than the finger?"

Bryant: "Oh, sure. When you have back spasms it's tough to walk. I feel better."

After the rest of the media horde drifted away from Kobe Bryant as his postgame standup ended, Bryant greeted me by goodnaturedly clapping me on my left shoulder with his right hand and I then had the opportunity to speak with him one on one. I asked him again if he really felt that the biggest problem for him recently had been the back spasms and not the finger and Bryant unhesitatingly insisted that the back had been the main hindrance. He emphasized something that he had told another writer moments earlier, namely that as the back spasms healed Bryant's "bounce" had returned and his legs felt lively again. I told Bryant that I got a good look at his finger after the Cleveland game and that I thought it looked terrible--swollen from the base to nearly the tip with a nasty discoloration streaking through the middle--and he agreed with me but said that it has healed a lot in the past few days. Bryant told me that he ices the finger daily after practicing.

I asked Bryant if he is surprised that no one has really taken an intentional shot at his finger and I mentioned that during a recent NBA TV broadcast Chris Webber had expressed surprise about this. Bryant immediately laughed heartily, declared that when Webber played he had never done anything like that and Bryant added with a big smile, "C. Webb is just talking (crap)--and you can tell him I said that!" I clarified that Webber had not said this to me personally but rather had stated it on the air but Bryant found the idea of Webber making such a statement in any context to be very humorous. Bryant clearly is not concerned that anyone is going to target his finger for "special treatment."

I said to Bryant that I don't believe that he can bend that finger due to how swollen it is and Bryant conceded that this is true. He had removed the big, black protective wrap that he dons during games but the finger was still covered with some white gauze (even with that covering I noticed that the finger looks less swollen now than it did after the Cavs game). Bryant showed me how much flexibility the finger currently has: he can barely bend it enough to form the letter "C." One credible skill that I possess as a basketball player is shooting ability and I can't imagine shooting a basketball accurately if my index finger were in that condition, so I looked Bryant dead in the eye and asked, "How are you able to shoot the ball now? Are you just resting it against the other four fingers and basically flinging it?" Bryant nodded in agreement and then demonstrated, raising his hand as if he were about to shoot an imaginary ball and indicating that he has altered his grip so that most of the weight of the ball is borne by the other fingers; he then flicks his fingers toward the hoop and gets by with the limited range of motion his index finger will permit.

It will be interesting to watch what happens during the rest of the Lakers' road trip--particularly the stop in Boston--but if Bryant is correct that his back spasms caused his January slump then we are about to see his efficiency return to its normal levels now that his back is OK and assuming that he does not suffer a setback with his finger. It would be great for the league to see a reasonably healthy Bryant and his Lakers battle LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers for the best record in the NBA--the two teams are essentially in a dead heat now, so the next three months could provide some great drama.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:46 AM

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Shorthanded Cavs Own NBA's Best Record

Confounding the predictions and analysis of many "experts," the Cleveland Cavaliers now own the best record in the NBA even though they are currently without the services of two of the main cogs in their rotation, All-Star guard Mo Williams and versatile guard Delonte West (who led the Cavs in minutes played during last year's playoffs).

TNT's Charles Barkley constantly lambastes Cleveland's offense and it seems like every beat writer around the league has some trade proposal that will supposedly bolster Cleveland's roster but meanwhile Coach Mike Brown has successfully integrated offseason acquisitions Shaquille O'Neal, Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon into the fold and the Cavs are poised to make a serious run at the 2010 championship.

My newest CavsNews article takes a closer look at Cleveland's recent success:

Shorthanded Cavs Own NBA's Best Record

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:55 PM

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